Only one man in the history of the NBA playoffs knows what it feels like to score 63 points at the highest level of competition and be denied the sweet smell of team success. But the hoop world knows that every other player and every other team is on borrowed time. The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks, Rockets and every other 1986 title aspirant had better seize whatever opportunity they can -- Now! -- because we are clearly at the dawn of the Age of Jordan.
“I would never have called him the greatest player I’d ever seen if I didn’t mean it,” said Larry Bird after yesterday’s exhilarating, stimulating, emotional, exhausting and altogether brilliant contest. “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Bird’s equation of Jordan to the Deity is understandable in light of Jordan’s record-breaking 63-point effort in the Garden (a display that surpassed Elgin Baylor’s 1962 play-off standard of 61), but let the record show that Bird was able to speak in the pleasant afterglow of victory. Despite all Jordan’s virtuosity, the Celtics constructed a 2-0 series lead by walking (staggering would be a more apt description) off with a 135-131 double- overtime triumph in what could accurately be described as an epic contest.
They play ‘em and we rate ‘em, and there is no question that this game will make the Top 5, and maybe even the Top 3, of Greatest Celtic Play-off Games Ever among the Garden cognoscenti. This was pure athletic theater, and not until Orlando Woolridge air-balled a desperation three-pointer with two seconds remaining in the second OT was there a legitimate chance for any Celtic owner, general manager, coach, player or fan to relax and light up that mental cigar. As long as Mr. Jordan is known to be present in this hemisphere, no rival lead is safe, no palm is dry, no throat swallows easily and no stomach is settled. A man who scores 63 points out of the flow is a man to fear, respect and idolize.
But justice, as we witnessed in Holmes-Spinks II, has nothing to do with winning and losing, for despite Jordan’s 22 field goals and 63 points, he didn’t make the biggest basket of the long, long afternoon. Jerry Sichting, a player whose game is to Jordan’s as a 1955 Studebaker is to a 1986 Porsche, had that honor. For it was Sichting who took an inside-out pass from Kevin McHale and did what he has done faithfully all year -- swished the foul line jumper. That basket broke the game’s 13th tie and gave the Celtics a 133-131 lead with 57 seconds left in the second OT. And when Jordan missed a left baseline jumper on the next Chicago possession, Robert Parish rebounded.
The ball went to Bird (36 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists), who orchestrated a two-man game on the right wing with Parish. “As soon as he set the pick and rolled, I gave it to him,” said Bird, unconcerned that Parish had not scored a jumper all night and had established a bad case of the oopsies in his infrequent drives to the hoop. “When he goes, you’ve got to give him the ball. You don’t worry about Robert Parish. I never do, because he’s made a lot of big plays for this team.”
That’s no lie, and this time he took the pass and swished a 12-foot moon shot on the right baseline to give Boston a four-point lead (135-131) with nine seconds remaining.
The best shot Chicago could get was the weak Woolridge three-pointer. The ball was inbounded to Bird, who just stood with it to await the ending of a truly spectacular afternoon of play-off basketball.
In any game such as this, there is invariably an individual of whom it can safely be said, “Without him, this would definitely have been an L.” Yesterday afternoon, that man was the oft-maligned Danny Ainge.
You never would have pegged Ainge as a potential hero midway through the third quarter. He hadn’t even scored a point by the time the aggressive young Bulls claimed their final 10-point lead (69-59). But before the period was over, he had erupted for 13, including 11 in the final 2:36, the last three of which came on a three-pointer that brought the struggling Celtics within one at 84-83.
Ainge would wind up with 24, and he would score two giant baskets, the first a left-handed lane drive that would tie the score at 125-125 with 12 seconds left in the first OT, and the second an open 18-footer that would give Boston a brief 131-127 lead in the second OT, a lead that was quickly wiped out via two quick hoops by the irrepressible Jordan.
Chicago abandoned the first-game strategy of continual Jordan isolations, and he proved how brilliant he was by performing even better in the context of a normal offense than he did when 90 percent of the action was directed his way. The Bulls took the lead at 4-2 and clung to it stubbornly until a clock- beating 28-foot three-pointer by Bird gave Boston the lead at 93-92 and created the first of nine consecutive lead changes through 102-100, Boston (an inside-out three-pointer by Bird from McHale).
Boston did everything but summon the ghost of Walter Brown in an attempt to knock out the Bulls, but the visitors would not succumb. A 108-104 fourth- quarter lead soon turned into a 111-110 Chicago advantage on the Jordan basket that gave him an even 50 points. A 116-113 lead with 45 seconds remaining in regulation (an Ainge-to-McHale alley-oop) evaporated when Charles Oakley hit a free throw with 34 seconds left, leading to the sequence (Bird miss, Parish momentary rebound and Chicago steal/strip/maul/who- knows-what- but-no-call) that set up the game’s most controversial happening.
Leading, 116-114, with six seconds left, the Celtics had to dig in one last time to preserve the lead. With about one second left, Jordan up-faked Dennis Johnson and threw up a three-pointer that clanged off the rim as McHale arrived on the scene. Referee Ed Middleton called a foul on McHale after the shot. Did Jordan get hit? Did he spread-eagle smartly upon release and hit McHale? Do you ever make a call like this? Middleton did, and Jordan, naturally, sank both shots to create OT No. 1.
The Bulls surged ahead by four (123-119) on a Jordan three-point play with 1:39 left, but Sichting canned a corner jumper (missing the affixed free
throw) and Ainge came through with that clutch drive. Jordan missed an unmolested left-side jumper and Bird rebounded with two seconds left. A Bird three-pointer was long and the weary troops entered the second OT.
Way, way back in this one, many amazing things had gone on. For example, Bill Walton (who fouled out with 6:10 left in regulation) grabbed 13 rebounds in 13 first-half minutes. Sidney Green and Oakley had made breathtaking tap- ins. Bird, after going 0 for 5 in the first quarter and then hyperextending his right pinkie (forcing him to play with it taped to its neighbor), came out to hit nine of his next 11 shots, including two three-pointers. McHale scored a fourth-quarter basket while actually sitting on Dave Corzine. And every primary Celtic had gotten himself into foul trouble (the first six guys, Walton being No. 6, compiled 31 fouls).
All the while, Jordan just kept scoring. And scoring. And scoring. This way. That way. Horizontally. Vertically. Diagonally. In ways never conceived of by Hank Luisetti, Joe Fulks, Paul Arizin or even World B. Free. And, reminded Parish, “It’s not like he was doing it in a summer league.”
A question now arises: What is Michael Jordan capable of doing in his own building? Two-and-zero looks about 100 times better than 1-1 right now.