The victory cigars were ablaze all over Boston, every Red Auerbach puffing gleefully as the Celtics prepared to dispatch another victim. The Green led Houston by eight points with the space-age Summit's clock showing just 3:18 remaining in Game 3, and all the pregame Rockets' chatter about their invincibility at home seemed harmless exhaust.
But then the vaunted Celtic offense, the juggernaut that had roared past assorted Bulls, Hawks and Bucks, suddenly conked out. The result? A 106 - 104 Houston win. The last minutes of a championship game are supposed to be familiar territory for the Celtics, but this time the men from Boston seemed as lost as Dancing Barry at the ballet. "We tried to nurse the lead too much," confessed Larry Bird, who made only 6 of his final 21 shots. "We were too slow in developing our plays. The 24-second clock would wind down, and we started rushing shots. We just weren't ourselves."
Meanwhile, the Rockets, who had themselves pleaded identity crisis for their lackluster efforts, simply took the ball to the hoop. Akeem Olajuwon powered his way underneath for a three-point play, the new and improved Ralph Sampson (24 points, 22 rebounds) hooked in another basket, and Mitchell Wiggins canned a breakaway basket, despite being hauled to the ground by Dennis Johnson.
The dry spell became downright Saharan when Bird clanked a runner and fouled Olajuwon on the ensuing rebound. The Nigerian sank two free throws (9 of 11 from the line) to give the Rockets a 103-102 lead. Danny Ainge's jumper put the Celtics back on top, but the omnipresent Wiggins beat Sampson to an Olajuwon miss at the other end for a winning tip-in.
Boston would be offered a sacrificial scapegoat when Jake O'Donnell blew his whistle during a Robert Parish turnaround on the Celtics' next possession. All heads turned to see what the call was, but O'Donnell, a la Gilda Radner, said "never mind." "It was an inadvertent whistle," he explained. "When the ball is loose and there's an inadvertent whistle, it becomes a jump ball in the center circle between any two players."
Bird, who gave O'Donnell one of his patented smiles of disbelief, was as mystified as anyone. "I heard the whistle before I went for the rebound. I thought Parish was going to the line. The ball hit me in the head and went out of bounds." The Chief offered another explanation. "Who knows why he made the call? Maybe he was hyperventilating . . . He made a call, then he got amnesia when he got to the table."
But Houston coach Bill Fitch already was thinking about the ensuing jump and dictated, "Big man taps to big man." Sampson followed orders by outdueling Parish and tapping the ball to Akeem. Bird promptly fouled Olajuwon, who sank one of two free throws, but once again the Celtics would be lost on their next possession. DJ was rushed into an inbounds pass to Parish, who stepped on the line to squash Boston's last chance.
In the first half, the Rockets had played their best basketball in the series -- thanks largely to Sampson's return to the land of the living -- in carving a 62-59 advantage. But in the third period, the Celtics again shifted into high gear defensively, which produced a 17-3 run, the exclamation point a pretty passing exhibition in the paint from Bird to Bill Walton to Kevin McHale, which resulted in a McHale dunk.
Boston grew careless with the 11-point lead, and the margin was cut to 84-80 after three quarters. Despite controlling the boards, the Celtics' shooting and ball handling remained suspect (the team hit only 44 percent of its shots and commit 19 turnovers ) and eventually caused defeat.
"Christmas," Parish said, in recalling the last time the Celtics had whisked away the safety net from underneath an imminent win. "We haven't given away one like this since Christmas and the Knicks (when Boston lost a 25-point lead at Madison Square Garden)." That loss, of course, proved to be the turning point in the season, as the Celts erased the shame by running away from the rest of the league. The Green would have to respond to this latest defeat in the same way they had answered the Debacle on 34th Street.