CELTICS' DEFENSE STIFLES BULLS
The strength of the Celtics is becoming as obvious as the nose on your face. Defense.
Yes, the other parts of their arsenal must come into focus like they did in last night's 115-98 victory over the Chicago Bulls. Both Chris Ford and Tiny Archibald must be active outside to keep the opponents honest. Ford finished with 19 points, 11 in the first quarter, and Archibald had 14.
Yes, Rick Robey is more than an adequate backup center, filling in for Robert Parish. Last night, Robey played 26 minutes, scored 16 points and more than held his own against Chicago's giant Artis Gilmore.
"My role is a lot different this year," Robey said. "I try to be ready for when I'm needed. Then I go out and do whatever the job calls for.
"Tonight, I got in more time than usual and I felt good about it. I knew Artis Gilmore is tough inside and I just kept up on him, not so much trying to stop him, for he is tough when he gets position inside. Mostly, I tried to deny him the ball and then help out when needed when Chicago's attack went outside. They do a lot more picking for the guards these days than before when everything went into the middle to Gilmore."
Defense. The Celtics have held their opponents to an average of just over 99 points during the last 25 games.
"Ever since we pulled ourselves together about a month ago," Ford said, "we've been playing some very good ball. We're right around the pace we were a year ago in wins, but I say we're a stronger team than last year because we're playing better defense.
"I know I've personally been in a shooting slump, and I hope what happens tonight means I'm finally out of it. But I think I'm doing the other parts of my game well. I know we've played games this year where we've been smoother than we were tonight. But we're winnning, and that's what counts."
When it was all said and done last night, good defense and winning were the only things that really mattered. Boston has won 23 of its first 31 games and is still six games behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division.
After four meetings, the Celtics have proven conclusively they are more than an even match for the Bulls. Chicago was playing tired basketball after a 96-94 victory in Washington on Tuesday night. But even if Larry Kenon (back) or David Greenwood (badly sprained wrist) had played, Chicago still would have been in serious trouble, considering the way the Celtics played on defense.
"You take a look at our team individually," Bill Fitch said, "and we don't have great individual players on defense. Yet we play well as a unit. People like to talk about guys learning to play together as a unit, and they usually mean offensively. But this club has become a well-oiled unit on defense.
"They help out and seem to know where the other guys on the floor are going to be. They talk. Robert has picked right up and so has Robey when he's in there. We're starting to play smart on defense. And as soon as a player gets smart, he gets better."
If there had been a test given the Celtics after the first quarter last night, they would have graded out with an A-plus. While they rolled up 34 points, they held the Bulls to just 19 and, for all practical purposes, wrapped up what turned out to be an old-fashioned yawner before 14,302 at the Garden.
Ford and Archibald kept the Bulls from stacking up their defense inside by making long-range jumpers.
"Hey, I'm not a good shooter," said Ford. "But if I get the ball in the flow and I'm wide open, then I have to shoot. I was 1 for 9 in Chicago, and I don't think I did a single thing different. It's just that tonight the shots were going in. My job is to keep the ball moving and play good defense. We've got other guys who can shoot the ball."
Archibald says his job is to move the club and take the shot when he sees it. But he has become a better all-around player this year because things are happening on defense to help him, and he is returning the favor.
"It helps me when I'm alone outside to hear Robert or Rick call out where a pick is coming from," said Archibald. "We're picking up guys all over the floor, hoping to pressure them into making mistakes so that we can run the ball and get them to play in our tempo. I don't just mean turnovers. I mean to get a guy to shoot a shot a little different or funnel him into an area where our shot blockers might be."
But it is a two-way street.
"As guards, we have to call out the picks underneath for our big men, too," he said. "We can't expect them to block shots or get rebounds, if the team on offense sets a pick low and springs somebody free for a layup."
Good defense made last night's victory look a lot easier from the stands than it was from the floor. Larry Bird started slowly but finished with 25 points (9 for 17). Parish had eight points in 14 minutes. But the bench - Kevin McHale, Gerry Henderson and even Eric Fernsten - came on with such ferocity that Chicago was no match.
"I recall when I played," Bulls' coach Jerry Sloan said, "we were a pretty physical team that played good defense. I don't mean to pat myself on the back. But along with Norm Van Lier, we put the kind of pressure on teams that the Celtics put on us tonight.
"But we did it out front, and the Celtics are so effective because they can shut you down inside even if you get the ball up the floor quickly. They do a good job of denying you the ball. More important, they seem to keep guys coming at you off the bench, and there is no letup."
That's called good defense.