For two teams on the other end of the postseason spectrum, the end result of the opening round of the NBA playoffs is as good as a given. Sure, a 7-seed or 8-seed could steal a game here or there, but since 1984 – when the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format – only 10 teams have made it into the second round with either of the bottom two seeds advanced.
As early as 1991, the first round was a best-of-five series, and the Run-TMC Golden State Warriors had perfected the role of the first-round wrecking ball. Don Nelson’s crew had sent the second jazz set three years earlier. This time, David Robinson and the Spurs were the victims.
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics had their best season since their heyday in the 1980s. Your opponent in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs, the Indiana Pacers, had only two winning seasons and a single playoff win in 15 years after moving from the ABA. What seemed like a setup for the classic « hello goodbye » matchup would prove to be top-level NBA drama, with a talented, fast-paced club pushing a legendary franchise to its limits.
It’s hard to imagine that a pairing in the first round is so exciting, especially for fans of a Boston team that has racked up three championships in the past decade. But with the Pacers on the rise, the Celtics clinging to their dear life, and a bevy of talented players and personalities, the series had everything to make you fall in love with the game of basketball.
And that Winner Jackpot Game 5 was the chef’s kiss in one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history.
As the 80s merged into the 90s, Larry Bird’s « Big Three » were Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in Boston still intact, albeit heavily calcified.
« You never knew about Larry’s back; you never knew about McHale’s ankles, » remembers Kevin Gamble, a starter on the 91 team who averaged 16 points per game on 59 percent shooting. « You go into the back room and see them being worked on to prepare to play. Sometimes they made it on the pitch. Sometimes they didn’t. «
Bird had missed most of the ’89 season due to surgery on both heels and was increasingly handicapped with back problems that would also require surgery. McHale had undergone several surgeries of his own since the 1987 playoffs a broken bone was discovered in his right foot, and the tall man had played through the injury.
In contrast, the 37-year-old community – hitherto the oldest statesman in the league – seemed invincible to video games. The Chief averaged double-doubles, shot 60 percent off the field and only missed a single game of the 1991 campaign.
As the team’s fate waned, franchise architect Red Auerbach brought in a number of reinforcements to keep his Hall of Fame trio going. After the shocking death of Len Bias, he grabbed the northeast swingman Reggie Lewis in the 1987 design. He sent Danny Ainge in a package to Sacramento for the bangers Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine. And he’s scoured the CBA for an unlikely post for Gamble.
« It was a bit of a surprise, » recalls Gamble. « The reason I showed up was because Bird had operated on his two Achilles so he would be out of service. It was December 1988; I was playing in the CBA. I had seen her in high school. I had seen how successful they were. And now they called me to help. «
Auerbach also rebuilt the backcourt after Ainge’s departure and Dennis Johnson’s resignation, adding Brian Shaw and Dee Brown over the draft added. In combination with Lewis and Gamble, the constant movements and quick-hitting ability of the « Zip Boys » were in stark contrast to the images of Bird stretching out on the sidelines, or Parish and McHale standing in straight lines on the floor ab moving knee pads that covered the space above their team were giving out socks.
« They got a little older and didn’t move that fast, but they got the game, » says Gamble. « Bird’s passing skills, Robert’s understanding of where to set the pick and roll … he knew I liked to turn left. If I turned left, I could get to the basket or drive up. Little things he did just understood and you didn’t have to tell him, you always felt you had a chance to win.
« But I think it was up to us – myself, Reggie, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, people like that – how good we could be. »
When things clicked, the Celtics were very good. They started in the year 29-5 and held the best record in the Eastern Conference until well into February – yes, ahead of the bulls of Jordan. However, the pain accumulated and the regular season ended sour, with losses in six out of eight games to end the campaign. Bird only played in one of these competitions. They settled between 56 and 26, the second to the east.
In contrast, the Pacers started the year 9-16. A change of coach (from Dick Versace to Bob Hill) unlocked the fifth best offense in the NBA. They had future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, future All-Stars in Detlef Schrempf and Rik Smits, and an up and coming troop at Point Guard in Micheal Williams, a former second round of the Pistons.
« I always tell people that I was the fourth guard in a three-guard rotation (in Detroit), » jokes Williams. « I was new to the Summer League (three years earlier) with Bob Hill so he had seen me play. He already had confidence in me. »
After the All-Star break, Indy tore a 14: 6- Distance, with two of those wins against the Celtics. In one of the wins on February 26, the Chuck Person scoring machine ran out of 28 points. And while Miller would eventually become the face of the franchise, it was Person – nicknamed « The Rifleman » – the dominant figure who filled both the statistics sheet and reporters’ notebooks with juicy trash talk.
The shooter already had a rivalry with Bird. When the two teams played the day after Christmas this season, he announced that he would go « bird hunting ». Larry turned and said before the game that he had a Christmas present for the Pacers up front. Late in the competition, Bird started a three, turned to the Indiana bank and said, « Merry (explosive) Christmas, Chuck! » and defended himself again when the ball crashed through the net.
« In this league, players often don’t resist, » Bird told Pacers.com’s Conrad Brunner. « But when you played against Chuck you knew you had to play and play hard – and if you didn’t play well, they probably beat you. »
The combination of talent and attitude made the Pacers – a 500 team on paper – both dangerous and entertaining.
« I spoke to Dale Davis, who was [drafted] a year after , » notes Williams. « He said: ‘Man, we just took the ball out and gave it to you, Chuck and Reggie shot three … Detlef Schrempf filled the track,’ and I said, ‘This is the new age of basketball.’ You had time Hakeem [Olajuwon], Patrick Ewing, Shaq came into the league … You had a lot of great men because it went from the inside out. We were just a little bit ahead of our time. «
« We were young, fast and bold, » said Person to Brunner. « With Micheal Williams and Detlef, me and Reggie we had a lot of people who could push the ball and really hit it. »
The pivot duo from Parish and McHale achieved 19 out of 27 field goal attempts.
After the competition, Bird spent the night in traction at the New England Baptist Hospital.
No treatment could have prepared the Celtics for Hurricane Chuck in Game 2 as Person rained 39 points. Williams came in with 24 and 10 assists, and Indiana took the franchise’s first road playoff win in NBA history, 130-118 at the Garden.
« I had a matchup problem with Chuck, » recalls Gamble. « He was very extravagant, but very good. He could hit basketball with the best. I had problems with him in terms of size. Especially in the mail when he put his back to the basket. »
The person didn’t spend much time with his back to the basket in Game 2 and cleared a playoff record of seven three-pointers.
And after the game he was very happy with himself: “I love it. National television. Parquet floor. [Expletive] banner. Everyone is trying to stop me. But nobody can. «
The series went to Indianapolis, where the Celtics received a significantly different greeting than they had in the Market Square Arena in recent years. Indifferent local fans once welcomed native son Bird and his teammates with open arms. As Jack McCallum wrote in Excellent Unfinished Business, veteran security guard Vern Fleming even said – after beating the Greens at home two years ago -: « It was so nice to get a win at Boston Garden. »
This time left the indy fans the celtics have it.
« Indiana was a bit noisy, like a college atmosphere, » recalls Gamble.
But the excited Pacers were excited. Especially the person who disappeared with six points in 2: 8 shooting. Meanwhile, McHale had 22, Gamble fell in 18 and the Cs put six players in double digits on the way to a 112-105 win.
After the elimination, the shooter was back on target in Game 4, running an angry rally in the second half and walking down the track with a personal 12-0 run, finishing the barrage three behind to get into something more than two minutes to get a tie.
« Nobody can protect me! » Person yelled to the home fans. « I am a bad man! »
After Game 4, McCallum wrote, « Person could not be eliminated – had there been a reporter willing to spend the night, The Rifleman would have stayed. »
In the meantime, Bird did everything possible to attack his opponent again.
« It was just brutal, » he said years later. “The nerve shot in both legs and I thought that would be the end of my career right there. The sad thing was that after the games I went to the hospital and got traction … go home, play a game and then go back to the hospital. It was ridiculous. «
However he limped, he begged the Boston fans to be ready in the garden for Game 5. And so the stage was set for the crucial competition.
« The doctor told me I probably had a concussion and they didn’t think I should go out there with my back and the damage I did to my brain, » he said years later. « I had this massive headache on the right side of my head but finally I decided, » This could be your last game so you better go out there and do what you can. «
« The way Bird played – he was one of those people who would do anything to win, » says Gamble. « (He didn’t care) how his back would react – diving on the floor, hopping around with some of these guys inside. »
When the three-time MVP reappeared during a timeout in the third quarter, the Garden crowd absolutely lost him.
« When that roar came up, I felt it, » said Bird. « I felt it go through my body and I felt less painful and more active and couldn’t wait to get out of there. It’s an amazing feeling. »
Bird’s return sparked a 41-point breakout for the C in the third quarter. He was everywhere, whipping Lewis a pass over the top of defense for a signature two-handed slam, going in for two, later going back to the rack and converting a three-point game. While he only shot 1:14 from downtown for the series, he made an impact on Game 5 in every other way.
« I don’t know what they did to him, » a still incredulous Miller exclaimed years later. « I don’t know if he got a shot. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if Jesus touched him. When he ran out of this tunnel, this crowd and the noise, it was deafening. »
Albert couldn’t help but rave about the scene that was playing out before his eyes: « There’s so much history, so much tradition that the Boston Celtics are part of and I feel like we’re watching one Piece of that story unfolds. «
While they were able to play shot after shot against Boston for a while, Indiana saw the game slip in game four and set the trap with great success. At the other end, Williams converted jumper for jumper (he would finish with 23 points) while Schrempf took it to the hole (the lanky German had 20) and person shot from a distance (he made five three-pointers in the decision contest).
Schrempf shortened Boston’s lead by 1:42 to three and again turned it into two by a little more than a minute. With about 10 seconds to go, Person had bricked a turnaround of three that would have given Indiana the lead. After Shaw converted two free throws to put Boston at four, Person pulled from 35 feet.
« And then Chuck pulls out a little more than half the square and does a three-pointer, » laughs Williams.
It was as close as Indiana could get. Two more free throws for Boston resulted in a final score of 124-121. Bird ended up with 32 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Lewis was 22, ward 21.
« I tell people all the time – there’s nothing like doing something of the highest order, » says Williams. « And you have other levels at the highest level. It was a real feeling of greatness for him to come back. »
« He just said, ‘I’m not going to allow the Celtics to lose this game.’ Like the show where Kyrie Irving and (Kevin) Love were injured – and LeBron just said, « I’m not going to let Cleveland lose. » And Larry Bird is right up there on Mount Rushmore. «
« It’s like something you tell your kids about, » Thompson mused when the dust settled. « I told him at the end of the game that I’d never seen anything like it. »
The house lights came on in the garden when Bird retired in the summer of 1992. The Celtics still took 48 wins the following year, but it got dark in the off-season when McHale retired and Lewis tragically passed away.
Boston would appear in just one more postseason series for the rest of the decade, a 3-1 loss to Shaq and the Magic in 1995.
The garden was demolished later that year.
The 1991 Celtics and their fans would likely have preferred if the emotional crescendo of Game 5 against the Pacers had occurred at a more advanced stage of the playoffs. After all, that’s what they were used to. The same great feel to the game would become known to the Pacers and their followers as the decade progressed.
But in the spring of 1991, a unique set of circumstances produced some of the most compelling basketball games the world has ever seen. A reminder that greatness isn’t always associated with a ring – people, opportunity, and pride brought out the best that these two teams had to offer. And it all happened in the first round 30 years ago.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk to him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.
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