How Close Did the Rockets Come to Evening the Series 2-2 in 1986?

June 4, 1986


This marvel of a game never wound down and never wore down, but so wonderfully bruised down to a final minute where it all would be won or lost. It was a minute in which no points were scored, but it was a minute so full of a complete team's complete team play. It was a minute of Celtics defense, the best kind.

 Larry Bird's three-pointer with 2:25 left and Bill  Walton's tap-in back  from the days of UCLA and Portland, a most timely tap, gave the Celtics a 104-101 lead, but it was Kevin McHale who saved it, the game and what would have been a war here tomorrow night. Once for effect and twice for good measure.

 "I was kind of waiting for a special time to do something like this," said McHale, "and I guess that was as special as you can get." The first of the steals, the first of the McHale . . . Stole . . . The . . . Ball!! . . . came with 46 seconds left. It was not the defense for which McHale is best known -- a blocked shot -- but this was a swifty McHale making a swift move to dart inside a Mitchell Wiggins pass and steal the lob pass to Akeem Olajuwon. It was the play of a 6-foot-3-inch guard instead of a 6-11 forward; it was a play that had to be made.

"It was reaction," explained McHale. "They had set a pick-and-roll with (Allen) Leavell and Ralph (Sampson), and I jumped over on Leavell. Then one of our guards came over and I ran back toward Ralph and Ralph threw it over to Wiggins and Wiggins tried to slide through to Akeem."

Who can explain the whys and wherefores of these plays, these plays by which games are won and games are lost? McHale said it was instinct and reaction, but the tape will show that McHale anticipated exactly what Wiggins would do and began moving for the pass even before Wiggins passed the ball. Call it instinct but call it the play of a winner.

As Wiggins lobbed the ball, McHale already was moving around Olajuwon, "and I just stuck my arm up and back and deflected the ball down," said McHale. "Luckily, I was able to deflect the ball to DJ (Dennis Johnson)." Luck? Some luck, yes, but more smarts.

When Bird missed a three-pointer with 27 seconds left, a three-pointer that would have ended all suspense, again the Celtics were down to their defense. This time the Rockets inbounded the pass, clearly looking for a three-pointer of their own. But this was a team in confusion and chaos, Ralph Sampson -- of all players -- ending up with the ball 28 feet from the basket and 10 seconds left on the clock. Sampson looked front, back, left and right, a man out of sync, out of place and soon to be out of time. Again, McHale swooped.

"Ralph looked like he wanted to shoot the ball," said McHale, "but we had a foul to waste, and if he even started to go up with a three-pointer, I was going to hack him bad. But I was on his shooting hand, and then Ralph looked like he wanted to pass the ball. If he cocked it, like he was going to shoot, I was just going to grab him."

Sampson now panicked, catching a glimpse of Leavell to his left, but farther out than Sampson, close to midcourt, and Sampson tried to pass the ball. "That's when I closed in on him," said McHale, "and he passed it and it hit me on the arm. Then Danny Ainge and I broke ahead of the pack, and it was fun to see us run off those last 10 or 12 seconds off the clock."

McHale has made these plays before, on both defense and offense, but the difference between last year's Celtics team and this one was the basket with 1:39 left, the Celtics' final basket, the one that gave Boston its final margin of 106-103. This was a stunning basket made by Bill  Walton, and there were few happier men in America late last evening.

"After nine years, it's very nice to be back," said Walton. "Last year at this time, I was watching the finals on television back home in San Diego, and now this."The play developed when Dennis Johnson, the most intense and competitive of the Celtics this night, drove into the lane and put up a running righthander  from the right of the basket. The ball bounced off the rim.

"Dennis just drove down there, he put his head down and got to the hoop and there were a ton of guys there," said Walton. "Dennis went up, and I saw nothing but ball, nothing but ball, and I just got it and put it back in." Not that simply, because Walton crashed to the other side of the basket and slipped in a reverse layup from the left.

This was the rarest of moves, Walton in the game during the final three minutes of crunch time and Robert Parish on the bench.This was the rarest of moves, Walton in the game during the final three minutes of crunch and Robert Parish on the bench.  Was this the moment Walton had been waiting for during his nine years of exile and injury and indifference in Portland and San Diego? Walton was asked. Was this all of it?

"Yes, yes, yes," said Walton of the basket. "Although the next one, the next one is the big one. We have one more to get; that is the one we've got to get."  Only a matter of time. The Celtics last night stole the heart from the Rockets.   

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