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Celtics Kick-Off Pitino Era with Stunning Win over Michael Jordan and the Bulls
October 31, 1998
You kept expecting the kids to trash the 18,624-seat house last night. At some point you thought they would disrespect the expensive FleetCenter parquet, recklessly throw around basketballs, or simply allow their visitors from Chicago to run all evening and hang on the rims.
A national cable TV audience waited for a while, too, until it became obvious: it was not going to happen. The Kid Celtics, the youngest team in the NBA, handled themselves like grown-ups and defeated the defending NBA champion Bulls, 92-85. It was the first win of the Rick Pitino Era. It was the first time the Celtics have been over .500 in two years. It was the first time since coming out of retirement that Michael Jordan had to come to Boston and analyze a loss to the Celtics.
"Once we realized the Bulls were human like we are, we settled down," Antoine Walker said. Walker grew up a Bulls fan, just like the five young men and women in the FleetCenter seats who grew up with him on the South Side of Chicago. But his brothers and sisters were rooting for their big brother last night. It was hard not to like what he was doing.
"He didn't just play like an All-Star," said Chauncey (15 points) Billups, who admitted he had butterflies before the game. "He played like he was All-NBA."
Walker finished with 31 points and 8 rebounds. He only had two assists, but one of them, a touchdown pass to Ron Mercer in the fourth, secured the win. Walker's fingerprints could be found all over the third quarter. That was necessary considering the Celtics entered the period trailing, 43-34. Of course that was much better than the 20-point deficit they faced after one and the awful 17 turnovers they had after two.
Two things won this game: the Celtics' trap and Walker's demands for the ball.
First there was Walker. After the Celtics quickly tied the Bulls at the beginning of the third, their power forward went to work. He pulled up for a 27-foot 3-pointer with the game tied at 49. Swish. Exactly one minute later, with 5 1/2 minutes remaining in the quarter, he pulled up for a 26-footer. Swish. The Celtics wouldn't trail again. They wouldn't lack for confidence, either, because you should have seen the look on Walker's face. It was a sneer. He did his dance, a shoulder-shaker called The BK Bounce, and did chest bumps with everyone who came his way.
By the time the dancing and celebrating was over by the end of the third, the Celtics led, 68-58. They were calm going into the fourth.
"Before the game I was thinking, `Man, I'm about to guard Michael Jordan,' " said rookie Ron Mercer, who was assigned to The Great One. "Then I started thinking, `I've just got to play.' I'm not into grading my performances, but I think I did all right. I just didn't want to get embarrassed."
He wasn't. It was the Bulls who had to answer why they lost to a team that won 15 games last season. It was the Bulls who were prodded and questioned until Jordan finally said, "One game early in the season doesn't mean we're not going to win No. 6." And it was Mercer, the rookie, who made the shot of the night.
"They were getting the momentum back at that point," Mercer recalled of the last three minutes. The score was 83-78, and the crowd was getting nervous. The Bulls were making a run. They had Jordan and no Scottie Pippen, but Jordan would be enough. Except Walker was having one of his nights. Before he crossed the time line, he looked upcourt and made eye contact with Mercer.
"He gave me that look," Mercer said, "and I knew he was getting ready to make a great pass."
He did. Lining a missile in Mercer's direction. The rookie caught the ball, put in a layup, and was fouled. He made the free throw and the lead was back to 8. It was eventually cut to 3, but the Celtics, the mature Celtics, weren't going to let this get away.
"It could have turned into a devastating loss for us and they hung in there," Pitino said. He was sweating during the game. His blue shirt stuck to his back as he walked off the court. He received a huge hug from Pervis Ellison as the crowd cheered. For the first time in a very long time, a national TV audience wanted to hear a Celtic coach explain a victory.
His team trapped the Bulls into 21 turnovers. His team followed his pregame instructions of "get deflections, no second shots, trap, and rotate for steals." His young team played with wisdom.
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