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Fifteen seconds after the opening tap, Larry Bird threw up an 18-foot shot that didn't even hit the rim, and thought, "Here we go."

After that shot, his first in an NBA game since last Dec. 30, though, Bird admitted that "it got pretty smooth."That's an understatement. In a spectacular return from a two-month layoff caused by an inflamed nerve in his lower back, Bird just missed his first triple-double of the season Sunday night in sparking the Boston Celtics to a 101-91 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

The 35-year-old superstar played 34 minutes, including the entire third period, scoring 26 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and handing out 9 assists. He hit on 9 of 16 field goal attempts, including 1-for-4 from 3-point range, and was 7-for-7 from the free throw line. He also chipped in with two steals and one blocked shot.

"I felt all right, it was good to get back," Bird said. "I just came to play. I didn't expect anything special. When you sit out that long you're going to be a little rusty. I had a lot of time to practice in the last couple of weeks. but you never knowuntil you get out there."

"He was fantastic," Boston coach Chris Ford said. "He carried us in the first half and then he helped us win it in the second."

"Bird and turnovers beat us," Dallas coach Richie Adubato said. "We had a chance, but Bird was sensational. Unfortunately for us, he came back tonight."

"We came in here geared for Larry, but apparently it doesn't matter how you gear for Larry," said center Donald Hodge, who led Dallas with 19 points.

"We tried six guys (on the court), but it didn't work; we should have tried eight," Adubato said of the Mavericks' technical foul for having one too many players on the floor.

"Once I got going and got into the flow I felt that I hadn't even been out," Bird said. "I felt I could go up and down the court with the guys. I was bumping and banging and got some rebounds and from then on I thought I could do just about anything."

Bird acknowledged that his back condition "might get irritated again, it might," but said "really that's all behind us now. All I can do is look forward."

He said that although he isn't in the greatest game condition because of the layoff, "I'm in good enough shape to compete."

Bird scored 7 points and had 7 rebounds and 5 assists in the third period when the Celtics broke away from a 59-59 tie with a 19-9 run to take a 78-68 lead into the final period. That enabled them to hike their lifetime home record against the Mavericks to 12-0.

Asked about the playing time, Bird said "the coach will dictate how many minutes I play," adding that, "I'm here to play 48. That's what I get paid to do. If he says play 20 or 40, whatever, that's what I'll do."

Boston center Robert Parish, who had said that the team couldn't expect to be carried by Bird, felt that "Larry still needs to get in better condition.

"It's going to take him time to the point where he's not wheezing," said Parish, who played 22 minutes. "But we had no reason to think he would not come back."