Embry says only Celtics soared higher than Jordan to reach new playoff level


RICHFIELD, Ohio -- When Michael Jordan rose off the floor of the Richfield Coliseum for The Shot II, lifting off like from a launching pad at Cape Canaveral, it is more than himself that he elevated.

It is his game -- and team.

In each of the last two NBA playoff seasons, he has seemed to rise higher and higher, and now this time is soaring toward a championship three-peat.

His final 15-foot jumper over Gerald Wilkins with a second left last night beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 103-101, and swept them from the Eastern semifinals.

If the physical wonder of him sometimes defies description, it also exceeds simple historical comparisons.

Cavs general manager Wayne Embry is a big man with a long memory. His NBA career spans five decades.

Either as a stand-up guy who played a knock-down center for the old Cincinnati Royals, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks

or as a general manager, first in Milwaukee and now in Cleveland, he has known all the greats.

So when some wise guy thought he would stump Embry by asking if he had ever encountered anyone who could elevate performance in the playoffs like Jordan can, the big man with the long memory didn't even hesitate.

"May I just say," Embry told his questioner, "the Boston Celtics in the '50s and '60s."

It not only was a good answer, but also a telling one.

Instead of his vast memory bank spitting out the name of an individual player, Embry named a team.

The greatest team.

The Celtics of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, et al, won eight championships in a row (1959-66) and 11 of 13 from 1957 through 1969.

Embry chuckles.

"Just the Boston Celtics," he repeated.

Indeed, there may have been no better collective than the Celtics when it came to reaching some higher, almost heavenly level at playoff time.

But the Celtics reached this level together, as a group. Jordan soars alone, a singular eagle in the NBA's night and neon sky.

"Among contemporary players," Embry said, "Julius Erving, I think."

The Doctor, new Hall of Fame member, could elevate himself and his game much like Jordan.

But already, Jordan has surpassed Dr. J in championships, 2-1.

He is a singular talent and inspiration who raises not just his own level at playoff time but also his team's. "That's highly unusual," Embry said. "Highly unusual."

Again he made a withdrawal from his rich bank of memories.

"I would consider Michael as one of the greatest players ever, right along with Oscar," Embry said.

That's Oscar Robertson, former Royal and Buck and Embry teammate.

"It was hard for him to do, to just raise the whole team up," Embry said.

Historically, the bigger the man the better his chances of rising to great heights with the team on his back.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it, but he had Magic Johnson much of the time.

Russell did it, but he had his supporting cast of thousands.

"Usually," Embry said, "you don't see it in that position -- the guard position."

Though not technically a point guard, the 6-foot-6 Jordan controls the ball and the game.

He scored 31 in Game 4.

After he had scored 43 points in Chicago's Game 1 victory, he saw it in terms of the openings it would create for Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and others when the Cavaliers tried to take some of the wind from beneath his wings.

So Michael Jordan is the story every game, every night no matter what any of the other Bulls do.

How high can he go?

"How many wins do we need?" he asked.

Driven by the opportunity to do what Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson could not, Jordan becomes a plume of smoke, climbing, climbing.

"A three-peat would mean everything," he said.

"You just can't," Embry said, "let him do this for a whole series."

But they did.

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