Like two Back-Alley Brawlers, the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons had fought each other through six evenly matched games of the NBA's Eastern Conference final. There had been fines and fists, cheap shots and long shots, low comedy and high drama. And now, as they neared the Game 7 finish line last Saturday at sold-out, sauna-hot Boston Garden, the Celts and the Pistons were still running neck and neck. Four minutes left, score 99-99.
Earlier, near the end of the third period, the poltergeists who inhabit the dark, spooky recesses of the Garden had worked their mischief on two of the Pistons' top guns, Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson. They had met head-on in a violent collision under the Detroit basket. Dantley was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital with a concussion (he was released on Sunday), while Johnson, suffering from a sore neck, didn't play the final seven minutes.
But now, as Boston's Danny Ainge released a three-pointer with a little more than four minutes left, the poltergeists really got into the flow. Ainge's shot missed, but Larry Bird got the rebound. Bird tried a three-pointer that missed, but Kevin McHale retrieved. Bird tried another shot, and McHale got it back. Then McHale misfired on a driving jumper, but Robert Parish, who played 42 courageous minutes on a badly sprained ankle, came up with the rebound. It was crazy, improbable, illogical. No, it was simply Boston Garden in a seventh game. Parish's shot underneath, the fifth of the sequence, was swatted away by Detroit's Dennis Rodman. And the poltergeists swatted it back to Bird. Then to Ainge, to Dennis Johnson, back to Bird, over to Ainge, still in three-point range. "By the time I got it back, I was rested," said Ainge.
He let it fly, and this time it swished—one minute and five seconds after his first attempt. Not only did it give the Celtics a lead—102-99—they never lost, with 3:06 left, but it also served surrealistic notice that the Pistons simply were not going to win an Eastern title in Boston Garden. Not in Game 7, not with Red Auerbach sitting in his seat near the parquet floor, not with K.C. Jones on the bench, not with Bird playing 48 exquisite minutes.
Final: Boston 117, Detroit 114. The win sent the bruised and battered defending champions into the NBA final against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics' fourth-straight shot at the title.
"Bounce of the ball," said Detroit's Bill Laimbeer. "That's what won this series." And for the 13th time in 15 postseason seventh games in Boston Garden (and the 93rd time in their last 96 games there), most of the bounces found their way into Celtic hands.
But other Pistons, frustrated and altogether sick of the Garden—where they have now lost 18 in a row, dating back to April 10, 1983, and where, just four nights earlier, they had blown Game 5 in heartbreaking fashion—did not think that bounces alone could account for the Celtics' uncanny mastery on the parquet. "I think everyone in America knows the answer," said Detroit's Isiah Thomas, implying that Boston gets preferential treatment at home from intimidated officials.
Nearby stood the defiant Rodman, who was determined to go down with both sneakers in his mouth. The subject was Bird, whose Game 7 numbers read: 37 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists. Rodman said Bird was "overrated...definitely not the best player in the NBA." Rodman allowed that Bird was smart, "but, after that, he's just a decent player."
A steely smile was frozen on Thomas's boyish face. He had played fiercely down the stretch, matching the Celtics basket for basket (he finished with 25 points) but unable to erase the advantage arising from Ainge's three-pointer. And now Thomas was discouraged. Perhaps the awful vision of Game 5, when Bird had stolen his ill-advised inbounds pass to turn the Pistons' certain victory into bitter defeat, danced in his mind when he was asked about Rodman's comments. Unfortunately, those comments as relayed to Thomas included a statement that Bird was "an overrated white player," something the rookie later vehemently denied having said. "I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player, an exceptional talent," said Thomas. "But I'd have to agree with Rodman. If he was black, he'd be just another good guy."
Thomas's remarks, besides being unwarranted, unprofessional and ridiculous, were also out of character. (Bird chose not to reply except in general terms. "This isn't Russia," he said. "You can say what you want.") But it may be understandable given the context of a series that, beginning with Game 1, was a roll in the mud. If the Lakers' four-game Western Conference final sweep of Seattle were a movie, it would be a trifle like Beach Blanket Bingo; Boston- Detroit, on the other hand, was seven games of Apocalypse Now.