For two teams at opposite ends of the postseason spectrum, the end result of the opening round of the NBA Playoffs is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Sure, a 7-seed or 8-seed might steal a game here or there, but since 1984 – when the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format – just 10 squads with one of the bottom two seeds has advanced to the second round.
That’s 10 teams. In 37 years. Out of 148 matchups.
Back in 1991, the first round was a best of five series, and the Run-TMC Golden State Warriors had perfected the role of first round wrecking ball. Don Nelson’s crew had dispatched the second seeded Jazz three years prior. This time, David Robinson and the Spurs were the victim.
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics were coming off their best season since their 1980s heyday. Their opening round opponent in the 1991 playoffs, the Indiana Pacers, had just two winning seasons and a single playoff victory in 15 years after coming over from the ABA. What seemed like a setup for the classic “Hello, goodbye” matchup would prove to be NBA drama at the highest level, with a talented, up-tempo club pushing a legendary franchise to its limit.
It’s hard to imagine a first round pairing being this exciting, particularly to fans of a Boston team that had collected three championships in the previous decade. But with the Pacers on the rise, the Celtics holding on for dear life and a bevy of talented players and personalities at the ready, the series had everything that makes you fall in love with the game of basketball.
And the winner-take-all Game 5 was the chef’s kiss on one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history.
Tale of the Tape
As the 80s rolled into the 90s, Boston’s “Big Three” of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale was still intact, though heavily calcified.
“You never knew with Larry’s back; you never knew with McHale’s ankle,” remembers Kevin Gamble, a starter on the ’91 team who averaged 16 points per game on 59 percent shooting. “You’d go in the back room and see them getting worked on to get ready to play. Sometimes they made it on the court. Sometimes they didn’t.”
Bird had missed the majority of the ‘89 season due to surgery on both heels and was increasingly limited due to back issues that would also require an operation. McHale had endured multiple surgeries of his own since a broken bone was discovered in his right foot during the '87 playoffs. The big man had played through the injury.
By contrast, the 37-year old Parish - by then the league's elder statesman - seemed to posses a video game invincibility. The Chief averaged a double-double, shot 60 percent from the field and missed just a single game of the '91 campaign.
As the team's championship fortunes flagged, franchise architect Red Auerbach brought in a number of reinforcements to help keep his Hall of Fame trio upright. Following the shocking death of Len Bias, he nabbed Northeastern swingman Reggie Lewis in the '87 draft. He shipped Danny Ainge in a package to Sacramento for bangers Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine. And he mined the CBA for an unlikely contributor in Gamble.
"It was a little surprising," Gamble recalls. "The reason I came up is because Bird had both of his Achilles operated on, so he was going to be out of commission. It was December of ‘88; I was playing in the CBA. I had watched them in high school. I had seen how successful they were. And now they were calling me to help them out."
Auerbach also rebuilt the backcourt following the departure of Ainge and retirement of Dennis Johnson, adding Brian Shaw and Dee Brown via the draft. Combined with Lewis and Gamble, the constant motion and quick strike capability of the "Zip Boys" played in stark contrast to images of Bird stretched out on the sideline, or of Parish and McHale moving up and down the floor in straight lines, their huge knee pads covering the space above their team issued socks.
"They were getting a little older and weren’t moving as fast, but they understood the game," Gamble says. "Bird’s passing skills, Robert's understanding of where he needs to set the pick and roll...he knew I liked driving left. When I drove left, I could get to the basket or pull up. Little things that he just understood and you didn’t have to tell him. You always felt like you had a chance to win.
"But I think it was a matter of us - myself, Reggie, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, guys like that - how good we could be."
When things were clicking, the Celtics were very good. They started the year 29-5 and held the best record in the Eastern Conference well into February - yes, ahead of Jordan’s Bulls. However, the aches and pains piled up and the regular season ended on a sour note, with losses in six of eight games to close the campaign. Bird played in just one of those contests. They settled at 56-26, second in the East.
By contrast, the Pacers began the year 9-16. A coaching change (from Dick Versace to Bob Hill) unlocked what would become the fifth-best offense in the NBA. They had future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, future All-Stars in Detlef Schrempf and Rik Smits, and an emerging force at point guard in Micheal Williams, a former second round pick of the Pistons.
"I always tell people I was the fourth guard in a three-guard rotation (in Detroit)," Williams jokes. "I was a rookie in the summer league (three years earlier) with Bob Hill, so he’d seen me play. He already had confidence in me."
Lineup and stylistic changes in place, Indy ripped off a 14-6 stretch after the All-Star break, with two of those wins coming against the Celtics. In one of the victories, on February 26, scoring machine Chuck Person went off for 28 points. And while Miller would eventually become the face of the franchise, it was Person - nicknamed "The Rifleman" - who was the dominant personality, filling up both the stat sheet and reporters' notebooks with juicy trash talk.
The Rifleman already had a rivalry going with Bird. When the two teams played the day after Christmas that season, he announced he was going "Bird hunting." Larry turned around and said before the game that he had a Christmas present for the Pacers forward. Late in the contest, Bird famously launched a three, turned to the Indiana bench, said "Merry (expletive) Christmas, Chuck!" and got back on defense as the ball plunged through the net.
"In this league, a lot of times the players don’t give you any resistance," Bird told Conrad Brunner of Pacers.com. "But when you played against Chuck, you knew you had to play and you had to play hard – and if you didn’t play well, they’d probably beat you.”
The combination of talent and attitude made the Pacers - a .500 team on paper - both dangerous and fun to watch.
"I was talking to Dale Davis, who [was drafted] the year after ," notes Williams. "He was saying, 'man, we used to just get the ball out and give it to you, Chuck and Reggie were shooting threes...Detlef Schrempf would fill the lane,' and I said 'that’s the new age of basketball.' At that time, you had Hakeem [Olajuwon], Patrick Ewing, Shaq was coming into the league...you had a lot of big men because it was inside-out. We were just a little ahead of our time.”
"We were young, fast and brash," Person told Brunner. "With Micheal Williams running the point and Detlef and myself and Reggie, we had a lot of guys who could push and really score the ball.”
Game 1 at Boston Garden went the way you'd expect for an established team playing in front of the home crowd in the postseason. The Celtics won, 127-120. But the devil was in the details. Bird triple-doubled (21 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) but shot just 6-of-20 from the field. With his back issues, his practice and preparation time had become extremely limited, and it showed.
Luckily, Boston had Lewis, who led all scorers with 28 points.
"He was on his way up," Gamble remembers. "He could guard some of the better players in the league. I think (Michael) Jordan said that he had a tough time with Reggie because Reggie was so quick. He had that spring in his jump. You could just tell that he was coming into his own and was going to be a bona fide superstar."
The pivot duo of Parish and McHale also combined to make an outstanding 19 out of 27 field goal attempts in the victory.
Following the contest, Bird spent the night in traction at New England Baptist Hospital.
No amount of treatment could have prepared the Celtics for Hurricane Chuck in Game 2, as Person rained down 39 points. Williams chipped in with 24 and 10 assists, and Indiana picked up the first road playoff win in the NBA history of the franchise, 130-118 at the Garden.
“I had a matchup problem with Chuck,” remembers Gamble. "He was very flamboyant, but very good. He could score the basketball with the best of them. Size-wise, I had trouble with him. Especially in the post, when he got his back to the basket.”
Person didn’t spend much time with his back to the basket in Game 2, draining a then-playoff record seven three-pointers.
And after the game, he was quite pleased with himself: “I love it. National TV. Parquet floor. [Expletive] banners. All trying to stop me. But no one can.”
The series headed to Indianapolis tied at a game apiece, where the Celtics received a decidedly different greeting from the one they’d become accustomed to at Market Square Arena in recent years. Indifferent local fans had once welcomed native son Bird and his teammates with open arms. As Jack McCallum wrote in the excellent Unfinished Business, veteran guard Vern Fleming even said - after a home win against the Green two years prior - “It was so nice to come away with a win at Boston Garden.”
This time, the Indy fans let the Celtics have it.
“Indiana was a little bit rowdy, like a college atmosphere,” Gamble recalls.
But the psyched up Pacers were psyched out. Especially Person, who disappeared with six points on just 2-of-8 shooting. Meanwhile, McHale had 22, Gamble dropped in 18, and the C’s put six players in double figures en route to a 112-105 win.
Facing elimination, the Rifleman was back on target in Game 4, keying a furious second half rally and going on a personal 12-0 run down the stretch, capping the barrage with a backbreaking three to snap a tie with just over two minutes to go.
“Nobody can guard me!” Person bellowed to the home fans. “I’m a bad man!”
After Game 4, McCallum wrote, "Person could not be turned off - had there been a reporter willing to spend the night, The Rifleman would’ve stayed, too."
Meanwhile, Bird was doing everything he could to get another crack at his antagonist.
“It was just brutal,” he said years later. “The nerve was shooting down both legs and I thought that was the end of my career right there. The sad part about it was after the games I would go to the hospital and get traction...go home, play a game and then come back to the hospital. It was ridiculous.”
However hobbled, he implored Boston fans to be ready for Game 5 back at the Garden. And so the stage was set for the deciding contest.
It’s rare that a close-out game lives up to the hype. It’s almost as if there’s just too much weight on the participants, particularly the underdog, who more often than not turns in an absolute stink bomb on the way to the golf course for the summer. But the Celtics and Pacers delivered in every possible way in Game 5.
Hoops historian Curtis Harris wrote, “this game was a game that would make you say THIS GAME as you watched it live...30 years later it’ll make you say THIS GAME. If the Library of Congress had a repository of classic basketball games like they do with books and movies, this contest would be in it.”
Marv Albert’s pregame narration on NBC described it as the biggest game in the NBA history of the Indiana franchise. Back at the studio, Pat Riley described Person - a five-year veteran - as “the NBA’s newest top gun.” So new that the network failed to adequately prepare the set to flank Riley and host Bob Costas with the appropriate team memorabilia for the matchup. While Costas' backdrop was festooned with a Bird jersey and various pictures of Celtics legends, somebody apparently found a LaSalle Thompson tank top and an outdated Pacer logo to tack on the wall behind Riley.
If not for what was to come, this might’ve gone down as “The Derek Smith Game,” as - much like Leon Powe in Game 2 of the 2008 Finals - a role player stepped forward to put his stamp on a pivotal contest. Smith - a former 20-point threat who ripped up his knee and recast himself as a tough veteran presence - came out like his hair was on fire. He scored 12 points in Game 5, 10 of them in the first quarter on 5-of-8 shooting, and the home crowd gave it up for the veteran busting his hump on both ends of the floor, particularly when he snared an offensive rebound and muscled it back up for two.
The early Celtic lead had dwindled to two points late in the second when Bird went down. Hard. After Pacers forward Mike Sanders poked the ball loose, Bird dove for the rock. His head hit the floor with a sickening thud. He stayed down for a minute, then exited for the locker room.
"The doctor told me I probably had a concussion and they didn’t think I should go out there with both the back and the damage I did to my brain," he said years later. "I had this massive headache on the right side of my head but finally I decided, "this could be your last game ever, so you’d better get out there and give it all you can."
“The way Bird played - he was one of those guys who would do anything to win,” says Gamble. "(He didn’t) care about how his back was going to react - diving on the floor, banging around with some of those guys on the inside.”
When the three-time MVP reappeared during a third quarter timeout, the Garden crowd absolutely lost it.
"When that roar came up, I felt it," Bird said. "I felt it go through my body and I felt less pain and more active and couldn’t wait to get out there. It’s an amazing feeling."
Bird’s return sparked a 41-point third quarter outburst for the C’s. He was everywhere, whipping a pass to Lewis over the top of the defense for a signature two-handed slam, going to the basket for two, later heading to the rack again and converting a three-point play. While he shot just 1-for-14 from downtown for the series, he impacted Game 5 in every other possible way.
"I don’t know what they did to him," a still-incredulous Miller exclaimed years later. "I don’t know if he got a shot. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if he got touched by Jesus. When he ran out of that tunnel, that crowd and the noise level, it was deafening."
Albert couldn’t help but gush over the scene unfolding before his eyes: “There’s so much history, so much tradition involving the Boston Celtics, and I get the feeling we’re watching a piece of that history unfold.”
While they were able to match Boston shot-for-shot for a while, Indiana saw the game slipping away in the fourth and deployed the trap, to great success. On the other end, Williams converted jumper after jumper (he'd finish with 23 points), while Schrempf took it to the hole (the lanky German had 20) and Person fired away from long range (he made five three-pointers in the deciding contest).
Schrempf cut Boston's lead to three with 1:42 remaining, then converted again to cut it to two with just over a minute left. With about 10 seconds remaining, Person bricked a turnaround three that would've given Indiana the lead. After Shaw converted two free throws to put Boston up four, Person pulled up from 35 feet.
"And then Chuck pulls up from just over half court and makes a three-pointer," Williams laughs.
It was as close as Indiana would get. Two more free throws for Boston resulted in a final score of 124-121. Bird finished with 32 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Lewis had 22, Parish 21.
“I tell people all the time - there’s nothing like doing something at the highest level," says Williams. "And you’ve got other levels of the highest level. For him to come back, that showed a true sense of greatness."
"He just said 'I’m not going to allow the Celtics to lose this game.' Like the series where Kyrie Irving and (Kevin) Love got hurt - and LeBron just said 'I’m not going to allow Cleveland to lose.' And Larry Bird is right up there on Mount Rushmore."
"It’s like stuff you tell your kids about," Thompson mused when the dust had settled. "I told him at the end of the game that I’ve never seen anything like that."
Bird sat Game 1 of the next series against the Pistons with back spasms. He'd be joined on the sidelines by Parish, who sprained his ankle in the opener and was out of commission by Game 5. Boston battled gamely, but the Pistons sent the Green packing in six, and the spotlight flickered on the Celtics dynasty.
Despite the setback, the Pacers looked poised to be a force in the coming decade.
“Next year fans are going to say when we come into town - oh, my, it’s Indiana,” Miller predicted. “They have some firepower.”
But success wouldn't come immediately. In fact, they'd run into the Celtics again the following year, with a similar result.
The sequel wasn’t as competitive as the original. Boston swept, with Lewis averaging 28 points and Gamble 19. Bird didn’t play. The following offseason, the Pacers flipped Person and Williams to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Sam Mitchell and Pooh Richardson (who was later traded for Mark Jackson). A year later, Schrempf was dealt to Seattle for Derrick McKey. They added Dale and Antonio Davis through the draft. Indiana would appear in the Eastern Conference Finals five times between 1994 and 2000, culminating in a Finals appearance against the Lakers at the turn of the century.
“Reggie and I played really well together. Rik and I played well together," Williams reflects. "When I saw Indiana, I sometimes said “man, that could’ve been me.” But I’m a strong believer in God and Christ...God puts you where He wants you, and I’m grateful to say I was an 11-year veteran of the NBA."
“At any one given time in a game or during a person’s life, I think you have one chance at greatness,” Person reflected. “For this franchise, I thought that time was then...but it didn’t work out that way.”
The house lights came on at the Garden as Bird retired in the summer of '92. The Celtics still managed 48 wins the following year, but things went dark that offseason when McHale retired and Lewis tragically passed away.
Boston would appear in just one more postseason series the rest of the decade, a 3-1 loss to Shaq and the Magic in 1995.
The Garden was demolished later that year.
The 1991 Celtics and their fans probably would have preferred the emotional crescendo of Game 5 against the Pacers to come at a more advanced stage of the playoffs. After all, it's what they were used to. That same big game feeling would become familiar for the Pacers and their supporters as the decade wore on.
But in the spring of '91, a unique set of circumstances produced some of the most compelling basketball the world has ever seen. A reminder that greatness doesn't always come with a ring attached - people, possibilities and pride brought out the best these two teams had to offer. And it all happened in the first round, 30 years ago.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.