When Larry Bird missed the dunk—a point-blank dunk at crunch time in a do-or-die playoff game in Boston Garden—he did so not as a result of any strange astrological occurrence or the Massachusetts budget crisis or even tough defense.
He did so, by his own account, because he was worried. "I wasn't going to dunk it," he explained after the game. "But I thought Patrick was coming, so I tried to. And then I jumped too high, if you can believe it."
Believe it, as hard as it may seem. It is not the business of Boston Celtics to feel shadowy presences, least of all for Larry Legend to feel one from a New York Knick in the building in which New York had lost 26 straight times and hadn't won in the playoffs since the Nixon administration. This was the Garden, and the ghosts are supposed to be friendly. But: "I thought Patrick was coming."
If the truth be told, at the time of Bird's misguided dunk attempt, any Celtic was entitled to be wary of these Knicks. A little more than four minutes remained in Sunday's fifth and final game of these teams' first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, and the Patrick in question, a certain Mr. Ewing, had just feathered in a jump-hook to give New York a 103-99 lead. Ewing did just about everything asked of him in this game. He finished with 31 points and 10 assists, and those figures are stark testimony to how shrewdly he picked apart Boston's double teams with opportune passes and drives. Ewing's frontcourt helpmate Charles Oakley had 26 points and 17 rebounds, pulling down virtually everything that fell off the Celtics' basket.
Gerald Wilkins, Trent Tucker and Johnny Newman all contributed to the Knicks' new-found adroitness in their half-court offense with slashing sallies to the hoop, spot-up jump shots and emphatic dunks. Even the 7-foot Ewing ran down an errant pass deep in the corner, wheeled and flung in a three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 2:03 left, making certain the Knicks' eventual 121-114 victory. No wonder Bird had sensed ominous forces at work.
But what Bird felt may have been the spirit of a much slighter fellow than Ewing, someone who had been here on Causeway Street many times before. He's originally from Chicago. Stick a fedora on him, and he would look like an Untouchable, which is what the Philadelphia 76ers considered him to be for a decade, and what the Knicks should treat him as for another 10 years or until he demonstrably stops setting the standard by which playoff floor leadership is judged.
For 11 seasons Maurice Cheeks has been a stoic model of a point guard. He toed the Boston Garden foul line late in Game 7 in 1981, eyeing a crucial foul shot for the Sixers as the Celtics' M.L. Carr told him, "Don't choke." (Cheeks missed, and Philly blew what had been a 3-1 series lead.) He came back to the Garden in '82 for another Game 7, at the end of a series in which the Sixers had suffered a 40-point loss, and he led Philly to the only final-game playoff defeat Boston suffered in that decade. In '83 he led the Sixers to Dr. J's title.
The way he learned of his 1989 trade from the 76ers to San Antonio was an indignity: A TV station stuck a minicam and microphone in his face as he drove into the driveway of his suburban Philadelphia home. Emotionally obliterated, he rolled up his car window and drove around the block to compose himself. This is an instructive story for anyone who wonders whether a heart goes along with Cheeks's usual poker face.
The kvetchers in the New York tabloids couldn't have known exactly what the Knicks traded for on Feb. 21, when malcontent understudy point guard Rod Strickland went to the Spurs for Cheeks. Even the Knicks couldn't have known, until it became clear over the last three games of this series against Boston. Cheeks was flawless in Game 3, on May 2, as the Knicks—flush with embarrassment over the 157-128 pasting in Boston that had put them down 2-0—returned to Madison Square Garden. He distributed 11 assists without a turnover in a 102-99 New York victory. He passed out 12 assists with only two errors in Game 4 last Friday, a 135-108 rout in which the Knicks began to sense what glorious havoc they could cause with half-court pressure applied judiciously. In Game 5 he was merely magnificent.
Why are quarterbacks so revered in pro football and treated as if they were replaceable parts in pro basketball? Cheeks has much in common with Joe Montana: austere in his style, a master of the short game, and cash money in the postseason. While his erstwhile teammate Charles Barkley was body-slamming the 76ers into the other Eastern Conference semifinal—the Sixers began their series with the Chicago Bulls early this week, as the Knicks did theirs with the Detroit Pistons—by laying his corpus on any unsuspecting Cleveland Cavalier who wandered into the lane, Cheeks, who seems not to carry an ounce of body fat, was old-fashioned economy of movement and purity of purpose. Barkley might note the difference between effort and excess. Certainly the vanquished Celtics did. "A vintage Cheeks game," said Boston coach Jimmy Rodgers.
Checks put together the kind of stretch that, in this building under these circumstances, has always been Bird's prerogative. With nearly half the third period gone and Boston in apparent control with a seven-point lead, Cheeks, as he put it, "felt I had to be a little more aggressive on the offensive end."
As demonstrated by Magic and Isiah, a good point guard is a bellwether; his own best stats are happy symptoms of what his team is doing right. Cheeks sank free throws with equanimity, five of six down the stretch. (The Knicks were a cool 25 for 29 for the afternoon, better—and no one thought this was possible, not here—than the Celtics' 19 for 25.) Three times in a row he flipped in circus layups off drives. Betwixt and between, he found time to make a 20-footer, to whip a pass to a cutting Wilkins for a dunk and to tip loose a long rebound that resulted in a break and a Ewing throwdown.
When the final quarter began, the Knicks' lead of four seemed just right for another Garden ghost job. Yet New York wouldn't trail the rest of the way. Again, still, always, it was Cheeks. His 21 points on Sunday seemed an aberration, for he had dominated the two previous games without scoring much. Having Mo on your side means having what it takes: in this case, eight of 10 field goals, seven assists, two steals and even a paroxysm of emotion, in which every Knick took part, after Ewing's improbable three-pointer. "That was it" said Cheeks. "After that, we felt it was our fate. And prior to that, Bird missed that dunk.
"When he missed it, we went on our way. Some things you just feel are meant for you. That it's your time to win."
Oakley had upbraided his teammates in the press after the Knicks' Game 2 debacle, specifically about selfishness (a club-playoff record 43 assists in Game 4 put that charge to rest) and the ever-evil "lack of intensity."
"We were playing like it was the regular season, and the Celtics were talking about us as if we were an expansion team," Oakley said. He didn't name names, other than to say he wasn't exempting himself, so the commentary had good effect.
But a closer reading suggested that Ewing may have been one of Oakley's targets, for failing to seize and maintain his customary position in the low post. Yet look who stepped up to take responsibility for even that: "It was my fault," said Cheeks, "for not getting Patrick the ball in the right spot."
The Knicks' resurrection vindicated, on several counts, New York general manager Al Bianchi, the NBA technocrat whose emotional state had been one of the more melodramatic sidelights of the series. He was ashen-faced after the travesty of Game 2 and seething when he learned that coach Rick Pitino, who left the Knicks after last season, was second-guessing New York's defensive schemes from his ivory tower in the Kentucky blue-grass. For most of the second half of the season, the jury had still been out on the Strickland-for-Cheeks deal, a Bianchi production. Indeed, it seemed as if the foreman had been passing notes to the judge all through the winter, as the Knicks split time between the incumbent point guard, Mark Jackson, and Cheeks, and lost often while doing so. With Jackson playing a total of 10 minutes in the three New York victories, and Cheeks never once taking a seat on Sunday, consider that case now closed.
Pitino had left New York in a huff, partly because of philosophical differences with Bianchi over the Knicks' offense. Bianchi felt New York's second-round elimination at the hands of the Bulls last season could have been averted with a better half-court game. But Pitino had put disproportionate faith in the ability of his full-court defense to generate points. Jackson has changed the defensive emphasis. After Game 2 the Celtics saw defensive pressure primarily in the half court. The so-called "soft press"—along with decisions to move Oakley onto (and into) the much taller Robert Parish and to put Ewing on Kevin McHale—forced Boston to set up its offense farther and farther from the hoop. This in turn reduced the distance that the adventuresome New York perimeter players—Newman, Wilkins, Tucker and Cheeks—had to travel to double down. The strategy also kept Parish and McHale at a safe remove from the backboards, allowing Ewing and Oakley to outrebound their counterparts easily in the Knicks' three victories.
As the Boston Garden scoreboard clock ticked down, Cheeks thought back to the sweetness of eight years ago, when Celtic fans, in tribute and resignation, sent up a chant of "Beat L.A.!" for the victorious visitors from Philly.
Yet no chant of "Beat Detroit!" was heard Sunday, even though the Pistons are probably even more reviled by the Greenbloods than are the Lakers. Perhaps the Boston fans were as much in shock as the Celtics. Perhaps they sensed that blown 2-0 leads in five-game series—only twice before in NBA history had that happened—do not portend good things. Perhaps, too, they realized the difference between having one starter who's well into his 30's (Cheeks is 33) and having four (Bird, Parish, McHale and Dennis Johnson) whose average age is 34.
"This is as low as it gets since I've been here," said Bird. "We're in shock. This is unbelievable." That neither the Celtics, nor the spirits that have so often done their bidding, were there at the end was, indeed, unbelievable.
Oakley (left) and Ewing, here with Tucker (right), kept Boston rebounders at bay.
In Game 5, Cheeks (top) flew over Bird while Oakley (left) inspired the Knicks with deeds—26 points, 17 rebounds—as well as words.
Even before botching this key dunk attempt, Bird was feeling burdened.