A LOST CAUSE IS SAVED
The instincts took hold before anyone could stop the moving frame.
If Isiah Thomas was working against speed or agility or sheer jumping ability, maybe the ball never would have been thrown.
Maybe he would have been more cautious. But he never stopped to consider the intangibles: that just because Larry Bird wasn't in the snapshot view he saw from the sideline, somehow No. 33 would find his way to the ball.
"I was guarding Joe Dumars," said Bird, "and I saw that (Bill) Laimbeer was open. I started to move toward him. I didn't know Isiah was going to throw it there."
Thomas, the man who prides himself on quick passing, quick thinking and quick judgment, did not spot the blond hair whirling into his picture frame. He only saw a big center under the basket with no one to bother him. The ball left his hands before his instincts could stop him.
"The pass Isiah threw," said Bird, "he just tossed it. It seemed to hang up there forever."
With the picture lapsing into slow motion, Bird lunged at the ball, tapping it once, grabbing for it twice, trying to get that ball perched on his ever-ready shooting hand.
"When I got the ball," he said, "I wanted to shoot it. But it kept getting away from me. I knew there was five seconds when I got the ball, so I started counting down in my head. Then I saw DJ."
Dennis Johnson jumped back into the screen before there was time to react. When the ball was stolen, he wasn't there. Now -- suddenly -- he was.
"I was setting up in the middle," explained Johnson, wearing his blue- striped victory slippers, still wide-eyed from all the excitement, "and I was trying to keep in the middle of the lane.
"The pass seemed sort of soft . . . I guess Isiah must have thought it was high enough to get there.
"But the minute Larry stole the ball, the minute I saw we had it back, my instincts told me to break for the basket."
He broke across the belly of the key quickly, bursting toward the hoop like a young kid in his first pickup game asking for the first basket of his life. With each step he took, Dumars found himself trailing behind, trying to catch up with the moving frame.
"After I threw DJ the ball," said Bird, "I saw him put up a finger roll. I didn't think it was gonna go in.
"But if I had tried to shoot it from where I was, it would have hit the side of the backboard."
The play took a matter of seconds. Larry steals the ball! (Larry almost staggers out of bounds.) Larry passes the ball! (Laimbeer nearly traps him on the end line.) DJ lays in the ball! (DJ nearly lays the ball in and out.)
How did the Celtics win this one?
"That is the most unbelievable play I've seen in basketball," said Danny Ainge. "The most unbelievable win I've seen in my life."
Years from now, when this chapter of Celtic folklore is replayed for generations of Boston's faithful, each man, woman and child will sit back, taste the memory and tell you exactly where they were on this night.
And so, incidentally, will every member of this team.
"I was out at half-court," said Ainge. "I was out there looking to foul someone.
"I was a cheerleader at that point. All I added to that play was yelling, 'Make it, DJ. Make it, DJ.' "
Jerry Sichting, the man applying pressure to Isiah's inbounds toss, stood and watched with amazement when he turned around to digest the final seconds.
"It was a great play by Larry, all anticipation," Sichting said. "Larry started to move before Isiah ever threw the ball. Unbelievable. I think after he stole it Larry started to shoot the ball, but he has those great eyes -- so he got it to DJ."
Fred Roberts, the jovial forward who was on the bench for the final play, said his view was the best in the house. "But even so, I never saw Larry," he said. "He was just a blur. He appeared out of nowhere. That's one of the greatest plays I've ever seen.
"You know, I thought we'd lost it. And obviously Detroit thought they won. They forgot to look at the clock."
The coaches on the bench, who thought they'd seen their fortunes roll out of bounds off a green and white jersey at the 0:04 mark, had no time to call for time. There was no time to talk this over. The players were on their own.
"We were standing there and yelling, 'Foul!' " said assistant coach Chris Ford. "That's what you do if the pass is completed.
"But that play . . . well, that play ranks up there with the best of them. When Havlicek stole the ball, that was for defensive purposes. When Gerry (Henderson) stole the ball, he laid it in something like that. But that play . . . that play is another one of those great moments in Celtics history."
The newest addition to Boston history has wiped out those nasty bruises
from a battered weekend in Detroit. The steal has breathed new life into tired old bodies, and new hope into exhausted old fans.
"How many times have you heard Johnny Most scream, 'He stole the ball!' ?" Johnson asked no one in particular. "Larry, Gerald and Havlicek. It's about three times in 30 or 40 years. No question about it, it was lucky. It was a dream chance."
A chance that will be frozen in time forever -- or at least until the next Celtic miracle is due.