The message is clear. If you want to beat Larry Bird in a big game, you’ve got to play the full 48 minutes. Forty-seven minutes 56 seconds isn’t enough.
Four seconds shy of what would have been the most meaningful triumph in the entire Detroit phase of this franchise, the dazed Pistons saw it all evaporate when Bird intercepted Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass to Bill Laimbeer, then turned and fed a streaking Dennis Johnson for a layup with one second remaining to give the Celtics a 108-107 triumph last night and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
Now it’s Move Over, Hondo. All John Havlicek did on that April night 22 years ago was preserve a 1-point lead. What Bird and trusty Dennis (”The- Best-Player-I’ve-Ever-Played-With”) Johnson did was rescue a completely lost cause and provide the battered Celtics with a pivotal triumph in what has become a tremendous battle of will.
“I thought we played a terrific game and showed great courage,” said hugely disappointed Detroit coach Chuck Daly. “We basically had the game won with five seconds to go, but we made one mistake on the inbounds.”
Boston had regained possession following a classic Thomas one-on-one spinner from the key that had made it 107-106, Detroit, with 17 seconds remaining. The teams had been locked in deadly embrace for the final 4:28, or ever since a pair of Bird free throws tied the game at 95 and enabled the icy (3 for 14 to start Period 4) Celtics, who again had lost Robert Parish with an ankle injury, to get the game even after falling behind by a 93-88 score earlier in the quarter.
A tough corner jumper by Bird had given the Celtics a 3-point bulge at 104-101 (1:13), but Detroit, which showed exemplary resilience all night long, calmly fought back, getting it to 1 at both 104-103 (two Thomas free throws) and 106-105 (a Laimbeer foul-line jumper in response to a Danny Ainge basket). When Bird couldn’t get a little jump hook to drop, the Pistons had the ball back with 28 seconds left, trailing by 1.
Detroit called time out, and when play resumed, Isiah took Jerry Sichting and beat him on the spin move. The Celtics called time and eventually gave the ball to Bird, who drove the left baseline on three Pistons. Dennis Rodman smashed the ball away. Sichting tried to save the ball from going out of bounds, but it was given to Detroit with four seconds left.
The Pistons had a timeout, and Daly wanted one. “I tried to get one,” he explained, “but with all the noise, well, he (Isiah) elected to throw it in, and Bird made a great play after he had missed a shot and got the ball to Johnson for a layup.”
Bird was guarding Joe Dumars at the foul line when Thomas took the ball out. “I saw Laimbeer standing there,” said Bird, “and I was going to foul him real quick. But then I saw the ball was kind of lobbed up there and I saw I had a chance to steal it. As soon as I got it, I was going to shoot. I was counting four seconds in my head, and then I turned around and saw DJ cutting down the lane.”
“You can see I should have called a timeout,” said Thomas. “You can see I should not have thrown the pass. You can see I should have thrown the ball harder or Bill should have come in. But all I can say is they stole the ball and they won the game.”
And once Bird caught the ball, he turned and surveyed the situation. Johnson, being Mr. Fundamental I, did what came naturally, which was to cut hard to the hoop. Bird, being Mr. Fundamental II, slipped him the ball. DJ stuck in a backhander as Dumars desperately tried to stop the shot.
The Pistons still had a second to go. They called time and decided to have Adrian Dantley inbound the ball from midcourt. His pass to Laimbeer bounced off the Detroit center’s hands and out of bounds. A grueling evening of basketball was over.
The Celtics had somehow escaped despite going 7:25 without a field goal
from the 3:16 mark of the third quarter (a DJ corner shot making it 81-75, Boston) till the 7:41 mark of the final period, when Bird nailed a jumper. Boston failed to score on its first six fourth-period possessions, covering seven shots, and in so doing were fortunate to be down by just 1 at 89-88 when the dry spell ended.
But Detroit, which had come back from a first-half 12-point deficit (48-36) and a second-half 11-point deficit (69-58) was apparently ready to assert final control, going up by a 93-88 score on a fast-break dunk by Rodman before a Kevin McHale keep-alive led to a Bird follow-up three-point play (93-91).
From that point on, the game was war.
“That was a playoff game,” said Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers, the official spokesman last night. “It was the first time in this series we saw what the playoffs are really all about. Big plays by both sides . . . great hustle . . . determination from the start.”
The Celtics kept trying to KO the Pistons, and Detroit kept picking itself up off the canvas. At the 69-58 juncture, for example, Dantley (25), Thomas (17 points, 11 assists) and Laimbeer (16 points, 14 rebounds) led a 13-2 Detroit countersurge that eliminated any Boston blowout thoughts and made it a game once again. Detroit had responded similarly in the second quarter when Boston rattled its sabre to the tune of the 48-36 lead.
And with four seconds left, the Pistons were one successful inbounds pass and a couple of inevitable free throws away from becoming the first team to defeat Boston in a 2-2 situation here in 25 years.
Bird was on the verge of being a heroic loser with 36 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists and 11 fourth-quarter points. Until those final four seconds, however, he didn’t have a steal. He does now.
With one play, Larry Bird stole a ball game and concurrently broke a few hundred thousand Michigan hearts. If the Pistons didn’t know it before, they know it now: The path to the Finals goes right through Route 33.