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Jordan brushes greatness — again — but he’d trade 63-point masterpiece for a victory

Read the Sun-Times’ original story on Michael Jordan’s 63-point playoff game against the Celtics.

Michael Jordan drives to the basket against Larry Bird in the 1986 NBA Playoffs.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Originally published April 21, 1986

BOSTON – Michael Jordan did with a basketball yesterday what Michelangelo used to do with a brush.

It is not enough to say the guy scored 63 points, the most ever in the 40 years of the National Basketball Association playoffs.

He did it in Boston Garden, the shrine where all those championship banners testify to miracles past. He did it on the same green-bordered parquet floor where Elgin Baylor had scored 61 for the Lakers 24 years before. He did it before 14,890 screaming worshipers of opposing gods, against a team some say is the best of all time.

He painted his own masterpiece on the ceiling of basketball’s Sistine Chapel, and he didn’t need a scaffold to lift him up there. Michael can fly.

Even the opposing coach, K.C. Jones, said: “I’m glad I was there to watch it. There are no words to describe it.”

After comparing Jordan to Bird, Kareem and Magic, the Celtics coach had to reach beyond his sport for similes, to a Bob Hope monologue, a Sinatra song.

This writer has to find words. Somehow, it sounds too lame to just say it was the best basketball performance I’ve seen. Hell, it may have been the best basketball performance anybody has seen.

Some will quibble the Bulls didn’t win, that the Celtics won in two overtimes, 135-131. Jordan himself sides with them: “I’d give all the points back if we could win. I wanted to win so badly.”

Others will argue he had to hog the ball to get 41 shots, that the Bulls might have scored more if he had dished it off more. But anyone who has seen the other Bulls shoot knows the odds are better with Jordan. The box score tells us he did lead his team with six assists.

Said the Celtics’ Danny Ainge: “When you got a player like Michael Jordan, it’s tough not to give the ball to him. The (other) players almost feel guilty to take a shot.”

And Jordan made 22 of those 41 shots, though many were plainly impossible. To get them away, he had to throw two head fakes, a shoulder feint, waggle his hips and wiggle his ears deceptively before darting around Dennis Johnson or Ainge, then vault into the air, pirouette once, pump twice or thrice in separate directions, twist himself into a pretzel and fire through the arms like cables dangling from barrage balloons named Kevin McHale, Robert Parish or Bill Walton.

Said the awed Jones: “He shoots 8-footers, which is much more difficult than 15- or 20-footers, into the bottom of the net. He plays great defense, hustles, goes to the boards. All in all, a fantastic performance.

Jones said Jordan played “78 minutes.” It only seemed that way. Fifty-three were enough to rewrite a record book. Incredibly, he played the last 39 without relief.

Weren’t you tired, Michael?

”Nope. In a playoff game, you can’t get tired. I wasn’t even thinking of getting tired.”

Here is a guy who scored 49 points Thursday night while suffering from a virus some would call flu. A committee of doctors and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had deemed him unfit to play at all this year, arguing a broken foot needed months of mending.

The Celtics spread the burden of trying to cage this ghost. Johnson, the first to guard him, fouled out. So did Walton. Bird, Parish and Ainge played with five fouls, most of them caused by Jordan.

The matchup of the fiery Ainge and the quicksilver Jordan was a classic. Ainge scored 24 points, all after halftime, even though he shared and finally inherited the responsibility for guarding Jordan. He scored 11 in the last 2 1/2 minutes of the third period, thanks to a stroke of coaching luck.

Jones had sent Jerry Sichting into the game to give Ainge a breather, but Sichting replaced Johnson instead. “It turned out to be a great accidental move,” Jones said.

It was Ainge who drove the lane to tie the score at 125 with 12 seconds to play in the first overtime. “He went right past me,” Jordan said. “Ninety percent of it was my fault.”

It was also Jordan who missed an open shot from 20 feet that could have won it for the Bulls in the dying seconds of that first overtime. “I’ll remember the one I missed,” Jordan said. He said it felt good leaving his hand, just didn’t drop.

Just to show he wasn’t perfect, he also missed two of 21 free throws - in succession. But the crazies in the stands who were screaming and waving had nothing to do with it, he said. “No, I was totally concentrating.”

He can be forgiven the miss of those two when you consider the two he made in the tautest moment of a game that stretched nerves to piano-wire tension for three hours and five minutes.

He was fouled by McHale as he attempted the last shot of regulation with the Celtics ahead 116-114. McHale clapped his head with both hands in disbelief at referee Ed Middleton’s gutty call. Even Jordan was amazed at Middleton’s nerve.

”I was very surprised,” Michael said. “I was fouled. Usually, in a playoff game, there are no fouls at the end of the game.”

He calmly sank both shots with no time on the clock and sent it into overtime.

Said Ainge: “I thought he was one of the best players in the league before this series. He’s better than I thought. Not only does he do it, but it’s the way he does it. He’s so spectacular-looking. Sometimes you find yourself just watching and going: `Holy cow!’ “

Ainge had a ringside look at a miracle. Fifty years from now, the kids who were in yesterday’s crowd will tell their grandchildren they saw Michael Jordan fly with no visible wings, supported only by his artistry.