1988 Eastern Conference Finals: RODMAN DEFUSES BIRD


There were but 10 seconds left in regulation, Celtics ready to inbound the ball, and everyone knew the play would be to Larry Bird. Score tied, 92-92, ball to Bird. It was running steadily through Dennis Rodman's mind. "Stay on him," said Pistons forward Rodman, describing what it would take to keep Bird from making this another one of those Celtic victories. "Body him up. Don't let him get that turnaround. Try to make him take a shot that he doesn't ordinarily take.

"And in a sense, he did take it, in the last second." Bird took the shot, a twisting, low-percentage 25- to 30-footer from the right side, and when it didn't land, the Celtics were on their way to the brink of playoff elimination. Rodman, the man who at this time last year was defending his words about Bird being considered a top player because he is white, last night was the leading Detroit defender against the Celtics star and helped spark the Pistons' 102-96 overtime victory for a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.

Rodman was the man in Bird's face virtually all evening, fronting him when it counted, pestering him in crucial moments, helping to contain him to 12 points after the first half -- and only 2 in the five-minute overtime. "Rodman was the key to the game," said Detroit captain Isiah Thomas. "He came in and gave us that extra lift."

"Obviously," said Adrian Dantley, "it's the best game he's had." Rodman, like virtually the entire Detroit crew, was virtually unnoticeable in the first half when the Celtics barreled along to a 54-40 lead. For some reason, said Rodman, the spirit in the Detroit room would give a visitor the idea that the Pistons were leading by 14 points.

"We were up, I mean really up," said Rodman, who added that maybe it was Detroit's "younger legs" that ran off with this game. "Everyone was in there saying, 'It's not over, it's not over, it's not over.' We had to play it like it was a Game 7. For two games (including Monday's loss in Detroit), we just weren't shooting." By the end of the third quarter, the Pistons had cut more than 50 percent off the Boston lead, to 70-65. With only 1:22 gone in the fourth quarter, they had taken the lead, 71-70, in the midst of a stretch in which the Celtics went just under nine minutes without a field goal.

Nine seconds into the fourth quarter, Rodman canned Detroit's first shot to bring Boston's lead down to 70-67. He hit another big bucket with 7:19 to go in regulation, knocking in James Edwards' second straight miss from the free throw line. While Thomas was stealing the offensive show, Rodman was knocking in his key points and keeping up the Bird facial. "Are you the story?" said Hubie Brown, teasing Rodman as he dashed from one TV interview to the next (seven in all). "Hey, are you the story?"

Indeed he was, though Rodman's soft-spokenness hardly bespoke his stature this night. He walked calmly from one TV standup to the next, oblivious to the the young woman outside the Detroit room who screeched as he went by, then added, "Oh, I hate him." Nothing could bother him this night. "We've won two games in the Boston Garden in the playoffs," he said. "No one does that. You just don't do that." In part, it was because Rodman kept Bird in check and didn't let Kevin McHale slip away with it all at the same time.

"Try to body him up," said Rodman, again reviewing the defensive strategy against Bird. "Hey, in the first half he was on fire -- no one was going to stop him. But if you can be aggressive on the boards, then he has to work harder to make his baskets. That's what you try to do. "That one at the end of regulation, I think he wishes he didn't take that shot. It didn't work. And I think maybe he's struggling a little bit. Come Friday, hopefully he's still struggling."

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