Lost in the ensuing great and rancorous 1987 4-3 conference finals triumph over the Bad Boys of Detroit, and the rubber match of the title trilogy of the 1980's between rivals Boston and the Lakers, is a classic gem of a Celtic playoff series.
The seesaw 1987 Eastern Conference semifinals went the distance, and only in the final moments were the Celtics able to avoid blowing a 3-1 lead and losing at home to ex-Boston standout Don Nelson and his tough-luck Milwaukee Bucks. His squad won six straight Central Division titles in the 1980's - but never got to the Finals once because the East was so loaded back then, unlike now.
The NBA had thrown Milwaukee a curve ball in 1980 by moving the up-and-coming Bucks from the West to the East. Suddenly, instead of being a consistent contender in a West weakened by the decline of Seattle and Phoenix, the Bucks were shipped to the ruggedly top-heavy East, where the juggernaut Celtics and 76ers ruled.
The biggest beneficiary of the move was Los Angeles, which now had a clear path to the Finals for most of the decade. Had the Bucks stayed in the West, they certainly would have made a Final or two.
The only team to beat the Lakers in a suddenly very poor West during the 1980's was Houston - in 1981 with Moses Malone in a 2-1 miniseries first round upset; and again in 1986 when the youthful Twin Towers of Olajuwon and Sampson overwhelmed a 39-year old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yet each time the Rockets eventually fell to Boston 4-2 in the championship series.
Those inclined to conspiracy-type thinking might even conjecture that the NBA moved an obviously strong Milwaukee team to the East to ensure the big-market, tradition-rich Lakers and their fan-friendly young star Earvin Johnson had an easy path to the Finals. Remember, the league was struggling mightily as the decade dawned, and sagging ratings caused CBS to televise the NBA championship series on tape-delay at 11:30 p.m. EST on weeknights during the ratings sweeps period in 1980 and 1981.
Then the resurgence of traditional powers Boston, Philly and the Lakers led by superstars Bird, Johnson and Erving helped the NBA survive and prosper until a new crop of stars like Jordan, Hakeem, Thomas, Stockton and others kept the league on the rise.
The Bucks lost in the playoffs to Philadelphia four times in the early 1980s (1981-82-83-85), and to Boston in 1984 and 1986. Now as the bad-luck Bucks were aging, being challenged and even passed in the Central by the Pistons and Hawks, 1987 was their last best chance to get to that elusive NBA Finals.
Milwaukee won 50 games, their lowest total since 1980 to finish just behind Detroit and Atlanta in their division, but they were playing well at the right time. The Bucks won seven of their last nine games in the season, then took out the 76ers in round one of the playoffs 3-2.
Eliminating the Sixers for the second year in a row avenged some of the gut-wrenching early-decade Buck losses to Philly. Milwaukee added insult to injury by sending Dr. J into retirement as Jack Sikma grabbed 21 rebounds and scored 18 points in the clincher.
Perennial All-Star center Sikma, acquired from Seattle after nine top-flight seasons, took a while to adjust Nelson's system. But by the end of the season and playoffs, the skilled, clutch and cerebral big man was playing well and so were the dangerous Bucks.
In the 1986-87 campaign, Boston and Milwaukee had split a contentious regular season series 3-3, with each team going 3-0 at home. By finishing atop the East with a 59-23 record despite numerous injuries and the death of top pick Len Bias, Boston assured itself of homecourt throughout the conference playoffs, which would prove key.
Nelson had won five rings as a player for Boston but was tired of losing to his ex-team. After sweeping Boston in 1983, the only four-game sweep in franchise history to that point, the Bucks had lost to the vengeful Celtics in the conference finals in 1984 (4-1) and 1986 (4-0) en route to the last two Boston titles.
Nellie had even gone so far as calling Danny Ainge a "dirty player" in the 1983 series, raising the ire of Auerbach and the Celtics. Ainge was a feisty competitor but not dirty or physically dangerous, and Red recognized the mind trick of using the media to whip up a frenzy and intimidate a player when he saw it.
Auerbach had practically invented the tactic...and now one of his protégés was using it against him! Plus, of all the Celtic regulars, it was easiest to target Ainge. He was pasty white, baby-faced and thin, competitive, occasionally confrontational and almost always emotional, and the least accomplished of the legendary Boston starting five, making him a lightning rod for angry opponents.
Plus, Danny embraced the unenviable task of committing the hard fouls in transition the other Celtics did not, making the Boston version of "Dirty Harry" in such cases.
The Boston/Milwaukee 1987 eastern semifinal series would turn out to be one of the best in NBA history, but since it was not in the Finals or conference finals, nor featured fights or major controversy, it has been overshadowed and largely forgotten.
The two franchises, featuring different shades of green, had established a bitter post-season rivalry ever since the Celtics edged the Bucks in a classic seven-game championship series in 1974, won by Boston (with Nelson as Celtic sixth man).
Since 1974 the teams had met in four big series, with Boston ahead 3-1 but only 12-9 in games. The Bucks were hungry to avenge the embarrassing 1986 sweep, or at least take enough out of the hated Celts to derail their championship repeat hopes.
All the '87 ECSF series featured was seven games of drama, great offensive execution, thrilling finishes, clutch shots, unexpected twists and turns, a great comeback by the Bucks, and an even greater last-gasp rally by the injury-plagued Celtics in the final minutes.
The series opener on Tuesday, May 5, was not tight as Boston jumped out in front big early behind Bird and won 111-98 at home. Larry fired in 40 points and made all 13 of his free throws to offset a one-for-nine shooting game by Ainge, as well as the absence of McHale for a second straight game due to injury.
After sweeping the Michael Jordan-led Bulls 3-0 for the second year in a row in round one, the Celtics had now won four consecutive playoff games in defense of their 1986 title.
Buck swingman Paul Pressey missed all 12 of his shots and Sidney Moncrief sank just three of 11. Nelson made 35 substitutions in a fruitless attempt to wear Boston out and force tough matchups, but with the bad Buck shooting, it was to no avail.
Yet with the normally-durable McHale having aggravated his still-healing stress fracture, he missed the first playoff games of his seven-year career.
"I made the decision to play and worry about the long-term (effects) later," McHale explained. Twenty-eight years later as coach of the Rockets, Kevin still walks with a limp for playing the grueling 1987 post-season with a broken navicular foot bone and a sprained ankle.
In fact, McHale would be replaced in the starting lineup by hobbled Bill Walton in game one and then Fred Roberts for the next two games of the series as they rested his broken foot and sprained ankle in a desperate attempt to save him for the long haul ahead.
In game two the very next night (something you rarely if ever see nowadays), Milwaukee almost snapped the Celtic 12-game home playoff win streak before the 313th consecutive sellout at the Garden. But Boston prevailed in a 126-124 thriller as Ainge bounced back to knock down four three-point goals in the first half.
McHale came back to play off the bench in game two, pressed into service by the closeness of the contest. The Celts felt they had to win the two opening home games of the series to hold serve and maintain control.
Even Bird, known for playing through serious injuries, advised McHale not to play because of the career-threatening nature of the injury. Yet the underrated grit and pride of the superficially happy-go-lucky McHale was often overlooked. Even though he liked ot have fun, make no mistake, Kevin was a courageous and very tough competitor who always played with something to prove.
From having been barely recruited to play in college to starting out as a sixth man to being overshadowed by Bird, McHale possessed quite a bit of drive himself.
"Larry Bird is the most devastating in-bounds passer in the NBA," WTBS announcer Doug Collins noted at the outset about an underrated important part of Bird's game, and basketball in general. Larry, like most things he did on the basketball floor, made it look easier than it truly was.
Pressey, determined to make up for his abysmal game one shooting, made his first basket of the series on a dunk three-point play as the Bucks jumped in front, 8-2. Ainge buried a jumper, followed by a shot by DJ, to give Boston its first baskets more than three minutes into the fray. Roberts then made a quick, explosive drive down the left baseline past Terry Cummings for a three-point play, showing off his rangy athleticism.
But while guarding Bird, swingman Pressey, whom Nelson called "the man we can least afford to lose", picked up his third foul just 5:05 into the game. The Bucks had been 8-13 that year without the versatile ex-Tulsa standout.
Cummings scored eight of the first 14 Buck points, but Ainge answered with a triple, looking to wash out right away the aftertaste of a bad shooting game the previous night.
After DJ and John Lucas traded baskets, brilliant crosscourt passing by Bird and Ainge resulted in an acrobatic layup by Roberts, McHale's replacement. Kevin then made his first appearance as Boston took its first lead on free throws by Parish.
Seconds later, Walton replaced the Chief to a loud roar. Cummings tied it on a nice drive, but the fresh Celtic tandem paid dividends right away. Boston went right to McHale, who was defended well by Jack Sikma and thus missed a half-hook.
Yet the intense Walton, freed from the bench after almost a year of watching, tipped the offensive board to keep it alive and outhustled three Bucks for the rebound. He then unselfishly scooped an interior pass across the lane to Kevin, who banked in a five-footer as the crowd roared.
Pressey surprisingly came back in for 7-0 Paul Mokeski despite his foul trouble, in a gamble move by Nelson. This time, the 6-5 Pressey guarded Big Bill so the Celts went right to him to take advantage of the size mismatch, and Ricky Pierce tripped Walton as he drove hard into the lane.
Having altered his foul shooting on the advice of Auerbach, he missed both free throws. But the redhead was running and moving quite well and playing very active, aggressive defense.
Pressey then was called for his fourth foul seconds later, negating Nelson's questionable strategy. Walton and Cummings traded missed layups, and Sikma made two free throws to give Milwaukee a 27-25 lead after one quarter. Bird had just one point but did grab five rebounds.
The Bucks inched ahead 30-25, but Parish banked in a customary high-arching jumper. Walton then made a fine anticipatory steal and led Ainge well with a long outlet pass for a breakaway layup. The Chief gave Boston the lead back with two foul shots and a baseline jumper.
Bird came in for Big Bill and continued to struggle, missing his sixth straight shot from outside, while Pierce and Cummings shot the Bucks in front by seven points. Bird finally got untracked with a 22-footer. He then made a nice reverse layup off an unselfish Ainge snap pass when Danny rose up to shoot, but a struggling Bird missed his second foul shot in three tries.
Moncrief converted a three-point reverse layup for a 48-39 lead, and Ainge countered with a straight-on trey. Hodges made a breakaway layin off a steal, and DJ kept Boston close with four foul shots. Hodges made his fifth jumper in six tries to put the Bucks up 56-47, but McHale came up with a nice tip-in.
Hodges finally missed and Bird, positioned well as usual, rebounded on the weak side and eventually buried a trey from out top. Cummings made a tough jumper with McHale all over him, yet after a Bird miss, Ainge made a big steal and drilled a three-pointer from beyond the top of the key.
After a Sikma inside miss, DJ rebounded and the streak-shooting Ainge drained still another triple from the left wing to tie it 58-58. It was his fourth trey make in a row and gave him 16 points to match the 16 by Cummings.
Following a timeout, Moncrief broke the tie with a baseline jumper. Danny finally missed a forced triple and Lucas took advantage of poor Celtic floor balance to convert the ensuing fast break for a 62-58 lead.
McHale and Bird each canned two free throws to knot the score again, but Mokeski untied it with a pair of foul shots. Bird was hammered on a baseline drive 13 seconds before intermission, and Cummings helped him up. Larry swished both free tosses, and then he cleverly double teamed an unsuspecting Lucas as he was being pressured by Sichting to force a turnover, sending the game into halftime tied 64-all.
Boston had outscored the Bucks 20-10 from the foul line in the well-played half. Both teams shot over 60 percent in the 39-37 second period. The Milwaukee bench, led by Pierce and Hodges, outscored the Celt reserves 22-6, with all six by McHale.
DJ put Boston ahead to start half two on a left-handed drive down the lane. After a Sikma miss, Bird rebounded and lofted a high, 75-foot two-handed chest pass to Parish, who converted a short jumper off the fast break.
Moncrief, who missed half the season with injuries, answered with a conventional three-point play.
Bird swished a high-arching 18-foot turnaround, and Johnson picked up his fourth foul on a Lucas drive but stayed in the game. Parish scored another short jumper off a sharp Bird feed. DJ then found Larry snaking down the baseline on their patented play, and after fumbling the pass initially, Bird converted an over-the-head reverse layup for a 74-68 lead.
Lucas canned a clutch three-point goal as the shot clock expired, and the teams then traded four straight turnovers. TC posted Ainge and laid in a nice lefty drive to pull within 74-73. DJ willed in a tough lane runner amid a crowd, but Pressey answered with a bucket.
The 6-5 Buck swingman then drove the lane, drew the defense and kicked a pass back out to Sikma for an open 17-footer, which he swished. Lucas drove on the break for a layup and Boston called timeout, down 79-76 after an 11-2 Buck spurt.
Ainge then re-asserted his first half dominance. He took Lucas one-on-one and drilled a baseline jumper over the shorter southpaw, then rebounded a Milwaukee miss and fed Parish nicely for a short one-hander. Ainge continued by slicing through the defense past three Bucks, then leaped as he drove the lane and slipped an acrobatic pass under Sikma's flailing arms to Parish for a layup and an 82-79 Celtic lead.
Bird then grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled upcourt, drove all the way down baseline and flipped in a pretty reverse past Sikma. Yet resilient Milwaukee, embarrassed by the game one whipping, hung in there. Cummings hit a tough shot and Pierce bounced in a 14-footer.
Ainge scored a nice layup off a Bird feed, and Pierce responded by netting an inside shot. A posting Bird took a nice snap pass inside from DJ and made a double pumping layup while drawing Pressey's fifth foul for a three-point play.
Boston was called for a fourth illegal defense and Sikma converted the technical. Pierce drove by McHale and Parish fouled him, and he converted both tosses. Walton re-entered for the Chief and DJ's spinning leaner in the lane rolled in.
Pressey missed and Walton, a tremendous presence on the defensive boards when even remotely healthy, immediately rebounded. Ainge drilled an 18-footer that rimmed around and in for a 91-88 Celtic lead. But Pierce out-timed Walton for a rebound, drew a foul and made both free throws for his eighth straight point. The sixth man was keeping the Bucks alive.
Roberts passed up a baseline jumper and drilled a crisp feed to the cutting McHale for a short hook in the lane. Cummings canned two foul shots and McHale abused former Minnesota college teammate Randy Breuer with a vintage move. He spun down the baseline, gave the 7-3 Breuer an up-and-under fake, and scooped it in with the slippery eel.
Two more TC foul shots pulled Milwaukee within 100-95 after three high-scoring periods. The score shows how far offensive skill, especially in the halfcourt, have fallen since then. A 100-95 tally today might not even fit in four quarters today. And the clubs back then played defense, too.
Bird started the final period with a high-arching 14-foot fadeaway swisher. After Pierce scored, Walton fired a perfect pass inside to a posting Bird for a layup. The duo often hooked up on such plays, with each appreciating the other's passing acumen more than any frontcourt teammates in the NBA.
There never has been a center-forward passing combination in league annals to approach Bird and Walton. Not even close. Until Arvydas Sabonis came along, Walton was widely considered the best passing center ever (and still is by many). Bird is hands-down the best fundamental and creative passing forward in league history - sorry LeBron and Rick Barry.
As esteemed Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan once said, "Larry is the best passing forward in the history of the NBA. There is no second or third place. Everyone else is just honorable mention receiving votes."
The speedy Ainge blew by a gimpy Moncrief with a fine move, then hit two foul shots when fouled on a flashy reverse layup try. Danny then picked Sikma's pocket from the blind side as the Buck big man made a spin move, and converted one of two free throws off his fast breaking drive.
After Pressey tossed an airball out of bounds, Boston had a chance to put Milwaukee away, but Parish missed and Sikma snared a fine defensive rebound in a crowd. He fired a good outlet to Cummings, who drilled a pull-up shot from mid-range to pull within six.
McHale missed a finger roll and TC then canned a tough baseline jumper over a Kevin/DJ double team to bring the Bucks to 107-103 at the seven-minute mark.
Sikma forced Parish into a miss with strong defense, then after two Buck offensive boards, head-faked Bird out of position briefly.
But when the 6-11 center pulled up and brought the ball back behind the head for his unorthodox toss, Larry recovered to throw the shot off and McHale rebounded.
Bird's individual defense was often criticized, but it was much better than most gave him credit for. It was just that next to the transcendent skills he possessed in every other area, his one-on-one defense paled in comparison.
When he needed to step it up on defense, he was capable of being a stopper unless isolated close to the hoop against big men who could leap exceptionally well, like Worthy or Wilkins. But then again, pretty much everyone else struggled against those two in such situations, too.
After Pressey poked the ball loose briefly from Bird, a peeved Larry responded in typical get-even fashion by swishing a 20-foot baseline shot. It was as if he was saying you're not good enough to steal the ball from me.
McHale, noticeably less active than usual, nevertheless was fouled on a defensive rebound and converted two free tosses for an eight-point bulge, matching the biggest Boston lead. After Cummings missed a baseline shot off the side of the backboard under duress from McHale, Bird rebounded.
Smartly he faked a pass to DJ that froze the defense, then quickly snapped a pass to a cutting McHale in the lane, but he was stripped by Moncrief. Larry hustled back on defense and knocked the ball out of the hands of a driving Pierce. The dislodged ball flew out of bounds, stopping a two-on-two break.
Yet Mokeski came up with an offensive rebound and big three-point play stickback as play continued to heat up. Ainge knocked down another baseline jumper over Lucas. Pierce found Sikma inside with a pretty feed, and Jack used his body well to convert another conventional Buck three-point play to make it 113-109.
Sikma then knocked down a 10-foot banker over DJ, and drew his ex-teammate's fifth foul for a third straight old-fashioned three-point play by Milwaukee, cutting it to one.
Bird cut hard to the opening off a pick and drew a foul on the heady Sikma with a great pump fake, but missed the second of two free throws, his third charity misfire of the night.
After a Sikma follow shot of a Lucas miss narrowly rimmed out, DJ buried a clutch 17-footer off Ainge's penetration and kick-out pass. Milwaukee was called for traveling and then Danny looked to feed a posting Bird.
But Pressey was hanging all over him so he drove to the corner, drew a double team, leaped in the air and fired a crisp pass to an open DJ instead. Sikma ran out belatedly at his former mate, but Johnson coolly drilled the 16-footer from the circle for a 118-112 Celtic lead.
Sikma grabbed his 14th rebound off a missed Lucas trey with 2:56 left, and he continued to keep the Bucks alive by making two more free throws that sliced the deficit to four.
Larry Legend then displayed his great vision.
Off a slip pick and roll with Parish, he leaped while double teamed at the right elbow, hung in the air and double pumped, allowing the Chief to roll as Bird was coming down under duress from TC and Pressey.
At the last second, he led Parish perfectly toward the hoop with a soft pass, and as always to the right spot, for an easy five-footer.
At the other end, Bird and Moncrief collided hard and Sidney split the pair of foul shots. Bird then used his great hands to snatch a risky Ainge pass between a Cummings/Moncrief defensive sandwich, then twisted to the other side of the hoop along the baseline and almost made a spectacular lefty reverse layup while being fouled by Sikma.
Once again, his quick hands and instincts, as well as creativity, saved a key possession that could easily have been a turnover, and turned it into a positive. He canned both foul shots for a seven-point bulge, but Pressey answered with a step-back triple over a lunging DJ from the top to make the score 122-118.
Cummings then came up big by rejecting a McHale up-and-under move as Kevin, lacking the lift and quickness that normally accompanied such moves, was a second late in making his maneuver. This split-second loss of timing let TC come over from the weak side, and he swatted the ball to Lucas.
On the ensuing fast break, Ainge angled off the driving Lucas and forced him to miss a layup; however, the ball was ruled out off of Parish. A determined Moncrief drove to his right on Bird and drilled a one-footed runner from 10 feet out to keep Milwaukee alive, down just two.
With a minute left Bird got the ball and backed down Pressey, but he missed a high-arching 14-foot fadeaway. Moncrief drew a foul inside on McHale and with 43 seconds left, canned two clutch foul shots to tie it 122-122. Kevin fouled out on the play with a dozen points and was replaced by Roberts.
Bird posted up again, but DJ kept it himself and drove right into the teeth of the Buck defense in the lane. Sikma slid over to help and tipped the shot, but drew a questionable foul on his former Sonic mate with 29 ticks remaining. Johnson connected on both free tosses to give Boston the lead back by two.
Moncrief brought the ball up against Bird, but since Larry was in good defensive position, moving his feet well and in a ready crouch, he surprisingly passed off instead of trying to take the bigger man one-on-one. Pressey drove past DJ, but Bird came over to help out and stop the drive in the lane. The 6-5 Buck veered left and hit the deck as Parish may have fouled him.
The ubiquitous Bird alertly grabbed the key rebound and gave the ball to Ainge, who passed to DJ. He hit it ahead to Roberts, who was fouled by Cummings with six seconds to go. The Bucks were hoping for a call on the Pressey drive, but none was forthcoming.
The unsung Roberts then lined up his feet at the charity stripe and calmly swished both clinching free throws to give Boston a four-point lead. The overlooked reserve deservedly received several high fives from his teammates as he approached the bench after a Buck timeout.
Sikma drove quickly down the baseline for a layup with three seconds left to pull within 126-124. But Bird grabbed the ball as it went through the net and alertly got the ball in bounds quickly to DJ with a short pass in front of the Boston bench.
Before Lucas could race over to foul him, Johnson sealed the verdict by cleverly firing a long pass downcourt to an open Roberts, and the clock ran out on Milwaukee. For such a close win, the crowd was subdued by the anti-climactic finish. They had become too accustomed to Boston pulling out tough playoff games at the end.
Ainge more than atoned for his bad first game with 30 points and eight assists, punctuated by several key perimeter shots and sharp passes. After his slow start, Bird netted 29 points and 14 rebounds to offset big games by TC and Sikma. Still, despite being up 2-0 there were signs the Celtics were in for a tough series. They had narrowly escaped with a home win, and injuries were rearing their ugly head again.
With his timing off, McHale was sluggish and to make matters worse, Walton hurt himself again after passing and rebounding effectively in game two.
"I was optimistic I would be ok for the playoffs, but one day when I got to the gym I found out that bang, I had broken my foot again," said a terribly disconsolate Walton.
In game three at Milwaukee two nights later, the Bucks faced a virtual must win situation. Adding some spice to the series was a potential PR bomb for the league and players on both teams, troubling news that broke before the third game on Friday, May 8.
Sikma, backup Buck center Paul Mokeski and former Sun guard DJ were named in allegations at Phoenix over past incidents regarding possible gambling and cocaine use.
However, none of the players were ever found guilty, but the mere mention cast a cloud over their heads that lasted a long while.
McHale gutted his way through 34 tough minutes, routinely battling the experienced and heady Sikma inside for position despite playing on a shaky base, and the very foundation of Kevin's game was superb footwork.
Lucas sliced through the Celtic defense for three early driving baskets. But DJ banked in a right wing triple at the first period buzzer, and converted a rare four-point play when Craig Hodges brushed his arm on the shot to give the Celtics a 34-33 lead.
Boston led 49-42 when the Bucks put on a 20-7 run mainly with Bird sidelined due to foul trouble, to end the half up by six. Yet after scoring just eight in the first half, Bird netted the first six points of the third period.
The Celtics put on a beautiful display of passing in one sequence. Roberts chased down a loose ball under the basket and whipped the pass out to an open Bird, who went up as if to shoot a trey, but instead passed over to Johnson on the wing.
DJ then returned the favor to a cutting Bird in the lane, who in turn made a fine feed to Roberts as he was sliding along the left baseline. Roberts corkscrewed his body and made an unusual reverse layup over his head facing the foul line to put Boston ahead, but he came down hard with an injury to his left leg.
Still, it was a prime example of Celtic unselfishness and clever ball movement, instigated by Bird. It was Larry's vision, crisp passes and unselfishness which set the tone for the great passing by Boston. When the highest-scoring superstar on a team is also unfailingly unselfish and plays hard, everyone else falls in line.
Just as selfishness is contagious, so is unselfishness, as long as one has good people for teammates - and your leader is unselfish. Had Bird been a me-first shooter like a Jordan or Wilkins, the Celtic team would not have been nearly as good or tough to defend.
Pragmatically, Bird also knew that they had to maximize each player's ability with quick and accurate passing so that he also would not be double and triple-teamed.
DJ, who had been maligned for selfishishness in Seattle the year after their 1979 title season by then-coach Lenny Wilkens, who reportedly called him "a cancer" and forced his trade to Phoenix, worked particularly well with Bird. DJ had averaged three more shots a game while his shooting fell from 43.4 to 42.2 in the season after he won the playoff MVP while leading the Sonics to their lone crown in 1979.
Dennis was, by his own admission, at times a "wild stallion" who needed to be tamed. But having a greater star in Bird and a laid-back ex-defensive ace guard like K.C. Jones as coach helped keep him in line. DJ had usually taken the clutch shots in Seattle and Phoenix, but now in Boston, those shots typically went to Larry Legend.
Bill Walton even tells the funny story of how K.C. used to help motivate Bird to even greater heights during crunch time. Jones would draw up a play to get DJ the last shot in a close game, only to have Bird interrupt and insist, "Hey, I'm Larry Bird, give me the ball."
K.C. would glare at Bird and answer by pointing his thumb at his own chest and say, "shut up Larry, I'm the coach." Then he would go back to his play diagram and say "now Dennis, let's get the ball to Larry here..." That way the clever K.C. would assuage DJ's fragile ego as well as stoke Bird's already-burning competitive fires. And it usually worked.
Ironically, DJ and Seattle had barely edged Milwaukee 4-3 in the western semifinals in 1980, one of the best playoff series of the decade. Six of the games were decided by five points or less, with three decided by two points or less. In fact, a desperation 35-foot triple by Dennis with a second left in overtime gave Seattle a thrilling 114-113 victory in game one, and the champs barely held off the young Bucks in a taut seventh game, 98-94.
Seven long years later, DJ was back again to torture Nelson and his ex-Sonic championship teammate Sikma with Boston. Dennis later rifled a pass from the top of the key to a cutting Bird on their favorite play for his patented over-the-head reverse layup, a play they teamed up on numerous times.
The lead see-sawed back and forth in a concentrated, high-scoring battle featuring 29 overall ties and 12 straight lead changes in the third quarter alone. Boston had a chance to take an insurmountable 3-0 lead with a win, so the Bucks played with desperation.
Milwaukee inched ahead 85-84 when Pierce bombed in a 22-footer, effectively answering a pretty snap pass on a pick and roll from DJ to McHale for a floating one-hander.
Sichting canned a leaning banker as both teams continued to put on an offensive clinic. Lucas swished a right corner trey. DJ then scored on a drive down the lane to his right, followed by his pretty left-handed layup coming down the right baseline over the Buck big men.
Lucas swished two foul shots, but Parish canned his patented 11-foot turnaround shot. Moncrief drove the right side of the lane aganst Larry, who surprisingly stayed with him step for step. Yet once he picked up his dribble, he cleverly head-faked the larger Bird off his feet. While Larry was coming down Sidney rose up and swished a pretty 10-footer.
Cummings then drilled an 18-footer from straight on in the circle for a 103-98 Buck bulge with 5:45 to go. Boston isolated McHale vs. Sikma on the left wing, and Kevin responded with a pretty drive to his right that resulted in a tough running hook over Sikma from eight feet out in the lane.
DJ converted two clutch foul shots to pull the green within one, yet Lucas responded with another right side triple off a good Pressey skip pass to make it 106-102. It was the fourth trey of the game for the career 30 percent three-point shooter, his best ever from long range.
In his 45-game playoff career, Lucas made just 18 triples in 69 tries (just 26 percent) - but that post-season he made 12 of them. Such was the way many players elevated their games against the Celtics, as they would find, much to their chagrin in the Finals a month or so later, at the hands of another unlikely, streaky three-point shooter.
Ainge missed an open mid-range left baseline jumper after losing Lucas with a good head fake, with Sikma coming over to contest the slightly hesitant shot. But Lucas, feeling it, missed a shot at the other end and Bird rebounded. DJ gave Larry the ball in a precarious position well out on the wing near the sideline.
When he ill-advisedly turned his back near the left sideline, Pressey cleverly double teamed him from his blind side. Bird lost the ball as the long-armed Pressey deflected his desperation reversal pass and made a lunging save/pass ahead to a leaking out Lucas, who scored on a breakway layup.
Larry, who rarely made such mental mistakes as turning his back to the defense and away from his teammates, had paid for the surprising error. Fatigue seemed to be taking its toll, and the Bucks were playing with great desperation. Having been swept the year before in the playoffs by Boston, they had no intention of letting them take an insurmountable 3-0 lead again - especially in their house.
After more give and take, the Bucks finally inched ahead 114-108 with 76 seconds left in regulation. But Boston wasn't done yet. DJ knocked down a half hook in the lane to pull the Celts to 114-110 with 62 ticks remaining. Pressey missed a jumper, yet Milwaukee rebounded and ran off more clock. Lucas then missed as the shot clock wound down and McHale pulled down the board.
DJ drove to the hoop, was fouled and made two foul shots to pull Boston within 114-112 with just nine seconds left. Sikma took the ball out under the basket but could not get it in within five seconds, and now the Celtics had a chance to tie or even win with a three-pointer.
Bird took the ball in-bounds under the basket and lofted a perfect pass to Parish, who caught the ball in midair and shot a four-footer in the lane. It bounced on the rim five times before dropping through to tie it 114-114 with seven seconds to go.
Pressey drove right against heavy defensive pressure from DJ for a last-second shot, and his running banker missed its target as time ran out, forcing overtime.
Boston scored first in the overtime, but the determined 6-4 Moncrief swished a 12-foot rainbow over seven-footer Parish. A tired McHale missed a lane fadeaway and Moncrief put Milwaukee ahead with a pretty back-handed flip shot in the lane as he floated to his left.
The Chief nailed a short jumper to tie it, but Milwaukee deadeye Ricky Pierce drained a key left wing 19-footer to give the Bucks a two-point lead with 71 seconds remaining in OT. Parish then missed a baseline turnaround shot, and Mokeski rebounded over Bird.
At the other end, Mokeski missed an open right baseline jumper and Parish grabbed the carom, but was called for pushing Cummings in the back to snag the board as the partisan Buck crowd crowd howled in agreement. Cummings missed the first shot but hit the second for a three-point edge.
Boston then failed to score and Pierce completed a conventional three-point play for a 124-118 margin. McHale fouled out on the play with 24 seconds left. The injured all-leaguer had come off the bench for journeyman Roberts, who scored just four points.
When Kevin reached the Boston bench after fouling out, the partisan Buck crowd continued to heckle him and the normally carefree McHale got into a scuffle with some abusive fans near the Celtics. Number 32 had to be escorted to the locker room by Milwaukee security.
DJ drove coast to coast for a driving banker, but Moncrief was fouled on purpose by Bird and netted two clutch foul shots with five seconds left to put the game out of reach. Celtic reserve guard Conner Henry hit one free throw to slice the final margin to 126-121, and the Bucks were still alive.
In the start of an ominous trend, a thin and tiring Bird took just two shots over the final 17 minutes (overtime and the fourth period), and missed both. For the league's premier clutch player and reigning three-time MVP to score scoreless - indeed almost shot-less for so long a stretch in a tight game - should have raised many red flags.
Dennis led the Celtics with 32 points and 14 assists. DJ made 11 of 17 shots from the field and all nine of his foul shots along with one trey in 50 tough minutes. Bird ended up taking just 16 shots in 48 minutes, hitting seven. He canned all four of his free throws and added eight rebounds with eight assists.
Parish tallied 18 points and 16 rebounds in 40 minutes of play, but Ainge converted only four of 13 shots in 41 minutes. McHale splashed eight of his 14 fielders and drained nine of 12 at the foul line while adding three blocks in 38 minutes. The rest of the Celtic bench combined for just 10 points in limited action, led by Sichting with a mere four points.
Southpaw Lucas, the number pick of the 1976 draft who almost never went any direction except left yet was usually quick enough and clever enough to get away it, led the victors with 30 points on 12-18 shooting, including 4-4 beyond the arc.
Sharpshooting sixth man Pierce added 29 points as he drilled 10 of 14 from the floor and canned nine of 10 at the charity stripe. Boston actually shot better than Milwaukee from the floor, hitting on exactly half of their 86 field goal tries. The Celtics hit on 31 of 39 at the free throw line while the Bucks converted 28 of 37.
But Milwaukee squeezed off 15 more field goal attempts because they committed only seven turnovers in 53 minutes, compared to 19 miscues by Boston. The lack of Buck errors showed the Celtic defense was passive and possibly tired. DJ made six errors and Bird added five turnovers.
Game Four thriller: "A real good playoff game" - Larry Bird.
Game four on the ensuing Sunday was a classic all the way, with the Bucks still playing with grim desperation at home in trying to avoid a 3-1 deficit and thus a return to the Garden facing elimination. It turned out to be one of the best playoff games of the year and indeed, of almost any year.
Despite a sprained ankle and a stress fracture, McHale was back in the starting lineup as he and Bird each played 56 of a possible 58 minutes in a double OT thriller that literally went down to the very final second.
Yet as CBS analyst and Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham observed and noted, McHale was in "excruciating pain" whenever he tried to stop hard or plant on his injured foot. The pain seemed to take some of the joy out of playing for the normally happy-go-lucky McHale.
Along with all the other maladies, particularly those of his on again, off again pal Walton, the downcast but normally effusive pair now too often cast a pall of expectant doom over the Celtics.
After not shooting at all late in game three, Bird came out firing in game four. He swished a right wing 22-footer over Sikma on the first play as Nelson, known for deploying unorthodox lineups, experimented early with different matchups. But the 6-11 Sikma was too slow for Bird and top defender Paul Pressey, even with his long arms, athleticism and smarts, was too small at 6-5 to guard even an injured yet still effective McHale.
Parish, never known for his passing until Walton came to town with his wondrous high post dishing and infectious team play, hit Ainge with a pretty backdoor pass along the baseline late in the first period for a layup. Nelson tried a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap in an effort to negate the Celtic inside game midway through the second stanza, but it didn't work as McHale burned Mokeski and Bird stayed hot from the line and field.
The humming Bird's shot was so grooved and pure at the time that it was barely rippling the nets. The clever Cunningham, who had been on the short end of many battles vs. Larry as coach of the 76ers over Bird's first six seasons, noted that number 33 might need "his own Hall" in the Hall of Fame after he retired for playing so well.
Ainge was given a technical for arguing a play where Pressey shoved him out of bounds on a rebound, and received a foul AND the tech. This brought the pro-Buck sellout crowd of 11,052 to life and after Sikma made the free throw he also made a long jumper. Lucas then canned a tough runner. Moments later, Lucas and Johnson exchanged harsh words after DJ nailed the lefty guard with a hard foul.
Bird swished a right wing 15-foot fadeaway over his longtime foil Moncrief, whom Larry and ISU beat on a last-second shot in the regional finals in 1979 to reach the Final Four when the Buck star played at Arkansas. On this day over eight years later, Bird's 21 first half points and 20 by McHale kept Boston close at the half, and Sidney would have to deal with another difficult, close defeat.
Ainge came up with two big steals which he converted into layups early in the third quarter. McHale beat Sikma on a pretty fadeaway but Pressey, now on Bird, answered with a long shot to make the lead three. Ainge responded with a 20-footer and Parish scored inside to put Boston up by one in the see-saw battle.
DJ knocked down a banker from the right side, but his ex-Sonic 1979 title teammate Sikma made a fine tip-in off a Cummings baseline miss. Bird canned his ninth free throw in 10 tries and McHale then blocked a Cummings baseline turnaround. But Larry's triple try rimmed in and out, and Parish picked up his fourth foul on the ensuing drive by Lucas.
Yet DJ and Ainge canned consecutive outside shots to lead 84-79, aided by blocks inside by Kite and Bird. A traditional three-point drive by Hodges sliced the Buck deficit to two. However, Ainge bombed in a left side trey to give him 11 points in the stanza after he had suffered through a scoreless first half.
Pierce, the sixth man of the year, came back with a post-up three-point play between DJ and Bird, who picked up his third foul on the play. The fierce play continued as McHale rolled in a short baseline hook off a fine Bird entry feed. Moncrief then scored on a stickback three-point play for Milwaukee's third consecutive old-fashioned trey.
Pressey gave the Bucks the lead on two foul shots, and Bird picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 2:10 left in the third quarter when he was whistled for a personal on Moncrief, who made one of two. It was Bird's first bench rest of the game.
Cunningham adeptly noted that, "Bird looks tired; he doesn't usually make mental mistakes like that." Indeed, he took just one shot in the third stanza.
Hodges then buried a long two and a triple, but McHale scored on a putback to pull Boston within 95-90 after three quarters.
A jumper by Cummings, followed by his slicing drive through the lane for a right-handed, over the head reverse layup, gave the hosts a 101-97 lead. Bird's rolling 13-foot lefty hook went in but didn't count due to a foul on Pressey just prior to the release. Undaunted (and perhaps motivated by the disallowed southpaw shot)), Larry took the ensuing in-bounds pass and drilled a left corner trey.
Sikma hit two foul shots after drawing Parish's fifth foul, and DJ answered with a baseline jumper. Cunningham again astutely pointed out that, "now we see the value of Bill Walton to this team, right now" as the much smaller Roberts replaced the Chief. Lucas drained an outside shot, but McHale tipped in the miss of a Bird running banker.
Pressey, playing great defense on Bird, answered with a jumper. Cummings buried a right wing 16-footer to give the Bucks a 109-105 lead with 4:40 to go in regulation. Then with Pressey pressuring Bird on the perimeter, Larry eschewed the outside shot and put his head down to drive to the basket again.
He used his underrated first step to blow by the former Tulsa standout down the right baseline. As he approached the basket, he double-pumped over Sikma and Moncrief for a beautiful three-point play off the glass.
After making the shot, a satisfied Bird slid on his backside for several feet, one of his best moves of the entire playoffs, and then canned the free throw to cut it to one. Many times today, one will see a player get too satisifed with making a shot when being fouled, lose their concentration in the ecitement and miss the free throw to complete the play.
Perhaps the lessened ability to finish or keep focused is a good example of a lack of sustained concentration brought on by the multi-tasking gadgetry that the last few generations have grown up with.
But not Bird, who grew up in an earlier, simpler and more active time when kids played outside all day and made their own entertainment instead of relying on computers and video games that encourage sedentary lifestyles and mushy brains. All that playing honed instincts, conditioning and improvisational skills even further, as well.
Maybe it was a blessing not to have all the distractions and instant gratification "progress" of the 21st century as a kid, but with the poverty Bird grew up saddled with, it probably would not have affected him much, if at all.
Back in Milwaukee, McHale rejected a Pressey drive but he saved it to Cummings, who hit a hanging 12-footer. Bird was fouled while shooting at the other end, and missed the first foul shot, rushing it slightly and leaving it just short (perhaps a sign of fatigue). He drilled the second one to make him 11 of 13 at the line on the day.
Cummings had an open baseline look temporarily, but Bird scared him out of it with an aggressive close-out, and the shot rimmed out. It was something Bird excelled at, intimidating lesser-willed foes with his presence and aura. But Pressey rebounded, was fouled and made one of two foul shots for a 113-109 Buck lead with 2:56 to go.
Big Mac buried his patented fadeaway for his 32nd point, yet Pressey drove for a dunk to build the lead back to four as the crowd roared its approval. Sikma then fouled out battling Parish for a rebound, and was replaced by Mokeski.
The Chief converted both foul shots, and McHale blocked a fadeaway shot by Moncrief. At the other end, Bird shook loose as the trailer on a delayed fast break and buried a wide-open 18-footer from DJ to tie it at 115-all with 1:45 left.
Pressey lost the ball inside trying to post DJ, and the clutch Johnson bounced in a wrong-footed drive into the lane off a crisp Bird feed to put Boston in front. After Pierce traveled under duress from a Bird double team, the Celtics ran the clock down to just five seconds left before DJ missed a double pumper.
They had missed their chance to put the Bucks away.
McHale was whistled for a questionable push off foul on the rebound, sending Mokeski to the line for two crucial foul shots with four ticks remaining. The unlikely-looking but good-shooting backup center buried both to tie it, and a Boston timeout advanced the ball to halfcourt.
But Ainge lost the ball when he drove left into the lane, and time expired without a shot being attempted. The former BYU All-American was accustomed to being the star as a two-sport pro (he played major league baseball for Toronto as a light-hitting third baseman) and still had moments when he wanted to be the man instead of the fifth option on a star-studded team. This was an example of that drive of his which had been stunted somewhat by his All-Star teammates.
"I used to feel guilty about shooting with all those Hall of Famers on my team before, then I realized I could use it to my advantage" and let them clean up if I missed, Ainge once explained. Thus the fiery Mormon finally learned to relax and play more closely to his vast potential.
On the last play of regulation, Bird was wide open in Ainge's line of vision, poised to shoot a potential winning 22-footer on the left wing, but he didn't receive the pass. His shoulders sagged visibly in disappointment at missing the chance to hit the winning dagger, a specialty he almost lived for.
The same thing had happened on Christmas Day in 1985 at New York, when Ainge tossed up a runner and missed to force OT when Bird was calling for the ball. Again Larry was miffed that Danny, who was used to being the big gun his whole life before coming to Boston, had taken the last shot. To make matters worse that day, Boston had blown a huge lead to the hapless Knicks and lost in overtime.
This time a year and a half later, they were hopeful the end result would be different. But the fact that the Celtics didn't even get off a shot to bury the Bucks 3-1 was doubly painful. Now the tired, short-handed squad would have to grind it out and work even harder in overtime to win on the road.
Coming next: Part 2
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