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10.27.2008

Celts Win First Battle of the Titans

1981-82 Boston Celtics

Red Auerbach is standing in the aisle, waving his arms in disgust at referee Ed Rush. Bill Cunningham, eyes revolving like pinwheels, is screaming "Elbow, elbow, he gave him the elbow!" Bill Fitch has grabbed a towel and thrown it halfway to heaven.

Andrew Toney is wiping the blood from his mouth, which somehow came in contact with a Rick Robey elbow. Larry Bird is propped up against a basket support, wondering if anybody got the number of the truck that knocked him down.

We are, ladies and germs, in the middle of another Boston Celtics- Philadelph ia 76ers basketball game. We are witnessing the usual drama in short pants and four acts. We are party to a passion play. We are seeing exactly what we came to see.

All week the game has been super-hyped. It has dominated the talk shows and the sports pages. The put-upon, star-crossed Patriots have been swept, misery and all, under the rug. Haywood and Buddy have take a back seat which, incidentally, costs a dollar more than the back seat they took last year.

It is time for the Sixers and Celtics again and you know they won't let you down. You know they won't put you to sleep. You know you will ooh and ah and clap your hands and go home wondering why they all can't be like this.

"It's like a new show opening up in the fall," said Kevin McHale after the Celtics had outlasted their ancient and honorable rivals last night.

McHale said he learned when he was a kid not to believe anything he read in the papers (oh, yeah, wise guy) but that when the stories and pictures are splashed all over the sports pages he knows the people are going to get excited. And even though they are professionals supposed to treat every game the same, they are competitors first.

The intensity knob was turned at least one notch higher last night. Nobody has to give a locker room speech to get the troops revved up. Nobody reads from the selected sayings of Knute Rockne. It is Celtics vs. Sixers and that is almost always enough.

Let me cite one example. It is early in the game and Cedric Maxwell has a steal and a fast-break opportunity. He is a half step ahead of the field, a fox being chased by a collection of tall and muscular hounds. Maxwell flies at the basket and the hounds pounce on his back as though they haven't had solid nourishment in a week and a half.

Everybody - the fox and the hounds - goes down in a tangle of elbows and kneebones under the basket as the ball gently curls through the hoop. Men have wound up in traction for eight weeks with less effort, but this play is only one of 30 such in the game.

Fitch called it a typical Philly-Boston game. Much that was peculiar and extraordinary took place on the court, but it was all great fun to watch.

"You may not always get a Picasso or a Rembrandt," said Fitch, who doesn't necessarily know a lot about art but knows what he likes.

"You get hard hats out there working," the Celtics' coach said. "No one left the building without thinking they got their money's worth."

The game, like so many Celtic-Sixer confrontations, was an ebb-and-flow battle. First one team would take off on a nice little run, then the other would shift into a higher gear and stay within range.

Philadelphia never went ahead in the second half, but even so, you never had the feeling the Celtics were home free, at least not until Robert Parish lobbed a 14-foot mortar shot through the nets with 44 seconds left for a five- point Boston lead.

The basket came off a designed play after the Celtics had called a time out with seven seconds left on the shot clock.

Many times such plays break down like the family flivver and somebody ends up taking an awkward shot from an alley off Causeway Street.

Even so, whatever emerged from the time-out discussion, Fitch said, would have been better than what the Celtics would have accomplished without the time out.

"The way it was out there, the center fielder was playing shortstop, the right fielder was going into the bullpen and the quarterback was taking over at tackle. The time out got us organized."

The game contained such nice little touches as Chris Ford's three first- period three-pointers ("nothing planned, the shot was just there and I felt good"), no Celtic substitutions for the first l5 minutes, and Larry Bird's eight-minute stint at guard in the last period.

Too bad these teams can't skip the NBA schedule and go on an 81-game junket around the country, playing in armories and high school gyms, the way Pancho Gonzales did against Rod Laver. Give the people on the highways and byways of America a chance to see basketball at its best.

As it is, the Celtics and Sixers play here only twice more this year. But then come the delectable promise of the playoffs.

"If things go the way everybody thinks," said McHale, "there should be another battle in the spring. I'd like to see it."

So would about a million others.

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