A Whistle, Two Tips Boost Rockets Back Into Finals, 106-104
The Boston Celtics were so very close to taking a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals Sunday, and then, at a crucial moment, their series with the Houston Rockets became a whistle-stop tour instead.
“The Rockets got lucky, awfully lucky to beat us,” Larry Bird said.
Maybe so, but in the time it took for official Jake O’Donnell to blow his whistle by mistake with seven seconds left in Game 3, new life was suddenly and unexpectedly breathed into the Rockets, who came back to upset the Celtics, 106-104, Sunday in the Summit.
The Rockets now trail Boston, 2-1, in the best-of-seven series and if you were thinking that the Celtics were going to sweep, you probably didn’t hear the whistle.
If only O’Donnell hadn’t blown his, maybe this title series would be just about over, which it certainly is not.
“It looked dismal before, but now I see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ralph Sampson, who had 24 points and 22 rebounds, although none of them decided the game any more than O’Donnell did.
Sure, the Celtics also made their share of mistakes. They blew a 102-94 lead with 3:19 to play and fell behind, 105-104, when one of the most unusual finishes to an NBA championship series game took place.
With 10 seconds left and the shot clock running down, Robert Parish got loose under the basket and shot a short jumper, which missed. At the same time, though, O’Donnell mistakenly blew his whistle.
O’Donnell immediately stopped the game and, after conferring with fellow official Joey Crawford, ruled an inadvertent whistle, which meant a jump ball at midcourt.
There was much confusion about the whistle, as you might expect. Parish thought the whistle meant he had been fouled by the Rockets. So did Celtic Coach K.C. Jones.
On the other side, Bill Fitch thought the whistle was for either a three-second or shot-clock violation on the Celtics and so did Sampson.
No one was right except O’Donnell, who was wrong for blowing his whistle to begin with. Parish couldn’t believe it.
“I haven’t even ever heard of an inadvertent whistle,” Parish said. “How can you blow a whistle if you don’t mean it, unless you are hyperventilating?”
As it turned out, the Celtics never got another shot off. Sampson controled the jump ball with Parish and tapped it to Akeem Olajuwon, who was quickly fouled by Larry Bird.
Olajuwon made the first of his free throws, but missed the second, which meant that the Celtics still had a chance with five seconds remaining, down by two points.
After a timeout, Dennis Johnson threw the ball inbounds under heavy pressure, but when Parish got it, he stepped on the sideline with his right foot, so the Rockets got the ball back on Boston’s 19th turnover to run out the final seconds.
“I threw it to the person I was trying to throw it to, but Robert just went too far and stepped on the line,” Johnson said.
The Celtics didn’t go quite far enough, despite a game-high 28 points from Kevin McHale, 25 from Bird, who produced his second triple-double of the playoffs, and 20 more from Johnson.
It could have been different for the Celtics if they had gotten much of anything from Parish besides 3-for-15 shooting, 6 turnovers and 4 fouls. Parish knew this was neither his nor the Celtics’ finest day
“I guess we were due,” he said.
The Rockets won with the usual, Olajuwon and Sampson, and also with a bit of the unusual, a key basket by Mitchell Wiggins. Olajuwon finished with 23 points and 8 rebounds, after he had only 7 points and 1 rebound at halftime.
But it was Wiggins who came up with two of the Rockets’ biggest offensive plays. He drove the lane on a breakaway and scored on a layup to bring the Rockets within 102-101. Two free throws by Olajuwon put Houston ahead, but Danny Ainge’s baseline jumper off an assist by Bird got the Celtics back in front.
Then Olajuwon misfired inside while triple-teamed, but Wiggins got around Johnson and, with a mighty leap, tipped in the missed shot for a 105-104 Rocket lead with 31 seconds remaining.
Sampson, who was standing beneath the basket on the play, did not recognize Wiggins at first.
“I saw a body come flying by me,” Sampson said. “Thank the Lord it was Mitchell.”
Johnson said he couldn’t get back into position quickly enough after rotating defensively to double-team Olajuwon.
“When I jumped up in the air, Mitchell slipped in,” Johnson said.
Now, the Rockets may have slipped right back into this series. How did they do it? Not with just an inadvertent whistle or the Celtics uncharacteristically blowing a fourth-quarter lead, but also with a clever piece of pressure coaching from Bill Fitch.
Fitch removed Rodney McCray from the game midway through the third quarter when the Rockets were sinking fast. Instead of having McCray guard Bird, Fitch moved Robert Reid from the backcourt to take Bird.
At that point, Bird had 21 points, but, with Reid defending him, Bird scored only four more the rest of the way in the last 18 minutes.
“That piece of strategy, as it worked out, was a great move,” Jones said.
Boston held the Rockets to only 18 points in the third quarter and had shot ahead, 70-62, on an 11-0 spurt after halftime. But Sampson and Reid scored six points in the last minute and a half of the quarter to cut the Celtic lead to 84-80.
Yet when McHale scored after an offensive rebound, it seemed as though the Celtics would just work on their 102-94 lead, close out the game and think about ordering their championship rings.
Wiggins watched the Celtics score only two points in the last 3:19 and thought that had a nice ring to it.
“It could have been a nightmare for us,” he said. “I don’t know if we could have come back from 3-0, but then I don’t think Boston blows leads very often either.”
They did it once, which the Rockets feel is enough for the time being.
“They still have to win two games,” Sampson said. “Two games is still a long way off.”
The Celtics wound up shooting only 43.8%. Larry Bird, who was 7 for 14 in the first half and only 3 for 12 in the second half, thought the three-pointer he missed in the third quarter, which might have given the Celtics an 11-point lead, was nearly as costly as their poor shooting late in the game. “We didn’t execute the way we wanted,” he said. “It was total chaos. It was like playing outside in the schoolyard. And I just didn’t hit the shots down the stretch.” Bird’s triple-double was 25 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists. . . . Robert Parish, who played just eight minutes in the first half because of fouls, didn’t think he got a fair shake from the officials. “Every time I breathed on somebody, it was a foul,” he said. . . . The Rockets, who were 36-5 at the Summit during the regular season, are now 8-0 at home during the playoffs. . . . Rocket Coach Bill Fitch said he shifted Robert Reid to guard Bird instead of using Rodney McCray to shake things up. “Everything we were doing was wrong,” he said. “We just had to change, if only for change’s sake. If we had gone down, 3-0, we’d have had to expect a miracle. We would have gone out there wearing black arm bands for Game 4.”