Say this for the Houston Rockets: They are the team of tomorrow. But throughout this NBA season, with a single exception, there had been nothing but grim todays for visitors to the Boston Garden parquet. Sunday's Game 6 of the championship series was no different. Systematically but passionately, the Boston Celtics, a team that must now get younger, destroyed the Rockets, a team that must now get older, by a score of 114-97 to earn their 16th NBA championship. Hang another banner, sew a few more stitches of tradition into that big green quilt that drapes the NBA. And know that this Celtic team, which finished the season 47-1 at the Garden and 82-18 overall, can take its place alongside any that has gone before.
The Rockets did themselves proud in the final series, but surely no one, not even that cocksure prophet of the pivot, Akeem Olajuwon, believed that Houston could win two straight at the Garden. Anyway, this particular Celtic championship long ago seemed ordained. It was "predestined," Kevin McHale said after the game—but at what moment?
Perhaps it was back in the preseason when Celtic president Red Auerbach traded a disenchanted Cedric Maxwell for an enchanted Bill Walton, who arrived in Boston via time machine. The fire burned in Walton's eyes and the passes flicked off his fingertips, just as they had done in 1977 when he brought a championship to Portland. The Celtics' jigsaw had been missing a giant piece—a center to spell Robert Parish—and Walton nestled snugly into place.
Or perhaps it was back on February 16 when the Celtics beat the defending champion L.A. Lakers 105-99 at the Forum to complete a sweep of their two-game season series. Boston attacked the Lakers' soft underbelly of complacency—the same target Celtic opponents will be aiming at next season—and after that game the Celtics may as well have begun scouting the horizon for other challengers. The Rockets, Twin Towers visible from afar, were a logical choice.
Or perhaps it was one week earlier in Dallas, on All-Star Weekend. Larry Bird had just won the NBA's first three-point-shot contest and he was ecstatic. "I'm the three-point king! I'm the three-point king!" Bird shouted over and over. Why was a superstar so excited about winning a contest that included Leon Wood and Kyle Macy, for heaven's sake? It spoke volumes about Bird's motivation this season. This was the year he wanted to stuff all the awards in the pocket of his blue jeans and tote them back home to Indiana. That's exactly what he did. He won his third straight MVP award for his play during the regular season, and on Sunday, when he was at his best with his second triple-double of the six-game series, he was voted the series MVP. Who says you can't have it all?
For Game 6, Bird was clearly in no mood to fool around. Early in the fourth period with the Celtics ahead by 84-61, he searched his arsenal for the final dagger to plunge into the Rockets' heart. Sweeping up the refuse of a half-court play gone bad, he suddenly began dribbling away from the basket to the far left corner. As the shot clock wound down, he let fly with as arrogant a shot as has ever been hoisted in the playoffs, an I-can-do-anything three-pointer. "Every one I took was on target today," Bird would say later. And so was this one. The game was over.
Bird had 29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals. But those are only numbers. It was how he played Game 6 that made the difference. Although he scored only seven points in the first period, he dominated the floor at both ends. On the Rockets' second possession he stole a Rodney McCray pass. Later he outfought McCray and Olajuwon for an offensive rebound and put it back in. He grabbed three defensive rebounds. From his knees, where he had fallen in manic pursuit of a loose ball, he screamed to Danny Ainge, "Come to the ball!" When McHale, running upcourt ahead of Bird, failed to look for a pass, Bird shouted at him, "Look up, dammit!" And, said Celtic assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers, "when Larry talks, we all listen." Said McHale, "It's embarrassing not to play the way Larry wants you to play."
There was ample reason for Bird's intensity, which he said was as high as it had ever been for any game. The Celtics had returned to Boston from Houston Friday afternoon with scores to settle. One was with Ralph Sampson, who in Game 5 had picked a fight with Celtic reserve guard Jerry Sichting and been ejected. Another was with Olajuwon, who, while backing up his boast that Boston wouldn't win the series in Houston, had made Celtic centers Parish and Walton look like graybeards.
The Celtics, though, had no one to blame but themselves. After their 106-103 Game 4 victory in Houston, which made their series lead 3-1, they began icing the champagne far too early. They had been lucky to win that one, but several Celtics still caught themselves talking about the championship in the present, instead of the future, tense. The Rockets' Robert Reid, meanwhile, waxed nautical: "We're not drowning. We're hanging on a life raft, true, but we're still floating." They came out for Game 5 on Thursday night not floating but swinging.
Or at least Sampson did. At 9:40 of the second period he and Sichting, who at 6'1" is 15 inches shorter than Sampson, became entangled during a Rocket possession. They bumped. Sichting didn't back down. Sampson gave him an elbow. Sichting said, "I'll get you for that." Sampson suddenly turned and threw a frightening right hand, then another, at Sichting. Dennis Johnson came running over—"to pull Jerry away," he said—and Sampson took a swing that landed near Johnson's left eye. Stick, as Sampson is called by his teammates, had suddenly become Stick And Move.