There was a moment, just after the final horn had sounded here tonight at Boston Garden, when no one was quite certain if the Celtics had indeed come away with a 103-101 victory over the Washington Bullets.
Taking possession in the final 24 seconds of the game on a rare miss by Larry Bird, Washington exhibited good ball movement and overcame stifling defense, getting a short bank shot from Greg Ballard with two seconds to play. The ball rattled around the rim and fell out, but the noise of the crowd was such that it was hard to hear the horn that signaled the game had come to an end.
"I thought there were still a couple of seconds left," the Bullets' Jeff Ruland said. But while players continued to scramble for the loose ball, the officials stepped in to indicate that a splendid Washington rally had fallen just short.
Trailing by 19 points in the first half, the Bullets came back to take an 88-86 lead on Darren Daye's free throw with 7:38 to play in the game.
What happened after that, however, was pretty much the story of the entire game. That is to say: Robert Parish (23 points, 16 rebounds) and Bird. Needing 14 points to reach 10,000 in his six-year NBA career, Bird ended the game with a game-high 33.
Parish tied the score with a hook shot from the lane with 7:19 to play. Then Bird made two baskets, one of them a three-point shot, to give the Celtics a 93-88 lead.
Boston's margin grew to 101-95 on Parish's free throw with 2:23 to play but the Bullets came back again, pulling to 101-99. Parish then scored on a goaltending call against Rick Mahorn, but a basket by Ballard cut the margin to two again to set up the climactic final seconds.
"We just dug such a big hole for ourselves. It's tough enough to beat the Celtics starting out 0-0, let alone giving them such a big lead," said Bullets guard Gus Williams, who scored 15 points, five fewer than Jeff Malone.
Actually, there was little that Washington could do to prevent the Celtics' early lead. The Bullets entered the game on a bit of a high, having snuck out of Milwaukee with a 99-95 victory Tuesday and coming into the Garden with forward Cliff Robinson back in tow.
Bullets Coach Gene Shue felt confident that his team would give a good effort in the game but, according to Ruland, the Bullets were perhaps too keyed up. "Sometimes you can come out too high for a game and it causes you to play like you're drained," he said.
The Celtics didn't have such a problem. Boston shot 73 percent in the first period, Bird leading the way with seven-for-seven shooting.
"You know that a team can't shoot that way for an entire game," Shue said. "The danger, though, when they start to miss, is letting them get offensive rebounds for easy scores."
For a time, it looked as if the Celtics were in no danger of missing, but Shue kept remarkably cool. Taking an early timeout at the 10:48 mark of the first quarter, the coach was smiling, almost jovial, in talking with Malone.
Shue's mood didn't change much when Boston jumped out to a big lead, thanks to phenomenal shooting. After leading by 37-20 after the first quarter, the Celtics expanded the lead to 51-32 with 6:02 left in the half.
That's when the Bullets went on a shooting tear, a 20-8 run that was spurred by a half-court, trapping defense. The key player in the spell was Frank Johnson. Paired at guard with Williams, Johnson scored 11 points in the final six minutes of the half, nine coming on a three-point shot and two three-point plays. The Bullets cut the margin to 59-52 at intermission.
"I didn't think their press was that strong. It wasn't that tough to beat," Bird said. "But it did make us do things that we didn't want to do." For example, five turnovers in the final six minutes of the half.
The Bullets started the third period just as they ended the second, cutting the seven-point halftime lead to 61-58. Then Bird, as he did all game when the Celtics were in need, came to the fore, scoring half of Boston's next 12 points.
After the game, Bird contended that reaching 10,000 points was really "nothing special. I didn't even know I was close until someone told me about it last week. All I know is that it takes a lot of jump shots to reach that number."
But, said Boston Coach K.C. Jones, there's more to Bird than shooting. "I put him as the best all-time player not just because of his scoring but he's getting floor burns, he's getting assists and he's getting rebounds," Jones said. "Go down the list of the all-time greats and I doubt you'll come up with anyone with these credentials."