October 23, 1980
It was not accomplished without aging the coach by a decade in just four minutes, but the Boston Celtics, utilizing the many skills of the rookie first-round draft choice they had battle so hard to obtain this summer, fought off the New Jersey Nets by a 108-104 score at the Rutgers Athletic Center last night.
The Celtics had ridden the inside play of Kevin McHale and Rick Robey to construct a 106-98 lead with 3:59 remaining. But the team never scored another basket, and finally needed two clutch free throws by Cedric Maxwell with 19 seconds left to put the game away. Those shots created the final score, and Max then clinched the game by intercepting Mike O'Koren's in-bounds pass.
McHale played the entire fourth quarter (including the last 1:56 at center), and he was often spectacular, blocking shots, rebounding in traffic or scoring. He and Rick Robey took over the game in one vital stretch of just over four minutes, when the Celtics moved from 94-93 advantage to a 106-98 lead with Bird, the game's high scorer with 29, on the bench. The tall duo collaborated on one memorable bit of basketball, as Robey lobbed in one pass for McHale to guide home without hitting the floor. That shot made it, 102-96, Boston, and Robey gave the Celtics their biggest lead of the evening with a running lefthanded hook.
McHale finally ran out of miracles, missing a pair of free throws with 42 seconds left and Boston lead, 106-104. But Max rebounded an O Koren miss and drew a key loose ball foul.
Hot ballplayers and shifting team momentum were the twin stories of the first half, which ended with the Nets in front by a 61-59 advantage obtained by a Maurice Lucas jumper with three seconds left.
Luke was one of three players who dazzled the crowd with virtuoso play in the first half. The leadoff hot hand was Larry Bird, who put on his most forceful display of the young season by dropping in his first five shots en route to a 15-point first quarter.
The next player to get hot was Mike Newlin, the man who had thrown a 52- point game at the Celtics last season. The veteran jump-shooting guard caught fire with his downtown off-pick jumpers, and he mixed in a couple of pretty traffic drives to pick up 15 points in the game's first 15 minutes.
Finally, there was Lucas, who led all scorers with 17 and who looked like his 77 self with his long upfake jumpers (he holds onto them like a tall Dick Barnett) and his bull-like moves underneath.
The Celtics did well to keep Jersey in sight after having been victimized by a run of 13 unanswered points earlier in the second quarter. Boston had basically controlled a fast-paced game from the outset, riding Bird's quick start to early leads of 10-4 and 14-8 and taking a 35-20 lead into the second quarter. But New Jersey jumped on Luke's back and the Nets reversed the trend, rolling off those 13 straight points to assume a 48-39 lead with 5:43 left in the half.
At that point Bill Fitch made a substitute that probably mystified the fans. He inserted Eric Fernsten at center after the skinny pivot man hadn't played since the season opener.
Fernsten contributed five points, a block and solid team defense to the cause as the quintet of McHale (his customary pair of second quarter blocks), Maxwell, Chris Ford and Tiny Archibald (10 points) plugged away and got the Celtics back into the game.
There were periodic bursts of intelligent Boston running mixed in with some ill-advised fast break attempts during the first half. The running totals were Boston 19, New Jersey 10, while the second-chance point totals were Boston 8, Jersey 8.
Once Jersey peaked at the aforementioned nine-point lead, the Celtics responded with six quickies of their own to halt the Nets' momentum. The Boston run began with an Archibald low post turnaround over Eddie Jordan and continued with a McHale corner jumper and a Ford drive.
Bird had gotten off to his strong start by throwing in a layup, deep corner jumper, baseline turnaround, fast break leaner and running left hand hook in traffic for his five attempts from the floor. He also concluded the first quarter Boston scoring with a sky swisher at the three-second mark.