You could sense it from the start. The fans in the Milwaukee Arena gave the Bucks a standing ovation during the introduction of the starting lineup. The applause seemed tinged with a sense of gratitude, as if the paying customers knew the end of their team's season was upon them and they wanted to say thanks.
The fans were prophetic, because the Bucks were dismissed from the NBA Eastern Conference final series today with a 111-98 loss to the Boston Celtics, who swept the series, 4-0. Boston will play the winner of the Los Angeles Lakers-Houston Rockets series for the NBA title.
"They were able to play at a different level than we were throughout the series," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson.
The Bucks led through much of the game, as they had in Game 3 Saturday, when the Celtics waited until the last eight minutes to turn it on. But this afternoon, the Bucks were dispatched by a typically superb performance from Larry Bird, who took over in the fourth quarter and buried the Bucks under a barrage of long-range jumpers.
"The Celtics don't come to split," said Bird, who scored 17 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. "We come to win."
Bird's pass to Robert Parish put the Celtics ahead to stay, 85-84, with 10:55 to go in the game.
But, as Bird said later, the Celtics were not hitting on all cylinders at the offensive end. The Bucks had not quit, and when Sidney Moncrief scored with 5:21 left to make the score 95-92, it was still a game.
But only long enough for Bird to show why he may be the best player in the league.
In the 39 seconds after Moncrief's basket, Bird hit two three-point shots. Moncrief made two free throws, but Bird did the same and followed with another three-pointer to put the Celtics up by 106-94 with 1:40 left. That all but ended the game and the Bucks' season.
"We hit a couple three-point shots, and after that the game was over," said Bird, who had only one shot and no points in the third quarter. "In the third quarter I wasn't in the flow of the game and didn't get my hands on the ball as much as I'd like."
And to finish off his afternoon, Bird tossed in his fifth and final three-pointer with one second left in the game. Bird said he did not intend to rub the Bucks' noses in their defeat.
"I didn't want to just stand there," he said. "Danny [Ainge] threw it to me, and I wasn't going to just stand there, so I said, 'What the heck?' Even after I shot it, I said, 'Why'd I take that?' But it went in."
It was that kind of day for the Bucks, whose leader, Moncrief, found little that was positive in the loss.
"It means a lot that we didn't give up," said Moncrief, who led the Bucks with 27 points. "But other than that, there isn't much."
The Bucks didn't get off to as strong a start today as they did Saturday, but they led for most of the first half.
Paul Pressey and Terry Cummings had nine points each in the first period. The Bucks had a 28-19 lead with 2:25 left in the period, but Bird scored on a base line drive and Kevin McHale (20 points, 11 rebounds) scored twice in a row to cut the Milwaukee lead to 28-25 at the end of the period.
The Bucks lost the services of Ricky Pierce at 10:17 of the second period when he was ejected for throwing Ainge to the floor, a move precipitated by Ainge's high-flying forearm.
Ainge made both free throws to cut the Milwaukee lead to 32-31, and after a field goal by Pressey, Ainge hit a three-point shot to tie the game at 34, with 9:30 left in the period.
The lead went back and forth until Bird scored to put Boston ahead by 52-51 with 3:43 left in the half. Ainge hit two baskets in the last two minutes to help Boston to a 62-58 lead at halftime. The Bucks hung tough in the third quarter and took an 82-79 advantage into the fourth.
Boston Coach K.C. Jones said, "At the beginning of the third quarter, when we got a six-point lead, we began to get out of kilter and make some bad passes. Then we had some foul trouble [Dennis Johnson eventually fouled out], and it took us five minutes to regroup.
"Then we made our strong move in the fourth quarter. The back-breaker was Bird's first three-pointer. He was also on the boards and making passes. He's the one that really put us ahead."
After the game, a controversy arose when a local attorney convinced Milwaukee police to check out a container that he said was found under the Celtics' bench during Saturday's game.
Alan Eisenberg said he had obtained the cylinder from Dr. Robert Wetzler. Wetzler, who sits behind the visitors' bench with Eisenberg at the Arena, said he picked up a discarded ampul after he saw Celtics players inhale a substance from it. The Milwaukee police were to test that container and one they requested from Celtics trainer Ray Melchiorre at a state laboratory on Monday.
Melchiorre said the cylinders contained only ammonia and that the players use them as they would smelling salts.
NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement condemning the whole incident as a publicity stunt. "It's sad that our players can be subjected to harassment by the local publicity hounds. The media and police should know better than to allow themselves to be used in such an outrageous manner."