9.24.2008

Will the Celtics Repeat? Backcourt Question Marks may Make it Difficult

1981-82 Boston Celtics

A word to the wise fan: It was fun last year. The March 29 Showdown and Philadelphia Game 7 clashes were not just basketball games or even majestic sporting events. They were enriching experiences not often granted to mortals by any spiritual source. Pity the non-sports follower unable to connect with Us, unable to plug into the communal energy that flowed through Boston Garden on those memorable afternoons. Pity, too, the athletes on other teams not fortunate enough to be a part of such magnificent occasions, however peripherally. Savor those memories. Push the "read" button on the computer of your mind as often as possible. You'll need to, because it simply does not get better than that.

You may need to revive those memories often because this could be a different season for the Celtics . The week-long trip to the West Coast during the exhibition swing underscored a backcourt problem that everyone from the Red Auerbach-Bill Fitch summit to the most casual fan level has long conceded. Without a new face or two at guard, the Celtics are positively living on borrowed time.

Neither Chris Ford nor M.L. Carr made the trip, leaving Tiny Archibald and Gerald Henderson to fend for themselves in the company of polite, earnest, overmatched young men. Fitch conducted a nightly guard audition, each game leaving him and his fellow coaches more confused. The only certainty is that no matter which two among the quintet of Charles Bradley, Tracy Jackson, Jim Brandon, Glenn Hagan and Terry Duerod survive, the duo will not be ready to make immediate contributions to the team. They will be the bag-toters and mopper-uppers. Danny Ainge is not a luxury item; he, or someone with his qualifications, will soon be a necessity.

But what about Ford and Carr? The Celtics won it all last year with them. Couldn't they do it again? Well, sure, yeah, maybe. Take Ford for a moment. He is in many ways a classic Celtic, an overachiever who long ago surmised that basketball was a specfic type of game and not a glorified track and field meet featuring the 100-yard dash and the high jump. He plays exemplary team defense, he can pass and he really does the "little things" that win games. The problem with Ford, however, is assessing how well he is doing what he is supposed to be doing. He played better two years ago than he did last year, although he was superb on March 29 and he had a pretty good playoff. Was he simply an innocent victim of an emphasis shift to an inside game or is he losing whatever he had? We're likely to have the answer to that question by New Year's.

As for Carr, is he a guard or isn't he? Fitch swears that Carr was just starting to get the feel of the position when he broke his foot a year ago tonight. His eventual contributions were limited to defense and backslapping. He is certainly not too old to bounce back with a fine year (he'll be 31 in January), but he still must prove that guard is his position.

And what about point guard? No Celtic is more indispensable than Archibald, because Henderson is neither a 1 (playmaking) nor 2 (shooting) guard, but a serviceable 1 1/2 guard. His quickness serves him well on defense and on some drives to the basket, but he doesn't have Archibald's amazing ability to get from one end of the floor to the other less than five seconds after the other team scores - he shouldn't feel bad; nobody else in the league does, either - and he just doesn't have the indefinable feel that makes a guard a playmaker. If Tiny is again anything less than sensational, the Celtics will be seriously affected.

Enough sour talk. The Celtics will again go to war with a front line that, in size, depth and flexibility, is the envy of basketball. This is true despite the fact that there is no greyhound forward of the Julius Erving-Mike Mitchell ilk. The Celtics can run because their big men understand the basics of the running game (remember that a true running concept even makes allowances for a Don Nelson). It takes more than sheer speed to make endless defense-to-offense transitions, and all five key frontcourt performers can, and do, fill lanes properly.

We're talking talent here. Larry Bird cannot be praised too much. In two years, he has demonstrated that nobody in the game combines shooting, rebounding, passing, defending, hustling, thinking and, most important, caring in a comparable package. Cedric Maxwell is an unsurpassed inside scorer, fine rebounder and above-average passer. Robert Parish was second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a nightly pivot force last season, and he can get better. Rick Robey is like a second baseman who hits home runs or a catcher who steals bases. Men who are 6 feet 11 and who look heavy-legged aren't supposed to run away for sneakaway dunks every night, but Robey does, giving the Celtics a peculiar dimension. Kevin McHale, in addition to being the best funny-looking player ever, is merely the league's only 10-year veteran who has yet to reach his 23d birthday.

It's a front line that runs together, board-bangs together, passes together and rejects together. Presumably, it will grow athletically old together.

Finally, this is a team with direction. Boston's bench managing is unsurpassed. If backcourt camouflaging be in order, Bill Fitch can cover up with the best of them.

There's no way it won't be pleasurable this year, but it can't possibly be as magical. Just keep that in mind.

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