Kevin McHale auditioned successfully for the lead in the basketball musical edition of "A Star Is Born" as the Celtics scratched their way to an exhausting but exhilarating 112-107 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks last night.
McHale dazzled a crowd of 13,711, the season's largest Omni audience, by scoring 17 points in the fourth period, contributing both the tying (105-105) and go-ahead (107-105) baskets and by coming up with an awesome power rebound with nine seconds left to seal the team's 10th victory in a row.
Boston had begun the final period trailing by an 87-81 count, but two consecutive backcourt steals in the first 18 seconds of the last quarter led to a pair of quick buckets and the end of any Atlanta blowout ideas. Then the Celtics methodically ground out a tremendous victory, somehow overcoming a jaw-dropping 47-point performance by Atlanta's John Drew.
With 1:45 left, two Charlie Criss free throws gave Atlanta its last lead at 105-103. But the mountainous Celtic front line kept the ball alive on the next possession for three shots before McHale calmly up-faked in a short flip. Eddie Johnson was nailed for an offensive foul and McHale responded with an in-your-face jump hook over the estimable Dan Roundfield.
The next possession was vital, as Roundfield was harassed into a wild air- ball shot. The Celtics got the rebound, but the ball was knocked out of bounds. There ensued a big brouhaha as the Celtics apparently did not advance past the 10-second line in time before scoring a key Robert Parish basket. Hubie Brown officially protested the game as a result.
Parish (22) first hauled in a long rebound of a Bird miss and then took a superb pass from Chris Ford for a short jumper that made it 111-107 with 22 seconds left. The Hawks got off two shots before McHale went to the rafters with half of Fulton County on his back. He made one of two free throws to lock it up.
The Celtics did well to rebound from a horrendous start, but they nonetheless entered the locker room knowing that there but for some costly errors went a four- or six-point lead instead of a 57-55 deficit.
With 2:53 remaining in the half, the Celtics were leading by 51-48 and were in possession of the basketball. But they fumbled the ball away enough to propel the opportunistic Hawks into a run of nine unanswered points and a 57-51 lead with 57 seconds left in the half. At this point, Larry Bird sunk a key momentum breaker - a 15-foot baseline turnaround. Rick Robey added a final basket on a drive with eight seconds to play.
Atlanta had hit the Celtics with a truly rocket start. It was 6-0 in favor of the home team after just 41 seconds as Eddie Johnson streaked in for two off the tap, Dan Roundifeld (17 in the first half) followed up a John Drew fast-break miss while drawing a foul, and Steve Hawes sneaked inside of the Boston big men to tap in Roundfield's subsequent missed free throw. The lead grew to 8-0 before Bird opened up Boston's scoring 2:04 into the game.
But the Celtics fought hard and had gotten themselves back into the game by the seven-minute mark as Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish brought them back. They got within one at both 28-27 and 32-31 before settling for a 34-31 one-period deficit.
The chief bombardier for the Hawks was Drew, who upped it 13 times in the first period for 14 points. Roundfield, meanwhile, connected on all six attempts for 12 points.
Boston kept coming in the second quarter behind the hard-driving play of Tiny Archibald, who would score 13 in the half. Finally, with 7:16 left in the half, a spinning jump hook three-point play on a transition by Robey provided the Celtics with their first lead of the night at 43-42.
Boston controlled the game for the next four minutes, or until that fateful 51-48 juncture.
Terry Duerod, who has been a Celtic since Dec. 5 by virtue of two 10-day contracts, will be a member of the team for at least another four weeks after signing a standard player's contract prior to last night's game with the Hawks. The Celtics did not have to make any other roster moves, since M.L. Carr is on the injured list and they have 11 players on the active roster.