There was none of the usual joshing or banter as the players warmed up for the seventh and decisive game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series in Boston last Sunday. The tension was thick, the faces grim, the mood more that of the National Basketball Association championship than of a preliminary round. During the preceding week, the series between the Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks had taken on almost epic proportions, a drama that went to the identities of the two teams.
For three seasons, the Hawks have been the team about to be, loaded with eager young talent, led by a star, Dominique Wilkins, who yearly adds maturity to his brilliance. This season they faltered, causing some to wonder whether they would ever make it at all.
The Celtics were precisely the opposite, the veteran dynasty widely viewed as on its last legs. The previous Wednesday, it seemed the legs had given out. As expected, the Celtics had won the first two games at the Garden. But the victories were tentative, not the decisive thrashings Boston fans expect. Then the Hawks took two in Atlanta, bringing the teams back to Boston even-all.
The Celtics were depending on the Garden, with its banners and legends, to revive their fortunes. After all, Atlanta hadn't won there in 13 tries dating back to 1985. But the dike finally broke. The Hawks won, 112 to 104. The Celtics looked methodical and flat, with nothing in reserve. They couldn't hold back the surging young Hawks, who gained confidence with every basket.
With less than a minute to go, Boston down by nine, there were still flutters of hope. Maybe Larry could do it. He has done the impossible so many times, people almost expect it. But this one was beyond even Larry Bird.
Fans were stunned. But also not stunned. For two years now, they have been hearing footsteps. First Len Bias, the No. 1 draft choice expected to pick up Bird's mantle, died of a cocaine overdose the day after the Celtics chose him. Then Bill Walton had more foot problems, followed by Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. This season Parish and McHale were healthy. But wasn't everybody talking about how they're ``getting up there''?
``It's gonna take a miracle to win in Atlanta,'' said one fan, trudging toward the exit after that Game 5 loss. And in the locker room, reporters asked questions in hushed tones. Danny Ainge, the Celtics guard, looked ashen. McHale, normally upbeat and chatty, talked about a ``self-destruction mission.''
Dennis Johnson (``DJ'' to all in Boston), the Celtics' plucky guard, was unrepentent as usual, reminding reporters the series wasn't over yet. But in nearby Cambridge, the owner of a Chinese restaurant asked a patron if it was raining outside. The patron replied that it was.
``Raining tears,'' the owner said.
``What do you mean?''
``The Boston Celtics, my friend. It doesn't look good.''
But in Atlanta, the Celtics came out with a steely determination not seen in Boston for most of the season. They won 102-100, a bona fide thriller every bit as close as the score. That brought it back to Boston for Game 7.
During what is called in Boston the ``Bird Era,'' games at the Garden have become almost ritual tableaux. The outcome preordained, fans come to enjoy the show. But the crowd on Sunday was stomping and roaring as for an underdog, even breaking into the college chant, ``Let's Go Celtics, Let's Go.'' Grown men were dressed in Celtics sweat suits, and green knits were everywhere.
The Celtics started out tense. Bird missed a couple of easy shots. At the other end, Wilkins and Glenn (Doc) Rivers, the Hawks' fine point guard, were tossing in baskets with alarming ease. Whenever one team started a run, the other closed the door. And the tension grew.
There have been many such playoff dramas throughout the Bird era - the grueling series with Philadelphia in 1981, for example. But then, the Celtics were the upstart team with time on their side. Now, it was the other way.
The video scoreboard kept flashing statistics such as the Celtics' record in seventh games (16-3) as though to enlist history in the cause. But history stayed put. At halftime it was 59-58 Celtics. This one was going to the wire. Each player was performing at peak. McHale had 21 points and 9 rebounds at the half. Atlanta's Randy Wittman was a torrid 7 for 9. Parish was 5 for 7.
When the Celtics play Detroit, their other main Eastern rival, tight games like this often give rise to ugliness. But Sunday something very different happened. This emotional roller coaster of a series had bestirred mutual respect. The game ground finer as it progressed. Each basket on one side pushed the other to greater effort. Then in the fourth quarter, Bird and Wilkins took the game to the finest distillation of basketball artistry.
Bird had played a mediocre (for him) game to this point, scoring only 14 points and making some bad passes. The Hawks are a meticulously coached team, and they seemed to smell out his favorite passing routes. But in the fourth, Larry got that look in his eye that always spells trouble for the opposition. Shot after shot - an unbelievable lefty runner, a clutch three-pointer that brought down the house - poured in.
But Wilkins answered Bird shot for shot. Wilkins has been criticized in the past for trying to do too much. But Sunday he showed the heart of a lion, hitting stupendous bank shots when there was no margin for error. Bird got 20 in the period, Wilkins 16. One Celtics reserve described it as ``watching Mt. Olympus.'' Johnny Most, the Celtics' perfervid radio voice, was beside himself.
If it is possible to say no team lost a game, this was that game. The Celtics led 118-116 when the buzzer finally sounded, meaning it is they who go on to play Detroit for the Eastern title, and perhaps another championship series matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers. But players and spectators alike felt it was a privelege simply to have been a part of this event.
The congratulations the Hawks offered the Celtics were genuine. Boston fans gave Rivers a standing ovation when he fouled out. On a sports call-in show a day later, one fan called him ``as gracious in defeat as in victory.'' The fervently pro-Celtic Globe called Wilkins, in a headline, ``simply spectacular.''
Each team, moreover, achieved something important. The Hawks showed that they are nearing the championship level. With only one player over 30, they will come this way again. The Celtics proved that, when they want it badly enough, they can still run with the young. Maybe they needed a good scare. A bright spot, too, was the play of Reggie Lewis, the rookie, whose quickness and poise offer hope for the uncertain years after Bird.
The Hawks have established themselves as the city's favorite rival. Had they won, it's a safe bet what cries would have risen to the Garden rafters: ``BEAT DETROIT. BEAT L.A.''