Celtics clinch 16th NBA championship with impressive display

Basketball wasn't invented in Boston, but the patent on how to play the game has been written and renewed here many times. The point was made convincingly on Sunday, when the Boston Celtics wrapped up their 16th ``world championship'' by defeating the willing, but ultimately unable, Houston Rockets, 114-97, in the sixth game of a best-of-seven series.

That's 16 titles in the 40-year history of the National Basketball Association, an enviable record of domination that makes residents of this hoop Athens rather possessive. In their eyes the Celtics don't relinquish the crown, they just occasionally lend it out.

In this light, even the singing of the national anthem took on new significance to Boston fans, who booed the part about ``the rocket's red glare'' and cheered ``our flag was still there.''

The Houston Rockets did indeed sparkle brilliantly at times, especially in winning Games 3 and 5 in Houston behind the efforts of such players as Akeem Olajuwon, Rodney McCray, Robert Reid, and Mitchell Wiggins. But when the smoke of battle cleared, there was another championship banner ready to be hoisted to the Boston Garden's rafters.

The question then, was where does this team rank on the NBA time line? Many observers think it's perhaps the league's greatest unit of all time.

Asked to place this triumph in context, coach K. C. Jones gave a diplomatic assessment. ``It's the best, the best because it's now, R-I-G-H-T now,'' said the man who coached Boston to NBA titles two of the last three years and played guard on eight Celtic championship teams.

The current Celtics raced through the regular campaign with a league-best 67-15 mark, lost only once at home, and boasted a magnificent starting five in Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Danny Ainge. Throw in super sub Bill Walton, who had been the MVP of the 1977 finals with Portland, and you had a roster for the ages.

The scepter of Boston's reign has passed hands several times, from the teams of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (champions 11 times from 1957 to '69), to those led by John Havlicek and Dave Cowens (winners in 1974 and '76), to the present squad, which has marched off with three titles under Sir Larry and his Men of the Roundball (1981, '84, and '86).

The reference, of course, is to 6 ft. 9 in. forward Bird, who brought his crown of golden locks from Indiana State University seven years ago and has virtually ruled NBA courts ever since.

When Bird won the league's Most Valuable Player award this season, he became the first non-center to secure the honor three years in a row, matching Bill Russell ('61-63) and Wilt Chamberlain ('66-68).

Bird thrives in dramatic situations, and Game 6 of this series was just that. The proceedings had begun to reach an emotional zenith in Houston during the middle portion of the finals, when the Rockets came to life with a pair of victories, including a sensational 111-96 blowout in the fight-marred fifth game.

That was the contest in which Houston's 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson was thumbed out in the first half for throwing haymakers in an incident expected to bring a substantial fine. His departure, however, aroused the Summit crowd to new heights of hysteria and inspired the Rockets to play with a zeal that left the Celtics dumbstruck.

Boston is seldom handed such a sobering defeat, and was grimly determined to make amends when the series shifted back to more familiar surroundings. Going to a seventh game is always a dangerous proposition, particularly against a frisky, young team like the Rockets that had begun to feel its oats after a pair of listless losses in Boston. Then too, there was the matter of Celtic pride, which coach-turned-president Red Auerbach has so astutely nourished lo these many years.

The mood was evident the day before the series-clinching victory, when the intensity was so high that Jones called off an intrasquad scrimmage rather than risk a civil war. ``I've never seen anything like that before,'' said the low-key mentor.

This intensity was all funneled into Boston's steamy old arena on Sunday, where one fan's banner cleverly proclaimed the feature attraction as ``Indiana Bird and the Garden of Doom.''

And that it was for the visitors, who found that Bird and his mates were prepared to smother the Rockets with unrelenting defensive pressure that basically took Sampson out of the game and manacled the high-scoring Olajuwon. Akeem struggled to score 19 points, six of which came on a startling run of three breakway layups following first quarter steals that provided Houston its lone glimmer of hope.

Bird, meanwhile, played to near exhaustion in an effort worthy of the playoff MVP, staying in for all but the last two minutes and scoring 29 points, collecting 12 assists, and grabbing 11 rebounds. It was the kind of hard-hat performance he had predicted of his team, but one spiced with a basket that symbolically brought the curtain down on the Rockets.

Early in the fourth quarter, he grabbed a loose ball underneath the basket, dribbled into the corner, and nailed a three-pointer that made it 87-61 and began a rollicking Garden party celebration.

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