You'll pardon Celtics fans this morning for expecting the sun to rise in the West. They just got through watching their darlings drop a key playoff game at home and have now begun questioning all their fundamental beliefs.
Tied, 2-2, and coming back home has always been a classic Celtics night of celebration. They'd won 14 straight of these babies since Elgin Baylor dropped 61 points on them back in '62. This Bird-led group had been in this situation five times and had won them all. The streak starts over now.
And it was something you could feel coming. At no point in the game -- even when they were leading by 11 in the third quarter or 8 early in the fourth -- did the Celtics have anything resembling a knockout punch. The Atlanta Hawks hung around and hung around, and in the fourth quarter they embarrassed the proud old gents with a major basketball policy statement which resulted in a 112-104 victory at Boston Garden last night and a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Celtics felt they'd never have to win another playoff road game until they got to Los Angeles, and if they got a little lucky, they wouldn't have to win one at all. Bad thinking. Unless they can play substantially better in the Omni tomorrow night than they did in their parquet playpen last evening, they can unpack the bathing suits and inquire about tee times. The playoff party will be going on without them.
The Hawks won this game by taking complete control in the final 2:25, after a Dennis Johnson poke-check steal from Dominique Wilkins and subsequent pair of free throws gave Boston a 98-97 lead. The next time the Celtics scored, they reduced a 9-point deficit to 7 (107-100) with 25 seconds remaining.
Wilkins, who played the fourth quarter as a "2" guard after stinking up the joint from here to Valdosta as a 5-for-19, bricklaying small forward in the first three quarters, gave Atlanta its lead back by drawing, and making, two free throws with 2:07 left (99-98).
OK, the Garden fans figured, that's cool. Just give the ball to Larry. They did. But Mr. Bird was short on a right baseline turnaround. Doc Rivers, who deserved this triumph more than anybody after the series he's played, took Danny Ainge to the hoop for two more foul shots. Now it was 101-98, and the Celtics were sinking fast.
Johnson took it to the hoop, only to meet the 7-foot-2-inch form of one Wayne (Tree) Rollins, who smashed the shot off DJ and out of bounds. By this time, the Celtics were frantically searching for the lost page in the script. Rivers then put the game out of reach by running the 24-second clock down to four and calmly drilling a 20-footer from the right. It was 103-98 with 57 seconds left, and the rest of the game was conversation. The Hawks had ended a 13-game Garden losing streak in a very authoritative manner.
The Hawks kept saying they could win here, and they kept telling themselves that after twice falling behind by 11 (62-51, 64-53) in the third period, and they still believed it after dropping to 8 down (82-74) with 10:51 left. They had survived the final 6:18 of the third period with Wilkins on the bench, thanks to the play of such folks as Kevin Willis (a clear winner in the nightly Battle of the Altitudinous Kevins with 27 points and 14 rebounds), Cliff Levingston (16 off the bench) and Rivers (21 points, 7 assists).
When Wilkins returned, it was as a guard, a move which seemed to help him. "My assistants made the call on that," said Atlanta coach Mike Fratello. "Brian (Hill), Brendan (Suhr) and Don (Chaney) thought maybe that would be the thing which would wake us up. Prior to that, we were having trouble scoring points. I wasn't doing a very good job of helping our offense."
Wilkins hit his final three shots, including a game-tying three-pointer from the left wing (86-86). The sight of Wilkins back there seemed to disrupt the Celtics. DJ even sat down in favor of Mark Acres for 2 1/2 minutes. Bird, meanwhile, missed his final four en route to a 9-for-22 night which never really took off in the individual scoring department.
The Celtics led at the quarter (24-23), half (48-43) and three-quarter marks (77-69), but they were surprisingly unconvincing. "Toward the end of the first quarter," said K.C. Jones, "we got out of sync on offense."
Boston's best quarter was the third, when Bird picked up four of eight assists on clever inside feeds to Kevin McHale (a tepid 19) and Robert Parish (24 points, 13 rebounds). But Atlanta maintained its composure, getting some big baskets from Willis, whose 12-for-16 game included a mess of face-up jumpers emanating from the kind of keep-it-hopping ball movement the Hawks had never been able to execute under pressure before. This collection of ath-a-letes has learned how to play basketball before your very eyes, folks.
These just aren't the same old Atlanta Hawks. "No," said Ainge, "I'm not shocked they could beat us here. They're a good team. And we didn't play well enough to win."
Nobody who saw this game would dare contradict that statement.