They couldn’t ignore the noise any longer. The 1985-86 Boston Celtics, a team that epitomized the best of the “Old” (i.e. before the world went 3-point crazy) NBA, got tired of hearing how great the reigning champion Golden State Warriors were. So they challenged the Warriors to a game, to be played at a neutral site, Chicago’s United Center, with all proceeds going to their respective charities. No player received a cent from the game. This one was strictly for bragging rights.
CHICAGO — The Celtics simply felt they had a point to make.
“If you want to play your ‘small ball,’ go ahead,” said Kevin McHale. “We just think there will always be a place in the game for the big guy.”
Oh, and there was a second lesson learned from this game.
“That No. 33 is pretty good,” joked K.C. Jones.
And it was perfectly fitting, therefore, that this glorious display of both the best of the old and the best of the new was decided when Larry Bird broke the game’s 10th tie with a by-the-numbers, post-up, turnaround 13-foot jumper over the outstretched arm of Andre Iguodala with 11 seconds remaining. A Stephen Curry 3-point miss, followed by a Robert Parish rebound and two game-icing free throws made it official: Boston 110, Golden State 106.
“We gave it our best shot,” sighed Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “But there’s a reason why people called it the greatest frontcourt in history.”
It was only one game, and it won’t settle the argument for many, but the greatest 3-point-shooting team in history could not cope with the inside dominance of Bird, McHale, Parish, and Bill Walton, whose numbers (4 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks) do not adequately convey the huge impact he had during his 20 minutes of play. Once again it was demonstrated that, while there have been many great sixth men in the game’s history, none changed the game in quite the same way as Walton.
Meanwhile, let no one doubt the greatness of Curry, who made his requisite six threes en route to a game-high 36. “I thought I had range,” marveled Danny Ainge. “But that guy’s ridiculous.”
Curry got Golden State off and running with a pair off threes as the Warriors jumped to a 12-2 lead. But the Celtics responded with an 8-0 run keyed by a Parish block of a Draymond Green drive leading to an Ainge fast-break basket, and the game was on.
For a Celtics fan, it was a satisfying evening of deja vu. Did Parish make a few of those memorable lengthy turnarounds? Yes. Did McHale (26) take Green, Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, and seemingly half of California into his infamous low post “torture chamber” and then inflict severe psychic pain with his endless assortment of jump hooks, turnarounds, and baseline maneuvers? Of course. Did Dennis Johnson once poke-check the ball from Klay Thompson and streak in for an easy 2? Yup. Did Walton collaborate with Bird for a classic give-and-go on his very first touch? Right again.
That brings us to Bird. Now you knew Larry would be up for this game. You also knew he would have a little personal point of his own to make.
“They like threes?” he smiled. “I figured I’d give ’em threes.” He made five. “Don’t forget who was the original 3-Point King,” he smirked.
Larry finished one assist shy of a triple-double, including among his nine assists his patented lookaways, over-the-shoulders, and the classic combo rebound-assist when he tipped an offensive rebound directly to McHale for a jam.
After that early Golden State burst neither team could get much separation. It was 52-47 Boston at intermission, and in the second half the largest lead by either team prior to the final score was 96-92 Celtics with 5:03 remaining.
The Celtics were able to keep Thompson (18) reasonably in check, but they came away with a healthy respect for Green, who made big play after big play while tacking up a 20-11-10 triple-double. “He could play for us any time,” lauded K.C.
It came down to this: Tied at 104 entering the final minute. Bird fed McHale low and Kevin responded with a tiebreaking jump hook with 50 seconds remaining. But Green countered with a sensational drive at the 32-second mark, at which point K.C. called time.
The beauty of Bird always has been the sheer variety of ways in which he can beat you. In this case, he went back to basics.
He had 3 inches on Iguodala, so why not post up? Johnson dumped it in and Larry went to work. Swish.
A timeout later, the Warriors gave it to Curry, who can always get off his shot, no matter where he is. With Ainge’s hand clearly in his face he let fly from a step beyond the arc. The ball bounced off the rim and into the hands of Parish, who was fouled by Green. It was Robert’s first trip to the line all night, but he calmly made them both with two seconds to play.
“Curry’s great, the Warriors are great; I’m not denying that,” said Walton. “But you’ve got to remember something: There’s only one Larry Bird. And good luck guarding McHale.”
Walton could likewise have cited Parish, as well as himself. Moral of the story: Frontcourts still matter.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.