November 16, 1980
Bizarre . . . weird . . . strange . . . they're all relative terms in the Wonderful World of the NBA.
What NBA aficionado has not seen his or her favorite team treat a 20-point first-half lead like some week-old jelly doughnut? What NBA buff or buffette has not seen games in which the momentum swung violently back and forth until the goings-on made no sense at all?
So when you are told that last night the Celtics calmly went from 20 points ahead in the second quarter (43-23) to one point down in the third period (65-64) and back up to 14 ahead (79-65) 2 1/2 minutes into the final period prior to settling for a 93-86 triumph as the Bullets scored the game's final nine points, your reaction will most likely be, "Yeah, well, what else is new?"
What's new, at least for this year, is that Cedric Maxwell is back. No. 31 has been present at all the games this year, and he's had some good stat nights and a few strong games, but last night he was the Elastic Man who once moved Hubie Brown to say, "We are witnessing the coming out of a great player." Maxwell unveiled a multiplicity of skills that the box score could not adequately honor en route to winning the nightly MVP award, and the effect of his play was certainly not lost on his more astute teammates, such as Larry Bird.
"The last seven or eight games, we haven't been playing that well together," Bird surmised, "and a lot of it is my fault. I know how to get him the ball, how to get the defense behind him and make the defense work, and I haven't been doing it. And if Max is in the offense, he plays better defense, too.
"If a guy like Max or Robert Parish can score, then you've got to get him the ball. He can't be out there for 12 or 14 minutes busting his hump and never seeing the ball, because it will get him down. It hurts. I'm an offensive player; I know. I think the trouble lately is that Max has not been getting the ball enough, and I want to concentrate on getting the ball to him inside more."
Max wound up with 25 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, which may not sound like All-World stuff. But his contributions were very strategically placed. He dropped in 11 points (on 5-for-5 shooting) in the first period as the Celtics scored 16 of their first 22 points on fast breaks while moving to a 31-17 lead. He had three of his rebounds in heavy traffic during the third period, when Washington made its key move, and he had all four of his assists in the second half, including two bullets from outside to a cutting Bird that the latter would have been proud to call his own.
"He also came out strong defensively on Greg Ballard," said Bill Fitch, "which helped a lot."
If Maxwell's individual renaissance was the biggest personal story of this sloppy affair, then the major team item was the strong defense after the Bullets had capped a 42-21 surge with a Wes Matthews drive to assume their only lead in the final 46 minutes, 65-64. The Matthews basket was a piece of basketball artwork that may very well have been worth the admission price. The gifted rookie from Bridgeport came down as a one-man fast break on two defenders, only to execute a full 360-degree spinning drop-down of a drive. Or something like that.
But that awe-inspiring maneuver was to represent the peak moment for the Bullets in more ways than one. For Maxwell immediately regained the lead by drawing two free throws on a drive to the hoop, and when the Bullets next scored again, it was 7:17 later and the Celtics were leading, 79-65.
In any scoring drought like this, good defense is almost always interspersed with horrible offense. So it was that a swarming Celtic defense, keyed by Gerald Henderson (who came in to harass Matthews), was augmented by some stupid Washington offense. The Bullets, in fact, made their bid to get into the Guinness Book of World Records in the final period, when in the first 5:24 they had more than twice as many turnovers (7) as shots attempted (3). They turned it over 11 times in the final period (as many times as they had the entire game before), including an amazing six straight times in one stretch.
How, you ask, did the Bullets come from 20 down in the first place? By riding Matthews' blazing coattails and by allowing the Celtic bench to self- destruct. But when the Celtics found themselves in trouble, they reacted in a professional manner.
This was supposed to be a big game for the Bullets, who had won four in a row. But the rental agreement on their carriage expired midway through the third period, and they had to return home in a pumpkin after all.