Luis Tiant? Pedro Guerrero? Forget them. Larry Bird may be the greatest hot-weather athlete of all time.
Putting Bird against a playoff opponent in a scorching, non-air-conditioned Boston Garden is like putting William Perry one-on-one against a cheeseburger and an order of French fries. The Lakers found that out during that memorable Game 5 two years ago, and the Rockets discovered this fact of life last evening when Bird's 31 points and all-around brilliant play set the tone for a 117-95 destruction and a solid 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
The Celtics are now 59-9 since the Christmas-Day loss to the Knicks.
Both sides had agreed beforehand that Houston had to win if its upset dreams had any chance of being realized. But the Celtics allowed the Rockets to be competitive for one, and only one, period. It was 31-30 after a fast- paced, interesting first quarter. But once the Rockets came out shooting 2 for 13 to open the second period, the dream was fading fast. And when Bird started playing on his exclusive Olympian level just before the midway point of the second quarter, the Rockets might just as well have retired to the Pussycat Theater across the street. Their night of Boston Garden fun was over.
Bird scored 13 points in the second period as the Celtics expanded that shaky one-point first-quarter advantage to 10 (60-50) by halftime. Some of the things he did will not be found in any how-to book available on the library shelf. Other things he did were first executed by the Original Celtics. But isn't delightful mixture precisely what makes Bird so fascinating?
The demoralizing period for Houston was the third. After almost four minutes of play, the Rockets were still hanging around on the fringe at 68-56. It was here that Bird, who played the entire first half and all but 58 seconds of the first 45 minutes on a night when the Garden temperature exceeded 80 degrees, opened his mental can of spinach.
An inside-out jumper by maneater Dennis Johnson (18, including a 10-for-10 night at the foul line) had created that 68-56 situation, whereupon Bird stole the ball to start a fast break. After teasing the Rockets (and the crowd) with a look at a three-pointer, he dropped the ball in to Robert Parish for a guide-in.
Kevin McHale (25 points, 7 rebounds) smashed away a Rodney McCray layup to start another break. Johnson's transition jumper missed, but Bird snatched the rebound, and before the shot clock expired, he dropped in his third three- pointer of the night to make it 73-56. The crowd started alternating "Lar- Ree!" with chants of "M-V-P!" and Larry rewarded them with another deep jumper to make it 75-57 with 6:53 left in the period.
The Celtics were now in that frightening what-the-hell gear, wherein they first play suffocating defense and then slip into a taunting type of crowd- pleasing offense. The bombs started falling from everywhere, with Jerry Sichting bounding off the bench to compile his first career double-figure playoff game (10), and with Danny Ainge firing away en route to a solid 15-point night.
Bird saved one more crowd-pleasing move for last. The Celtics regained possession of the ball with 32 seconds remaining in the period when Houston's Jim Petersen missed a dunk when contested by fellow Minnesotan McHale. Bird started backing McCray in from the three-point line, and when he got to the baseline, he faked the basically sound Houston defender into downtown Newburyport and then banked in an underhand scoop shot for points 28 and 29. That made it 94-69 and meant that the fans were guaranteed to see the likes of Rick Carlisle, Sam Vincent, Hank McDowell and Granville Waiters before the final buzzer.
The opening 12 minutes gave no particular hint of what was to come. Boston had broken fast (8-2), but Houston came flying back behind some nice play by a revived Ralph Sampson, who had 10 of his 18 points and 4 of his 8 rebounds in the first period. Sampson led a countersurge that rescued the Rockets from a 17-10 deficit and carried them ahead at 29-27 on a jump hook by fellow tower Akeem Olajuwon (21 points, 10 rebounds).
The Houston lead lasted 40 seconds, or as long as it took Bird to post up McCray for a step-back jumper and Johnson to worm his way to the line with another post-up. Houston would never lead again.
The Rockets never really gave themselves a chance to win with that atrocious second-quarter offensive display (7 for 22), and the Boston lead began to grow gradually behind the shotmaking and hustle of Bird, who is always able to ignore the surroundings and concentrate on his magnificent game. "He gets my vote as the best total player of all time," lauded K.C. Jones. "The things he can do, added to his determination, concentration and hustle. He goes after loose balls and rebounds, and if he doesn't get the ball, he still is the first one at the other end."
So much for the public weeping and wailing about the unspeakable consequences of a Boston loss in Game 2. "This is a fantastic win," gushed Jones. "The last few years, when we lost Game 2, disaster followed." Agreed McHale, "This is where we lost the LA series last year."
Aw, it probably just wasn't hot enough. Bird will probably want the next game at the Fonde Rec Center.