Larry’s 60 had a back story.
Nine days earlier, when Kevin McHale had established a Celtics franchise record with 56 points against the Detroit Pistons, Larry Bird had jokingly told McHale, “You should have gone for 60.” Or perhaps he wasn’t joking. Asked how long he thought the record might last, Larry said, “It might stand till the next game.”
But the fact is Larry had done everything he could to get his teammate that record. According to Dan Shaughnessy, the Celtics’ beat man for the Globe, Larry passed the ball nine consecutive times to McHale down the stretch. And there wasn’t a better post feeder than Larry (ask your father or grandpa what “feeding the post” means).
Larry allowed Kevin to hold that record for three games, not one. On the night of March 12, 1985, before 10,079 people gathered at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, Atlanta’s home-away-from-home, Larry torched the Hawks with 60 points in a 126-115 triumph, a franchise record that stood alone until last Friday when Jayson Tatum scored 60 points in a 143-140 overtime triumph over the San Antonio Spurs.
Take a look.
Bird: 43 minutes, 22-36 FG-FGA, 1-4 3FG-3FGA, 15-16 FT-FTA, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 fouls, 60 points.
Tatum: 45 minutes, 20-37 FG-FGA, 5-7 3FG-3FGA, 15-17 FT-FTA, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 fouls, 60 points.
Bird had three turnovers in the game; Tatum had none. Tatum blocked a shot; Bird did not.
Larry Bird was 28, in Year 6 of a Hall of Fame career. He was en route to the second of three straight MVPs. The raging debate was just who was the GOAT (although we were decades away from that description), Bird or rival Magic Johnson. The Celtics were defending champions, and were, well, just plain cocky, no one more than Bird.
Tatum is 23. He is in Year 4 of a career that is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He is already a three-time All-Star. He lacks Bird’s bravado, but who doesn’t? He was 21 days removed from a 53-point outburst (Bird’s pre-60 high, incidentally) against Minnesota. Who knows where it will all end? And how about this: He was born 13 years to the day of McHale’s record 56.
Yes, Tatum’s 60 came with an overtime session. But check the minutes. In addition, the Celtics needed every one of those 60 points, 10 of which came in the OT. It was an historic comeback victory, the Celtics having trailed by as many as 32.
Larry’s 60-point game was not quite as dramatic. It was well-contested till about midway through the fourth period, so surely Larry’s points mattered. And he was absolutely sizzling. “When I’m shooting like that,” he said, “nobody’s going to stop me.”
As they entered the last two minutes or so, the Celtics had it won. And everyone in the building knew how many points Larry had. He knew, and he was going for it. McHale was right there to help him, once fouling Doc Rivers deliberately to get the ball back.
An amusing subplot was the reaction of the Atlanta bench. “They were going crazy,” said Danny Ainge. “They were screaming.”
The highlight came late in the game when Bird made an absolutely outrageous something-or-other directly in front of the Atlanta bench (think Steph Curry), causing a couple of them to fall right onto the floor. But the shot was waved off as coming after the whistle and Bird had to settle for two free throws.
One more thing: Bird had a gift point via a technical foul, courtesy of Atlanta coach Mike Fratello. And one more one more thing: The Celtics had a season-high 44 assists, with both Dennis Johnson (17) and Ainge (13) putting up career highs.
It went right to the buzzer. Johnson retrieved a missed shot and followed McHale’s direction to get the ball to Larry, who swished a foul line jumper for points Nos. 59 and 60 as the horn sounded. ”Kevin should get the assist,” noted Ray Williams. “He was yelling at DJ to pass it to Larry.”
“Hell, I helped him out a little,” said Bird, “so it works both ways.”
There is one huge difference in the accomplishments. It is a radically different game now than the one those Celtics played. You know where I’m going. Larry was 1 for 4 on threes. Tatum was 5 for 7. The Celtics and Hawks were a combined 3 for 9 on threes. The Celtics were 2 for 6. DJ made the other one. The Hawks were 1 for 3, and guess who made it? Doc Rivers, that’s who. In Tatum’s game, the teams were a combined 29 for 62.
With the 60-point thing out of the way, Bird came back home the following night with a 31-12-7 performance in a 123-106 triumph over the Suns. In other words, Just Another Night At The Office for the one and only Larry Bird.
The ball’s in your court, kid.