November 1, 1997
The NBA is back in Boston. The long local nightmare is over. The Celtics are back from the Second Division, or wherever they've been for the last two years. And get this: The FleetCenter actually has a pulse.
"For the first time since we moved in here," said Dee Brown, "we actually had authentic crowd noise."
Yeah, N-O-I-S-E. Wake the dead in Billerica noise. Close-your-eyes-and-you'd-think-Larry-had-just-nailed-a-big-three-in-the-Garden-against-the-Lakers noise. Noise. Serious, glorious noise.
And why not? The Celtics came from 20 down at the end of the first quarter and beat the Chicago Bulls. If the sellout crowd of 18,624 couldn't react properly to that, then pro basketball really would be dead in this town.
But it's not. It is percolating once again. The fans already know that Rick Pitino is not a hype. They saw the young legs, the effects of the press, and the spectacular offensive gifts of Antoine Walker wipe out that Chicago lead. They saw this 92-85 victory and now they have been reminded just how exciting the NBA can be.
Forget the 1-7 exhibition record. When the bell rang, Pitino had the Celtics ready.
"From a fan standpoint," Pitino acknowledged, "we really needed to do that. If we had been blown out, it would have been a very negative situation. From the beginning of training camp, we've been promising something.
All he had promised for the time being, really, was a style. He promised entertainment borne out of hard work. And that is exactly what the crowd got for its money last night.
The first quarter? It was a train wreck, OK? The Bulls went right through the press for five dunks and four layups. The Celtics turned the ball over 10 times, good for 16 Chicago points. When the period was over, the Bulls led, 32-12, and a boo or two was heard drifting down from the upper reaches of the Fleet.
"I told them that was to be expected," Pitino explained. " 'Opening night jitters,' I said. I said we'd make our run. Of course, I didn't believe everything I was saying."
Midway through the second quarter, Pitino made a key technical adjustment. "We started off in a man-to-man press, a 'coward's press,' " he said. "I said if we don't start pressing for real, we'll lose by 90."
Once the Celtics began trapping and exerting some real pressure on the ball to take better advantage of the fact that Scottie Pippen wasn't playing, good things began to happen. The Celticsbegan forcing a few turnovers, the Bulls ceased getting good shots, the Celtics acquired some corresponding offensive rhythm, and, best of all, the crowd started making noise and never stopped until the job was done. In the middle two periods the Celtics outscored Chicago by an almost inconceivable 56-26.
"It was like a playoff crowd," said Dana Barros. "When the crowd gives you that kind of energy, it's like you've got seven or eight guys out there."
But there was a chicken and an egg here, and the fact is that the good Boston play got the crowd into the game, and not vice versa. The fans were responding to steals on the press and lookaway passes from the likes of Walter McCarty and rookie Chauncey Billups. They were responding to the aggressive defensive rebounding and occasional shot-blocking of Travis Knight. They were responding to four third-period 3-pointers from three players (Barros, Walker, and Knight) and they were responding to the lively play of the gifted Walker, who filled up the box score with 31 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 blocked shots, and 7 exotic turnovers, most of them totally unforced.
It would be easier to list the ways Walker didn't score than to annotate the ways he did. But here's a partial list: 3-pointers, medium-range jumpers, sneakaway layups and put-backs of his own missed spinners and runners. And just to make sure Pitino won't lack for conversational fodder when the team convenes this morning out at Brandeis, he interspersed his many positive acts with such feats as three times dribbling or dropping the ball out of bounds and once stepping on the sideline while trying to take Dennis Rodman one-on-one.
It was pretty easy to determine that this game meant more to the Celtics than it did to the Bulls. Pitino coached his heinie off, wearing out shoe leather and sideline paint with endless sideline roaming while making a staggering 35 substitutions (at least 15 more than K.C. Jones made during the entire 1986-87 season). Phil Jackson, meanwhile, was velcroed to his seat, neither deigning to stir a muscle nor call a timeout as the Celtics changed a 43-34 halftime deficit into a 68-56 lead late in the third quarter. It was as if he were saying, "Hey, you guys got yourself into this; now you can get yourself out of it."
And they couldn't, even with Michael Jordan (16 of 21 from the line) getting every expected call in the fourth quarter.
Now the Bulls can go out and explain to the rest of the NBA what to expect this year when they come to Boston. "We were vulnerable," said Steve Kerr. "If you are not ready to play, you'll be in trouble. We were ripe, and anyone who is ripe will have a tough time against them."
Pro basketball. Nice to have it it back.