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Part 2: Finishing Boston's epic, underrated 7-game 1987 Eastern Semi vs. the Bucks

Last-ditch comeback avoids colossal collapse in game seven as Celts battle through injuries to win one of best series of the decade

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Part 2

Boston entered the epic fourth game of the 1987 ECSF at Milwaukee with a 2-1 series lead, and the pivotal contest went into OT

In the extra session, Robert Parish and Larry Bird each hit two foul shots, but backup Buck center Paul Mokeski tied it on a layup off a pretty Terry Cummings drive and dish. After a Bird miss, Parish fouled out on a John Lucas foray into the lane. Bird atoned with a block on Sidney Moncrief's jumper, with the Buck guard struggling due to knee tendinitis.

At the other end, Danny Ainge fed Bird, who head faked Paul Pressey badly as a desperately rotating Buck defense left him susceptible to the cerebral Celtic legend.

Pressey sailed past the open star way out on top, and with his body leaning forward but his feet still planted behind the three-point line and his eyes concentrated on the rim, Bird released and swished a triple with 2:15 to go.

Pressey responded with a hanging jumper over Ainge to cut the margin to one. Mokeski continued to come up big with a block from the side on Kevin McHale, further evidence that the long-armed star was not getting lift on his shot due to the foot injuries.

Moncrief was fouled in the open court as Ainge smartly hacked him before he could hit the wide-open Pierce for an easy breakaway layup. But Moncrief scored on a determined running drive down the middle over Bird with Parish out and Big Mac ailing to put the Bucks ahead by one.

Bird tried a snap jump pass off a fake fadeaway to DJ, who collided very hard with teammate Fred Roberts as the ball went out of bounds. The two tumbled to the floor and were very slowing getting up.

Cummings missed a jumper over the lanky Roberts and the ball went out of bounds to Boston.

This time down the floor, Bird did not pass up the shot. When McHale hit him perfectly in stride out front with a well-timed bounce pass, 25 feet away slightly to the right of the top of the arc, he stepped into the feed and quickly launched a three that barely rippled the nets since it was so perfectly on line.

With 31 ticks left in OT, Bird had hit his second trey of the session to give him 42 points and more importantly, a two-point lead for the C's. He was so fired up that he afforded himself a rare display of emotion as he went to the bench after the Buck timeout, starting with a double fist pump, then punching his right fist downward before high-fiving McHale with his left hand.

As Brent Musburger gushed for CBS, "You can't say enough about Larry Bird...we ran out of adjectives for him five years ago. He is unbelievable!"

Yet the Bucks were resilient. Off a sharp Pressey entry feed, Cummings answered inside to tie it at 127-127 just 11 ticks later in OT.

In response, the Celtics worked the ball to Bird with six seconds to go on the left wing, 19 feet out with his back to the basket with Pressey draped all over him.

As he backed in, the seven-foot Mokeski came over to double team Bird. Instead of taking the last shot, Bird fed a wide-open Roberts at right of the circle. Surprised, Roberts hesitated just slightly, allowing Mokeski to rotate out and alter the shot higher than normal, and "Norman Bates" (as he was nicknamed for his inconsistent play) left the 17-footer short off the rim as the buzzer sounded.

In the second extra period, DJ converted two foul shots to make it 129-127. Cummings willed in a driving banker that rolled around and in for a three-point play that gave Milwaukee the lead. Following a loose ball scrum that Boston won, Ainge made a huge three-pointer from the left wing as the shot clock ran down. It was one of the biggest shots in a game of huge shots.

McHale then tipped in a miss for a 134-130 lead, but Moncrief hit a foul line shot with just over three minutes left. Pressey tied it on a fast break baseline shot seconds later.
Darren Daye then came up with another monster shot in relief of Roberts. Bird fed him with a crosscourt pass, and the swingman arched a 10-foot baseline shot high into the air and through the net.

Yet Lucas came up big with a three-pointer at the other end to give the Bucks a one-point lead. DJ uncharacteristically missed two foul shots with 1:40 left, partly due to fatigue. Ainge's baseline shot rimmed in and out, and the fresh legs of Daye led to a rebound and foul. His first shot rolled in, and coach Don Nelson tried to ice him with a timeout.

But the ex-UCLA standout swished the second foul shot with a minute left for a 138-137 lead. Pierce missed a banker at the other end, and the Celtics went to DJ this time. His lane runner rimmed out and Pierce rebounded with eight seconds to go amid a frantic atmosphere.

Instead of calling timeout, the Bucks pushed it up to the southpaw Lucas, who always went left. He crossed midcourt with five ticks left, trailed by Ainge with McHale and Bird looming in front. As he reached the lane, Bird forced him right and cut him off, forcing him into an awkward jump to Cummings at close range. Larry was expert at spying out an opponent's weakness or tendencies, and he knew southpaw Lucas wanted to go left.

The ball bounced off Cummings and toward Bird's outstretched hands, but TC swatted it away before it could be controlled. As the loose ball rolled into the lane, game time seemed to stop as the season all but hung in the balance. A diving Pressey outmuscled Ainge to the ball and cleverly batted it to Lucas, whose momentum had carried him to the edge of the right side of the lane, nine feet from the hoop.

Lucas scooped up the ball and cocked to shoot as the clocked dipped to one. But McHale reacted quickly and jumped out high toward Lucas from under the hoop, forcing the 6-1 veteran to arch the ball inordinately high over the outstretched right arm of the alert McHale.

From the CBS television angle, the shot appeared on line - and it was. But as the buzzer sounded, it fell woefully short. Buck sixth man Ricky Pierce grabbed the airball as time expired on the classic battle and briefly appeared ready to throw the ball downcourt in anger. Yet he held onto it instead, accepting the tough-to-swallow defeat that put them in a 1-3 hole, but didn't eliminate them completely.

Boston had escaped, 138-137.

Right away, DJ turned into the arms of Bird, and appeared to be apologizing for missing the previous shot that could have clinched it instead of going to Larry, who had been open at the top, 30 feet from the hoop. Meanwhile an excited Conner Henry, who didn't play in the game, rushed out to congratulate DJ on the huge win as the Celtics marched off with a 3-1 series lead, just one win from advancing to the eastern finals for a fourth straight season.

"It was a REAL good playoff game," drawled Bird later, eyes alight and still excited at the memory of it. "It was one of them type of playoff games that if you win, you're gonna remember it - and if you lose, you want to try and forget about it."

Four Celtics - Bird, McHale, Ainge and DJ - each played over 50 minutes. Bird finished with 42 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Milwaukee had used 10 of its 12 players in significant action. Bill Walton, Henry and Rick Carlisle did not play, while Jerry Sichting, Sam Vincent and Daye saw very limited action.

The clutch Daye made the most of his minutes by coming up with the last four points of the game for Boston, which should have earned him some more confidence from Jones and playing time.

Game 5: Missed opportunity
In game five back at Boston on May 13, the Celtics were heavily favored to close out the Bucks. It would have behooved them to do so and get some much-needed rest and time to recuperate from injuries, bumps and bruises while Atlanta and Detroit slugged it out in the other conference semifinal.

Before a game earlier that season, Buck coach and ex-Celtic sixth man Don Nelson paid Bird perhaps the ultimate compliment. He was watching the Celtics in pre-game warm ups and gestured toward four unnamed Boston reserves standing together in line. Nelson then turned to his assistant coach Del Harris and said, "There's four ordinary players."

When Bird joined the Celtic foursome in their line seconds later Nellie then added, "Now there's five great players." Coming from a basketball coaching savant like the all-time wins leader in Nelson, it qualifies as the ultimate compliment to Bird's individual yet team-oriented greatness. In addition to being a great individual player, Larry also had the rare ability to maximize the abilities of his teammates.

Yet Larry needed more help from the bench this day to beat back Nellie and the determined Bucks.

Instead of getting closed out in five games as was expected, Milwaukee ended the 14-game Boston home playoff win streak. They gutted out a 129-124 upset to keep their season alive and pull within 3-2 to force a sixth game back in Wisconsin.

Moncrief came up with a career playoff scoring high with 33 points and nine rebounds, and to make matters worse, Parish sprained his left ankle trying to block a drive by Sidney when he came down on the Buck guard's foot. Boston led by five, 102-97, heading into the final quarter, but with the Chief out and Walton ineffective the visitors pulled out the rare road win to stave off elimination.

Bird slumped through a bad-shooting fourth quarter, not making a single field goal in six attempts. But the second half did provide one of the signature passing highlights of his career, which showed off his incredible hands, vision, anticipation and imagination.

Larry had driven baseline past Moncrief but missed a finger roll when Cummings came over to help out. His momentum carried him under the basket, where it appeared Jack Sikma had out-battled Parish and McHale underneath to corral the rebound. But as he so often did after missing or making a bad pass, Bird quickly atoned.

Bird, probably angry at having missed, shot his cat-quick right hand out and dislodged the ball from the Buck center's two-hand grasp, and with his back to the court under the basket and nearly falling out of bounds, grabbed the ball in his left hand. In one motion without looking as he faced the stands, he quickly and nonchalantly flipped the ball back over his left shoulder past a surprised Sikma right to Parish.

The Chief slammed it home and was fouled by Moncrief to punctuate the spectacular play. The crowd roared to life, and Ainge extended both arms into the air in appreciation of the great play by a truly rare Bird.

Only a player with superior vision, plus a mind to know where all the players were on the court and who could see plays in slow motion, could anticipate and pull off such a play. He also had to have the guts of a burglar while also knowing that the element of surprise and unpredictability would help get the pass by Sikma in a game where tenths of a second often make the difference between a steal or assist.

And he also had to have the hustle and quick hands to steal the ball and make such a creative pass, something few players could ever think of, let alone do.

Yet it was still not enough to overcome the determined Moncrief and Milwaukee, not to mention Parish's latest injury. The quietest of the Celtic stars was a defensive stalwart and rebounder, not to mention a fine shooter, who shunned the spotlight.

Game 6
In game six two nights later on May 15, the Bucks pleased another sold-out home Mecca crowd with a 121-111 victory to tie the series at 3-3. Again, a tired Bird went without a basket in the fourth quarter (shooting 0-for-4 this time), and Parish sat out the entire game while resting his swollen ankle.

And once more, a determined Moncrief had scored a career playoff high for the second straight game, this time with 34 points, six boards and four assists. He also was involved in an ugly incident with Ainge. On a Moncrief drive to the basket, Ainge went airborne and gave the Buck star a hard foul.

An angry Moncrief wrapped his arms around Ainge's waist and upper leg, rode him under the basket and eventually behind the stanchion. Bird waded through the mess to try and pull Moncrief off Ainge, but to no avail. Eventually coach Jones came out to get Larry away from the melee to avoid injury, and Bird quickly retreated from the crowd of bodies.

With Boston down five in the final seconds, K.C. threw up the white flag by taking out Bird to join teammates McHale and DJ on the bench. Kevin looked tired as he received condolences from injured teammate Carlisle on the bench, while DJ looked genuinely concerned about the Celtic chances in game seven.

Lucas canned two foul shots to make it 118-111, and Milwaukee stole a long pass. Moncrief then made an unwise decision to launch a triple from right in front of the Boston bench as the buzzer sounded.

His launch hit nothing but net to the delight of the raucous 11,052 Buck fans, but Boston likely took it as rubbing it in as he pranced off the court and high-fived Lucas. Nelson, in what turned out to be his last game as head coach at Milwaukee, ran off the court saluting the fans while Jones calmly discussed some calls with referee Darell Garretson as they walked to the tunnel.

Throughout the series, Bird had averaged 47.7 minutes per game; this was in addition to having led the league in minutes played per game over the long regular season. In the three Celtic losses, the game's premier clutch player had totaled just a combined three points in the fourth quarters, all from the foul line. He hadn't made a field goal.

CBS analyst and Hall of Fame player Billy Cunningham again noted that Bird "looked tired" but number 33 was ready to play all 48 minutes in game seven if need be.

Which it was.

Game 7 in the Garden: Epic Celtic collapse or comeback?
The teams had played 12 games that season, with each winning six. And now the Bucks had the momentum, although the Celtics maintained the homecourt advantage. They were 5-1 at home that season vs. the Bucks, but had lost their lats meeting in the Garden.

With Nelson's job on the line amid rumors of him taking the GM/coach's job at Golden State or New York, the former Celtic did everything in his power in an effort to reach his first Finals as a coach after winning six straight division titles in the 1980s, only to always come up short to the 76ers or Celtics.

In 1981, Philly had beaten the Bucks in seven games, then did the trick again in six the next year, each time in the second round. In 1983, Milwaukee swept the Celtics and handed the Sixers their only playoff defeat in a 4-1 eastern conference series loss as they rolled to the title, winning 12 of 13 in the Moses Malone "fo-fo-fo" run. In 1984, vengeful Boston had flicked aside the Bucks 4-1 in the conference finals.

In 1985, Philly surprisingly swept the overachieving 60-22 Bucks 4-0 in the second round. The following year, Milwaukee finally ousted the 76ers 4-3 in the second round, winning 113-112 in the seventh game when Dr. J missed a 15-footer at the buzzer. The game turned out to be the last game for the retiring Bobby Jones.

Boston then swept the Bucks 4-0 in the conference finals, and patience was finally wearing thin with the popular Nelson in the Milwaukee front office. And in 1987, the Bucks had exorcised the Sixers and the retiring Erving again 3-2 in the first round. So it was now or never for Nellie and the Bucks.

Game seven on the Sunday afternoon of May 17 marked another memorable battle royale for the NBA history books, particularly the final period. Parish and McHale were limping noticeably, and Parish re-sprained the same ankle. Ainge missed much of the second half with a sprained knee. But the iron four just kept Boston going.

The Celtics had been the only team to come from 1-3 down to win two playoff series (both against Philadelphia in the east finals, in 1968 and 1981 en route to the NBA title each time). This time they were trying to avoid the same fate at the hands of the deep Bucks, who looked poised to finally get by Philly and Boston in the same playoffs.

Milwaukee was looser than Boston and played with the freedom that such a mindset engenders until it comes time to finish off a foe, to finalize the kill. That killer instinct which Boston possessed through the Viking mean streak in Bird had often made the difference in close games of the past. There was a constant roar in the Garden that day as the usual sellout crowd of 15,320 hoped to inspire their beloved team to the conference finals.

The Bucks, so close so often, were on the precipice of the breakthrough until Boston's toughness willed it through. Perhaps after so many times of coming up short, Milwaukee did not know how to take the final plunge, or the Celtics were too wily and resourceful, and fortunate - or all three. And Boston also showed its determination by dominating the Bucks on the boards.

Upset-minded Milwaukee jumped in front 30-22 as Lucas scored 10 quick points, using his quickness to exploit the lone Celtic weakness.

Then McHale, despite wearing a black brace on his left foot and ankle that extended past his shin, willed himself with a long reach to beat the smaller Lucas to a loose ball rebound in the corner. He then righted himself, dribbled straight down the baseline to the basket with determination and slammed down a no-nonsense two-handed dunk.

Yet the Bucks led 36-29 after the opening period, and the crowd was uneasy even though Bird's 50-footer at the buzzer almost banked in. But an aggressive and determined Boston had out-rebounded the Bucks 15 to eight, including 9-0 on the offensive boards. When push came to shove in the crunch, when remotely healthy the Celtics always could count on pounding the offensive glass to win big games.

Fittingly, McHale started period two with a pretty jump hook putback, and added two other gutty follow baskets. Bird bagged his 10th point on a 17-footer from the right elbow, squaring himself well off a screen in traffic before pulling the trigger.

But Milwaukee forged ahead by nine, 44-35. Parish hit and then McHale scored another jump hook for his 14th point. Bird posted Pressey for an easy finger roll, yet Lucas hit consecutive baskets for a 50-45 lead. McHale schooled 7-3 fellow Minnesota alum Randy Breuer with a pretty back in, show the ball/up-and-under scoop move past a helping Sikma and Pierce.

At the other end, McHale blocked a Pierce drive, and the Buck sixth man bumped into him hard after the rejection, partly out of anger, with a forearm to the face followed by a body block. While Big Mac toppled to the floor in pain holding his left ankle, Parish converted the fast break Kevin had ignited with a layup as the crowd roared its approval, with the Buck lead down to just 50-49.

This time, it was Kevin playing with Larry-like fervor despite tremendous pain. The injuries had taken some of the fun out of his demeanor and game, but may have upped the intensity.

Later, Bird blocked a Lucas drive, then fired a lefty outlet pass to Ainge for a fast break basket that tied it at 54-all. Walton was then inserted to the lineup for the first time to a large ovation in a psychological and physical ploy, but the team did not score when the hobbled redhead was on the court.

Pressey immediately hit a 22-footer and Pierce converted a conventional three-point play bank shot to give the Bucks a 59-56 lead at the halftime break. Still, the Celtic fans felt Boston would find a way to pull out a seventh game at home.

Bird missed his first two shots of the second half as they rimmed out, making him just a combined seven for 28 from the field to that point in the second half of games three, four, six and seven.

Boston took its first lead since 4-2 when Parish converted a short follow shot, and McHale slam dunked on a fast break for a 66-63 bulge. The proud Chief then swatted a Sikma drive off the glass to Bird, who snapped a perfect outlet in stride to Ainge. The Celtic guard sped past the Buck defense for a layup and a five-point lead.

Posting up the smaller Lucas, DJ made a baseline turnaround baseline jumper to cap a 10-2 run for a 70-65 Celtic cushion, but resilient Milwaukee would not go away.
Bird, working on his post-up game, narrowly missed a spinning layup as he was fouled, but hit the two free throws. Yet the 6-5 Pierce drove in on Larry to score a pretty driving bank shot.

Then battered Boston received another injury blow. After the teams traded foul shots, the powerful Pierce slammed into Ainge on a successful baseline pull-up jumper and Danny left the game with a sprained knee, an injury that prevented his return. He hyperextended it in the collision with the beefier Pierce, and was in quite a bit of pain as he was helped off the parquet floor.

Now the Celts were without their youngest and most energetic player.

Pressey then was whistled for a foul after he ran over Danny's replacement in the 6-1 Sichting, who was trying to set a screen in the lane, and the spunky guard hit both foul shots for a 76-75 lead. Cummings nailed a jumper with Bird in his face, and Pierce converted a fast break to put the Bucks in front, 79-76.

Another three-point play by Pierce and a Cummings jumper offset six points by Parish. Bird snared a Parish miss on the baseline, turned and swished a 12-footer. Then after a wild exchange of turnovers, Bird hit DJ with a perfectly timed chest pass just past the defender's hands on a 2-on-1 fast break, and his layup tied it 86-86.

Showing why he was the game's greatest passing forward, Larry used impeccable timing to hit Johnson at just the right time and in stride to make it as easy as possible for DJ to convert.

Bird then showed off his underrated defensive prowess. Had he not been expected to carry such a heavy load in all other areas, Bird could easily have been very fine defender. When necessary though, he still was very tough on defense. Guarding the explosive Pierce on a baseline switch, he stayed down on two head fakes by the sharpshooter, kept close contact and then went up high to bother the sixth man into a 10-foot miss.

As if they needed yet another injury to overcome, Parish canned two foul shots after being poked in the eye on the rebound. But the Bucks seized an 89-88 edge when Moncrief's three-pointer, which was clearly released well after the third period buzzer, was erroneously counted as good by the referees - the loud crowd had drowned out the quarter horn.

TV replays showed the ball still in Moncrief's hand at the red light and double-zero buzzer. In fact, referee Ed Rush erroneously affirmed the shot was good after consulting with others at the scorer's table.

So much for Boston supposedly getting all the calls in the Garden. Maybe in 1965, but not so much in 1987.

Sikma started what would become one of the memorable 1987 post-season's most incredible fourth periods by canning two foul shots, making him a perfect 32-for-32 from the charity stripe in the series.

Off of a jump ball, Bird got his first fourth quarter basket in three games with a pretty ball fake after a drive into the lane. He then lofted the shot up and in, just over the hand of a leaping Pierce. His free throw later tied it at 91-all.

Next, Pressey put the Bucks ahead with a left-hand layup to cap a fast break.
DJ tied it on an open mid-range jumper, and Lucas snaked through the lane with a corkscrew layback off the glass. Sikma blocked DJ's shot for the second time in three possessions, but the hobbling McHale rebounded and hit one of two free throws to make it 95-94.

Sikma, determined to justify the major Buck pre-season trade for him (he was acquired for Alton Lister and two high draft picks), snagged an offensive board and made a left-handed layup for a three-point play and a 98-94 edge. Jack had long been a tremendous clutch player since helping Seattle to consecutive NBA Finals showings in his first two seasons, including a title with DJ in 1979.

The heady 6-11 Sikma was one of the few players who had the size, savvy and skills to battle McHale and Parish inside.

Lucas scored on the fast break again for the fresher-appearing Bucks as they looked ready to finish the kill, but Daye answered with an important short fadeaway banker to make it 100-96.

Seconds later, Sikma grabbed another offensive rebound, was fouled and canned two more free throws to run his string to an amazing 35 straight in the series. After McHale missed, Lucas picked the pocket of Parish and pushed the break ahead to Pressey, who somehow banked in a drive that crawled past the rim over a contesting Bird and dropped in for a 104-96 Buck lead with 7:04 to go.

Things were looking grim for the Celtics. Ainge was out, Bird and DJ looked tired, and Parish and McHale were each sporting injuries to both feet.

Usually when Larry challenged a defender on the break, unless they simply went high over him, they missed or passed off when facing off against the mentally-disruptive Celtic great. In the second period, he had intimidated Lucas into a fast break miss off the side of the backboard with a defensive fake.

So powerful was his aura (especially in the Garden during a seventh game) that he was often able to unnerve opponents with his presence, invading the confidence of intimidated foes enough to throw off their normal shooting rhythm. Bird had stopped so many 1-on-2 breaks himself with his anticipation and quick hands/mind, that often it was just easier for a player to pass off than challenge him.

But after Pressey was able to score over Bird on the break, Musburger observed that the Garden crowd was becoming restless and very uneasy. Boston was bringing out the best in the Bucks, who were playing loose and aggressive basketball on offense.

Parish hit a short lane shot to bring Boston within 104-98, yet Pierce nailed a 16-foot baseline pull-up over Bird as the Buck confidence remained sky high. Larry then drove baseline past Pressey, but had his shot blocked out of bounds from behind by the lanky 6-5 swingman.

Angered by what he felt he was a non-call, thinking he was fouled, Bird gave official Ed Rush an earful before in-bounding the ball. This was a key moment. Bird always tended to play better when mad, and additionally he seemed especially upset by criticism about his fourth quarter showings in the three Boston series losses.

And with the Boston backs against the wall, now was time to do something about it or go home before the Finakls for the first time since 1983, when Milwaukee eliminated Boston in the second round.

The non-call and rising pressure of the moment helped spur Larry on to one of the great fourth quarter finishes in playoff history. As the quotable Mychal Thompson once said, he had only a few rules in life: "Don't cheat the IRS, don't curse the dead, and don't get Larry Bird mad."

An angry Bird immediately retaliated. He came up with a quick release 15-foot right wing jumper over Sikma and Pressey that cut the deficit to 106-100.

Another Sikma offensive board led to the 6-11 center eventually hitting his patented step back jumper from 17 feet out on the baseline over DJ - after a push-off - for a 108-100 Buck lead with 5:52 left.

McHale, playing valiantly, then kept the Celts alive with a critical must score. Throwing caution to the wind, he drove hard to his right into the lane, turned back on his aching foot and tossed in a spinning three-point play high off the glass over Sikma, cutting the deficit to 108-103.

Yet the determined Pierce posted up for a short lane jumper to build the lead back to seven. Sharpshooting Hoosier native Sichting then buried a crucial 18-footer from just left of the circle just over the reach of a flailing Pierce to make it 110-105 with 5:17 to play. It was a key gut-check shot for the Celtic reserve, and he rewarded Bird's trust in him.

So far, the center was holding, but barely.

DJ then drew a key but questionable charging foul on Pressey in the lane for his fourth personal to spark a change in momentum. On the ensuing possession, Sichting took a pass from DJ over the rangy Buck halfcourt press, dribbled hard to the left corner and drilled another huge shot from 17 feet to pull Boston within 110-107 with 4:53 remaining.

The feisty 6-1 sniper, an all-state quarterback in Indiana, had made 51 percent of his field goals and 88 percent from the line during an injury-marred campaign. The season before, he had connected on an amazing 57 percent of his fielders and 92 percent of his foul shots, all the more impressive since most of his shots came from 15 feet or further.

Now, the Celtics desperately needed those two shots that he canned in the clutch. His competitiveness and shooting ability were the main reasons he was brought to Beantown. And in this critical game, he delivered when needed most. A miss on either shot would likely have spelled defeat.

Cummings then missed a well-contested lean-in jumper from the left side of the lane, and Pressey committed his fifth foul going for the rebound. Boston was starting to get a foothold. Besides, Milwaukee couldn't continue to keep hitting every shot, could they?

Sichting then fed fellow Hoosier Bird perfectly in rhythm as he came off a double screen for a 17-foot right wing jumper. The no-hesitation shot went straight through the hoop on a line to bring the green-and-white within a single point at 110-109.

Both teams were now in fully-engaged mode, simply competing and reacting to openings while blocking all else out - the noise, the pressure, the situation - trying to knock the other out in the 15th round. It was the type of sustained intense concentration to finish the job that most teams and players lack today, with all the TV timeouts and highlight, home run mentality that has fragmented the game and continuous action.

The clutch Moncrief countered on two foul shots with just over four minutes left. McHale answered when he saw an opening at the foul line and drove right into Sikma. While bouncing backward off the Buck big man, he gained room for a clean look and elevated off his left foot to can a tough, fadeaway one-footed runner that made it 112-111 with 3:43 left.

Cummings then drove hard to the basket and was fouled. Milwaukee had converted 21 foul shots in a row and 27 of 28 overall to that point, but amid the rising Garden din, the Buck forward missed the first shot to break the string. The crowd was louder on the second shot, but he made it to put the visitors in front 113-111 with 3:30 to play.

No one knew it at the time, but it was to be the last Buck point of the game, series and their season. They couldn't seal the verdict, and Boston's defense had as much to do with Milwaukee's suddenly ice-cold shooting hand. Or was it the Garden gnome, the leprechaun?

McHale rebounded a Celtic miss, but Bird made a rare mental mistake when he threw the ball away; he jumped to shoot, reconsidered as he hung in the air and decided to pass inside too late, and it was picked off.

Yet he made up for it at the other end, as he so often did after making a potentially costly mistake, by batting a pass headed for a Buck cutting through the lane with his right hand to Roberts for a steal.

At the end of game five in the 1985 eastern finals vs. the rival 76ers with the Celtics ahead 3-1, Bird missed a runner with Boston clinging to a 102-100 lead. But at the other end in the final seconds while guarding the 6-3 Andrew Toney, Bird reached in quickly with his right hand and stole the ball right out of the standout guard's hands, then passed the ball away to run out the clock and clinch the conference title.

Toney had burned the Celtics so badly in previous classic seven-game eastern finals in 1981-82 that he was called the "Boston Strangler", but this time it was Larry Legend who squeezed the life out of him. The savior had redeemed himself, he had done it again. As he did in game seven in 1987 vs. the Bucks, he bounced back from adversity or a mistake to atone with a huge play.

DJ then tried to throw a long entry pass into a posting Bird, and the ball sailed out of bounds. But Pressey, a fine defender who had been stifling Larry well all game, was called for a critical sixth foul since he was holding number 33 around the waist with his left arm. Bird stepped to the line and coolly drained both foul shots to tie the game 113-all at the 2:32 juncture.

With defensive ace Pressey gone and the Celtics having tied the game while the crowd roared, the momentum had swung to Boston.

The muscular Pierce, a real scoring machine at a compact 6-5, drove the lane and pulled up for a jumper he would make nine times out of 10. But McHale pounced out toward him at the last second and forced the scoring ace to arc the ball a little higher than his normally flat but accurate shot with a quick leap and long reach.

The shot was aimed true and straight but hit off the back iron, and the Celts rebounded.
At the other end, Boston had a mismatch and went to it. Bird was fouled by Pierce inside after a nice DJ pass set him up nicely. Again Larry made both foul shots cleanly as the ball barely touched the rim, and the Celtics finally had the lead at 115-113 with 2:02 to go.

The Bucks went to Pierce again. Slowed by a knee brace and guarded by the lithe, athletic 6-9 Roberts, he was unable to drive past or shoot clearly over him. Still, he over-anxiously pulled the trigger on a right side 17-footer instead of working for a better shot, and the attempt was a little wide right all the way. Dennis Johnson rebounded the miss.

Playing with great urgency on offense, Bird kept his foot on the Buck throats - and the pressure on the refs - by driving hard down the right baseline into Cummings and Moncrief. His tongue-lashing of Rush moments before may have helped now as he drew a foul on the protesting Bucks while Nelson howled his disapproval, to no avail.

Once more Bird swished two foul shots, making him 13-for-13 in the decisive contest from the charity stripe. The Celtics now led 117-113 with just 92 seconds left to play.
Lucas then hopped and skipped into the right corner for an open trey try. His shot was on line but a tad short, and Parish grabbed the weakside rebound.

Most misses taken from one baseline will rebound to the opposite or weak side of the court. But after the gimpy Parish came down with the carom, Sikma got away with a slight shove in the back, sending the gimpy Chief out of bounds with the ball, and the Bucks got another chance at the 1:18 mark.

Then came one of the big plays of the post-season, one that didn't show up in the box score but played a major role in the game's outcome.

Sikma tried his trademark step-back jumper on the left baseline, but Parish sensed it was coming and stayed right up in his chest, probably still upset by the no-call on the previous rebound. He swatted Sikma's patented shot away with his right hand towards the Buck bench.

Suddenly DJ came flying in and hurtled himself through the air, deflecting the ball off Sikma, who was standing just out of bounds facing the Buck bench waiting for the ball to go out off Parish. Johnson's momentum carried him over the Milwaukee bench and its metal chairs into the crowd, but he was unhurt.

It was one of those plays that exemplified why Bird said DJ "was probably the one player as intense or more intense than me about winning."

Bird rushed over to congratulate Johnson with a down-low two-hand slap, and then after gesturing to the refs to get him the ball quickly to keep the momentum going, quickly got the ball in bounds with 1:07 to go. He sensed it was time to knock out the pesky Bucks with one last haymaker. About 20 seconds later, number 33 forced up a twisting baseline shot under double team duress with the shot clock running down.

The attempt came up short, but Parish grabbed his playoff career-best 19th rebound and tossed it back out to smartly run off more clock. With 33 ticks remaining, Robert was fouled on a jumper and converted one of the two shots to make it 118-113.

CBS commentator Billy Cunningham was amazed at the Chief's quietly determined play. "It is too bad we don't give out a most courageous award," he said. "Yesterday at practice I didn't even know if Parish could play, he was in such pain when running."

Somehow he gutted it out for 23 huge points - maybe the pain helped him focus when shooting instead of running - and combined with his success, the crowd and the adrenaline all helped him block out the pain as much as possible.

Next, playoff veteran Sikma drove to his left down the lane and banged a shot hard off the glass and rim with his left hand, as he was pressing a little too much to keep the Bucks alive. He and Parish each came down with the board and the Chief won the ensuing jump ball, tipping it to Bird with 26 ticks left.

Milwaukee tried to foul, yet Boston kept moving the ball ahead of the hackers as the crowd noise rose with each pass away from the chasing Bucks ("and now the Lakers are desperately chasing Cousy to no avail as he dribbles out the final clock on another title") until an over-excited Parish made an ill-advised pass to Bird cutting down the lane, which was tipped out of bounds off Larry to the visitors.

The Bucks were barely breathing with 13 seconds still left, down five. Lucas momentarily had a good look at a three from beyond the top of the key, but the limping Parish anticipated it and willed himself out onto the perimeter to contest the shot. He closed out well and stretched his seven-foot frame with considerable reach toward Lucas, forcing him to arch his shot higher with superior height and wingspan, as well as determination.

The ball hit the back iron. Roberts rebounded and was fouled coming down with the carom as just eight seconds remained. He converted one of two to make it a six-point Celtic cushion.

Hodges started upcourt quickly but Bird, ever wary and not leaving anything to chance, attacked him on defense. He knew Craig could hit from anywhere inside 35 feet, so he forced the three-point marksman to alter his course, thus taking precious time off the clock.

In addition, Bird had kept him from coming straight up the floor where it is much easier for a shooter to get his shoulders square and time his steps to pull up for a shot in perfect balance and stride. As a result, Hodges missed the triple try and the ball went out of bounds to the Bucks with just a few ticks left.

Still, Bird continued clinging to Hodges, not allowing him to get the in-bounds pass, showing his respect for the fine-shooting guard - and not leaving anything to chance. Lucas followed by missing a baseline runner, and the final rebound of a truly great series appropriately ended up in the hands of a well-positioned Bird on the weak side as the buzzer sounded.

The Garden bellowed a tone of finality for the valiant Bucks and Nelson. Parish limped off the court and politely declined an interview request with a short shake of the head and a wave of the hand, heading instead straight to the locker room for needed treatment. It was typical of the Chief to brush aside publicity quietly in favor of anonymity.

Bird ended up with 31 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists to cap one of the great playoff series in NBA history. "That's why I play basketball, for moments like that, where I can see and control everything on the court," Bird recalled. The final few minutes were one of those times.

McHale scored 32 points and pulled down 15 boards in a magnificent performance, one of the best and most clutch in his storied yet underrated career. Whatever Kevin did always seemed to be overshadowed by Bird, but the happy-go-lucky star seemed to thrive while flying slightly under the radar.

When ESPN did a "Vintage NBA" episode on McHale several years after he retired, they chose this game to show off his skill and toughness, which was usually overlooked when compared to his forward mate with the jersey number one numeral higher than his in Bird.

McHale sensed Bird had to win, that he was the leader of the team, and so he let Larry carry the mantle, have most of the glory, pressure and accolades. Meanwhile Kevin enjoyed playing more and had his fun, too. A noted prankster, he named some of his pet post moves, and knew that he could feel when an opponent would go for his up fakes, then sneak under his arm for a finger roll.

"I could sense when a guy was ready to go for the up fake, and then I'd go under him. I'd tell my teammates to watch this next move, and they thought I was a prophet," he winked and recalled. And of course, he loved the aforementioned 7-11 defense best, when completely befuddled foes simply gave in and threw their hands up as if being held up.

But between the lines, McHale was a serious competitor in his own right. It is just that no one could be more focused than Bird. None other than Red Auerbach later praised McHale in his Vintage NBA spotlight for his abilities and toughness, but above all, for his hoops intelligence.

Ultimately, it was Boston's desire not to be denied that led to a decisive 59-29 rebound edge vs. Milwaukee, including 29-8 on the offensive boards, which paved the way for victory. When they needed a win most and the outside shots weren't falling, Boston usually resorted to willing itself to victory on the glass, just like in the 1984 Finals - or in a huge late possession in game seven of the ensuing conference finals vs. Detroit.

A staunch defensive effort also played a big role down the homestretch. The Bucks, pressing a little more with each successive miss, misfired on their last 10 shots from the field as the scrambling Celtics outscored Milwaukee by a whopping 19-5 over the final 5:52 of play.

As K.C. Jones admiringly said later, "Our ‘rag-tag' guys kept hanging tight. We could have easily rolled over, but we didn't do that."

"We knew every possession was so important," recalled Pressey years later when he was a Spurs assistant coach. "We were in control for a little while, but we knew it would take 48 minutes."

Also the great free throw accuracy by Bird, who made six straight down the stretch, helped Boston hold on. The Celtics leaned on Larry's will and strong backbone as usual in crunch time, and he delivered again. His concentration was so keen at the line in the final minutes (after all the time spent practicing) that his now natural form carried through perfectly under pressure.

Bird had now made 47 of 50 free throws over his career during four seventh games, and all six of his conversions in the final minutes went cleanly through without a single bounce on the rim to ice the hard-fought win.

Yet in an ominous note, the Celtic starters played 80 percent of the minutes in the wearing series, and scored 89 percent of the points, grabbed 84 percent of the rebounds and accounted for 85 percent of the assists.

Boston reserve guard Sam Vincent said what many observers were thinking when the non-plussed sub spoke out after the series. "Most teams have some sort of substitution pattern, but we seem to have absolutely none."

K.C. Jones, for his part, bristled at the suggestion he underused and misused his bench, reiterating that he was doing the best he could with so man key injuries, especially to Walton and Wedman, arguably the best sixth and seventh men in the league.

But his over-reliance on the injured starters was shown by his treatment of Parish after he had re-sprained his ankle again. He didn't even look at the Chief or think of taking him out.

Teammates and opponents alike said they could hear Parish grunting throughout game seven as he led the Celtic rebounding dominance. True to his quiet nature, he refused a media attempt for an interview after the game as he walked off the court in obvious pain and fatigue.

In the evenly-played series, Boston averaged 121.4 points a game, compared to 121.1 by the Bucks. Just two points separated the foes over seven games, with the Celtics holding a meager 850-848 edge.

However, Boston held a sizeable 44.6 to 38.4 rebound average per game. The Celts shot 50.6 percent from the field and 81.5 percent from the foul line for the series, compared to 47.6 from the floor and 82.0 percent by the Bucks.

Bird led the great Celtic starting five with 29.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. The hobbled McHale gutted his way to 24.2 ppg, 10.7 rebound and 1.8 blocks a game while canning56.9 percent from the field. DJ tallied 22.1 points and 9.9 assists per contest. Parish contributed 22.3 ppg, 12.8 boards and 2.5 blocks per outing.

Cummings topped six Bucks in double digits with 22.9 ppg and added 9.1 rebounds per contest. Moncrief tallied 20.9 ppg while Sikma tallied 17.6 points and 9.6 caroms per game. Amazingly, the center also converted all 35 free throws he tried in the seven-game epic.

Lucas (16.9 ppg), Pierce (16.6) and Pressey (14.3) rounded out the Milwaukee double-figure scorers. But it was not quite enough to dethrone the proud Celtics.

Ainge was the fifth and last Celtic to tally double digits at 15.9 ppg, including a red-hot 14 of 26 shooting beyond the arc (54 percent). But no other Celtic on the short-benched squad scored more than six ppg in the series (Roberts).

However, the Celtic failure to finish off the Bucks in five games would definitely cost them down the line. Instead of getting a chance to rest and heal before facing the younger healthy and hungry Bad Boy Pistons in the conference final, the Celts had to immediately embark on another grueling seven-game war.

In all, their consecutive seven-game classics were also played over a span of just 26 days during a very hot late spring, further weakening them for the NBA Finals.

After the difficult defeat, Nelson resigned as Buck coach after posting 540 wins (and a 42-46 playoff record), six division titles but no Finals appearances in over 11 fine seasons to take over at Golden State. He was replaced by assistant coach Del Harris, an Indiana native who had guided the Rockets to the 1981 Finals, where they lost to Boston 4-2.

With Nellie gone out west, the Bucks dropped to 42-40 the next year and did not make it out of the first round for the first time since 1979, when they had missed the post-season. They rebounded in 1988-89 with a 49-33 mark and bowed out in the second round to the eventual champion Pistons. However, since the resignation of Nelson 28 years ago, the once perennially-powerful Bucks have never again been serious title contenders

And the beat-up Celtics moved on valiantly to face Detroit in another epic seven-game series.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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