When Larry Bird missed the dunk—a point-blank dunk at crunch time in a do-or-die playoff game in Boston Garden—he did so not as a result of any strange astrological occurrence or the Massachusetts budget crisis or even tough defense.
He did so, by his own account, because he was worried. "I wasn't going to dunk it," he explained after the game. "But I thought Patrick was coming, so I tried to. And then I jumped too high, if you can believe it."
Believe it, as hard as it may seem. It is not the business of Boston Celtics to feel shadowy presences, least of all for Larry Legend to feel one from a New York Knick in the building in which New York had lost 26 straight times and hadn't won in the playoffs since the Nixon administration. This was the Garden, and the ghosts are supposed to be friendly. But: "I thought Patrick was coming."
If the truth be told, at the time of Bird's misguided dunk attempt, any Celtic was entitled to be wary of these Knicks. A little more than four minutes remained in Sunday's fifth and final game of these teams' first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, and the Patrick in question, a certain Mr. Ewing, had just feathered in a jump-hook to give New York a 103-99 lead. Ewing did just about everything asked of him in this game. He finished with 31 points and 10 assists, and those figures are stark testimony to how shrewdly he picked apart Boston's double teams with opportune passes and drives. Ewing's frontcourt helpmate Charles Oakley had 26 points and 17 rebounds, pulling down virtually everything that fell off the Celtics' basket.
Gerald Wilkins, Trent Tucker and Johnny Newman all contributed to the Knicks' new-found adroitness in their half-court offense with slashing sallies to the hoop, spot-up jump shots and emphatic dunks. Even the 7-foot Ewing ran down an errant pass deep in the corner, wheeled and flung in a three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 2:03 left, making certain the Knicks' eventual 121-114 victory. No wonder Bird had sensed ominous forces at work.
But what Bird felt may have been the spirit of a much slighter fellow than Ewing, someone who had been here on Causeway Street many times before. He's originally from Chicago. Stick a fedora on him, and he would look like an Untouchable, which is what the Philadelphia 76ers considered him to be for a decade, and what the Knicks should treat him as for another 10 years or until he demonstrably stops setting the standard by which playoff floor leadership is judged.
For 11 seasons Maurice Cheeks has been a stoic model of a point guard. He toed the Boston Garden foul line late in Game 7 in 1981, eyeing a crucial foul shot for the Sixers as the Celtics' M.L. Carr told him, "Don't choke." (Cheeks missed, and Philly blew what had been a 3-1 series lead.) He came back to the Garden in '82 for another Game 7, at the end of a series in which the Sixers had suffered a 40-point loss, and he led Philly to the only final-game playoff defeat Boston suffered in that decade. In '83 he led the Sixers to Dr. J's title.
The way he learned of his 1989 trade from the 76ers to San Antonio was an indignity: A TV station stuck a minicam and microphone in his face as he drove into the driveway of his suburban Philadelphia home. Emotionally obliterated, he rolled up his car window and drove around the block to compose himself. This is an instructive story for anyone who wonders whether a heart goes along with Cheeks's usual poker face.
The kvetchers in the New York tabloids couldn't have known exactly what the Knicks traded for on Feb. 21, when malcontent understudy point guard Rod Strickland went to the Spurs for Cheeks. Even the Knicks couldn't have known, until it became clear over the last three games of this series against Boston. Cheeks was flawless in Game 3, on May 2, as the Knicks—flush with embarrassment over the 157-128 pasting in Boston that had put them down 2-0—returned to Madison Square Garden. He distributed 11 assists without a turnover in a 102-99 New York victory. He passed out 12 assists with only two errors in Game 4 last Friday, a 135-108 rout in which the Knicks began to sense what glorious havoc they could cause with half-court pressure applied judiciously. In Game 5 he was merely magnificent.
Why are quarterbacks so revered in pro football and treated as if they were replaceable parts in pro basketball? Cheeks has much in common with Joe Montana: austere in his style, a master of the short game, and cash money in the postseason. While his erstwhile teammate Charles Barkley was body-slamming the 76ers into the other Eastern Conference semifinal—the Sixers began their series with the Chicago Bulls early this week, as the Knicks did theirs with the Detroit Pistons—by laying his corpus on any unsuspecting Cleveland Cavalier who wandered into the lane, Cheeks, who seems not to carry an ounce of body fat, was old-fashioned economy of movement and purity of purpose. Barkley might note the difference between effort and excess. Certainly the vanquished Celtics did. "A vintage Cheeks game," said Boston coach Jimmy Rodgers.