Celtics Improve to 28-5
1990-91 Boston Celtics
The gut checks will be coming fast and furious in the week ahead, as Larry Bird watches, strapped into a back brace in his living room.
Consider Boston's initial gut check a successful one. With news their ailing captain might stay that way for a spell, the Celtics knocked off the white-hot Milwaukee Bucks, 110-102, last night at the Garden. In the process, they moved ahead of Portland (a 109-99 loser to Dallas) and seized possession of the best record in the NBA, hiking their winning percentage to .848 while the Trail Blazers' dipped to .833.
Kevin McHale led the charge with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks. He played the entire 48 minutes, in true Timberwolves fashion.
"I owed Kevin some minutes for bringing him off the bench all this time," cracked coach Chris Ford.
McHale was needed. An outing that had all the early signs of a blowout (how does Boston, 54-26, grab you?) turned into a real struggle down the stretch, as the guys from Wisconsin proved again why they can be a positively frightening basketball team.
The Celtics have proved equally formidable in that regard. Last night they submitted 24 minutes of textbook defense, stumbled through a third quarter in which they shot 35 percent, then eked out their 17th straight home win by taking care of business in the final frame.
That final quarter unfolded this way: with 11:36 left, the Celtics found themselves clinging to a 2-point lead (84-82) as former Shamrock Brad Lohaus slammed through an offensive follow.
Boston needed some big buckets and got them in the ensuing minutes from a variety of sources. First it was Reggie Lewis with a pair of baskets to stem the tide.
Then, with the spread at 6 (90-84, Boston), rookie Dee Brown beat the shot clock with a 14-footer.
With the Bucks still chipping away behind Ricky Pierce (22 points) and Jay Humphries (11), Brian Shaw pulled up in the key and cashed in on a 3-point play for a 97-90 Boston
cushion with 7:01 to play. After the clubs traded misses, Brown stole the ball and relayed it on the break to McHale for an easy two.
The Celtics finally shook the Bucks when Lewis followed his own miss at 2:08. That snapped a field goal drought of 3:59 and pushed the locals in front, 105-97.
Thus, though a 65-44 halftime bulge shrank to a dangerously slim edge, the night ended with the desired result.
It would have been a shame to waste the terrific defensive showing the home team presented in the opening half. No less than five times, the Bucks were forced into taking hurried jumpers to beat the shot clock. For basketball purists, there is no sweeter sound than a shot clock buzzer sounding as the opponent fires it up.
"Their defensive effort in the first half was as good as any I've encountered," said Milwaukee coach Del Harris. "They took us out of our stuff."
In fact, Harris called for two timeouts within a minute in the first quarter to express his displeasure to his squad.
"The two big factors tonight were to take away their transition and not to let them beat us off the dribble," said Harris. "I called those two timeouts because they had beat us off the dribble seven straight times."
Oh, and while we are talking transition, Boston outscored Milwaukee, 10-0, after one in that category. At halftime, the Celtics were shooting 55 percent, the Bucks 36 percent. By then, McHale already had 23 points, 6 more than the entire Milwaukee starting lineup.
Even the most casual follower of the NBA knows a comeback was in the offing, especially with a team the caliber of Milwaukee, which had won eight straight and leads the Central Division.
Like clockwork, the Bucks came roaring out in the third quarter on the offensive. Like clockwork, the Celtics suffered through the proverbial letdown, being outscored, 36-19, in the quarter, and squandering all but 4 points (84-80) of its cushion.
"The mind-set is, 'Don't let up, don't let up,' but then you let up," said McHale. "It's like golf. You say, 'Don't hook it, don't hook it,' then you hook it. It's almost like you talk yourself into it."
With Milwaukee offering friendly persuasion in the form of some rejuvenated defensive pressure, the local boys found themselves in a wire-to-wire job without Larry. It's not a preferred state, mind you, but it gave guys like Lewis (26 points), Brown (6 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) and Robert Parish (10 points, 15 rebounds) a chance to absorb a few more pieces of responsibility.
After all, that's what gut checks are all about.