Game 4 Better than Phoenix Triple OT?

It's a lot more fun playing in the best final series game in a decade (yup, the best since the Phoenix Triple OT) when you win it.

The Celtics won this extravaganza, all right, using big baskets by Larry Bird and Bill Walton, plus a game-saving steal by Kevin McHale with 10 seconds left, but they very likely had nightmares over the astonishing rebounding of the Houston Rockets, who had 25 offensive rebounds but who still lost the pivotal fourth game of the NBA Finals, 106 - 103 , at the Summit last night.

Hagler, Hearns, Macho Camacho, Tyrell Biggs and any other pugilist in the world would have shied away from the 94- by 50-foot expanse of the Summit floor last night, when a collection of huge, aggressive and determined athletes waged nothing less than the athletic equivalent of war before 16,016 wild-eyed followers of the Western Conference champs. By surviving, the Celtics assumed a 3-1 series lead and can clinch their 16th NBA championship tomorrow night here.

The game was tied for the 12th time when Dennis Johnson (a key 22-point performer) sank two free throws off a transition to tie the score at 101 with 3:07 remaining. At this point, K.C. Jones made a wise, propitious decision, inserting a fresh Bill Walton for a tiring Robert Parish (22 points, 10 rebounds). Before the game was over, Walton had accounted for two big defensive rebounds, an assist on a backbreaking three-pointer by Bird and a monster of an offensive rebound follow-up to give the Celtics a 106-103 lead with 1:39 remaining.

"Robert Parish played an outstanding game," said Walton. "That's why I was surprised to get the nod in the last 3 1/2 minutes. The coach showed confidence in me, and I was glad to be in there."

No nicer than it was for the Celtics to see his hulking, redheaded presence around the basket. "Robert had played very strongly (10 for 15) in the game," said Jones, "but his last couple of shots were weak, and you could see he was having trouble getting up and down the floor. Bill was rested (11 first-half minutes) and strong, and I thought about the fourth quarter on Sunday."

Walton's first contribution was a heavy-duty traffic rebound of a Mitchell Wiggins miss at 2:46. He then spotted a drifting Bird a few feet to the right of the three-point arc and fed him the ball. Bird, who had taken only five second-half shots to that point, measured and swished a three-pointer to make it 104-101 with 2:25 left.

Rodney McCray, whose degree-of-difficulty ratio per basket may have been a championship series record (eight baskets, none remotely normal), tapped in a Robert Reid three-point miss to make it 104-103 with 2:02 remaining. But when Johnson's strong drive wouldn't fall, Walton came flying in from the right side to snatch the ball away from the Twin Towers. That was the easy part. The fun came when he figured out a way to ram the ball through the forest with a mighty backhand layup which not only gave the Celtics another three-point lead but which also turned out to be the final two points of the game, even though there were still 99 seconds left.

An Akeem Olajuwon (20 points, 14 rebounds) missed turnaround (followed by a nice Walton back-tap rebound to Ainge), a Bird turnover and a McHale steal of a Wiggins pass returned the ball to the Celtics with 46 seconds remaining. The clock was run down, and Bird cranked up a left-wing three-pointer which wouldn't drop. Ralph Sampson (25 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists) rebounded, and the Rockets called time out.

"I thought they might either go inside for a quick two or go for the three-pointer," said Jones. "We did the job of switching on Reid on the left, Sampson out front and (Allen) Leavell on the right."

When Sampson received the ball out top, he looked at it as if he had just joined the bomb squad. When he finally decided to pass the ball, McHale reached in and knocked it away. The Celtics advanced the ball into the frontcourt and ran out the clock expertly without being fouled.

There is no exaggerating the brutal boardwork and the amount of energy expended in this wonderful display of basketball execution, heart, intelligence and grace. The teams threw scoring bursts, rebound bursts and defensive bursts at each other from the start. It was 30-all after one, 64-63, Houston, at the half (the Celtics having shot a tidy .634 via 26 for 41 from the floor, only to be trailing by one) and 86-85, Boston, after three. The largest margin of the game belonged to Boston (82-74), and the most points separating the two combatants (a word chosen carefully, friends) in the final period was three.

Let's have no more talk about LA, please. The Lakers' 10 best rebounding nights put together would never have given the Celtics the workout the Rockets did last night. This was championship basketball waged by warriors, and it was the best game in a championship final in a decade.

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