The Boston Celtics limped into the Eastern Conference final for the fourth straight year Sunday afternoon, another day older and deeper in oxygen debt. They outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks in a grueling seven-game semifinal series only because a champion's heart beats beneath their bruised and groaning exterior. "I guess the old adage is true," said Kevin McHale. "The most dangerous bear is a wounded bear."
The Celts, vying to become (as the NBA liturgy goes) the first team to repeat since 1969, beat the Bucks 119-113 in a rousing Game 7 at the Boston Garden to go into the conference final against Detroit. They won it, as they won so many others this season, with a mixture of guile and guts supplied by the best starting five in basketball and with scant but timely help from the bench. And they won it because Robert Parish has more raw courage than anyone ever gave him credit for and because Larry Bird can shoot free throws a little.
With 5:52 left in Game 7, the Bucks led 108-100, and there seemed to be no way the Celtics could win. The mystique of Boston Garden? Milwaukee had shattered that in Game 5 with a 129-124 victory. The legendary cool of Bird down the stretch? In the second halves of Games 5 and 6, both Celtic losses, he had shot a combined 4 of 20 from the field, and here he was once again, clanging jump shots he usually makes in his sleep. The wily Celtic backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge? It was now a solo act, Ainge having been carried off to the dressing room in the third quarter with a sprained knee. Boston's legendary reserve strength? Puh-leeze. Milwaukee had a passel of clones at its disposal—tough, speedy, athletic—while Boston had what it has had all season, guys who didn't do much more than sit within reach of the Poland Spring watercooler.
Furthermore, Milwaukee was playing inspired ball, knowing that coach Don Nelson, currently embroiled in a feud with team owner Herb Kohl, was perhaps wearing his last fish tie on the Buck bench.
"Yes, it looked grim," said Celtic assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Maybe a little grimmer than usual. But you've got to remember that we've been in these situations so many times before. That's when our experience, our character, takes over. That's the x factor."
And it proved to be X-rated for the Bucks. Over the next three minutes, Boston outscored Milwaukee 11 to 5, to creep within a basket at 113-111 as the Garden noise level maxed out. With 2:32 left, the Bucks' Paul Pressey, the best player in the game on this afternoon (with 28 points, 8 assists and 4 steals), collected his sixth foul when he grabbed Bird, who was carving out offensive position on the right side. Nelson saw a bad moon rising.
"The biggest point of the game was losing Pressey," Nelson said. Correct. The gangly Pressey was clearly Milwaukee's only real hope of defensing Bird, who, hot or cold, was going to take over this game in crunch time.
Though Bird's marksmanship from the field was shaky throughout (he finished 9-of-21, but 13-of-13 from the line), he swished both free throws to tie the game. On Boston's next possession, Bird posted up Ricky Pierce, drew the foul and buried two more for a 115-113 Boston lead. Then, with 1:31 left, he posted up Sidney Moncrief, spun away for a drive, drew a foul from Terry Cummings and drained two more free throws, just as if he were playing 21 back in French Lick. "Once I get to the line," said Bird, "I'm pretty comfortable."
Sixteen seconds later, Parish and Dennis Johnson combined on a play that both iced the game and crystallized the Celtics' intensity. Jack Sikma went up for a baseline shot and Parish jumped out at him. A badly sprained left ankle had kept the Chief out of Game 6 (a 121-111 Milwaukee victory), and his mobility was obviously limited on Sunday. "You could hear him groaning all the time," said Bucks' guard John Lucas, "but he didn't get the name Chief for nothing." Parish cleanly swatted away Sikma's shot, his fourth block of the game. Out of nowhere came Johnson, who tapped the ball off Sikma's leg while flying toward the Milwaukee bench. Celtics' ball. "DJ keeps you in the game even when you're out of the game," said Pressey, who had ducked out of Johnson's way. The ball landed in Bird's hands. And DJ landed—if you like your symbolism rough and sweaty—in Nelson's empty seat. Game, set and match, Boston.
The Bucks had done all they could, but in the end they were worn down by the worn-down. In the final 5:23, they scored but three points, all free throws, missing all nine of their shots from the floor; they were shut out in the last 3:30. Boston outrebounded Milwaukee 57-27 (including a season-high 25 offensive boards), blocked four more shots (8-4) and drilled five more free throws, including the six in a row that Bird made down the stretch, none of which touched anything but net.