Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 59 vs. the SuperSonics

Celtics (44-14) vs. Seattle (44-16)
February 17, 1980
King County Domed Stadium

The Seattle SuperSonics reminded a national audience that the defending NBA champions were still the prohibitive favorite to win the championship.  Though it was close, the Sonics fought past the Celtics, 109-108, scoring the final eight points of the game to complete a season sweep of the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson had another terrific game for Seattle, finishing with 21 points and eight rebounds.  Johnson’s ascent and success in professional basketball was an anomaly.  The NBA was filled with unique stories, but perhaps none more so than the story of Dennis Johnson.  Johnson’s NBA.com Legends page detailed his story:

The glamour of NBA stardom was a long way from Johnson’s childhood in Compton, Calif.  He was the eighth of 16 children, the son of a bricklayer and a social worker.  Johnson’s father, who was not a great shooter, taught young Dennis the ropes of the game.  (Johnson would later joke that this explained his somewhat erratic jump shot.)

As a 5-foot-9 guard at Dominguez High School, Johnson played only a minute or two each game.  After graduation the coach at Harbor Junior College saw him playing street ball, noticed his tough defense, and asked him to enroll.  Johnson traded in his warehouse job for the classroom.  Two years later and seven inches taller, Johnson averaged 18.3 points and 12.0 rebounds and keyed Harbor to a state junior college title.

DJ’s only two scholarship opportunities were from Pepperdine and Azusa Pacific.  After a successful collegiate career, his first NBA coach was Bill Russell.

After Johnson’s death in 2007, Bob Ryan wrote a tribute for the Globe:

… the best way to judge a basketball player is to ask yourself, “How did he play the game?  Did this man leave a legacy?  Was there anyone else like him?”

Dennis Johnson was such a player.  He was utterly sui generis.

He was a unique sight, to be sure.  There was that reddish hair and the freckles.  And I can close my eyes and still see him making one of his patented poke-check steals, or bringing the ball upcourt, the cheeks puffed out like a blowfish, surveying the situation.  No one ever said he was poetry in motion.  He was a hard dribbler, a hard driver, and a hard shooter.  Yes, a hard shooter.  His line-drive jumpers attacked the basket.  And the defense … oh, baby, the defense.

A year after going 0 for 14 for the Sonics in a losing Game 7 of the 1978 Finals, DJ was the championship series MVP.  That in itself is quite a juxtaposition in fortunes, speaking volumes for the man who pulled it off.  But that wasn’t the most noteworthy thing about his achievement.  He got the award in part for scoring 22 a game in Seattle’s conquest of the Washington Bullets and in part for his defense.  You could argue that he might have merited the MVP honor for his defense alone, given that, in addition to tying up the Washington guards in general, he blocked 14 shots from the 2-guard position in that five-game series.

NBA Finals MVP Dennis Johnson

As for the win, the victory marked Seattle’s eighth straight victory.

The Sonics have an abiding respect for the Celtics; there is no question about that, Ryan wrote in the Globe.  “I think our two games with Boston,” said Dennis Johnson, “were probably the two best games we’ve played all year.  They have been exciting, and whether you come out winning or losing, you know when it’s over that you have played well.”

As well as the Celtics played, they exited the Kingdome with a handful of regrets.  After leading 108-101, the C’s did not score on the final five possessions, which totaled a time of two minutes and forty-seven seconds, and were forced to play without Larry Bird for a stretch of time in the fourth quarter when the rookie out of Indiana State turned his ankle with 3:09 remaining in the game.  M.L. Carr finished with 20 points, eleven of which were from an offensive burst in the second quarter when the C’s had trailed, 43-32.  Bird was the only Celtic in double figures for rebounding, and the Sonics crushed the Celtics, 61-42, on the boards (Seattle also attempted 23 more shots than Boston).  Fast break points, which favored the Celtics, 41-16, kept the Celtics in the game.  More from the Globe:

This had been a monster from the opening tap, with bodies flying from here to Snohomish, fast breaks matching fast breaks, spectacular shots matching spectacular shots and good defensive plays following good defensive plays. Each participant recognized his duty to perform at this particular supernatural level.  It was a truly impassioned game from start to finish.  “Nobody other than Boston,” saluted Lenny Wilkens, “has reached our level.  We haven’t been playing emotional basketball.  It was good for us.”

DJ scored six of Seattle’s eight final points, including the game winner from just inside the left side of the foul line over an out-stretched hand of M.L. Carr.  The Celtics had an opportunity to win the game, but Carr’s shot at the buzzer failed to connect.  This was the third straight loss for the Celtics against a team from the Pacific Division on a nationally televised Sunday game.

The Celtics’ road trip continued on Wednesday, February 20 against Pete Maravich’s former team: the Utah Jazz.

 

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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.