To reverse their fortunes, the Rockets first had to do something about Bird. Defensively, he had been successfully doubling down on the inside men and still avoiding illegal defense calls. "It's more Bird's individual defensive skills, his quick hands, than a team defensive concept," observed Rocket center-forward Jim Petersen. And, on offense, Bird was certainly primarily responsible for the Celtic ball movement. During stretches of Game 2, Boston's half-court offense consisted exclusively of isolating Bird on Rodney McCray. One-man isolation play can get tedious and generally results in some kind of awkward, buzzer-beating, one-on-one move, but not the way Bird and his Celtics run it. The closer Bird backs in and the closer the shot clock gets to zero, the more exciting the play becomes. What will he do? Turn in and drive the lane? Step back and shoot? Thread the needle to a cutter? And what are his teammates doing? Watch how they spread themselves out so one man can't cover two. Whatever happens, Bird has thought it out beforehand:
"I'm always looking for a double-team and trying to get myself into a position to pass the ball first. If the clock gets to around 10, I'm just gonna try to get a shot up because we haven't got time to move the ball around two or three times.
"If they send their big man over to double me, then our big man just follows him to the basket and I give it to him. That's easy. If a guard comes over to pick me up, maybe I can shoot over him. If we cut a man through to the basket and nobody picks him up or his man stops to double-team me, then I can make the pass to him. If the defender goes on with our guy, then they might have to send someone else over. Then I either have the guard that went through on the low post or the other guard coming over from the top of the key for a jump shot."
Get it? The whole routine is no doubt engraved in Bird's brain. As Rocket coach Bill Fitch put it after Game 2: "When that little picture machine goes off in his mind, he's in his own little world."
It was the Celtics who had come to the Rockets' own little world for Game 3, and management wanted to make sure they knew it. So they trotted out Lone Star icon Willie Nelson to wave to the crowd and get the Rockets all tingly before tip-off. The tastes of Olajuwon and his teammates run a little funkier than Willie, but, hey, maybe it worked for a while. The Rockets led 62-59 at halftime.
By midpoint of the third period, though, Willie was forgotten and the Celtics were wailin'. A moment of divine basketball beauty from the third period: Bird rolls off a pick and drives to the basket. He's picked up inside but left-hands it back to Bill Walton, who has come chugging down the lane. Walton is covered, also, but he shuffles it over to a wide-open McHale on the other side of the basket. McHale dunks it. Johnson, out by the free throw line, jumps for joy. The entire Celtic season is crystallized in that one play—the court presence of Bird, the added ingredient of sixth-man Walton, the inside finishing power of McHale, the exuberance of the backcourt. The Celtics lead 76-65.
Then, strangely, something happened. With the table set for a 3-0 Celtic series advantage, the Rockets came along and trashed the place settings. First, McCray went to the bench and Reid took over on Bird. Bird would later insist that the change made no difference, but he unquestionably had more trouble with Reid, who has long arms and quick feet. "I jab at the ball so he knows I'm there," says Reid. "But I don't let him feel my body because when he can he just spins around me." Reid does his jabbing with his left hand and keeps his right behind him to avoid a reach-in foul. Bird, who had scored 21 points until Reid came along, thereafter had only four, including just one basket in the fourth quarter.
Sampson, meanwhile, had finally pushed the lid off his coffin and stepped into the bright light. He was steady through the first three periods, hellacious in the fourth when he made two key baskets and owned the boards (he would finish with 22). The Celtics stood around, seemingly powerless to stop the 9-0 Houston run that gave the Rockets a 103-102 lead with 1:07 left. "We just kind of hit the wall offensively," said McHale. After Ainge made a jump shot to restore a one-point Boston lead, Houston's reserve guard Mitchell Wiggins—who by next year may become a starter if Lloyd, the self-proclaimed Magic Man, doesn't stop making himself disappear—tapped in an Olajuwon miss for a 105-104 Rocket lead with 31 seconds left. "When you're small, you got to rise quick," said Wiggins, " 'cause you don't get but one chance." There was plenty of time for the Celtics to get a good shot, but once again they hit the wall. As the 24-second clock neared zero, Parish put up a desperation jumper in the lane. It missed, but referee Jake O'Donnell blew his whistle. Foul on Olajuwon? Three-second call on Parish? Neither. O'Donnell ruled that his whistle had been "inadvertent." In today's world, it is possible to interview presidents, premiers and popes, but not referees, so there was no further explanation from O'Donnell beyond the terse statement on the postgame quote sheet: "When the ball is loose and there's an inadvertent whistle, it becomes a jump ball in the center circle between any two players." That suited the Rockets just fine because, as Wiggins says, "We got the tall guy."
Sure enough, the 7'4" Sampson out-jumped the 7-foot Parish and tipped it to Olajuwon, who was immediately fouled by Bird. Olajuwon made one of two to give Houston a 106-104 lead. After a timeout, the Celtics inbounded at midcourt. Would it go down low to McHale or Parish for the tie? Or out to Bird, Ainge or Johnson for a three-point shot and the win? No, it went to hell in a hand basket. Parish was the only one able to shake free and he was far too close to Johnson, who was making the inbounds pass, when he caught the ball and flipped it back to DJ. O'Donnell's whistle blew again, this time to rule that Parish had stepped on the sideline before he made the pass, and that was the game, the one the Rockets felt could be the turning point of the series.
"We haven't played to our potential," said Olajuwon, still spitting into the strong wind that blows around that abyss. "We can play a lot better." But another prophet speaketh. "I think we're the best team in the league, and the best team usually wins." That was Bird's opinion. And this, after all, has been Bird's year.