The Boston Celtics got over their post-76er blues just in time to slip by the Houston Rockets, 98-95, at Boston Garden tonight to win the first game of the NBA championship series.

The man for the Celtics, once again, was Larry Bird, who had 18 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists. Every time his team faltered, he was there to pick it up.

"Maybe we still had Philadelphia on our minds a bit, I don't know," Bird said. "We definitely weren't at our best tonight, but it still came out in our favor. That's all we care about."

The Rockets came out, in their methodical way, and trudged to a 22-8 lead. The Celtics had to play catch-up most of the night.

"When you get behind, the way to get back in the game is by playing defense and by rebounding," said Bird, a man who speaks in simple terms, "so we rebounded and played defense."

The Celtics finally caught up midway through the third quarter and neither team led by more than five points after that.

Diminutive Calvin Murphy made a running 18-footer to give the Rockets a 91-88 lead with 5:15 remaining. But the Celtics scored eight unanswered points. Bird had two of the points, two rebounds and two assists in that streak as the Celtics moved to a 96-91 lead, their biggest of the game, with 2:53 remaining.

They missed their next three shots, however, and Tom Henderson scored on a layup and a 16-foot jumper to get the Rockets back within one, 96-95, with 1:29 left.

The game was decided on the Celtics' next possession -- they controlled the ball for 1 minute 10 seconds before Bird finally scored leaving Boston with a three-point lead with only 19 seconds to play.

The key possession started with Tiny Archibald missing a short shot, but Chris Ford got the rebound and a new 24 seconds. The Celtics ran the clock down with Robert Parish trying a running hook shot. He missed, and the rebound fell right into Moses Malone's hands. This wasn't the night that Moses delivered anyone from anywhere and he fumbled the ball away to Ford. Another new 24 seconds for the Celtics.

Parish missed again, but Bird was there for the rebound, missed, got the rebound again and finally scored.

The Rockets called timeout to get Rudy Tomjanovich and Murphy -- their three-point shooters -- into the game. Tomjanovich made a three-point attempt from beyond the top of the key, but it banged off the glass. The Rockets got the rebound and two more shots, but both were two-point attempts and neither went in.

M.L. Carr rebounded the last miss, by Robert Reid, and the Celtics had beaten the Rockets for the 14th straight time.

Reid led the Rockets with 27 points, 13 in the first quarter.

Murphy came off the bench with 16 and Billy Paultz had 14, all in the frist half. Malone had 15 rebounds, but made only four of 17 shots and finished with 13 points. He went scoreless in the final period.

The game was a contrast in styles. The Celtics are perhaps the NBA's best running team. The Rockets like things done at a more leisurely pace. The Celtics scored 23 points off their break tonight while the Rockets got only five and had only two sequences that came anywhere near resembling fast breaks. Both came after Boston turnovers.

The Rockets were also done in on the boards, outrebounded, 54-42, and 25-19 at the offensive end.

The Celtics got 33 points from their offensive rebounds, 10 in the fourth quarter, while the Rockets didn't score a point off a second shot the last period and only 18 points from second shots.

"This should have been our game," said Murphy. "We had it under control and we let it get away. We controlled the tempo and did exactly what we wanted to do. If you can hold a running team like Boston under 100 points, you've accomplished a major goal. But we aren't happy because we didn't win."

There were no surprises with the matchups, as the Rockets put Reid on Bird and Parish played Malone.

The most exciting play of the night was by Bird, early in the fourth period. He tried a jump shot from the foul line, but anticipated it was going to be off to the left as soon as it left his hand. He darted to the baseline before it hit the rim, rebounded with his right hand from behind the basket and, with his left hand, laid it back in.

"Bird always makes the heads-up plays," said Paultz. "He hits the triple, not the homer. (Julius) Erving hits the homer. But the triple is good enough to win games."

The second game of the best-of-seven series will be Thursday night at the Boston Garden.

Reid, who scored a game-high 27 points, said, "You bet Moses isn't going to shoot four for 17 Thursday. The big guy is going to put up 40 or more shots."

Billy Paultz, who had 14 points, also provided some insight into the dismal offensive showing of the Rocket center.

"Moses is the type of person who beats himself. He didn't play that well offensively, but I have never seen him have two bad offensive games back-to-back. He played very well defensively," Paultz said.

Calvin Murphy, who had 16 points agreed Boston's rebounding edge proved to be the difference.

"Any time we try too hard, there is a tendency that the ball will squirt out of our hands. They (the Celtics) are a great team. We played well but they got too many offensive rebounds, too many second shots. They were relentless. They come at you and come at you. They made the key plays down the stretch."