8.17.2009

1982 ESFs: Celtics 1, Bullets 0

Eastern Conference Semifinals
1981-82 Boston Celtics


As an official Playoff Opener, it was not exactly the basketball answer to the premiere of "Oklahoma." But as a means of allowing a team that hadn't played a serious game in two weeks to safely reenter the Real World, it was ideal.

The Celtics began the defense of their NBA crown with a 109-91 triumph over the Washington Bullets at the Garden yesterday afternoon, and they did so while surviving a poor (3-for-10) shooting game submitted by Larry Bird and a so-so (6-for-16) offensive performance by Robert Parish. Bad days by players of this magnitude would be enough to destroy some other teams, but the Celtics are not like most teams, are they, Gene Shue?

"We were in a real good situation at the half (a 52-50 lead)," analyzed the Washington coach after the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal opener. "We had shut down the key players, Bird and Parish. They came in and beat us with players I think shouldn't have. We let M.L. Carr have a super game. And then (Kevin) McHale and (Rick) Robey were the difference."

Robey actually may have been The Difference. He entered the ballgame in place of Parish with 2:58 remaining in the third period (66-62, Boston), and he never came out. Robey, whose February and March minutes had been chewed up like so many Pac-Man dots in the face of Parish's remarkable performances, made himself indispensable with 10 points, five rebounds and solid defense. And, sacre bleu, he even sank four of five free throws.

"If I had a game ball to give," said Bill Fitch, "and keep in mind that coaches give them differently than other people do, it would have gone to Robey. I'd give him a 10, because he did exactly what he was supposed to do. I told him that if we wanted him to score, we'd call his number, but what we wanted was to get on the boards and play smart. I couldn't be more pleased with him."

Robey wasted no time making a contribution, posting up Jeff Ruland and connecting on a lefty jump-hook three-point play 15 seconds after entering the game. The two collided, and it wouldn't have been beyond the realm of possibility for a charge to be called on Robey.

"It could have gone the other way," suggested Ruland. "I knew he was coming back with the lefthanded hook. I guess that got him off and running."

The game was never again closer than five points. The Celtics, who had a great deal of difficulty solving the Washington game plan at either end in the first half, took a 74-67 lead after three quarters and then expanded the margin to 86-73 about 4 1/2 minutes into the final period to finish off the somewhat weary visitors, who came here direct from a two-game sweep of the Nets.

Only the early outside shooting of Carr (who hit his first five shots) and the hustling two-way brilliance of Cedric Maxwell enabled the Celtics to ride out a first-half storm. With Spencer Haywood scoring 15 of his team-high 17 points, and with Frank Johnson directing a nice attack, the Bullets went up by as many as seven (38-31). They appeared to be having their own way on offense, while Greg Ballard was doing a great job of denying Bird the ball and both Ricky Mahorn and Ruland were making Parish take very low-percentage traffic jumpers.

But it was a different Boston team in the second half. Haywood, a 1-for-6 second-half shooter, missed a jumper on the first possession. Bird (12 rebounds) pulled it down and threw a nice outlet to Carr, who went all the way to deposit a gorgeous driving scoop under Haywood's arm. Haywood then missed another jumper, the result being a Parish slam on an extra-pass Maxwell feed.

Baskets by Johnson and Ballard forged ties No. 7 and 8 at 54 and 56 before Tiny Archibald, whose outside sniping and defensive harassment were big second-half keys, swished the second of four big third-quarter jumpers to break the final deadlock. Still, there was legitimate suspense when Robey entered the game.

What really killed the Bullets was their third-quarter shooting. They had shot .545 (24 for 44) in the first half, but those same perimeter jumpers wouldn't fall in the third period (5 for 21, or 23.8 percent). "Missing those 15-footers really hurts," said Shue, "because you can't ask for better shots than those."

Depth beyond the eighth man is not ordinarily a factor in the playoffs, but depth is what won this game. The Celtics could not have survived without the bench contributions of Robey, McHale (16 points), Gerry Henderson (nine) or Chris Ford, who gave the team seven valuable second-quarter minutes.

Fitch was on his best praise-the-other-guy behavior following the game: "We were fortunate to get a spurt. They are a well-coached team, and each game is going to be a doggone tough encounter. Don't go away looking at the final score and think we're going to get big heads, because we're not."

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