BOSTON -- When Chris Ford grabbed the reins as head coach of the Boston Celtics, he vowed (as did the coach before him and the one before that and the one before that) to do things his way.
It sounds good in theory. Yet the practical application can often get sticky, particularly in trying to make your ideas jibe with 12 professional athletes, each of whom has supreme confidence in his own contribution to the overall picture.
Ford put his independent thinking to the test in Chicago Tuesday night, when he sat Larry Bird for all but the final 2 minutes 12 seconds of the fourth quarter against the Bulls.
Bird exited in the final seconds of the third period, his club down, 90-79. When he returned, Boston was on top, 106-104.
During his absence, a smaller, quicker lineup of Dee Brown, Brian Shaw, Kevin Gamble, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish unleashed a barrage of defensive trapping pressure, which enabled the Celtics to discombobulate Chicago's offensive flow. also enabled the visitors to rip off a 12-2 run and thrust themselves back into a game they won at the buzzer.
"It was Larry's turn to rest at that point, and I was looking for a good defensive combination," said Ford. "I don't have any grand designs, to be truthful. I'm doing a lot of this on instinct. I see things on the floor, and I look to take advantage of them.
"I know there are a lot of people looking over my shoulder, and there will always be a lot of questions. But I said I was going to do it the way I felt best. I realize that means you can either look brilliant or really dumb."
So far, Ford's hunches have paid off. By going to his most efficient defensive unit, he risked cooling off the hot hand of his superstar [Bird had connected on six straight jumpers in the third when he was removed], not to mention bruising the ego of a three-time Most Valuable Player.
Did that ever cross the first-year coach's mind?
"It might have," Ford answered, smiling.
Consider the danger of a brooding star a moot point, at least in this instance. During his sojourn on the bench, Bird was either blowing on his hands to keep them warm, or clapping his hands to cheer on his teammates.
"All I know is when I left we were down 11, and when I came back in we were up 2," Bird said.
Bird is the first to admit he is not a quick defender. He takes pride in using his smarts to make defensive plays and does not consider himself a liability. Yet he also recognizes the value of younger, quicker legs and thus far has been agreeable in accepting what at times has been a lesser role.
"You always want to be in there," he said, "but when we went to that smaller lineup, those guys were really scrapping, making awfully big plays. I'm not complaining. I like to win."
The key is Bird remains a big factor in determining wins and losses. As soon as the game entered its final minutes, and it was clear both teams would rely on big shots in a half-court set to win it, Bird was summoned.
In fact, as the forward ran past the bench at the 2:12 mark to check into the game, Ford said, "Go win it for us, Larry."
It was Bird's high fly jumper with a hang time of almost two seconds that put Boston in front, 108-106. Michael Jordan countered with a fallaway, and when the Celtics got down to its final possession, the play was for No. 33.
"I sat there the whole quarter, but I still wanted the ball in that situation," said Bird.
It didn't turn out that way. The Bulls had him covered, and the game was finally won on Shaw's follow-up of a Parish airball. Afterward, teammate Kevin McHale, whose tenuous relationship with Bird has intrigued Celtics followers for years, went out of his way to say he was hoping Bird would take the final shot.
"I always have confidence we'll win with Larry taking it," said McHale. "He's hit so many of them, and Larry said himself a long time ago that if it's tied, you can't possibly lose if you take the last shot. You need a guy who is that loose to take it."
The looseness has been contagious. The stars are loose, the kids are loose, and the coach is brilliant, not dumb.
"Today, maybe," Ford said. "But if we lost that game, and Larry had sat there, what would people be saying?"