One by one, the Indiana Pacers filed into the Boston Celtics’ locker room to pay homage. Usually it’s the winners who offer consolation in the visitors’ dressing room, but this was no time to stand on ceremony, not after Sunday’s epic fifth and deciding game of their first-round NBA playoff series.
The Pacers had been an unwilling partner in yet another legendary performance by Larry Bird and felt compelled to express their admiration.
Even Chuck Person, the trash-talking, antagonistic rifleman, went into the training room where Bird was nursing his latest wound, a cheek injury, and said, “I had to offer a hug and a handshake.”
Bird scored 32 points, and more important, he returned from the injury when the Celtics were struggling, as Boston held off Indiana’s fourth-quarter rally to claim a 124-121 victory at Boston Garden.
The Celtics’ first playoff series victory in three years sends them into a best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series against Detroit, beginning Tuesday night in Boston.
The Celtics’ victory had nearly as many subplots as baskets.
There was Person, scoring 32 points and five of nine three-pointers, but missing a three-pointer with nine seconds left when he could have tied the game if he had settled for two.
There was 37-year-old Robert Parish scoring 21 and keeping the Celtics close while Bird was woozy in the locker room.
There was Derek Smith, hopping around on his good leg, coming off the Celtics’ bench to hold Person in check for long stretches, then scoring an improbable 12 points.
There were Reggie Miller, Detlef Schrempf and Micheal Williams, each scoring more than 20 points for Indiana and threatening to completely wipe out Boston’s 16-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Most of all, there was Bird, getting nine rebounds and seven assists, saving the Celtics’ hides again even though his face was aching after crashing to the floor on his cheek with 4:23 to play in the first half. Bird said he won’t know the extent of the injury until today, but few doubted he would come back Sunday, even though the second half started with him still being treated in the locker room.
“Was he coming back? We thought it was hilarious to ask that,” Person said. “We figured he’d wait four or five minutes to come out and get the fans all riled up.”
Of course, Bird came back.
With 6:46 left in the third quarter and the Celtics clinging to a 73-71 lead, he trotted out of the tunnel. Madness ensued. A thunderous standing ovation lasted through a timeout.
“It was a great moment for me,” Person said. “It’s something I’ll remember for a long, long time. It’s such a great story.”
It became an even better one for Bird, when he helped wipe out Indiana’s three-point lead by feeding Reggie Lewis--who had 22 points, six rebounds--for a layup that got the Celtics within 83-82, then pulled down the rebound and ran downcourt for the jumper that put the Celtics ahead for good, 84-83, with 2:52 left in the third quarter.
Before the Pacers knew it, they trailed, 112-96.
Then Indiana applied heavy defensive pressure, and Brian Shaw and Dee Brown cracked.
Even with Smith smothering Person, the Pacers ran off eight straight points to get within 118-115 with 1:42 to play.
They got within 120-118 and had the ball with 22 seconds left, after Kevin McHale’s backcourt violation.
Enter Person, the player that referee Jess Kersey had twice told the Pacers’ coaches to quiet.
“I didn’t want to go into overtime here, so I went for it,” he said of his three-point attempt with nine seconds left. It was short.
Shaw made two free throws and Person hit this time from 35 feet to make it 122-121.
“I can’t even throw the ball that far,” Smith said. “I got to say this about Chuck: He talked it, but he walked it too.”
But Shaw’s next two free throws put it away.