Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 57 vs. the Suns

Celtics (43-13) vs. Phoenix (37-20)
February 13, 1980
Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Phoenix recovered from the Celtics’ 42 points explosion in the third quarter and a twelve point deficit to come back and defeat the Celtics, 135-134.

Larry Bird had his most impressive game in his rookie season, pouring in 45 points.  The Suns gushed over Bird’s performance to the Globe’s Bob Ryan after the victory:

Larry Bird

Said Sun coach John MacLeod: “I don’t know what else you would want the man to do.  That was a hellacious 45, but when you’re making six or seven three-pointers (actually, it was three), it adds up in a hurry.”

“Larry Bird,” kidded Paul Westphal.  “I think he’s going to be a player some day.”

Unfortunately for the Celtics, the individual record did not trump the loss on a night where Philadelphia won.  Bird confirmed to reporters after the game that it was the most point he had ever scored in a losing effort.  He was in the midst of a particular hot stretch behind the three-point arch, and with the additional three 3-pointers, Bird had connected on nine of his last thirteen shots from long distance.

The game was played at a pace suitable for the Celts, and the fast break totals for the game finished in the Celtics favor (36-23).  The Celtics added 31 second-chance points, while the Suns generated only 15.  In addition to losing a late lead, this was a difficult loss and reminded the Celtics that the second half would offer challenges not present in October and November.  Ryan detailed a game that slipped away from the C’s:

 

Paul Westphal

There is only one set of circumstances in which a team can win a game like this. The team leading must screw up beyond belief, and the team trailing must make sensational plays. Thus did the Phoenix Suns, trailing by nine points with 1:57 to go, seven with 1:19 left, six with exactly a minute to play and four with 43 seconds (and without possession of the basketball) remaining, pull out a startling 135-134 victory over the shellshocked Celtics last night.

This would have been the Celtics’ eighth win in a row and one of their greatest triumphs. They had overwhelmed the Suns with a 42-point third quarter that had given them a 107-96 lead, and they seemingly had met every Suns’ challenge with poised offensive plays in the final quarter. With 1:57 to play, they were leading, 130-121, and many fans were heading for the exits.

“Had we won,” said an angered Bill Fitch, “I would have said it was due to a super, super individual effort from Larry Bird, plus a very good game from Maxwell. Certainly, we’ve accomplished more on both offense and defense as a team in other games, but because of Bird we had a game practically won.”

Maxwell finished with 25 points off 11-12 shooting.

And, in case anyone was wondering, coaches were just as upset at NBA officiating then as they are now.

Fitch was upset with the suicidal turnover, occasionally atrocious shot selection (including some that happened to go in), shoddy team defense and officiating that assessed the Celtics a mind- blowing seven team fouls in the first 2:58 of the fourth quarter, a point in which Boston could have blown the game wide open.

“It was a nightmare,” he decided. “It was like being in a storm at sea and knowing that even when you got to shore they were going to shoot you, anyhow.”

In a wild game marked by many spectacular individual efforts, the Play of Plays was the Westphal steal that led to the winning Davis free throws. Westy simply flung himself on the floor to take the ball away from Archibald. “I didn’t want them to run the clock all the way down,” Westy said, “because then we only would have had one second. I decided I’d go for the steal, and if I missed, I’d just grab him and put him on the line.” Down he went, and up he came with the precious spheroid.  It was a great play by a great player.

Archibald refused to blame the refs.  “I lost the game,” he told the Globe, “and control of the ball.”

And so the Celtics have stared their West Coast trip on a bizarre note. But, at least, let the world beware: Larry Bird no longer lets the game come to him. Now he is Mr. Take charge.

Pete Maravich played 13 minutes and finished with six points and an assist.  Defensive problems against quicker guards were an issue with Maravich in his first two games with the C’s, a problem that would linger with his knee issues.  Two missed layups prevented the Pistol from finishing with 10 points.

The Celtics continued their five game trip West with a game on Friday night against the Portland TrailBlazers.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.

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