The ravages of time take no pity on aging basketball legends, and Larry Bird was making his final battle with the ticking clock in the 1991-’92 season.
His body had been betraying him for years, the cruelest breakdown being a bad back that forced Bird to famously spend nights in traction at a Boston hospital. But he also was plagued by an Achilles’ problem that made it look like he would sit out against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 12, 1992.
Bird had already missed 29 games that season. But he was in the starting lineup at the Boston Garden that night, taking his place alongside Dee Brown, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Gamble and Robert Parish.
The Trail Blazers were 46-18 heading into the game, the best record in the Western Conference. They would end up in the NBA Finals that season, losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games.
In the opening minutes, Bird looked the part of punch-drunk cager still hitting the court. He rose for an 18-footer over Buck Williams, and missed so badly that the Garden faithful audibly groaned. It’s an impossible situation for fans as a star’s game loses its shine. When is the point when you call for the plug to be pulled?
However, that embarrassing miss seemed to give Bird some verve. On the Celtics’ next possession, he demanded the ball and then drained a 17-footer from the other side of the floor. Bird missed his next two shots and the 1-for-4 start seemed to portend another dark night of the soul.
Bird settled into the rhythm of the game, bearing down on the defensive boards and letting the offense come to him instead of forcing the issue. He started to work the midrange game, the stock-in-trade of any aging scorer. Bird sank his last four jumpers of the first quarter, ending up with 10 points and six rebounds.
After the requisite breather to begin the second quarter, Bird kept the boil on high. He manhandled Danny Ainge in the post, spinning away from the ex-Celtic and hitting the archetypal “old man at the YMCA” twisting layup over Cliff Robinson. The Celtics briefly had Kevin McHale and Parish in the lineup with Bird and some of that old magic had been rekindled. Bird drilled two more high-arching, fadeaway jumpers, giving him seven straight field goals. Bird knew something was afoot, cracking a rictus grin and jawing with Portland’s Robinson after one of Bird’s makes. Heading into halftime, Bird had 16 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting as the Celtics trailed, 62-58.
The third quarter featured another master’s seminar on the midrange by Bird. He also kept his shooting touch in rhythm by sinking technical free throws – three in the period for the Trail Blazers, two and the boot for Robinson (who was probably glad to get away from Bird) and one for Clyde Drexler. Add another 11 points for Bird’s stat sheet.
Bird now drew rapt attention from Portland coach Rick Adelman, who started sending two defenders Bird’s way in order to get the ball out of his hands. Bird promptly set to work on a triple-double, feeding the open teammates. He also set up shop on the low post against Drexler, who was in his prime “Glide” days. Bird kept the Celtics close, but the outcome seemed certain with the Trail Blazers holding a seven-point lead with just under two minutes remaining. But no lead is safe with an Adelman-coached team.
Missed free throws and poor clock management allowed the lead to be cut to a three-point deficit for the Celtics with five seconds left. Every soul in the Garden knew Bird would have the ball in his hands. He took the ball right at Drexler on the wing, lowered his head and spun like a tailback. Bird drifted toward the basket and shot-put a three-pointer to tie the game at 122 with two seconds left. He had 40 points in regulation.
Bird reached a triple-double in the first overtime and then willed himself to nine more points in extra time. His jumper with under two minutes left in the second overtime gave the Celtics a six-point lead and Boston held on for a 152-148 victory.
Bird’s line was jaw-dropping: 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and five steals. The Celtics would lose in the second round of the playoffs that season, and Bird would retire after playing sparingly for “The Dream Team” in Barcelona. His body couldn’t take the grind anymore. But at least Bird got a final, masterful attempt at making time stop.