He was on a pace to score a million points in one game. At least a million. Maybe two million. Maybe three. Every shot that Larry Bird took was a shot that Larry Bird made.
"Let me see," you told yourself in the beginning stages of the Celtics' 110-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Boston Garden last night to open this best-of-seven NBA playoff series. "He has made the first 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 shots he has taken. He is invincible. He is bulletproof. The first quarter isn't even finished."
How many points could Larry Bird score in a game? Was this the perfect game, the one for the ages,, the one game at the top of the "Best Games of Larry Bird" list? Was someone at USA Today drawing the little graph and cartoon right now? He had 24 points in the first quarter. Twenty-four points in the first quarter!
Do that for four quarters and you have 96 points. New math. Old math. Any math. The big Boston wait always is for that mythical Roger Clemens game, the one in which he strikes out all the batters and does not allow a hit, walk or error. How about the mythical Larry Bird game? That would be open-ended, as many points and assists and rebounds and steals as you could imagine.
"Give him the ball every time down the floor," you said. "Have him take every shot. Let 'er rip. Let's see how far this run can go."
Even as you said this, however, you knew it would not happen. Even as you said this, you could see the change on the floor. Even as you said this, you could see Larry Bird begin to pass and other men score the points.
Exactly as you expected.
"I knew I had to kick it up a little shooting tonight," Larry would explain later. "DJ (Dennis Johnson) hadn't practiced for four days, and when you do that, your shooting can't be what it was. I knew I'd have to shoot some more, especially early.
"I went out there and I was coming off some good picks and getting my shots. There'd be some picks, way on the other side of the court. I'd come around and there'd be a double pick waiting for me. I was shooting good. I had a good touch going. Some of those shots I didn't expect to be there, but they were.
"I didn't have any idea I was scoring so much, but in the second quarter I saw that everybody else on the team was starting to stand around, to see what I would do. I started to pass, to get everybody interested. Robert Parish, if he keeps setting picks for you, you've got to reward him a little bit, too. That's what I started to do."
He pulled the string on himself. He ended his own roll. It wasn't the one miss in the first quarter -- he went into the air and didn't know whether to pass or shoot and air-balled an 8-foot, off-balance jumper -- it was the idea that he was taking up too much space on the score sheet. Move the ball around.
"Were you shooting as well as you could?" someone asked.
"Well, I did miss one," Larry Bird replied.
He changed because change was best for the team. He changed because one-man, lopsided basketball never has been part of the local repertoire. He also changed because -- physically -- he could not keep going at a 24-points-per-quarter scoring pace.
"I once took 36 shots in a game," he said. "That's the most exhausted I've ever been. You have to move and work to get yourself free. That's what tires you out."
The most points he scored in an NBA game was 60, on that wide-open night in New Orleans two years ago. The most points he ever scored, anywhere, was 92. That was in a faculty game.
"But that was different," Larry Bird said. "Those points were scored on the inside."
In this game, his shot mostly put back in its case, as if it were Satchmo's trumpet, being saved for the next gig in the next town, he scored only 3 points in the heavy-passing second period, 38 in the game on 15-for-25 shooting. He was part of the overall effort, not the show by himself.
"He is amazing to see when he gets the way he did in that first period," teammate Kevin McHale said. "He gets that roll going. You just watch him. I've been in that zone myself, but my shots are a lot closer to the basket."
Could Larry Bird keep the roll going for the full 48-minute game?
"I don't think so," McHale said. "It's just too exhausting. The other team would do more and more on defense against him. Tonight they were forcing him to walk the ball down sometimes. I don't think it could be done."
"They would just make him keep moving," teammate Fred Roberts said. "I can't imagine anyone scoring, say, 85 points in a game. It would just be too hard. Still, if anyone could do it . . . "
What would happen if one night simply was given to Larry Bird? One night where he was the focus of the entire operation. Give Larry every shot. Set up every play to finish with him taking the shot. Do it during the regular season on a cold night in Cleveland. Something like that. Circle the date and just let him cook. See what would happen. See him score a million.
"That's only been done once that I know of," assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers said. "With Wilt. When he scored 100 points. I guess they gave him the ball every time, had him shoot."
What would happen if that happened here? What would Larry Bird do with that situation?
"It would be interesting," Jimmy Rodgers said, "but I don't think it will ever happen."
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