Nuggets Provide Celtics with First Nail-Biter at the Gahden

1990-91 Boston Celtics
Remembering the 29-5 Start

This was something new for the home folks. And something unexpected.

The schedule said: Denver. The logic said: Blowout.

Instead, the Celtics got their first real nail-biter at home this season and didn't recoil from the unfamiliarity of it all. They turned to Larry Bird for 43 points and outlasted (survived?) the relentless Denver Nuggets to post a 148-140 victory.

It wasn't easy, pretty or satisfying. Coach Chris Ford summed it up by saying, "I'm not pleased with anyone's performance, including my own. It was a major setback." The game even prompted the first Clipboard Slamming Incident of the season when Kevin McHale didn't box out.

To make matters worse, Reggie Lewis strained his lower back. He will make the trip to Texas, but his status is day-to-day.

That same status also seemed to describe Nuggets coach Paul Westhead, who during the exhibition season insisted that his Loyola Marymount pressure/shooting game could work in the NBA. It didn't and the Celtics shredded Denver in two painless exhibition triumphs. Everyone else reveled in the defenseless style and something had to give.

Denver still is bad (3-14) and winless on the road (0-8), but at least it is playing something resembling pro basketball. Since the exhibition season, Westhead has pretty much abandoned the insane, harebrained scheme of contesting each inbounds pass after a basket.

And, more critical to the Nuggets' style, Michael Adams has returned to the lineup. Boy, does he make a difference.

But in their minds, the Celtics saw the October Nuggets and figured this would be another layup-dunk drill with a fourth quarter of cheering on Stojko Vrankovic and Dave Popson.

"Part of the trouble was that we had played them twice and beaten them so easily," McHale said. "Maybe we didn't feel they'd be a big threat."

But behind Adams (31 points, 17 assists) and Orlando Woolridge (29 points), Denver gave the Celtics a major league scare. It was tied, 130-130, with 5:35 left as the Nuggets had the Celtics playing at their happy pace.

"They had us doing things we don't like to do," admitted Bird, who had 13 assists, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals.

Lewis (25 points) gave Boston the lead for good with two free throws. The freebies launched a 14-4 run in which the Celtics, for the first time all game, got serious on defense and defended their backboard as if their manhood was at stake.

After a Woolridge miss, Brian Shaw (18 points, 7 assists) drove for a hoop that made it 134-130. A Woolridge pull-up made it 134-132, but the Celtics ripped off 10 of the next 12 points on hoops by Shaw (a banker), Parish (a dunk from Bird), Bird (a jumper) and McHale (a lay-in). There also were two Bird free throws in there.

"Our pace was good," Westhead said. "We just have to be able to finish the race. We're getting closer. We're probably 80 percent there. We need to find the remaining 20 percent."

It certainly looked for the longest of times as if the Celtics might be the Nuggets' first road victim. Boston came out visibly unfocused and mentally out of whack and found it difficult to snap out of its funk.

Denver showed what was in store for the evening when, after a dunk by Parish (25 points, 14 rebounds) opened the scoring, Adams came flying down the floor to convert a 3-point play. The ex-Boston College whiz was 12 for 24 from the field and 1 for 9 from 3-point range. He also had four steals.

"With him, they are a much different team," Bird said. "The other guards just can't do it as well as he can."

It was close all the way. Denver led by 3 at the half and opened the third quarter with an 8-2 run led by Blair Rasmussen (14 points, 10 rebounds). A furious Ford called time and reminded his boys there was a game in progress.

Twelve minutes later, the message took hold. The Celtics were down, 122-115, early in the fourth, then ripped off a 10-2 run to take the lead. It was during that run that Woolridge went over McHale for a tip-in -- Denver's only hoop -- which prompted Ford to call time and slam his clipboard.

"My defense wasn't too stellar," McHale said sheepishly.

Soon it was 130-130 and the Celtics finally pulled away. It wasn't what they were looking for with a trip to Texas coming up. Their hope is that it may turn out to be exactly what they needed.

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