With 35 seconds left and at the end of a Houston timeout, a little man in a blue sweater made a desperate dash through the cluttered walkway from the Celtic dressing room to the Boston bench. The way he pushed through the crowd, almost clawing at times, the way he yelled at assistant K. C. Jones indicated something important was at hand.
The latest in sophisticated sports spying?
Had the man in the blue sweater been monitering television, listening as CBS tried to pry into what the Rockets had in mind on that out-of-bounds play from halfcourt with a one-point lead and relayed the information to the Celtics?
Why else would he be so desparate?
Why else would Jones, immediately after talking with the little fellow, jump to his feet and signal the Celtis on the floor just as the ball was passed inbounds?
"He told us to watch out for the lob to Moses (Malone)," said Kevin McHale.
Was that the play diagrammed?
"We wanted to go down to Mo underneath," Allen Leavell.
"The lob certainly is one of the ways to get it to him," said Billy Paultz.
"I'm not gonna comment one way or the other," said Jones.
Whatever message was relayed, and this is not the first time somebody has been convinced he caught the Celts using television to their advantage, it failed. Malone never touched the ball, but he drew enough of a crowd to free Leavell for an open shot.
He made it.
Of course, it does not take some lightening-quick spy with a Ph.D in basketball tactics to figure the Rockets would try to work a play to their launcher. Still. . .
Where is that little guy going? a Celtic aide was asked after he made another dash off the court during a Rockets timeout with 18 seconds left?
"He's going to the bathroom," the aide said. But he seemed very intend on whether the little guy had made it safely, whether he should help part the crowd during another mad dash. Our suspect returned once, but watched the action from afar, left again during another timeout and never returned.
His kidneys become active at the most convenient times.
The Celtics passed away this one. For the second straight game in this NBA championship final, they threw the ball away too many times, 22 in all. Unlike Game 1, they did not get away with it tonight. Turnovers and an angered Malone can beat most anyody now and then.
Malone reversed himself tonight. From 13 points in the opener, he scored 31 points tonight. He took only seven more shots from the field this game, but went to the foul line 12 more times.
"I definitely was looking for the ball more," he said. "I was looking to free myself, get myself more in the offense. Sometimes the ball feels light, sometimes it feels heavy. I just wanted to put it up and see what it would do."
Probably, the ball felt lighter more often tonight, because Malone's nemesis in Game 1, Robert Parrish, spent about two-thirds of the game on the bench in foul trouble. Parish's subs, Rick Robey and McHale, were decent on defense, but not enough of an offensive threat to keep Moses from drifting and making at least one key steal near the end.
"I got a couple of bad breaks," Parish said. "But I should have made the necessary adjustments. I should have eased up instead of staying aggressive. I didn't adjust to the officials.
Parish, who was four for seven from the field, made two dumb fouls at the start of the second half and was benched. With a lineup that included both McHale and Robey at times and reserve guards Gerald Henderson and M. L. Carr, the Celts jumped to what seemed a safe lead.
Henderson was especially effective on jump shots and nice passes in traffic. Once he either made an awful pass behind Carr or a brilliant blind one to Cedric Maxwell, so close to Carr's rear fender was the mobile forward on a fast break layup.
Celtic subs were superior to Rocket regulars.Frequently in the second and third quarters, the official play-by-play shorthand would read: "Henderson breakaway layup (from) McHale" . . . "Robey two-hand stuff (from) McHale" . . . "Robey tips in own miss after break."
Still, there were disturbing signs for Celtic fans. The team was too far ahead too quickly, breaking away from its familiar playoff pattern of falling hopelessly behind early and then rallying at the end.
"When the time came for them to execute or for us to excute," McHale said, "they did it better."
And the Celts' pressure player, Larry Bird, was uncommonly mortal for a change. He misses some open shots late in the game and forced too many passes at times. He was so unsure of himself at the end that he passed to Tiny Archibald for the final shot.
The Rockets hardly were awesome, shooting 30 percent in the first half and 40 percent for the game. They also were outrebounded by 13. And Moses tossed up the ugliest air ball imaginable with 93 seconds left and Houston ahead by a point.
Unlike so many times in recent playoff games, the Celts went sour from the field when it mattered most. Or perhaps their extraordinary stretch of good fortune finally stopped tonight. They have not played consistently championship-like basketball for at least five games, but they've still won four.
"I think everybody backed off Moses a little bit because of the fouls," said McHale, who had five fouls to Parish's six. "But anytime a guy gets seven offensive rebounds it hurts the hell out of you. And several of their shots went down just as the (24-second) buzzer was going off."
McHale paused, finished dressing and walked out of the dressing room saying: "Like they say in tennis, we gotta break back."