Walton Recovers from Slow Start

June 4, 1986
The Boston Celtics are cooking up another NBA championship, which just might be ready for them Thursday night. Right now, Celtic forward Kevin McHale can smell it.

"Actually, I started smelling it right after the Milwaukee series," McHale said. "We started a couple of blocks away from the bakery, but now we're right outside the front door." 

Within 48 hours, the Celtics could close that door, turn out the lights on the NBA's 40th season and win their 16th championship. All they need is one more victory over the Houston Rockets, whom they beat Tuesday night, 106-103, at the Summit in a game the Rockets desperately needed to win.

With their victory, the Celtics took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. And thanks to a stunning stretch run by the Celtics, this championship series could end in Game 5 here Thursday night.

At least that's what Celtic guard Dennis Johnson believes.

"They know they have to play a near-perfect game to beat us Thursday, because you can be sure we're going to try and end it," said Johnson, who matched Celtic center Robert Parish with a team-high 22 points in Game 4.

Seasonal or otherwise, the Rockets are having a lot of problems with their endings. The Rockets lost Tuesday night when they scored only two points in the last 4:21 and finished the game with consecutive turnovers on their final two possessions as McHale twice stole the ball.

The last of Akeem Olajuwon's 20 points, a driving inside jumper, gave the Rockets their last lead, 101-99, with 4:21 left, but two free throws by Johnson tied the score.

At that point, Boston Coach K.C. Jones removed a tired Parish and put Bill Walton back in the game, which turned out to be the most important substitution in this championship series.

"I ran out of gas," Parish said. "For a time, I was running on fumes. It was best K.C. got a fresh body in there."

Walton, who isn't accustomed to hearing his body referred to as fresh, hadn't done much with it earlier in the game.

Rocket forward Ralph Sampson torched Walton for 10 consecutive points on the way toward a 21-point first half, but Walton quickly made up for lost time.

"Ralph had eaten me up," Walton said. "I had to put it all behind me. I had done nothing to warrant that substitution up to that point."

The first thing Walton did right was to rebound a missed shot by Mitchell Wiggins, who decided to shoot a perimeter jumper instead of passing the ball inside to either Sampson or Olajuwon.

On the Celtics' next possession, Larry Bird sent a three-pointer raining through the hoop for a 104-101 lead. There was still 2:26 to play, but McHale felt that Bird's shot just about ended the Rockets' hopes.

"That three-pointer was the answer," he said. "That was the shot that broke the camel's back."

Bird played 47 minutes and wound up one rebound short of a triple-double. He finished with 21 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds.

"The three-pointer wasn't a designed play," Bird said. "It was just what happened out there. We moved the ball around, and it swung over to me. The shot clock was running down and I had to shoot it."

But the Rockets, who stayed alive the entire game on the strength of their 25 offensive rebounds, got their last one on Rodney McCray's tip-in that narrowed the Celtic lead to 104-103 with 2:04 to play.

The Celtics had only 11 offensive rebounds, but they also had the biggest one. Walton got it. With Olajuwon shadowing Walton, Johnson drove the lane and put up an off-balance shot that missed, but Walton came up with the rebound.

Olajuwon was between Walton and the basket, but Walton jumped straight up and scored on a reverse lay-in to give the Celtics their margin of victory.

Bird said that Walton's rebound and basket were the most vital parts of the Celtic victory.

"No question about it," Bird said. "That was the breaking point.

Walton said he had to maneuver through heavy traffic to get to the ball.

"There were a ton of guys there," Walton said. "I saw nothing but ball . . . nothing but ball. After the way I had performed earlier, I could never let that one get away."

The Rockets had two more chances, but both of them got away in the long arms of McHale. Olajuwon had the ball near the baseline, but McHale came around him and stole it.

"I started thinking about making that move in the middle of the fourth quarter," McHale said. "But I was thinking, 'Not yet, not yet.' That play only works once or maybe twice a game. I was waiting, waiting, waiting. There wasn't much more time to wait. I knew I could get it."

Bird missed a three-pointer, and the Rockets called time out with 25 seconds left, down by three points. Their only chance was a three-point attempt, but McHale knocked the ball away from Sampson and the Celtics ran out the clock.

Time is also running out on the Rockets. But guard Robert Reid said he is certain the season will not end in Game 5.

"Five years ago I had to listen to them holler through the wall of this locker room and celebrate winning a championship," Reid said. "It's not going to happen Thursday night. Period.

"If there is a miracle, a chance, a hope, well, we're not drowning yet," he said. "There's still a life raft out there, and we can still float."


Rocket forward Ralph Sampson got off to a good start with 21 points in the first half, but he scored only four in the second half in 22 minutes. "The odds were against us at the beginning of the series," Sampson said. "With it 3-1 now, the odds are definitely against us." Said Rocket forward Rodney McCray: "It's almost against all odds." . . . The Celtics seem to be doing a better job against Rocket center Akeem Olajuwon. In the last two games, Olajuwon has made just 15 of 39 shots. "We must play even better," said Olajuwon, who had 14 rebounds. . . . The Celtics shot 63.4% in the first half but still trailed, 64-63. They finished with 57.7% to 43.4 for the Rockets, and center Robert Parish came back from his poor Game 3 with 10-for-15 shooting and 10 rebounds.

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