The game was slowly drifting away from the Celtics yesterday. The Pistons felt it. The Silverdome crowd of 26,625 sensed it. And Larry Bird fought it. As the third quarter ended, there was not much Bird could do. The Celtics were trailing, 68-60, and Bird was on the bench with 12 points, four fouls and a vow that, if nothing else, he would make a final effort to get Boston back in the game.
As has been the case for most of the Eastern Conference finals, he had been a picture of offensive inconsistency and frustration, playing in spurts that seemed to indicate he was coming out of a malaise that had been affecting his game all week. Then it began. A three-pointer from the left corner. Swish. A 14-foot jumper just inside the foul line. Swish. A drive to the basket on Joe Dumars that resulted in two free throws.
Two minutes had gone by in the fourth quarter. And the Pistons' 8-point lead had dissolved to 1. The crowd was quiet. Many had probably seen this eight days before when Bird made the fourth quarter his personal clinic in the seventh game against the Atlanta Hawks. This was more personal. The Pistons, on the verge of taking a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, had seen their worst nightmare turn into reality.
A minute later, Bird picked up his fifth foul. The crowd again turned the Silverdome into a noise chamber, sensing a reprieve. There was none. In a bizarre game that was the latest chapter of a strange series, the Celtics hung on for a 79-78 victory. While Bird did not take control at the end, he started the comeback in the fourth quarter and led the Celtics with 20 points and 10 rebounds, also contributing 6 assists. For a change, Bird ended the game feeling fresh. When he picked up his fourth foul with 6:41 left in the third, he got a rare mid-game rest.
"It helped a lot," said Bird. "I really felt rested when I came back. We were down by 8 and everyone seemed pretty cold. So I just decided to go after it. I felt real good. And when the first shot went in, I really seemed to have my rhythm." Bird had been out of sync all afternoon, mainly because he was dodging Piston arms and legs that seemed to gravitate toward him.
The tone for the game was set in the first few minutes when he went down in a heap with Bill Laimbeer. When he tried to get up, he found Laimbeer clinging to him. A few seconds later, he swatted off Laimbeer again. When it happened a third time, Bird lost his temper and picked up a foolish foul by pushing Laimbeer right in front of referee Ed Rush. "Pushing I don't mind," said Bird. "Shoving I don't mind. But when they start slapping your hand as you shoot it and don't call it, well, that's different. That affects things. I didn't like it and I said something."
He said too much and received his second technical of the season. When Bird lost his temper, he also lost the rest of his offensive rhythm. A minute later, he picked up his fourth foul and was headed for the bench. While Bird sat, the Celtics fiddled. The Pistons outscored them, 17-4, and took control of a game no one seemed to want.
"Offensively, neither team was doing much," said Bird. "But I thought we were playing a good game defensively. We just had to hang in there until our shots started going in." Not many of them did, and the Celtics began the fourth quarter in a hole. then Bird started his comeback. Not even a fifth foul with 9:13 left slowed him down.
The game came down to a last-chance effort by the Pistons, who were trailing by a point with eight seconds left. Dumars' last-second shot was gathered in by Robert Parish. The Celtics had not only survived but prospered, heading back to Boston with the home-court advantage restored. "It's all a matter of confidence," said Bird. "This team hasn't been shooting that well, but it never stops trying, never stops working. If we can start putting the ball in the basket, Detroit is going to be in trouble."
Bird is not ready to predict a victory, just as he wasn't ready to concede defeat when the Celtics dropped Saturday's game. "We've been in this situation a lot of times," he said. "We got what we came here for today. A lot of people had written us off. Now it's different. It's a best-of-three series. Our goal is to win the championship. And we're not going to do that unless we win this series. "Today helped. It's a lot better to be tied at two games than down, three to one." For the Celtics, it was a lot better to have Larry Bird taking control of the game. Even if only for a few minutes.