BOSTON -- Larry Bird returned to action yesterday, shooting from the hip but missing when it counted.
Bird boldly tossed up the Boston Celtics' last legitimate field-goal attempt during their 114-112 overtime loss to Cleveland at Boston Garden. The shot was unsuccessful, as well as being an aesthetic disaster, a sort of two-hand driving banker borrowed from the Terry Dischinger repertoire.
The miss was symbolic of Bird's appearance. He had been absent for more than a month, and the Celtics had been faring quite well without him. He entered this game with the Celtics leading 33-32 with 9:27 left in the first half. After six minutes, the Celtics trailed 48-43.
The Celtics had difficulty recovering from that deficit and eventually fell behind by as many as 14 points in the second half.
Bird's main contributions were intangible: a couple of clinical pick-and-roll passes and some effective defense. But there appeared also to be a huge downside -- an emotional letdown because of the Celtics' habitual over-reliance on Bird.
Yet Bird thought that the Celtics should have won the contest in regulation time, except for a non-call by official Lee Jones just before the final buzzer. Bird said Reggie Lewis' air ball had been caused by a Craig Ehlo foul.
"Reggie got fouled," Bird said. "The officials don't have the guts to call it. Things like that happen in that situation, and it is tough for them to call it though it's the right call."
Indeed, there appears to be an inconsistency since the official scoring summary does not credit Ehlo with a blocked shot. Lewis did miss 15 shots, including free throws, during a 42-point game, but on this day, Lewis would not send up an air ball unless he had been virtually mugged or the victim of a block.
However, the NBA's unwritten code discourages officials from "deciding ballgames" in such situations. Had Jones not swallowed his whistle, he would likely have been figuratively, if not literally, swallowed whole by Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens.
"I felt pretty good out there," Bird said. "I didn't get fatigued; there were a lot of timeouts."
"It was a challenge for us, and we didn't meet the challenge," Bird said. "They kept us off-balance. I felt good; I have no complaints. I came ready to do what they asked me to do."
And that is precisely the conundrum. Bird is the team's highest-paid and generally most reliable competitor. His devotion to performance is unassailable, a nearly masochistic desire to appear invulnerable. Yet, he must inevitably surrender to mortality and allow his teammates to determine their own destiny.
"I thought Larry played hard, and he helped us in some areas," coach Chris Ford said. "I'm sure he will be ready next game."
Ford's unintended implication is that Bird was not fully prepared for this game. But should Bird have been expected to be prepared after not having competed since April 3? And how is Ford ever to know if Bird will be effective?
"That's my job," Ford said. "That's what I get paid for."