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Relax, NBA fans. You've got your Philly-Boston playoff matchup for the first time since 1982. But history must hold its breath. The Celtics still have a long way to go in their struggle to become the first NBA team in 16 years to defend its championship successfully.
The Celtics and their star forward, Larry Bird, looked more mortal than immortal last week as they shook off the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference semis. But, ah, on Sunday, with 39 hours' rest, they jumped out to a 1-0 lead over the 76ers in the conference finals with a 108-93 win in Boston.
That victory was particularly meaningful because the Sixers had lately looked like a formidable challenger and had had six days off after sweeping Milwaukee. The Celtics, meanwhile, had hardly resembled the Celtics of 1968-69, the last championship team to repeat. It was alarming enough to see the scions of pro basketball's greatest dynasty muddle past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, but as their series with Detroit moved back to Boston, tied 2-2, a playoff that was supposed to have been quickly resolved had become a best-of-three miniseries. Could the Celtics possibly be bounced by the Pistons?
The answer was no, 335 times no. That's the number of shots Bird took by himself a few hours before Game 5 as he tried to break out of a slump he denied ever having been in. He made, according to an observer who counted, 274 of those shots. That's 82%, mortals.
It has long been Bird's habit to engage in these solitary pregame shooting sessions, but those familiar with the ritual noticed he was unusually purposeful this night. "There's nothing you can do about a shot once it leaves your hand," Bird would say in his plainspoken Hoosier manner. But, by implication, that heightens the importance of exactly how the ball leaves one's hand. So he stepped back and launched one. Swish. He leaned in and flicked one. Ka-swoosh. Bird may have been trying to purge the memory of the missed 15-footer that could have won Game 4. Or perhaps he was bothered by a startling stat that showed he had scored only two points in each of four of the previous five quarters against the Pistons. (If nothing else, this proved just how difficult it is to quantify a Bird negative.) But he refused to pawn any of this off on the painful bursitis in his right elbow, much less on a slump. "I wasn't in a slump," he said after he had broken out of it. "I've been in a groove for the last month. I was just missing some shots I shoulda hit."
Nevertheless, through the first half of Game 5, Bird's putative poor spell seemed to dog him still. He did shoot 7 for 12 but had no offensive rebounds and committed four turnovers. Few noticed, however, because Detroit's Vinnie Johnson and Boston's Dennis Johnson had hooked up in a battle of the veejay vs. the deejay. Dennis had been treated for a bad back before the game and had forgone his own pregame shot work, but he bit his lip and—more platter, less chatter—sank 10 of his first 13 shots. Meanwhile, like some hot video getting heavy MTV rotation, Vinnie launched into a reprise of the unconscious, 10-for-11, off-the-bench shooting he had exhibited in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 102-99 Game 4 victory. Here he scored from the key, the foul line, off the dribble and once from a half-sitting position in the lane. Four other times he scored. So scintillating was VJ's first-half performance that official Jake O'Donnell, for once letting down his slicked-back hair, cruised press row at the intermission to ask, "Has he missed yet?"
He had, once. And while both of the Js cooled off a bit in the second half. Bird began to sing. He wound up with 43 points, a career playoff high, working hard enough to score 31 of them in the lane or from the line. "Ugly," The Boston Globe pronounced admiringly.
It didn't matter which of four Pistons was assigned to guard him; Bird didn't miss the shots he shoulda hit. "There's no question I play against each of these guys differently," Bird said later. "But I'm not gonna tell you how."
Bird first schooled Kent Benson, the 6'10" Piston forward who, a decade ago, was a BMOC at Indiana while Bird was briefly a misfit there, destined to transfer to the happier environs of Indiana State. Bird's strategy against Benson, who moves laterally as easily as a locomotive, became obvious with 4� minutes remaining in the third quarter and the game still close. Bird faked left, Benson hedged and the beaked one bolted by him for a layup, foul and free throw, stretching Boston's lead to 83-77.
On came 6'9" Earl Cureton as the fourth quarter began, looking like a Bakuba tribesman because of the bone-colored mask he wore to protect a broken nose, perhaps hoping to scare Bird into mortality. While Cureton did hijack one Bird shot, that highlight was lost among Bird's 19-footer, three drives to the hoop and foul shot. "He uses his head," Cureton said, referring either to Bird's smarts or to his adeptness at the head fake, or both.