The last 10 seconds were silence. The ball went around the floor as if in pantomine.
From Walton to Bird, from Bird to Ainge, from Ainge to Dennis Johnson. Around and around. There were 16,016 people in the building -- people who had been as loud and noisy as possible until the final seconds -- but in the end, there was only this silence.
Another year. Another city. Another time for the Boston Celtics to break some local hearts.
"Why does it always have to go this way?" the good folk of Houston had to ask as they left the Summit after the Celtics dropped their Houston Rockets, 106-103, to take a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven NBA Finals.
"There is an unfairness here," they had to say, the same thing people in other cities have said in these situations 15 previous times. "Why doesn't this team share the wealth? Why can't these guys let somebody else win a championship sometime? Why do games like this always end this same way?"
This was the same, familiar misery the Celtics have dispensed throughout their playoff history. A splendid game. A splendid effort by both teams. A stomach-turner to the end.
A terrific script, but a familiar end. A Celtics end. Another Celtics end. Another. Again. One more.
"You have to say it was a terrific game by both teams," Houston coach Bill Fitch said, familiar words. "You have to say we played about as well as we can play. With 2 minutes and 47 seconds, we're leading by two points. You couldn't have asked for anything better than what he had done."
How do things shift so often, though, in those final 2 minutes and 47 seconds of so many games? How do the proper pieces in the Boston puzzle always somehow seem to end on the floor at the right time? How does the ball so often end in the proper place?
How does Larry Bird -- struggling for most of the night -- make his one three-point basket with 2:23 remaining to break a sequence of shared leads and give the Celtics an important three-point lead, 104-101? Why is Bill Walton in the game at this late time, suddenly under the basket and spinning home a rebound a minute later to bring the lead back to 106-103 with 1:38 left?
How does nobody score again for the remainder of the game in a sport where points are scored with the frequency of the clicks on an abacus? How does the final play -- the one where Ralph Sampson's pass goes off Kevin McHale's hip and rolls to Dennis Johnson with 10 seconds left -- go the Celtics' way again? How is there that silence again as the ball is passed around and around, a giant game of keep-away, nobody from Houston even able to come close enough to foul?
This somehow is the way things mostly happen with the Celtics on these kinds of nights. This is the past. This is the present.
"I think this team was as ready to play any game as I remember," guard Danny Ainge said. "Nobody liked the way the game Sunday ended, losing a lead at the end the way we did. There was a look on everybody's face tonight. I knew we were going to play well."
The memories of Sunday were were memories of a strange aberration. The Celtics blew a lead? The Celtics lost the game in the end? The Celtics? This was a return to normalcy. A backward turn to familiar roles.
"Games like this are why I came to Boston," Bill Walton said. "This is what I've been waiting nine years for. To sit in a chair like this (in an interview room) and talk about a game like this. This is the thrill of a lifetime."
Why was he in there? Even he was not sure why. He was in there because stars move in strange directions sometimes for the Celtics. He was in there because hunches usually somehow are the numbers that actually appear on the dice a few seconds later. He was in there because K.C. Jones somehow decided to put him in there at the end of the game.
"Robert Parish was a little tired," the coach said. "Bill was fresh, and I thought I'd see how it went. I thought it would be good to have a fresh man in there. A good move by me."
One minute on the bench. Next minute into the maelstrom of this physical, tense game, a true game of big bodies colliding through the night, colliding so hard and often, it was frighthening to sit close and watch.
Here was Walton in the middle with the ball, the Rockets' defense collapsing around him as he decided what to do. There was Bird at the outside of the three-point line. Alone?
"That was a pass I've made a million times, just shooting around in practice," Bill Walton said. "It was one of those situations where I knew as soon as I made the pass that Larry was going to make the shot. I could feel it."
Here was Walton under the basket, clearing a spot so Dennis Johnson could find a little room to drive toward the basket in what was now a one-point game after a basket by Houston's Rodney McCray. Johnson's shot was short. Here was Walton, catching the ball in midair, spinning in a shot over his head, off the backboard, the final points of the game.
"I'd played so lousy in the first half," Bill Walton said. "Who'd ever have thought I would have made the final points of the game?"
Here was Walton in the final passaround. Here he had the ball. Here he didn't. Here he was jumping and celebrating with everyone else.
"It's really ironic that Walton had that ball in front of our bench with four seconds left," Bill Fitch said. "His foot was out of bounds, as far out of bounds as Robert Parish's foot was on Sunday. Only this time, no one was around to see it."
So it goes for the losers. So it goes for the Celtics. So it goes. Again
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