He had the book on Doc Rivers, just as he's had the book on a few hundred NBA guards dating back to the Ford administration. "Doc likes to go to his right," remembered Dennis Johnson, who'd stolen 235 basketballs in previous playoff games. "So I reached in, trying to push the ball back. It just happened to work out."
And Johnson had himself a coast-to-coast layup two seconds before the buzzer ended the third quarter. If Johnson doesn't steal the ball, maybe Rivers gets it to Dominique Wilkins and maybe it's Atlanta 84, Boston 82 going into the fourth quarter, instead of the reverse.
The afternoon was dotted with maybes that Johnson rendered moot. Maybe if he missed both free throws each time he was at the line in the final 10 seconds . . . Maybe if he didn't hit those three jumpers through the middle of the third quarter, when the Celtics were hurting for points . . .
After 33 years on the planet and 12 years in the league, Johnson doesn't worry about what was or wasn't. He had taken the floor for 165 playoff games before this one, and found ways to contribute to each.
"There are a few guys on this team you don't worry about," said Kevin McHale, after Johnson had ended the day with 16 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 big steal. "And DJ's one of them. You can always rely on him."
The first half had gone poorly for Johnson: three fouls after less than 15 minutes, two turnovers and one shot taken (and missed). His third quarter was brilliant.
Three times in two minutes, the Hawks left Johnson lonely, 18 feet from the basket, daring him to shoot. Bang-bang-bang. "He hits those shots," said Larry Bird, "and he opens it up for everybody."
There was another 18-footer to break an 80-80 tie. Then the steal off Rivers, the kind of sleight-of-hand Johnson has been perfecting for more than a decade. "Doc made that move to his right and I just tried to slap the ball at its lowest point to the ground," Johnson said.
Ball comes loose. Boston 84-82. Then a couple of Johnson free throws to make it 86-84. A driving layup for 99-95. Then three passes to Bird for baskets down the stretch, including the three-pointer that opened it to 112-105.
Finally, in the last few seconds, there was Johnson at the line, needing to make at least one to keep the Hawks at arm's length. He missed the first with 10 seconds left, as the Garden groaned.
"What went through your mind?" Johnson was asked.
"I thought, 'I missed a free throw,' " he replied. "I've hit lots of free throws in those situations and I've missed some. I've missed two. It was just another miss for me at the free throw line."
Johnson made the next one. Fouled again, he made the first -- which meant that there would at least be overtime, unless Wilkins could manage a four-point play. For the briefest moment, overtime did loom, as Wilkins' deliberate miss from the line bounced toward a red jersey. But when the buzzer sounded, there was Johnson with the ball. Holding it -- symbolically -- just out of Cliff Levingston's reach.