The Celtics acted like a guy who had bullied his way to the head of the supermarket checkout line, only to discover that the kisser in which he had just planted his elbow belonged to his grandmother.
What they had done was dismantle the 76ers be fore the usual 14,890 witnesses at the Garden yester day afternoon. A late-season game with Philly is sup posed to be a combination of a guerrilla war and a Massachusetts Democratic primary fight. But the fi nal 17 minutes of this matinee contained no viable competition.
The Celtics won by a breezy 118-101 score, and if some of the crowd- pleasing things they pulled off constitute normal behavior at home (where, count ing the games in Hartford, they are now a spiffy 29-1) against Golden State, New York or San Antonio, it was a shock to see it being done to Philadelphia. It was so easy, in fact, that it scared the Celtics, who couldn't find enough good things to say about the humiliated 76ers, a team they are conditioned to re spect.
"I do think we're better," said Danny Ainge, "but today was no indication of how much better. They didn't have Bobby Jones (home with assorted knee and leg problems), and we're playing very well right now. Philadelphia has a lot of talent, and they'll be a force at play-off time."
Robert Parish backed him up. "The last thing I'm going to do," declared The Chief, "is take Philadel phia for granted. They give us a lot of problems, espe cially in Philadelphia. I still think they're the second- best team in the conference."
So these two guys go into the Fletcher School of Diplomacy without passing "Go" or collecting the $200. What the 250th consecutive Garden capacity crowd saw, however, was a definitive demonstration of Boston power, be it land, sea, air or bench. "I think we could beat them," said a brave 76ers coach Matt Guokas, "but we'd have to be at the very top of our game."
Philly's best shot was its first one, and the Celtics laughed at that. With Boston scoring on just one of its first seven possessions, the Sixers moved into such early leads as 6-0, 18-10 and, finally, 21-12. At this point, Jerry Sichting (K.C. Jones wanted to shake things up early) drilled an inside-out jumper to launch what would prove to be a run of 33-14. Though Boston would never lead in the first quarter (27-25, Sixers), the Sixers had to know that the Celt ics were back in control by the period's end.
There was need for only one lead change in this game, and it came in a fitting manner when Larry Bird sauntered up on the left wing and sank the first of his three three-pointers to give the Celtics a lead of 30-29 with 10:15 left in the half. Bird would finish with a respectable 36 points, 14 rebounds and 6 as sists, and before he was through he would conduct a third- period post-up and two-man clinic at the ex pense of the overmatched Charles Barkley that L would delight a gathering aching to ridicule the tem pestuous young Philadelphia star who was sent over by Central Casting to be the villain in this town.
Sichting (5 for 8, 11 points) was instrumental as the Celtics moved to a 45-35 lead. But Philly fought back to within three at the half (53-50), not that any one in the crowd was concerned since Bird had taken his 18 points and 12 rebounds to the bench for the final 4:17 of the half. If there is one thing we know for sure about this rivalry, it's that Philadelphia can not handle Larry Bird.
Philly hung tough a little longer, until a corner fallaway by Moses Malone (a harmless 18 points and 10 rebounds) and a technical foul shot converted by Maurice Cheeks -- Bird had objected to an Ed Rush call and bounced the ball in the general direction of Uranus -- pulled them within 59-57 with 8:23 left in the quarter.
That's as close as the Sixers would get. Kevin McHale (22 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks) deftly reject ed a Barkley shot, and when Barkley picked up the ball in the right corner and tried to pitch it into the lane, Bird intercepted it to start a fast break. McHale took an Ainge feed for a basket, and that turned into a three-point play when Barkley was hit with a tech nical. The shockingly ordinary Julius Erving (13 whispering points) answered for Philly, but succesH sive baskets by Dennis Johnson and Ainge (a reverse fast-break layup on a play begun with another McHale rejection) started the Celtics on a 17-5 run.
Bird's abuse of Barkley started with Boston lead ing, 71-63. First he isolated the Sixer forward on the far left, taking him inside for a short flip (73-63). Next time down, he first refused a three-pointer and then isolated him again in the same spot before feed ing McHale for an overhead layup (75-63). But BarkH ley's worst moment lay ahead.
This time Bird and McHale set up shop on a right- side high post. Bird fed into McHale, as Barkley, look ing worried, jumped back to help on McHale. McHale threw it back out and when Bird got it he faked to freeze Barkley and then hit a rolling McHale for an easy layup (77-64).
It was just another day at the office for the game's greatest player. "Larry just played a nice relaxed -- maybe 'poised' is a better word -- game," said Erving. "He took the shots that were there, maybe worked some boards and set up some teammates. He's the leader of a very good team, the best in the league."
The Sixers found out how good in the fourth peri od when, without really moving out of cruise gear, the Celtics expanded a 10-point lead (86-76) to 22 (106-84) before K.C. turned the game over to his so- called Green Team.
If you're counting, that's 20 straight at home (two of those in Hartford), and the show is getting better all the time. "If you're a Celtics fan," observed Guokas, "it's nice to watch."