Between games, the best way to look at Larry Bird is with your eyes shut. He's almost always good for a couple of lasting impressions each time on the court. So while the NBA caravan heads out of town, rewind the mental tape and see why basketball's most complete player just might make Houston the season's blessed final stop. Slowly, pick up Game 2 here as . . .
Dennis Johnson takes an inordinate amount of time bringing the ball upcourt against the tenacious Lewis Lloyd. Johnson's snaky route through three-quarters of the Boston Garden court has taken more than half the allotted 24 seconds. Instead of reaching for the panic button, as many players might, Johnson simply goes Bird-watching.
The celestial Celtic is not where the casual fan might expect. Bird has not hustled toward his seemingly trapped teammate at all. That would only clutter matters even more, for in basketball the shortest pass very often is the most dangerous.
This moment in the second quarter, Bird has drifted into his comfort zone: deep in the right base line, several inches beyond the three-point line. Quicker than the poor Rocket who has left Bird for double coverage can grab his head and say, "Oh, my God," Johnson whips the ball to Bird and Bird buries it in the net.
"Sometimes," he said later, "something like that can be a back-breaker."
Beyond everything else, Bird is a shooter. Close to matchless, in fact. That sets up each of his other skills, the drives and passes, and starts chain reactions that give sweaty gyms the feel of sterile physics labs. In Game 2 Thursday, Bird shot better from three-point range (three for five) than all but one of the eight Rockets with significant minutes did from two-point turf.
"He never gets a bad shot," teammate Bill Walton marvels.
Considering that Bird has gone about reinventing the set shot, his accuracy from afar and in traffic is astonishing. He and Mount Rushmore have equally impressive hang times. Also, the reason Bird wears his hair so long is that it keeps opponents from noticing the eyes in the back of his head.
You hadn't known that?
Until a more plausible explanation surfaces, I say one of those rows of curls act as a set of Venetian blinds that fold up when Bird is in deepest trouble. How else can he look dead ahead and redirect the ball to a teammate directly behind him? Blind passes cannot be completed blindly, can they?
Back to the mind's VCR. If a sequence of a few minutes in the third quarter of Thursday's 117-95 Boston victory has been erased, shame. Walton and most of the other Celtics will savor for quite some time Bird having a hand on almost all that was good for Boston and draining for Houston.
"A special moment in NBA history," said Walton, who had a few himself for Portland in the mid-1970s.
One time down court, Bird whipped a 30-foot pass to Robert Parish for a layup. Soon he was stealing the ball and launching a three-pointer. That lifted the Celtics to a 73-56 statement he punctuated with a fist thrown wildly in the air.
"I'm not sure the stats come close to telling how much he actually meant," Danny Ainge said. "The loose balls and saves."
Ah, yes, Bird is that rarest of athletic birds: a superstar who does windows. Not to be picky, but would Horowitz also tune the piano?
Houston tried about every tactic possible to tame Bird; it was like selecting poisons. The capable Rodney McCray would bump Bird as far from the basket as he could on isolations -- and watch a fallaway 20-footer slide cleanly over his flailing hands and through the net. Double- teaming was even worse, for that meant the Celtics were one pass from an open jumper and two passes away from a layup.
"He puts the ball in the hands of a man who can put it in the basket," said Coach K.C. Jones.
"When he calls his play," said Walton, referring to those right-side maneuvers against McCray, "we know to go to the other end of the court. He's so much fun to watch. But you have to guard against that, because that will keep you from concentrating on what you should be.
" . . . Momentum in basketball is everything. With him out [during one brief stretch in the third quarter], we lost it. Put him in, we get it right back."
Walton called it "a privilege" to play with Bird. Some Trail Blazers said that about Walton a decade ago.
"Wish they'd double-team me more," said Bird. "I enjoy that. It makes my game stronger. But it's also fun knocking in a long one or a three-pointer. That's what really hurts a team. We play well in the third quarter, and that goes back to Bill Fitch [of the Rockets, who formerly coached the Celtics]. He always said the first five minutes of the third quarter makes a difference."
If Bird's style of play seems selfless, he hardly is without ego. That was evident when he was asked about that short breather in the third period.
"K.C. makes the decisions," he said, "but I'm here to win a championship. [Bill] Russell played 48 minutes. I feel I can play with Russell. I can play 48 minutes, too."
Unlike Walton, most of us get sporadic doses of Bird. Which is why one first-half sequence keeps getting replayed a day later. His back to the basket, Bird has the taller Akeem Olajuwon on his hip and devilment in his heart. Bird fakes a bounce pass behind him so well that the ball all but has Olajuwon's eyes glued to it. Flatfooted, he watches helplessly as Bird pulls the ball back, turns and swishes a soft jumper.
"He does that all the time in practice," said Walton, adding: "He could have gotten as many points as he wanted tonight."
An hour or so after the final basket, a microphone was thrust under Walton's chin and the familiar television non-question began: "So much has been said about Larry Bird . . . "
Walton smiled and interrupted:
"Say some more."