Understand that it's all a prelude to the playoffs.
The good teams in this league say they are jockeying for position. They pay lip service to the home-court advantage in the playoffs and then go out and blow the opening game, ostensibly undoing seven months' worth of work. They then proceed to win in the other guy's building, and by the time the series is over, nobody can remember who had the odd game at home.
For some teams, such as last year's Celtic club or this year's San Antonio outfit, the regular season is necessary for the development of unit self- confidence. These are the teams which far exceed expectations, one reason being that they start believing in themselves after some surprising early conquests.
Now this year's Celtic team is certainly not the same team it was at the end of last season. The retirements of Dave Cowens and Pete Maravich and the Golden State trade have altered the club greatly. But the two key people, Larry Bird and Bill Fitch, are here once again, and they represent the style of this ballclub. Rivals view the newcomers as adjuncts to a recognizable core. To them, Robert Parish is now playing "Celtic basketball," and Kevin McHale was "born to be a Celtic."
The trade with Golden State of the first and 13th picks in the 1980 college draft for the third spot and Parish has had a dramatic effect on the team. Parish is presently somewhere between being a pleasant surprise and one of the great stories in the league. He is eradicating his reputation as a loper, a partially interested observer. What we have seen is a graceful, hard- working 7-footer who is relating to his teammates in a new manner. He doesn't run around smiling or waving a fist in the air, but he is playing with enthusiasm. "I could have told you," says ex-teammate Phil Smith, "that if you give him the ball, he'll score on anybody." Moreover, Parish is attacking the offensive boards and he is sending back shots with such fervor that John Kiley is contemplating wearing a helmet.
Part II of the Golden State deal is McHale. Even playing out of his true center position at forward, it is conceivable he would start for every other team in the league except one - Philadelphia. Think about it. Could Jim Chones, Mickey Johnson or Jeff Cook hold him off? But Boston has the superb forward duo of Bird and Cedric Maxwell. One measure of Maxwell's greatness may be the fact that he can start ahead of McHale. Accordingly, McHale must steal minutes here and there, and play with an eye-on-the-bench feeling he wouldn't have anywhere else.
McHale is an undeniable asset, one that other teams hope remains hidden here as long as possible. He ranks with Bill Walton as one of the two best white shot blockers of all time. He is a very disruptive man on the defensive end, and he is a pesky offensive player. One of Fitch's biggest tests as a Celtic coach will be to maximize McHale's enormous potential by playoff time.
So the question is, are the Celtics better off with a lineup of Bird, Maxwell, Parish, Chris Ford and Tiny Archibald, with Rick Robey, McHale, Gerald Henderson and (presumably) M.L. Carr in reserve, or would they have been better off with a lineup of Bird, Maxwell, Robey, Archibald and Darrell Griffith, with Carr, Fernsten, Henderson and, say, Ricky Brown coming off the bench? In the latter case, would Dave Cowens have stuck around? At any rate, the wisdom of the decision to forego Griffith will probably always be debated.
Fitch has piloted the Celtics to many of their early-season victories by rotating the big men until he has found the right combo for that particular evening. Only Chicago and San Antonio match him in bench size and only Philadelphia matches him in reserve frontcourt skill. The 13-6 Boston record is even more impressive when you consider that a) Bird has yet to get into a groove resembling the February-March Bird of last year and b) the team has been in five of its six losses and has thrown four of them away.
Quick forward or no quick forward, the Celtics can compete up front in this league. The Parish-Robey-McHale pivot rotation stacks up surprisingly well once you realize that after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the next two best centers are Moses Malone and Jack Sikma. There is nobody else to fear. Bird and Maxwell do strike fear in people's hearts, however.
The question, as always, lies in the backcourt. Archibald has played as well as expected. Ford has played better since regaining his starting spot, and he has his place on a team such as this. But Henderson has not equaled his exhibition success, and there is concern that he will never be a big-game player. Wayne Kreklow is just an eager kid. The party line is that Carr's return will be enough to alter the picture, but that is an excessively optimistic view.
Years ago, Red Auerbach went out of his way for the Phillipses, Brauns, Naullses and Embrys, the vets to help the team get over the hump. When he needed Paul Silas, he found a way to get him. He needs a real guard now. He's got another nice team, but it's a long way from title No. 14 without one more player.