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Larry Bird’s comeback cut short in 1990 NBA Playoffs

Questionable calls doomed coach Rodgers, Celtics in upset Game 3 collapse to Knicks.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

The pandemic has encouraged many people to post new videos of many old games the past few months, one of the few positives from the virus. Recently, I came across Game 3 of the 1990 first round playoff series vs. New York in Larry’s comeback season on YouTube. I had never seen this game and was eager to witness what transpired to turn a series Boston held comfortably in hand to one of the most embarrassing playoff defeats in the franchise’s annals.

This series is such a disappointing memory because Boston blew a 2-0 lead and lost 3-2 to an obviously inferior 45-37 Knicks team, ruining Bird’s comeback campaign. The Celtics finished 52-30, just a game behind the 76ers in the Atlantic Division. They earned the fourth seed in the East and thus met the fifth seed Knicks after having whipped New York 4-1 during their regular season series.

A rematch with the hated Detroit Pistons appeared likely in Round 2, but a funny thing happened to Boston on the way to the Palace and they also never got a chance to go back to the Forum as they lost and the Lakers also were upset in Round 2 by Phoenix.

The 1980s domination of the NBA by Boston and the Lakers was clearly over.

The shocking Celtic collapse cost Jimmy Rodgers his long-awaited job as Celtic head coach. But once I saw the last part of Game 3, I was appalled at how many bad calls helped cost Boston a sweep and Rodgers his coveted job.

McDonald’ Open in Madrid Spain Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Early in the fourth quarter with Boston down seven points, passing savant Bird was inserted into the game by Rodgers to trigger an in-bounds pass under the Celtic hoop with only a second left on the shot clock. Bird whipped a clever long bounce pass from the right side of the lane to the opposite deep left corner, sneaking it past a surprised Patrick Ewing to Kevin McHale.

Ewing clearly never thought Larry could thread such a needle along the sideline - a pass you rarely if ever see made. Bird caught Ewing sleeping and McHale drained the corner triple, something he did 23 times that season.

However, official Hue Hollins, who was refereeing the play from a topside position on the court, blew his whistle and came running in to disallow the trifecta. He incorrectly ruled that the ball had hit the baseline on Bird’s impressive pass.

Replay showed the ball did not hit the baseline as most of the ball clearly landed in bounds. Furthermore, another official stationed under the basket with a much better view of the pass did not call anything, lending more credence to the notion that it did not touch the baseline.

There was simply no way Hollins could have seen the back side of the ball hit the baseline from his position out front. It was like a tennis line judge calling a ball out on the opposite corner of the court. An incredulous Rodgers argued that point, but to no avail. Thus the Celtic deficit stayed at 86-79 instead of being cut to 86-82.

That blown call was a harbinger of several more to come.

Ewing then drove across the lane, taking three giant steps before missing, yet no travel was called. At the other end, Bird whipped a pass to an open McHale cutting across the lane, and Kevin was called for traveling even though he did not take steps.

Young Celtic swingman Reggie Lewis then cleanly blocked a reverse layup try by Johnny Newman yet was called for a two-shot foul, and the Knick swingman cashed in both free throws.

Moments later, Charles Oakley grabbed a pass under the hoop and while falling backward in a clear attempt to draw a foul, traveled, AND had his layup rejected cleanly by McHale. Yet once more a puzzling foul was called as Kevin, sporting the early stages of a rare Fu Manchu mustache, argued his case again unsuccessfully. On a Knick possession shortly thereafter, McHale was called for his fifth foul when deflecting an Oakley pass, another whistle that appeared dubious.

On the ensuing play, Ewing clearly nailed McHale with a moving screen under the Knick basket, yet no foul was called even though the ref was right there.

A phantom loose ball foul whistled on Bird under the hoop by Hollins as the bruising Oakley flailed around untouched gave Gerald Wilkins two free points and NY a 91-83 lead midway through the final period.

Bird drained a right baseline jumper over Newman and was fouled, as he converted an old-fashioned three-point play that cut the lead to five. Another right side Bird fadeaway 16-footer over Newman made it 93-88 with five minutes to go.

Wilkins scored inside yet McHale swished a gorgeous 15-foot fadeaway jumper over Ewing. After a Knick misfire, Bird again posted up Newman yet his baseline jump hook rimmed in and out. McHale kept the ball alive with a tip and Parish rebounded, drawing a foul, and making both free shots.

Wilkins missed a lefty layup and Parish was fouled by Oakley. Bird left a triple short and at the other end, Ewing spun baseline past Parish for a three-point dunk. Nine years younger than the Chief, he outscored Parish 33-11 in the game.

After Wilkins missed a driving lay-in, Lewis buried a 16-foot pull-up jumper in transition to get Boston within 4.

Newman bricked a bank shot off the top of the blackboard and Oakley crashed over the back of Bird on the rebound, sending him to the floor and fouling out.

Larry sank both foul shots to inch within 98-96 with 2:02 remaining. Ewing tried to squueze by Parish on a left baseline drive, but Robert stuffed him and Boston rebounded.

With a chance to tie or take the lead, Parish spun and missed an ill-advised righty hook from the right baseline, released almost behind the backboard. It had no chance and Kenny Walker rebounded for the Knicks.

Chief then played behind Ewing in the lane and gave him an easy jump hook from straight on, eight feet out. His shot went in to put the Knicks back in front by four.

Bird fed DJ for an open 17-footer just beyond the right elbow, and the clutch veteran guard (in his final season) buried it cleanly to pull Boston within 100-98 with 68 seconds left to play.

Ewing then missed a turnaround jumper and Lewis came out of a scrum with the big defensive rebound along the baseline. Bird fed McHale on the right baseline isolated against Ewing. Sensing a double team coming, Kevin kicked it out to an open DJ just behind the center of the foul line.

This time Johnson misfired, but Lewis snared the offensive rebound and was hacked on the arm by Ewing, despite his empty protests. But Lewis missed the first foul shot long to blow the chance to tie. He sank the second free toss to edge within 100-99 with 29 seconds left.

On the ensuing critical possession the Knicks swung the ball against the swarming Celtic defense to Walker, the worst shooter on the floor. He was the man Boston wanted to shoot, especially from outside.

But the high-flying Walker drained a 17-foot right baseline jumper over McHale’s outstretched arm with just 7.6 seconds left to send the crowd into a frenzy.

Bird in-bounded the ball from center court in front of the scorer’s table to Johnson, then cut off a McHale screen to the opposite side of the court. Bird received the return pass on the right wing and faked a three-pointer, causing Maurice Cheeks to fly by. But the hustle by Cheeks and the Bird pump fake threw Larry off, forcing him to re-calibrate his shot and more importantly, re-set his feet.

Wide open, Bird’s potential tying trey came off his hand wrong and never had a chance. It clanged off the right side of the rim and was rebounded by Parish, who missed a meaningless 13-footer at the horn.

“You could tell from the moment it left his hand it was not going to go,” said play-by-play announcer Pete Van Wieren.

Larry Bird Game Portrait Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks pounded Boston 21-2 in offensive rebounds. Boston also committed 21 turnovers to just six by the Knicks to offset a 51.4 percent Celtic shooting night. Perhaps over-confident after they had scored 157 points in a 29-point Game 2 blowout, Boston tallied only 99 in Game 3 against the hustling Knicks.

New York was able to get off 27 more field goal attempts (101-74) and seven more free throws. Even though they shot just 39.6 percent, the Knicks thus were able to win, with some serious help from Hollins and the officials.

After the game, Hollins was even shown by the TNT cameras in the tunnel heading to the locker rooms walking next to Cheeks with a smile on his face.

Energized and newly confident, younger New York bombed Boston in Game 4 at home 135-108 as Ewing exploded for 44 points and 13 caroms. McHale, Lewis, and Bird combined for 68 points, but Parish and DJ added just 14.

The Knicks canned 59 percent of their shots from the field, led by Ewing’s 18 for 24 accuracy.

Then back in Boston for Game 5, NY came in loose and on a roll. The normally mediocre-shooting Knicks made over 70 percent of their shots in the second half to rally for a shocking 121-114 win in the decisive contest.

So hot was New York that Ewing clinched the win by chasing down an errant pass in the corner and banking in a desperation three-pointer OFF THE SIDE OF THE BACKBOARD at the shot clock buzzer to bury Boston. Ewing posted 31 points and 17 rebounds in Game 5 to negate 31 from Bird.

DJ registered 21 points and 10 assists in the final game of his Hall of Fame career. The victorious Knicks shot 59 percent from the floor and 86 percent at the charity stripe.

Larry missed a critical reverse dunk late in Game 5 vs. New York. In addition, Oakley repeatedly pushed and bumped Bird all over the floor, and even elicited a McHale technical foul after cheap-shooting him.

When Bird was taken out in the final seconds of Game 5, he passed by Rodgers on the bench without a glance, word, or touch. It was clear that the unlucky coach’s days were numbered, and he was replaced by ex-Celtic guard Chris Ford, who had been an assistant for the previous eight years following his 1982 retirement.

It appears clear to me that the league wanted to give NY preferential calls at home to extend the series between the two ancient big market rivals, likely never thinking Boston would drop three straight and blow the series.

The upset defeat prevented fierce foes Boston and Detroit from meeting for the fourth straight post-season. The Pistons, likely glad to face New York instead of nemesis Boston (they were 1-3 vs. the Celts that season), easily eliminated the Knicks 4-1 en route to their second straight NBA title.

It was reminiscent of Game 4 in the 1987 Finals when the Lakers out-shot the Celts 14-1 at the foul line in the fourth period and benefited from several bad calls - only that was at Boston Garden, not Madison Square Garden.

Rodgers, who was an assistant with Boston for nine years under Bill Fitch and K.C. Jones, was fired after just two seasons (94-70, 2-6 playoffs). He inherited an aging and injured roster and Bird missed all but six games his first season with double Achilles surgery.

The Celtics started out 12-10 in 1989-90, but went 40-20 the rest of the way and won eight of their last nine games to end the season on an apparent high note. Not knowing whether a 33-year old Bird was going to be able to play anywhere near his all-world status coming off serious surgery, Rodgers designed a less Bird-centered offense.

After sitting out almost the entire 1988-89 season, a motivated Larry Legend came back smoking and determined to prove his doubters wrong. After hitting a buzzer beater over Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at the buzzer to beat Chicago 102-100 on the road in their second, things looked good.

But then in the next 20 games he began to force some shots in ensuing games as Boston went just 10-10, including a 124-92 loss to the Knicks.

Critical comments about Bird supposedly “tearing the team apart” with uncharacteristic selfishness by a teammate appeared in a controversial Boston newspaper article. The story, which called Bird a “Problem Child” in the headline, quoted unnamed players who ripped Bird.

Veteran guard Jim Paxson, a former All-Star guard acquired in 1988 from Portland, was identified as the culprit, although he denied saying the things in the article. McHale was also thought to have agreed with some of the negative comments, but also denied saying so.

An angry Bird shot back by saying his critics “had always been losers.” He responded on the court by putting together a stellar season, winning Comeback Player of the Year honors while averaging 24.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game.

He shot a league-best 93 percent from free throw line and over 47 percent from the field, yet was named second team all-league behind Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. It was the first time in his 10 full seasons that he was not named first team All-NBA. But his lack of leg strength showed in a low 33.3 three-point field goal percentage.

After carrying the NBA for a decade, it seemed clear the league was preparing to move on from an injured, aging Bird and Boston as the 1980’s ended and the 90’s dawned.

To contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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