All season long the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics have been the drab garments hanging in the middle of the Eastern Conference closet, obscured by the red-and-black finery of the Chicago Bulls. The Cavs are the blue pin-striped suit, capable and impressive in their own way, but conservative and quiet and maybe lacking a little, well, presence. Despite a 57-25 record—tying Portland for second best in the league—Cleveland went almost unnoticed as the second-place finisher in the Michael and Scottie Division.
The Celtics, meanwhile, were the old-fashioned, green sport coat, the one worn by your junior high school science teacher, solid and familiar, but miles off the style track. As champion of the Atlantic Division, Boston received little attention for winning 16 of its last 18 regular-season games, including eight in a row without the injured Larry Bird.
But, suddenly, with the Bulls displaying a mysterious and severe case of vulnerability in their series against the New York Knicks, neither the Cavs nor the Celtics look so middle-of-the-closet anymore. Cleveland's 114-112 overtime victory on Sunday afternoon in Boston Garden tied, at 2-2, an all-ball-no-brawl playoff series that showcased two teams with the smarts and the stylistic balance to challenge the fancy red-and-black Bulls or, for that matter, the muscular black-and-blue Knicks.
"I dare you to find two smarter teams," said Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens on Sunday, minutes after a rare victory in what has traditionally been a hellhole for the Cavs. "That doesn't mean we're the most athletic or even the best teams. But we know how to play the game." Yes, the Cavaliers and the Celtics had served up a game, like all the others in this series, that Dr. Naismith would have been proud of—no flagrant fouls, no finger-pointing, no woofing, no technicals, no elbows, no roundhouse rights.
Not everyone was in the mood to make such a glowing aesthetic evaluation, however, certainly not Celtics shooting guard Reggie Lewis, who has been the NBA's best postseason player. Lewis's 42 points went to waste on Sunday. Bird wouldn't have made that evaluation either. He returned to the lineup on Sunday after a five-week absence only to blow a game-tying shot in the final seconds of overtime.
Cleveland entered the playoff series with a franchise record of 9-47 on the parquet, including 0-5 in postseason play. Last Friday's Game 3 was a classic Garden nightmare for the Cavaliers. Led by point guard Mark Price's 27 points, 10 assists and only one turnover, they played a wonderful game and, with a six-point lead early in the fourth period, seemed ready to secure their first playoff victory in Boston. But Lewis had other ideas. He finished with 36 points, 26 in the second half, 11 in the final 5:30, and the Celtics escaped with a 110-107 victory and a 2-1 series lead. Said center Brad Daugherty in typical, understated Cavalier fashion: "He's a purty durned good shooter."
So durned good that, after the win, Lewis did his postgame interviews while sitting at the Table. As Celtics symbols go, the Table, located smack in the middle of their locker room, is nowhere near as well known as Red Auerbach's cigar, the parquet floor or the banners, but it is a symbol nevertheless, and Lewis's invitation to it represented somewhat of a rite of passage. In normal postgame situations, Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish conduct their interviews at the Table. The rest of the Celtics either wait until the big three are finished at the Table or chat up the press wherever space is available. But after his performance on Friday, teammate Kevin Gamble suggested that Lewis be the first to hold court at the Table, particularly since Bird, who hadn't played, was already gone.
Eventually, McHale gave what has become the standard evaluation of Lewis: He has taken his game "to the next level." But to the Celtics the next level means that Lewis is not only ready, willing and able to take the big shot but also able to spot open teammates—he had seven assists in Game 3—when double-teamed. Said McHale, "He's getting very reminiscent of another guy we've had around here."
That other guy walked into the locker room about 90 minutes before Game 4 on Sunday morning. Coach Chris Ford gave almost no thought to starting Bird, as he almost certainly would have done if the Celtics had not finally figured out how to win without him. In fact, there was one quiet theory that Boston might be better off if Bird stayed out of uniform, but if any of the Celtics subscribed to it, they weren't making it public.
Over in the Cavalier locker room, meanwhile, Wilkens was making no special plans to counteract the emotional impact of Bird's return. "We put two plays that they run for Larry on the board," said Daugherty, "but other than that we didn't mention his name." Purty durned cool. Overemotionalism will never be the downfall of these Cavs.