Cinderella's sneakers got stepped on today. To a Bullet team that came into this NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series saying, "I think I can, I think I can," the Boston Awesomes shot back, loud and mean:
"No, you can't."
This was reality for Washington's little gang of overachievers. At half-throttle, Boston won going away. With two of the most valuable players in the entire league, Robert Parish and Larry Bird, as close to awful offensively as they ever may be, Boston was ahead by 16 points with six minutes still left.
Pluck and luck often win a miniseries; talent wills out at this level. The Bullets have a few very good players; Boston has waves of them, at a level below Parish and Bird. Maybe the only way to make this series dramatic would be to match Boston's bench and Washington's starters.
The Bullets worked about as long and as hard as they can, though Greg Ballard still is shooting terribly. Bird, Parish and the MVP of the championship series last year, Cedric Maxwell, were 12 for 35 for the game, and Frank Johnson ran Tiny Archibald dizzy the first half.
So the Awesomes yawned and took the hobbles off some horses anxious to run. Rick Robey and Gerald Henderson. And let M.L. Carr go into offensive overdrive.
The first public words out of Carr's mouth after the 109-91 victory were: "Coming out of our second training camp of the season . . ." That's how the Awesomes approached their final regular-season games, and still finished six victories ahead of the next team in the league's overall standings.
The Awesomes said they did too take the Bullets seriously, that there was pregame strategy plus a halftime scolding from Coach Bill Fitch.
"We wanted to put pressure on their big men," Carr said. "And we could do that by me putting pressure on their guards."
He meant offensively as well as defensively.
If Washington was going to dedicate itself to plucking Bird, the usually defensive-minded Carr was going to gather uncommonly large bunches of points. He hit his season average, eight points, before halftime, and his 21 points were more than twice what any Bullet except Johnson and Spencer Haywood mustered.
"Their scouting report probably said to sit back on me," said the man who had back-to-back games of one for 12 and one for seven not long ago. Sitting back, the Bullets were burned from afar by Carr; playing in his face, they were burned by his drives.
Fitch burned Archibald at halftime, or said he did.
"Thought his defense the second half was a key," the coach said. "He ran the offense and went nose to nose with Frankie. And the longer I left him in, the better he got."
Robey is the board banger seldom seen much of the regular season because Parish played so exceptionally. Robey sat so long he lost nine pounds when Fitch played him 30 to 35 minutes at times during that second training camp. With his 10 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes today, the Awesomes could give Parish the entire fourth quarter off.
"But he'd better remember to be better next time," Fitch reminded reporters. The coach loves to preach to his players through the press, so he was quick to say of the Bullets: "They could be concerned (over losing so badly when Bird and Parish were mortal). But they're smart enough to know no two games are alike."
Fitch tried to coax Boston scribes into making his job before Wednesday's second game here a bit easier.
"If you write that way (that the Awesomes won sleepwalking)," he said, "the players might believe it. We need some cliches: One battle does not mean a war. Like that. If I tell the players what I tell you--and they don't believe it--I'll have to find a way to get their attention."
"Reminding them of the score at halftime."
Oh, yes. Washington was two points ahead then.
"A bona fide club," said Carr, following Fitch's lead. "Washington has a great team."
It is ought for seven against Boston now, including that 124-100 spanking in the season opener, the night the Awesomes patted themselves on their collective rump by stringing up their 14th NBA championship banner. And proceeded to run off their third straight 60-victory season under Fitch.
"Bill can go with whoever he wants (as starters)," Carr said in acknowledging Boston's depth. "What still wins it for us is defense. When we play defense like we did down the stretch, we become more of an offensive club. That was the biggest thing today."
As usual, the Bullets scored on some wonderfully conceived plays early. Three in a row near the beginning. Ballard scored a layup on a feed inside from Johnson, who lost Archibald on a pick and took a fine backdoor pass from Haywood. The same play next time downcourt got Rick Mahorn loose for an easy shot. Then Johnson lobbed to Don Collins for a dunk.
Later, Mahorn worked Bird low for two straight baskets.
"They forced us into some adjustments," Fitch said.
Forced them into paying attention the entire third quarter. Bad as Bird's offensive numbers were he still had 12 rebounds and the pass of the game. With just under two minutes left, Robey grabbed a missed Washington shot and whipped an outlet pass to Bird. In one motion at midcourt, Bird controlled the ball and flicked it ahead to Danny Ainge for a layup.