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5.02.2010

1988 NBA Playoffs: Celts Smell Up the Joint in Game 3

5/16/1988

Bad? Oh, no. It was far worse than bad. Well, what about atrocious? Awful? Brutal? Wretched? Miserable? Horrible? Stinky? Sickening?

Any of the above would apply, but let's just settle for pathetic. The Celtics team on display yesterday at the Omni was a true charity case, especially in the second half, when it scored fewer field goals in 24 minutes (8) than Larry Bird did all by himself in the first 8 1/2 minutes of Game 1. The Atlanta Hawks had little choice but to make this a 2-1 series with a 110-92 victory. The Celtics are fortunate it wasn't 210-92.

What, after all, can a coach say when he watches a team that had shot 57 percent from the floor in the first two games struggle with 39 percent (27-for-70) shooting in the third one? Probably what K.C. Jones had to say.

"I've never seen four quarters of basketball when the team was as cold as an iceberg," he reflected. "I've never seen that in my whole life."

Not to slight the Hawks, but does anyone ever really know where good, stout defense leaves off and just plain being a stiff on offense begins? Just as the Celtics couldn't take full credit for Atlanta's 4-for-26, 9-point first quarter Friday night, the Hawks weren't shameless enough to assume responsibility for Boston's woeful second half yesterday, when the Celtics scored four field goals in each of the third and fourth periods and went as long as 11 minutes without making a basket.

The Celtics were as close as 56-53 with 8:18 remaining in the third period on a pair of free throws by the frigid (5-for-18) Bird. Given that the Celtics had already suffered through a field goal drought of 5:52 in the second quarter, they had a right to feel the absolute worst was behind them. What they didn't know, however, was that they were even then in the midst of going 6:10 without a basket (from a Kevin McHale layup at 10:23 to a Danny Ainge leaner at 4:13), or that a scoreless stretch that would dwarf the other two lay ahead.

That horrifying chunk of time started with an Ainge lefty followup of a Bird brick at 3:48 of Period 3 (71-63, Hawks). The Celtics would go through 24 possessions without putting the ball through the orange ring over the next 11:04 (0 for 11 with three turnovers) before Bird scored the next Boston basket on a transition lefty swooper with 4:44 left in the game (95-82). That Boston had accumulated 17 points in the interim was due to the earnest officiating of Earl Strom and Mike Mathis, who gave Boston absolutely every opportunity any team could ask for to win the ballgame. Any time you spend 19 of the 24 minutes in the second half shooting bonus free throws -- on the road! -- and still manage to lose by 18, you are one sorry sucker.

In addition to wasting the expected good officiating of Strom, the Celtics also wasted another terrible game by Dominique Wilkins, who spun merrily out of control en route to a semi-meaningless 9-for-22 performance. The individual Hawks who had the most to do with burying the Celtics were Kevin Willis (23 points, 13 rebounds) and the indomitable Spud Webb, who packed 13 dynamic assists into his 27 minutes of playing time.

Coach Mike Fratello also got needed bench help from such figures as John Battle (14 points) and Scott Hastings, who gave every ounce of energy (not to mention 6 personals) in service of his ballclub.

Webb replaced the injured Doc Rivers (sprained right big toe) in the first 1:39 and this did not prove to be a happy substitution for the Celtics, who have had many problems over the past three seasons containing Webb's end-to-end dashes. The rebound opportunities were there from the start for the Hawks, who got off to the 8-0 lead they needed to soothe their psyche, and who had the answer when the Celtics tied the score at 20 during one of their few decent stretches during this long, long afternoon of basketball (2 hours 20 minutes).

"Spud was important," said Fratello, "but it starts with getting the ball, then handing it off to him and then running the floor. In order to have a good fast break, we need it all."

It was 24-22 after one quarter and a less-than-secure 52-45 at the half. Boston had again established itself inside with Robert Parish (12 of his 17) and Kevin McHale (11 of his 17) being the frequent recipients of missiles from Bird (8 first-half assists). It was 56-50, Atlanta, after McHale took Bird's ninth and final assist. And after that? Le Deluge. The Celtics never again got inside, and they sure weren't hitting from outside.

"We sort of went away from what we were doing," explained Bird, who offered no excuses for his sorry outside shooting. "We went to different type plays. Me and DJ have got to get the ball inside. Guys have to set picks, and then roll. If everybody does the job, we'll win. But today, we didn't have anybody doing it."

The Celtics were down by an 82-68 count after three and were still trailing by 12 (86-74) with a reasonable amount of time left (10:01). But at that juncture they were still six long minutes away from executing the very purpose of this exercise, which is to put the ball in the basket.

Had the Clippers played like this, everyone would be hoo-hahing. If this doesn't instill a little humility in the Beantown boys, nothing will.

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