The old and the new among elite NBA big men had a fateful meeting under the basket with 1:39 to play in the fourth game of the NBA championship series Tuesday night at The Summit.
Score one for the old big man.
Bill Walton, 33, in a glorious twilight with the Boston Celtics, grabbed Dennis Johnson's missed drive, went up over Akeem Olajuwon, the 23-year-old Houston Rocket monster, and put in a rebound basket that proved to be the final points in a pulsating 106-103 victory that gave the Celtics a 3-1 lead and a chance to clinch their 16th league title Thursday night in Houston.
No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals, although it has happened four times in earlier playoff rounds. Even should the Celtics lose Thursday, the final two games would be in Boston, where they have won 40 in a row.
There were highlights before and after Walton's clutch rebound basket. Larry Bird had his second unspectacular (by Birdian standards) night shooting, but hit an enormously important three-pointer with 2:26 left that gave the Celtics a 104-101 lead.
The pass that set up the three-pointer was thrown by Walton.
"It was a pass we throw all the time in practice," Walton said. "The minute I threw it, I knew Larry's shot would be good."
Rodney McCray came back with a tip-in for the Rockets, but it proved their last points, thanks to two outstanding defensive efforts by Kevin McHale, who stole the ball on the final two Rocket possessions, the last one with 11 seconds left.
McHale burned the Rockets for 13 points in the first quarter, but had a quiet six the rest of the way. So he found another way to contribute -- classic Celticism. And he was aided by help from teammates, especially Bird -- more classic Celticism.
"They did a good job of switching out at the three-point line," Rockets' Coach Bill Fitch said. "Bird did a good job of rotating over and cutting off the cross-court pass."
It also helped that McHale and his jolly green buddies knew the Rockets had to try for a three-pointer on their last chance. That was because of the three-point cushion provided by Walton.
Walton looked old in the first half, as 7-4 Ralph Sampson burned him, among others, for 21 points. That, plus Coach K.C. Jones' penchant for sticking with starting center Robert Parish at the end, left Walton surprised when Jones pointed to him with 3:30 to play.
"I was terribly out of synch in the first half, something I'm sure I'll hear about from the guys,"Walton said. "But the coach showed confidence in me, and it was great to be out there in that situation. I had to just put everything out of my mind that had happened."
A silent communication between Johnson and Walton, so typical of the way the Celtics play together, began the play that doomed the Rockets.
"The clock was kind of running down, so he signaled me that he was going to drive and I cleared out to give him room," Walton said. "Dennis drew Akeem to him, and I put it back up."
Jones was his normal laconic self about the move to Walton from Parish, who stepped out of bounds to complete a miserable three-for-15, six-turnover evening in the Rockets' victory Sunday.
Parish redeemed himself with 22 points and a team-high 10 rebounds Tuesday, but Jones noticed he was tired as the game wound toward it's climactic minutes.
"I was just running on fumes," Parish said. "I was so tired I almost broke the rim. I don't think I could have gotten that basket Bill got late."
"I thought, 'Let's see what Bill Walton can do,' " Jones said. "A great move on my part."
If the Rockets still lacked respect going into this game, they shouldn't coming out. They gave the Celtics all they could handle, and, on the offensive boards, considerably more. They had a 25-11 margin in offensive rebounds, which is how they hung in the game despite shooting 43.4 percent to the Celtics' 57.7.
The game was close all the way. The biggest lead by either team was eight -- 82-74 by the Celtics, who tried, but couldn't, run away from the Rockets in the third quarter as they had in two easy victories in Boston. The Rockets' biggest lead was five in the second quarter. There were multiple lead changes, surges and counter-surges, tension. In all, a heck of a game, one that certainly proved the Rockets belong.
"This is the first game where we showed any emotion afterwards in the locker room," Celtic guard Danny Ainge said.
"Tonight was a better game than last," Rocket guard Mitchell Wiggins said. "We rose to a higher level, but so did they."
The last words belong to Olajuwon, summing up the foot-in- the-grave situation the Rockets now face.
"We'll find out if there are any miracles in us."
The frenzied first half featured a series of surges as each team attacked and counter-attacked. The Rockets were first, taking a 10-5 lead, then the Celtics came back strong to grab a 26-21 advantage before the quarter ended in a tie at 30.
Sampson, continuing his strong effort that paced the Rockets to victory Sunday, was dominating inside, scoring nine, and Robert Reid complemented the inside game with four jumpers.
For the Celtics, McHale provided the inside firepower with 13 points, and Bird scored eight, as usual from all over.
Sampson became even more dominant in the second quarter, which ended with the Rockets clinging to a one-point lead, 64-63.