The Houston Rockets were like an unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going 3 miles over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses.
It wasn’t their day. The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The court stenographer’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was -- guess what? -- Bird.
Welcome to Bird Country, boys, and while you’re at it, why don’t you congratulate the Boston Celtics on the occasion of their 16th NBA championship? He didn’t make every shot, or grab every rebound, or account for every assist, or make every steal, or sell every hot dog, but he plugged
himself into every conceivable aspect of the game to the extent that all the other players had to do was feed off his energy level. “Let’s face it,” said Kevin McHale, “when you play with a guy like Larry Bird, it gives you a lot of confidence.”
Yesterday’s final was Boston 114, Houston 97. The Celtics never trailed. There were no ties. The closest spread in the final 2 1/2 periods was 11. With 7:20 remaining, it was up to 30 at 97-67. The suffocating Boston defense held Houston to 35 percent shooting in the first three periods.
The tone of the game was established in the first minute and a half. Ralph Sampson (who was to no-shows what Buddy Rich is to drummers) missed the first Houston shot and referee Jake O’Donnell called a loose-ball foul on Robert Reid. Whoa . . . there were no questionable loose-ball fouls called on the Rockets in Houston during Game 5.
Dennis Johnson drove to the basket, and McHale (29 points, 10 rebounds) shoved it back in with the underside of his left hand. Whoa . . . the Celtics weren’t getting second shots in Houston. Houston set up, and Bird stole a Rodney McCray pass to start a fast break. McHale finished off with a silly- looking runner that bounced around a few times and fell in. Whoa . . . the rims in Houston would have kicked that baby all the way to Galveston, or so it seemed. Gee, it’s great to be back home again.
Johnson, guarding Reid for the first time in the series (he simply asked K.C. Jones for the assignment), made him feel as if he were wearing a rain- soaked overcoat. The man who had 13 assists by halftime of Game 5 had 2 points and 2 assists by this intermission.
Down deep, McHale was swallowing the villainous Sampson (1-for-8 first half), Robert Parish was denying Akeem Olajuwon, and Bird was somehow or other playing McCray, Sampson, Olajuwon, Reid, Lewis Lloyd and every other Rocket this side of Zaid Abdul-Aziz.
“It was just tough defense from start to finish,” said DJ. “Tenacious. They couldn’t stand it.”
By the first Houston timeout (14-6, Boston, at 8:32), the Rockets had more turnovers (5) than field goals attempted (4). At 20-9, the Rockets called for a 20-second timeout, as the Celtics had picked up 12 points via fast breaks and 4 more via second shots. It was pretty clear that the man in charge had put a whole new record on the turntable than the wall of noise he had on there the other night. This was a song the Celtics could dance to.
“The game just started totally different than the ones in Houston,” reflected Jerry Sichting, who was a part of a big second-quarter unit. “We came out and picked up on defense. We should never have let it happen down there, but we knew how to correct the problem.”
After Bird fed McHale for a dunk to make it 22-10, the Rockets made the first of two significant runs. Olajuwon brought them back with three consecutive steals on passes intended for Bill Walton, who at that point probably wished he could have traded places with Jerry Garcia’s guitar pick.
“Here I was, just in the game, and I lose the ball three straight times,” said Walton. “All I was thinking was that Larry was going over to K.C. and saying, ‘Get that guy out of here!’ “ Walton would stick around to submit 10 points and 8 rebounds.
But Houston never could pull ahead. The Rockets got within one at 22-21 (McCray layup after Olajuwon steal No. 3) and 24-23 (McCray right-back fast-break layup). When McCray missed an attached free throw, Olajuwon grabbed the rebound and missed a turnaround. It would be Houston’s last chance to go ahead.
By period’s end, the Boston lead was up to 29-23. Houston crept back within three at 31-28, only to see the game get completely away from them in the next 5:28 as the unit of Bird, McHale, Parish, Sichting and the invaluable Danny Ainge (19 points, 4 assists, 2 steals and 7-for-9 shooting) ran off a 16-4 spurt to make it 47-32.
By halftime, Bird was well on the way to his third triple-double of the playoffs and second of the Finals with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals and the wettest, dirtiest, grungiest-looking uniform since Pepper Martin’s in the ‘31 Series. He had involved himself in every conceivable operation during an emotional half of basketball, once bringing back John Havlicek memories with a fast-break leaner from the foul line and another time even winning a first-period jump ball from Olajuwon.
It was 55-38 at the half, and the only reason it wasn’t worse was Boston’s atrocious foul shooting (11 for 21 in the first half). Seventeen is a nice margin, but the Celtics weren’t merely interested in maintaining it. Embarrassed by the goings-on in Game 5, they wanted scalps.
And so did the fanatical crowd, which had gotten on Sampson from the beginning, and wanted a game to place in the all-time memory bank. The fun really began at 59-45 when Parish hit Ainge for an inside-out, left-corner, buzzer-beating three-point swisher. Sampson (one field goal in the first 32 minutes) missed a hook and Ainge converted on a three-on-one fast break. Bird stuck in a three-pointer from the left with the arc of a Wade Boggs line drive (69-49). DJ made a power lefthanded right-to-left drive. Parish hit a moon shot. The Celtics led by 21 (82-61) after three.
Bird had one great crowd-pleasing move left in his repertoire. In his seven years, he has done a lot of outrageous things, but what he did at 84-61 ranks right near the top of anyone’s list. He received a behind-the-back pass from Walton on the left baseline, fumbled the ball, realized the 24-second clock was near expiration, and instead of dribbling toward the hoop for a potential foul, he started making his way through an obstacle course to the three-point line in the next corner. Arriving at his destination, he turned and swished a three-pointer. The sound that followed only remotely could be described as noise.
Bird finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists, and he was awarded the Sport magazine MVP award. He had promised the world beforehand that “everything’s gonna be just fine,” and, as usual, he had delivered. Marveled Houston’s Jim Petersen, “I saw him take on five guys by himself. He’s the best. At times, he doesn’t seem to need teammates.”
“Larry Bird,” said K.C. Jones, “is where he wants to be. He has reached the pinnacle of basketball.”
And so have the Celtics, whose victory yesterday was the 47th in 48 tries on the parquet, and who finished the season with 38 consecutive victories at home. “They weren’t beating us here today,” said McHale. “They hurt us the worst way they could in Game 5. They hurt our pride. It’s not often that 12 guys together have on their game face, but that’s what happened today.”
And they’ll all admit that one face was a little grimmer, a little meaner and a little more meaningful than all the others. “Nothing Larry Bird does surprises me,” declared Bill Walton, “and everything he does impresses me.”
Which is very similar to the way the NBA has viewed the Celtics as a whole for the past 29 years.