10.08.2008

It's the Fall of 1981, and There's Already Talk that Kevin McHale is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA

1981-1982 Boston Celtics

Kevin Mchale is becoming increasingly indespensible. He would probably bring more in a trade than just about any player in the NBA right now. But he won't start and he won't be getting a lot more playing time. And as long as the Celtics can afford to use him in such a manner, they will be very tough to beat in the fourth quarter.

Astaire and Rodgers had "Swing Time." Chubby Checker had "Pony Time." Beer drinkers have "Miller Time." And the Boston Celtics have "McHale Time."

With just over six minutes to go, a scrappy Washington Bullets' team had a two-point lead and reasonable aspirations of achieving a significant early season upset of the Boston Celtics, who had performed with such disdain for the niceties of professional basketball that coach Bill Fitch had been watching them from the far end of the bench since back in the second period. As a team, the Celtics were eminently beatable on this particular occasion.

But the crowd of 12,267 - a gathering that included a great many Boston fans - would soon learn that "McHale Time" had begun once again. Before said time was over, The Weapon would score 12 points, block three shots - two in a sequence that even Bob Cousy admitted was worthy even of Bill Russell - and make every key play as the Celtics walked off with a 90-84 victory.

It was a scene reminiscent of the many occasions during Kevin McHale's rookie season when he assumed control of a game in the fourth period. The Bullets, in fact, had been his first victim. Now they are merely the latest.

Take away McHale Time and the Celtics deserved to lose. They played abominable basketball in the first half, shooting 35 percent from the floor (15-43), 55 percent from the line (after getting off to a nifty 3-for-12 start), making innumerable stupid decisions in the open floor and, finally, failing to defense either Kevin Grevey or Greg Ballard (who had a game-high 27). They were within nine (51-42) at the half only because the Bullets practically insisted they accept the final eight points of the second period, the last four McHale free throws resulting from loose ball fouls.

And when the Celtics made a couple of third period runs they immediately made more bizarre decisions (like turning 4-on-2 fast breaks into off-balance heaves), allowing the Washington margin to creep back to 10 points, the last time at 67-57 on two Spencer Haywood free throws with 3:47 remaining in the quarter. Only a sensational stretch by Larry Bird, who scored nine consecutive points in one run, enabled the Celtics to remain in the game.

Remember, now, that Washington is a certified have-not, with all the attendant connotations. They can't hold leads. They can't get good shots when they need them. Most assuredly, they can't get breaks from the officials. They have become losers, and more often than not they will find a way to do so.

Still, there they were, leading, 81-79, with 6:11 left. Ricky Mahorn and rookie Jeff Ruland were banging away nicely underneath, and the Washington segment among the fans was hopeful. Which brings us to "McHale Time."

First, a low post turnaround to tie the game. Next, The Play of the game. As Don Collins, a 6-6 greyhound, took off on a fast break, McHale somehow got back into the play and blocked the shot. The ball went to Ruland and when he put up the rebound he found another McHale hand there to flick the ball away. At this point Washington called time out, but when play resumed Bird and McHale had a little surprise for the home team.

As he received the ball for the midcourt throw-in, Bird noticed that Mahorn was fronting McHale. Bird casually flipped the ball to the basket, whereupon McHale laid it in. No signal. No eye contact. No nothing, except common sense and basketball experience.

"You don't even look at Larry," McHale explained. "You know he's going to do the right thing. He saw I was fronted, and I knew he'd deliver the ball, right on the numbers," said McHale.

That was the go-ahead hoop. Ballard responded with a free throw at 4:17, but on Boston's next possession McHale posted up Haywood and threw in a long turnaround. Four more McHale free throws (two on a rebound foul and two from another post-up) ended a personal 10-point run and left the Celtics with an 89-82 lead with 2:55 remaining. The Bullets were finis.

Forget the rest of this wretched game, one of whose highlights was Robert Parish's ejection for fighting with Mahorn with 1:07 left in the third period. The story was McHale, whose fourth-period exploits never seem to end. "They have to give you something."

Said McHale, "I'm not as talented as Max (Cedric Maxwell), but one of the strengths of this team is getting the ball in low and I can post up. They just keep getting me the ball."

And he just keeps putting it in. Or preventing the other team from doing so. "He's just a winning player," said Bullet coach Gene Shue.

It probably is just that simple.

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