Party Starts Early for '86 C's

Technically, this violated one of Red Auerbach's most sacred tenets: Never count your titles before the rings have been engraved.

But while the Celtics may have celebrated NBA championship No. 16 a bit early, there was nothing premature about the festivities.

When K.C. Jones ordered his starters to get off the court -- and into the beer chest -- there was still more than half a minute left in Game 6. But nobody was disputing Jones' coaching strategy. The Celtics were applying the concluding formalities to a 114-97 annihilation of the Rockets when the regulars started waging a champagne war in the home team's locker room at the Garden. Even Auerbach was observed popping a cork instead of a gasket. This merrymaking was the 1980s counterpart to his victory cigars, and it wasn't sarilegious in the least.

For in truth, the Celtics had virtually ascended the summit of their latest championship season long before they drove down Causeway Street. In the wake of their dabacle at Houston in the Game (or Round) 5 slugfest, they were obsessed with their quest for vindication. Perceiving an unprecedented intensity level in his troops, Jones said, "I had to call off practice (the day before the game)." And the game itself wasn't much more of a workout.

Series MVP Larry Bird applied the coup de grace with 29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists and manic zeal. "It's hard to remember when Larry has played this hard," said assistant Jimmy Rodgers.

For their part, the Rockets hardly played.

Ralph Sampson followed up his notorious Game 5 downer-cut on Jerry Sichting with a virtually invisible performance -- 8 points on 4-for-12 shooting -- while Kevin McHale (29 points, 10 rebounds) and the crowd's venom hounded him throughout. Even if the league had suspended him for this game, Sampson couldn't have been much less productive.

Akeem Olajuwon, Houston's driving force, looked as if he belonged back on a soccer pitch, scoring 19 insignificant points.

Towerless, the Rockets were powerless. And the Celtics exploited them with a vengeance.

"They did something to us (in Game 5) that hurt our pride," said McHale. "They hurt our pride by blowing us out. They shouldn't have made us mad like that."

Properly enraged, the Celtics transformed themselves from pussycats into bullies on the boards, outrebounding the Rockets, 49-44. A six-point first- quarter edge (29-23) skyrocketed into a 17-point halftime bulge (65-48), and by intermission, the Rockets were ready to petition for surrender.

Then the Celtics really went to work.

Their renowned third-quarter killer instinct was at its most menacing as the lead grew like the national debt, reaching 21 points (92-71) after 36 minutes. Bird applied the ultimate dagger, dribbling back to the three-point line as the 24-second clock expired and unloading a bomb that left the Rockets amid the rubble of a 26-point (87-61) deficit.

With 7:20 left in the game, the lead peaked at 30 (97-67), but long before that, the only issue had become: Who has the can opener?

In the soaking aftermath, the Celtics -- many of whom had sworn off beer for the duration of the playoffs -- ended their potable and championship drought.

And Auerbach, the mastermind of the most dominant dynasty in sports history, was asked to place this edition in context.

"I think it's one of the greatest, if not the greatest team that I've ever been associated with," he said.

And perhaps the most determined.

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