Celtics Too Much for Bulls

Celtics Improve to 58-16
1981-82 Boston Celtics

Welcome to the final two weeks of the NBA season, where a close (two- point) game settled in the final three seconds really isn't a close game at all; where the winning coach is so displeased with his team's play that he ends an characteristically brief postgame press session by saying, "With the way my team played, I really don't have that much to say about the game;" and where the losing coach is so pleased, he sounds as if he is nominating his players for Sportsmen of the Year.

So awed are some opponents by the Celtics that coming within two points of beating them in the Garden is practically deemed a thrill beyond description. Bulls' coach (and general manager) Rod Thorn spent a great deal of the game yesterday afternoon gushing about the skill of the Celtics, even as his team was creeping back into the game. He spent an equal amount of time following the 114-112 Celtics' triumph rhapsodizing about Bill Fitch's team, which is more than the latter was doing.

The affair wasn't decided until Larry Bird - a name you will be hearing more about before this story is done - hauled in Ricky Sobers' deliberately missed free throw and cleared the ball away from danger. Sobers had gone to the line with the Bulls trailing by a 114-111 count, arriving there by virtue of a Bird foul following a full-court perambulation.

Sobers, in fact, had come very close to making his drive, and that would have made Bird a goat for one of the few times in his brilliant career. But the ball wouldn't drop, leaving the Bulls with little choice but to hope that Mr. Sobers could make his first free throw and that they could come up with the rebound of a missed second shot. Bird spoiled that dream by flashing into the lane to pull down a shot rolling off the left side of the rim.

Bird was one of two prime Boston fourth-quarter heroes, the other being Cedric Maxwell, the oft-underrated and occasionally even forgotten fourth member of basketball's most devastating frontcourt quartet. Maxwell, who had eight offensive rebounds in the game, was a human resuscitator down the stretch, contributing three vital offensive rebounds, the last of which, with 1:08 remaining, enabled Bird to give the Celtics a 112-107 lead with 51 seconds to play. The Celtics had 20 points on second shots in the game, and 12 of these came in the fourth period, when the Bulls were basically outplaying the hosts in every other department.

Bird crammed 16 of his 29 points and seven of his nine rebounds into the final period as he and Maxwell simply outmaneuvered their Chicago frontcourt counterparts for key possessions. "Maxwell," lauded Thorn, "has those great hands, and he's difficult to box out. He just kept getting 'em. Bird had some tough rebounds too. But I don't think it was a matter of not boxing out. Two great players made some great plays against us."

Having high standards, Fitch was not very impressed with his team. His bright light was Chris Ford, who responded to the mentor's first call in three games with 10 invaluable second-period points ("Those were five big field goals" - Fitch). Aside from that, the Celtics' coach could only think of one area to laud, and that was the aforementioned offensive rebounding.

"We have played better games," Fitch declared, "but every time we play badly, I guess you can say the opponents made us play that way. I felt the only outstanding thing for us was the way Max kept the ball alive, and if one guy keeping the ball alive is the best thing you've got going for you, then that tells you what I thought of our offense today."

The fact is, however, that the Celtics controlled the game, and in assuming a halftime lead of 56-44 (after shooting 17 for 27 from the floor in period two), they clearly established who was boss. True, the Bulls came back from two 15-point deficits (the second at 70-55), but when the Celtics needed a hoop, they were generally able to get it. This was also true in the final period, such as when a 98-90 lead (6:12) was chopped to two at 98-96 (4:48). Maxwell immediately sank two free throws from a post-up situation, and Bird stuffed a sneakaway resulting from
some sensational team defense that forced Reggie Theus into a bad shot. Chicago had to start all over.

The one time the Bulls really had a chance to hurt the Celtics was when they were down three (110-107) with the ball following two Maxwell foul shot misses at 1:33. But while setting a pick, Artis Gilmore foolishly smashed Gerry Henderson in the open for an offensive foul, after which Maxwell plucked off a Bird miss. Seventeen seconds later, Bird swished his final two.

The final clutch Boston free throws were provided by Tiny (11-assist) Archibald, whose two foul shots with eight seconds remaining made it 114-111. Sobers then made his coast-to-coast dash. "They (the Celtics) are really good," said Thorn. "I'm proud of our players." Somehow you got the feeling Thorn wouldn't mind switching teams.

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