Wednesday, November 23, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Boston Celtics

In 13 years, Bill Russell was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times- the first ever to win three in a row- and, with help from the likes of Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and John Havlicek, hung 11 banners in the Boston Garden rafters. Russell’s the unrivaled record of winning, combined with his contributions to the growth and evolution of the game itself- the cerebral transformation of defense and rebounding into art forms, the unprecedented versatility as a big man to work as an offensive facilitator- have, by all objective measures, forever secured his place atop the Celtic pantheon.

Except one.

As expertly as Russell capitalized on his incredible arsenal of talents, particularly on the game’s biggest stage, another Boston icon sits atop Mount “Holy shit!”

The greatest Celtic of the last four decades, Larry Bird built a resume that rivaling that of any of his legendary, emerald-clad predecessors. In 14 years, Bird earned three rings of his own, a dozen trips to the All-Star game and, in 1986, became the last player to capture a third consecutive MVP award. More than any achievement, however, Bird’s lasting legacy will be one of intangible greatness. As fascinated as I am with the increasingly prominent role played by statistics in NBA analysis, this is still the primary prism through which I view the game.

Say what you will about the efficacy of terms like “assassin” and “clutch,” there is something innate, a hoops genius that allows the very greatest of the great to treat the game like a game. It is an ability to not only understand the game, but to feel its pulse. It is this almost supernatural sense of the moment that allows a truly special player to not only throw a pass where he cannot see or to play most of an NBA game with his off hand, but to do so on command, successfully and without wavering for a moment in the focus on extinguishing an opponent.

Larry Bird follows his own shot in the 1981 Finals. 

Surely you’ve tried recreating this in the back yard or on the playground. You don’t need me to tell you, it’s incredibly tough. Now, take away the do-overs and throw some defenders into the mix.

This is the greatest offensive rebound of all time.

This convergence of good fortune and hoops genius didn’t need to take place on a big stage to be memorable. The perfect miss, the perfect first step toward the rebound, the immaculate transfer from right hand to left. Oh yeah-and a perfect off-handed flip as his momentum carried him past the plane of the backboard.

Not bad, right? Now if only Larry Bird possessed a bit of speed, quickness and athleticism, we might really have had something here.

“And… there’s a steal by Bird!”

Larry Bird’s theft of Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliantly intuitive plays of all time. However, once he had possession the Celtics still trailed by a point with the game’s final two seconds ticking down and Bird's momentum carrying him out of bounds. Fortunately, Dennis Johnson bolted into the lane, where Bird's pass was waiting, and converted one of the underrated incredibly tough shots of all time, banking in a layup over his right shoulder that required not only an inordinate amount of spin, but had to clear the outstretched hand of Bill Laimbeer (that's Joe Dumars! Brainfart- sorry!).

This play would have been incredible wherever it took place, but it had to go down at the Garden, right? That backdrop, that crowd, the second deck…

Bird makes a full court pass to Danny Ainge

Given Danny Ainge’s involvement, you have no idea how it hurts me to say this, but if Dwyane Wade’s picture-perfect full court football pass this past February is in fact “basketball perfection” and “perhaps the greatest off-the-cuff play in NBA history,” this gem from Larry Bird cannot be far behind.

Bill Russell chases down Jerry West's in the Finals

Last week, I said of a near identical play by Hakeem Olajuwon “in terms of athletic prowess, this is as great a display of speed and open court defense as we’ve seen from a big man.” Regarding that same play, I also said “it’s not Hakeem’s fault this opportunity presented itself in Round 1 against Rod Strickland and not in the Finals against Jerry West.”

And I stand by every word of that statement. Athletically, there's nothing to choose between this play and Hakeem’s. Thing is, if yore looking for tiebreakers, this did happen in the Finals and, well, that is Jerry West.

This play is classic Bill Russell, right down to keeping the ball in play after the block.

Bill Russell blocks Jerry West - gif

Havlicek's "game-winner" in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals 

The greatest game in NBA history is not defined by any one moment or play. However, among the collection of awe-inspiring moments, this is, if not the greatest, the most absurd.

After a trio of vital errors in the final dying seconds of regulation(a missed go-ahead free throw, a failure to hold for the final shot) and OT #2 (tapping a loose ball to Suns’ forward Curtis Perry, who hit a go-ahead jumper), Havlicek, was afforded a near-immediate shot at redemption- which he spectacularly capitalized on.

With six seconds left in the second overtime period, Havlicek received the ball on the right wing, drove almost to the baseline between the rim and the corner and buried a leaning one-hander in traffic. Regardless of circumstance, this shot likely ranks as the most impressive of Havlicek’s storied career. Returning Boston to the lead after the Suns had pulled with a 15-second, 4-0 run, as the horn sounded, giving the then-12-time champs 3-to-2 edge in the series is the stuff legend.

That the itchy trigger finger of a hometown timekeeper hit the horn two seconds early, causing a delirious Garden crowd to flood the court and the seemingly victorious Celtics to return to their locker room, only for each to have to reverse course to allow for the game’s completion is almost beyond belief.

If this is the sort thing that gets your blood pumping, just wait until we get to the Suns…

As always, I'd really love to hear from you. Let me know what you think by chiming in on the highlights I’ve put forth, or supplying your own. I not only welcome your feedback, I eagerly await it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a fan of all the era's that you talked about, I have to say that watching Bill Russell was the thrill of a lifetime. No matter what game I was at, there was always a play that sent us flying! John Havlicek played with such heart and desire in every game that he was a joy to watch. That shot against Phoenix in the triple overtime was enough to give you a heart attack!!!!! And then, along came Bird who played the game with such vigor that you were never worried when the ball was in his hands. It took us a while to regain that feeling after the original "Big 3" retired, but, then
Danny brought along KG and Ray who joined PP and another new "Big 3" was born. The Celtics have never done anything but bring joy to their fans. I love them all, let's
get back on the court!!