Short of starting off each series with guaranteed 3-0 leads (2-0 in the case of the first round), the Celtics will enter the 1986 play-offs with every conceivable resource available.
K.C. Jones was able to use the final week of the season as Exhibition Season II, taxing neither minds nor bodies. There are no major injuries, only the usual assortment of inherent infirmities (the tendinitises, bursitises, backaches, jammed fingers, etc.) This is in vivid contrast to a year ago, when no one knew what could be expected of Larry Bird, who was experiencing a major problem with his right elbow.
According to most every expert in the field, the Celtics are the favorite to win the championship. Last year's experience, starting with a much-tougher- than-expected opening-round series with Cleveland and carrying through the six-game loss to the Lakers, cannot be used as a measuring stick because this is a substantially better team. Again, this isn't the press talking. This is the NBA talking.
Bill Walton wasn't here last year, and it is now impossible to imagine the Celtics taking the floor without their 33-year-old, redheaded, 7-foot, rebounding, shot-blocking, passing and cheerleading force. One of the favorite parlor games among Celtics fans this season was to finish watching another Boston victory and then debate the following question: "Could they have won this game last year, without Walton?"
A corollary to that was "Could they have won this game last year, without Jerry Sichting?" Who is to say? But the fact is that one of the great ramifications of their combined presence is that for the first time since Bill Russell and Sam Jones hung 'em up in 1969, the Celtics are an accomplished halfcourt team.
This newly acquired proficiency in the halfcourt is one of the two major reasons why the Celtics should be a good play-off team, as opposed to being a good regular-season team. The other reason is even more basic -- the Celtics are an excellent defensive team.
In years past, the trick was to get the Celtics out of their feared running game and lock them into a halfcourt routine, where, tradition held, they were too impatient and frivolous. This was true in 1972, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1984 and 1985, but it is an invalid theory in 1986.
"The Celtics," says New Jersey coach Dave Wohl, "have become a great halfcourt team. They have much more movement. They find people off the double- teams as well as anyone.
"They've just gotten a lot smarter. They used to be almost bullheaded. They'd set up their offense and say, 'Try to stop this,' and keep doing the same things. Now they set up their offense and say, 'Let's see what you've got, and whatever you do, we'll find your weakness.' "
You don't read or hear Boston laments about people "doubling down" on Robert Parish or Kevin McHale any more, simply because those two handle that scenario so much better. Both men have become facsimiles of what Walton always has been; namely, alert, creative, inside-out passers who not only react to defensive pressure by getting rid of the ball, but who generally direct the ball to the individual who can do the most with it.
Add to this the expanded passing skill of the Boston big men, the new, deadly threat of Sichting shooting open jumpers, and the growing preference of Bird to create offense from a one-on-one isolation situation, and we're talking about a Celtic team whose offensive capabilities are second to none in the halfcourt. "They have all the bases covered," says Detroit coach Chuck Daly. And play-off basketball is halfcourt basketball.
So, unlike all post-Russell predecessors, this Celtic team is not dependent upon the fast break. For that matter, it is probably less dependent on second shots than most recent Celtic teams. This club tends to get it right the first time.
Other play-off assets include experience, depth and incentive. The Celtics have a Basic Eight (the play-off maximum), and none of them has less than six years experience. Despite some well-publicized fourth-quarter giveaways, the Celtics remain the most dangerous fourth-quarter team in the league. Says Houston coach Bill Fitch: "In the last two minutes, you get the feeling you're not going to get the ball back from Boston until you see it go through the twine."
Finally, there is motivation. Every team who has played Boston in the second half of the year believes the Celtics are the hungriest team. In that case, figure that the regular season has been a pleasant appetizer. The Celtics have just asked the waiter for the play-off full-course menu. The napkins are tucked under their chin, and the forks are poised.