See ya later, Sixers. No way, LA (Clippers, that is). Nets? Nyet.
The pretenders are gone. The 82-game jockeying for position is done. The playoffs are here. And what Boston fans wish to know is this: Are the Celtics an emotional stock worth buying into?
"I may be wrong," says Larry Bird, "but from what I've seen of practice this week, the guys will come to play. That's what makes it enjoyable for me, when everybody comes to play. It seems to me everybody thinks we can win the championship. I think it will be very hard to take it away from us this year."
The quest for championship No. 17 begins tonight (8, SportsChannel) at Boston Garden against the New York Knicks, a 38-44 team which finished (24-16) better than it started (14-28), and which comes into the playoffs holding a large banner which says, WE'RE GONNA PRESS, AND YOU CAN'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT.
The Celtics say they will be ready for New York's menu of traps. "Practicing against a press all week will help us," says Danny Ainge. "Half the effectiveness of a press during the regular season is the element of surprise. The press is going to cause some turnovers, and it's going to give us some lay-ins. We have to make sure it hurts them more than it does us."
Bird believes that's exactly what will happen if the Celtics do what they should against the New York pressure. And what, Larry, is that?
"Keep the ball moving," he stresses. "Make short, crisp passes. Don't throw long passes and don't try to dribble through it. Make short, crisp passes and we should be all right."
Both sides have avoided bulletin board quotes. The Knicks have paid proper homage to the defending Eastern Conference champions all week, while the most inflammatory thing the Celtics are saying is that because they are healthier and deeper than they were a year ago, they happen to like their chances of full playoff success.
You're not going to get any insults out of K.C. Jones, for example. "They're a dangerous playoff opponent," the coach says. "Any team you'd play during this first round would have been dangerous. There are no weak sisters out there. Washington would have been tough. Indiana. It doesn't matter."
Aside from the press, the two individual matters occupying most of Boston's thoughts are Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson. The former was an offensive marauder in the final six weeks of the season, while the latter continued to stockpile rave reviews as the most clever rookie point guard since Magic Johnson nine years ago. The Knicks are not a good pure shooting team. They like to get it inside to Ewing and Bill Cartwright (look for a lot of Twin Towers effect), and they always want the ball to start off in Jackson's hands. Eliminating Jackson's penetration will be an integral element of Boston's defensive game plan.
Controlling Ewing will be Part 2. "They seem to be going to him all the time," points out Bird. "He can expect to see double- and triple-teaming every time he gets it low."
The Celtics have adopted the attitude that they, not the opponents, will control their destiny. "We are reasonably healthy," says K.C. "We're definitely much better off injurywise. The other thing is that we've got more bench strength with (Jim) Paxson, (Dirk) Minniefield, (Mark) Acres and (Artis) Gilmore. They can all give us meaningful minutes."
Compared to a year ago, the picture is far brighter. Bird says his sprained left ankle is fine. "I haven't played for a week, and I might be a little rusty," he says, "but if I am, that won't last long." Dennis Johnson (right shoulder), Robert Parish (right knee) and Kevin McHale (left knee) all practiced hard and reasonably well this week. Not only aren't there any major injuries, there is no sign of fatigue.
There really is no reason for the Celtics to be tired. The number of big-minute games for the veterans dropped drastically in the second half of the season. The advent of Paxson helped cut down the playing time of Johnson and Ainge. Parish's playing time was reduced to 31 minutes a game, thanks to Acres and Gilmore. McHale went 40 minutes or more just 10 times after March 1. Bird, of course, never wants to come out. "I feel great," he says. "I've been off for a week."
If yesterday's argument-filled scrimmage is any guide, they're tired of looking at each other. So bring on New York. Bring on the press. Bring on the Lakers, if you want. The Celtics are ready to play some serious basketball.