'Twas another one of those nights when a basketball bard could easily be moved to pen an ode to the marvelous Boston Celtics frontcourt.
The trio of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale asserted themselves in every way imaginable last night, compiling 85 points and 25 rebounds as the Celtics opened up their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series with a 110-101 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at Boston Garden.
Bird was the early meteor, with 24 of his game-high 38 points in the first quarter. But when he went into a field goal drought lasting 20 minutes on the game clock, the Celtics were able to shift their offensive focus thanks to the skills of Parish (22) and McHale (25, including 21 in the second half). Each starting guard shot 3 for 9, but with Danny Ainge getting 12 assists and Dennis Johnson submitting nine, there was no complaining about their efforts.
Boston had to win this game twice against an Atlanta team which was not discouraged by a pair of 17-point first-quarter deficits (30-13 and 38-21), and which had it down to 4 (49-45, with 2:47 left in the half) and to 6 (54-48) at intermission.
"We didn't put our heads down and say, 'It's over,' " said Hawks coach Mike Fratello. "That's encouraging."
The Hawks might have pulled off a stunner had their Main Man been able to connect when there still was a game. But Dominique Wilkins was simply brutal in the first three periods. He was 4 for 15 going into Period 4, when he erupted for 15 hollow points.
The Hawks were 6 down with the ball at 58-52 when Wilkins missed a shot and DJ responded at the other end with a clock-beating 19-foot swisher. That bucket initiated a game-breaking run of 10 unanswered points in 2:25. It was thus 68-52 with 5:45 remaining in the quarter, and it can truthfully be said that Atlanta never recovered.
The Hawks whittled a Boston lead that had topped off at 19 (80-61) to 7 (106-99, 108-101) in the late stages, but the Celtics claim they never felt threatened. "We had a big lead," pointed out McHale, "and we felt content to bring the ball down and pass it around." Very often, those passes wound up in the hands of the Hawks, who might have fared better (18 points) with Boston's 23 turnovers had they not been busy coughing it up 21 times for 25 Boston points.
There isn't much doubt the patrons exited the Garden yammering about Bird's opening period, during which he smashed Dave Cowens' 14-year-old Boston standard for playoff points in a quarter. Larry had mentioned Tuesday that he "expected to have a better series individually" against the Hawks than he did against the Knicks, and he certainly demonstrated what he was talking about by connecting on his first nine shots, and 10 of 11, during the monstrous first period.
Bird had 16 of Boston's first 22 on 7-for-7 shooting (including a pair of three-pointers), propelling the Celtics into a 22-10 lead. "Larry was really amazing in that first quarter," said McHale. "He came out and went to work."
Omen believers might have taken serious note of an early juxtaposition. Bird opened the scoring with a stutter-step runner in the lane, whereupon Wilkins attempted to answer with a patented spin in the lane. 'Nique was met by a convention of white jerseys and lost the ball, leading to an Ainge sneakaway. From that point on, he was on his way down and out and, by the end of the first period, the Larry-Dominique tally was Bird 24, Wilkins 2.
The Hawks hung in, first rallying behind the push-it-up talents of Spud Webb which helped generate some opportunity offense. It also didn't hurt that Doc Rivers was executing some of his power drives (while grabbing seven first-half rebounds), or that after sinking a 20-footer at 9:49 of the second quarter (40-29), Bird didn't make another basket until a baseline drive at the 1:48 mark of the third period (78-59).
Most of all, it didn't hurt Atlanta's cause that the Celtics were appallingly self-destructive, committing 10 unforced turnovers in one stretch of 13 miscues in the first half. A team cannot hope to win a championship playing like that.
Even with the sloppy ballhandling and the weird passing decisions ("We were throwing the ball around like we were behind," said K.C. Jones), the Celtics went to their inside strengths often enough to depress the Hawks. Bird is as dangerous passing as shooting, of course, and in this game his primary target was Parish, who converted five Bird passes into four slams and a layup.
"Bird was magnificent," saluted Fratello. "He is a great, great player. He does it in so many ways, not just scoring. He showed tonight why he's held in such esteem, why he's in the upper, upper echelon of this league."
What the Celtics as a whole proved with regard to championship worthiness is another matter. The turnovers were a giant minus. But when the game started, they were 12 victories away from a title, and now they need 11. Perhaps nothing else really matters at this point.