Just in the nick of time, the Houston Rockets found an apparent solution to both Larry Bird and the third-quarter swoons that have plagued them thus far during the NBA championship series as they rallied to a 106-104 victory over the Boston Celtics today at the Summit.
The Celtics still hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 to be played here Tuesday night.
Ralph Sampson led the Rockets with 24 points and 22 rebounds, Akeem Olajuwon had 23 points and guard Robert Reid 20.
Kevin McHale led Boston with 28 points and Bird had a triple double of 25 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. But for perhaps the first time in their spectacular postseason, things didn't go the Celtics' way at the end of the game. The team scored but one field goal in the final three minutes of play, losing an eight-point lead in the process.
With three seconds remaining, the Celtics had a chance to tie the game, but center Robert Parish was called for stepping out of bounds after taking an inbounds pass from Dennis Johnson.
That had been preceded four seconds earlier by another bizarre play. A tip-in by Houston guard Mitchell Wiggins had given the Rockets a 105-104 lead with 31 seconds remaining, and Houston then harried Boston unmercifully on defense.
Just before the 24-second clock expired, Parish took a jump shot that missed. The rebound bounced off Bird's head and out of bounds, but at some point during the sequence, referee Jake O'Donnell had blown his whistle, perhaps anticipating the shot clock violation. After consulting with partner Joe Crawford, the duo called the play an inadvertent whistle and lined the teams up at midcourt for a jump ball.
Sampson easily won the tip from Parish, batting the ball to Olajuwon, who made one of two free throws to account for the game's final point.
"I haven't even ever heard of an inadvertent whistle," said Parish. "How can you blow a whistle if you don't mean it? Unless you have emphysema."
"Robert went up for the shot and the whistles started blowing and they called a jump ball," added Bird. "I didn't know what was happening but I thought it was the biggest play of the game."
Most of the sellout crowd of 16,016 would disagree with the all-star's assessment, instead giving a nod to the 6:01 mark of the third quarter as the game's turning point. Ahead, 62-59, at halftime, the Rockets began the third quarter abysmally, turning the ball over seven times and going scoreless in the first 4:30.
Meanwhile, the Celtics were running off 11 points to take a 70-62 lead. The painful sequence recalled the two previous games for the Rockets, when Boston outscored them by 13 and 15 points to break open relatively close contests.
At the halfway mark of the period, just before Sampson made the second of two free throws to draw his team to within nine points at 74-65, Houston Coach Bill Fitch inserted guard Allen Leavell into the game for forward Rodney McCray. It wasn't Leavell that made the move brilliant -- he scored just five points -- but the ramifications of the switch.
For example, Reid moved from guard to small forward, where he would guard Bird and Bird would guard him. Both were equally important from Houston's standpoint. On defense, the 6-foot-8 Reid had had previous successes against Bird, most notably in the 1981 championship, when he helped hold Bird to five and eight points in two games of the series.
On offense, Reid's outstanding outside shot kept Bird honest, forcing him to move outside and away from the sagging defense that helped clog the middle, limiting Sampson and Olajuwon's working space. Both aspects were successful. The Rockets' Twin Towers scored 25 of their 47 points from then on; Bird had just four of his points and two of his assists during the remaining 18 minutes.
"Larry was looking to go inside to his big people with the ball more," said Reid. "But when they did come back to him on the isolation play, I just tried to confuse him, keep him guessing when I was gonna try for the steal and with which hand."
Still, the Celtics held an 84-80 lead at the end of the third quarter and had an eight-point cushion in the waning minutes. After that, said McHale, "It was like we just hit a wall goin' down the stretch."
Meanwhile, with Wiggins thinking that "the last two minutes seemed like a whole game," the Rockets were beginning to wonder if their clutch play in the closing minutes throughout their Western Conference final series against the Los Angeles Lakers was a mirage. Then again, it's hard to play tough in the final minutes when you're down by a bundle going into them.
"I don't know if we're drinking too much soda or orange juice or what, but our engines aren't warm and theirs are revving at the start of the second half," said Reid. "After we fell behind today I walked out on the floor after a timeout and started laughing. I was mad and all tense and I said, 'Take a look at yourself and put a smile on your face.' Then I told everyone else that we were still in the game."
That eventually turned out to be true and the Rockets emerged victorious, although they still seem to think they can do better.
"I was glad we won, but it wasn't a very good win," said Olajuwon. "We didn't beat them -- I know we can beat them."