Because this was not a "decisive" game in the NBA championship series tonight, it seems imperative to offer a . . . . . . delay in the column so the routine of hoop junkies and insomniacs will not be interrupted.
There are the best of times and the worst of times for the NBA and the NHL, their showcase games, when play becomes most intense. And yet this is when they get exposed as semi-major sports, with not enough interest outside the competing areas for network television to risk prime-time dollars. Or any at all for hockey.
Game 5 of the NBA final playoffs, CBS judged, did not have clout enough to go head to head tonight with Dean Martin in an hour-long half-stupor. The entire Stanley Cup series will go without being seen at all, let along live, in most of the nation.
Imagine NBC not allowing the first several games of the World Series to be shown live? Or ABC holding its Saturday college football show for Tuesday release?
Before today, the only NBA cities beyond the Houston and Boston areas where Game 6 of the playoffs definitely would be seen live Thursday night were Washington and Denver. The way the Celtics turned killers tonight few others will join the parade.
In truth, Channel 9 in Washington got lucky tonight by avoiding a live telecast. General Manager Edwin Pfeiffer, who admitted to a television turnover that caused the station to reverse a decision to go live at 8 o'clock instead of with tape at 11:30, must be joyous. An apparent blunder became a blessing five minutes or so before half-time.
The teams had won two games each, but tonight's game was bad enough to justify extremes television measures, something along the lines of a large sign suddenly appearing on screens saying: "We interrupt this telecast because of incompetence by one of the teams -- Houston."
Almost anything would have been preferable to this mess. Ozzie and Harriet even. The Rockets tonight were like the rockets in America's embroynic space program; they rose ever so slightly off the launch pad, stopped and then went spinning out of control, tail over head, back to earth.
Before tonight, the series had some appeal, though hardly enough to be compelling much beyond hard-core basketball fans. Who could get passionate about a 40-42 team in the final record of the interminable playoffs?
Well, anyone who wants to see the best rebounder in all of basketball, Moses Malone, try and hack his way through a forest of Celtic hackers with little help from the officials. Or the best all-round player in the league, Larry Bird.
If the NBA championship series had the appeal of baseball's World Series, the Rockets' Mike Dunleavy would be seen as Brian Doyle, Billy Martin or some other career plodder suddenly transformed into a shooting star, however briefly. Malone is the O. J. Simpson of his sport, with only a ring to certify his unique impact."
For the first four games, the Rockets showed what makes them special, if not lovable. They are the ultimate athletic lunch-pail carriers; they work harder than most teams in most sports, because they have to.Theirs is an embarrassment of rags, of too many mediocre players. Only a team that fought for 28 offensive rebounds could overcome shooting 35 percent and win, as Houston did Sunday.
Tonight, Houston played down to its level and Boston played up to what produced the best regular-season performance in the league. The Rockets mustered a 14-13 lead at one point and then fizzled, playing so terribly that Robert Reid and Bill Willoughby each missed wide-open slam dunks.
"A complete disaster," Coach Del Harris said, not overstating matters one bit. "Sometimes you win by four; sometimes you win by five; sometimes you win by a million. Tonight, (the Celtic victory) was a million."
The Rockets won the fourth game Sunday, in part, they said, because only six men played. "Substitutes just mess you up," Harris volunteered.
The regulars messed up so regularly tonight that the almost-never-seen Major Jones and Rudy Tomjanovich were hustling onto the court midway through the third quarter.
By then, the one spark the Rockets had, Calvin Murphy, had returned to courtside, but with ice strapped to his left shoulder. He hurt it during a collision, with Rick Robey with more than seven minutes left in the second period, and is not likely to be doing much more serious gunning until Celtics are off limits.
Boston played with the sort of confidence that caused nearly everyone but the most faithful Houstonite to believe this would be the decisive game of the series. The Celtics are grateful they won decisively.
Their lead was so safe, 67-39 to be exact, that Cedric Maxwell began a high-five routine with the other four Celts on the court after his difficult layup with 7:40 left in the third period. Red Auerback could have been halfway through his first cigar by then, so certain was everything but the final score.
Crusty Bill Fitch was even helpful. Asked to assess the importance of a 19-1 spurt, the Celtic coach said: "(It's) better than 18-2 but not as good as 20-1."
The Celts have a habbit of playing very well only when they believe that is absolutely necessary, such as in Game 3 in Houston and tonight. Which means that they might well take Thursday night off. Or Bird might be tired enough to suffer through another bad shooting game. Or Robert Parish might drift into another foul funk.
Whatever, stay tuned. Live, for a change.