1980-81 Celtics Starting to Make Some Noise

January 7, 1981


For at least a decade now, the Christmastime Celtic jaunt to the West Coast (and assorted other ports of call) has been viewed as an annual rite of passage.

The theory is that not until we have separated our troops from New England's Christmas feel and have dispatched them Out West, there to cope with such terrors as jet lag, sunburn, smog, fog, rain, astoundingly ignorant fans and Bernard King's jump hook, can we determine if they are again made of the Right Stuff. There are other trips during the season, of course, including at least one more to the Coast, but nothing compares to the Christmas Trip's mystique.

That being the case, be it declared that the 1980-81 Celtics are in the finest tradition of their ancestors. Their 5-1 Christmas Trip record happened to represent the best such ledger in six years, or since the 1974-75 club went 4-1. Three of the victories - New York, Atlanta and Phoenix - would have to be classified as memorable. One (Portland) was solid. One (San Diego) was messy. The loss (Golden State) was legitimate. Interspersed were outstanding individual contributions by everyone from Larry Bird to Gerry Henderson, as well as an historic evening in which Mr. Bird went scoreless. There was surely much to remember.

The list of highlights would have to mention these four events:

1. Bird's 28-point, 20-rebound, 8-assist destruction of the Knicks on Christmas Day, a performance which demonstrated to a national television audience what the fuss was all about.

2. Kevin McHale's takeover of the Atlanta fourth period, during which he had 17 points and 7 rebounds, scored the game-tying and game-winning basket, grabbed the game-clinching rebound and earned the undying respect of the estimable Dan Roundfield, who later admitted he could do nothing with McHale at either end when the game was on the line.

3. The spectacular 67-35 second-half drubbing of the Suns, at least 14 minutes of which finding the Celtics having achieved offensive symbiosis, with five minds and five bodies appearing to be plugged into the same energy level and thought process.

4. Bird's dramatic 6-for-6 start in Portland when everybody in the building knew had had come there with 18 consecutive misses. If it is true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, that the rich are different than you and me in that they have more money, so, too, are the gifted athletes different than you or me in that they possess physical skills and mental attributes that we pay good money to see put on display. By the time he had swished his third consecutive jumper (in the first 1:08 of the game), the entire crowd was murmuring. Incidentally, the sound of 12,666 people murmuring is a very strange one, indeed.

This trip being concluded, there are certain Celtic truths which ought to be self-evident. Among them are the facts that 1. this is an eight-man team (on the floor, if not necessarily off) 2. Tiny Archibald is as indispensable as he was last year 3. Bird's versatility is perpetually astonishing and 4. in McHale the Celtics may have a weapon so uncommon and potentially indefensible that it may provide them with a 14th championship.

Taking last things first, the development of McHale as a clutch player continues to be one of the pleasant bonuses derived from the fabulously successful offseason transaction with Golden State. If ever numbers carried no meaning, they would be McHale's season averages of 10 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. No Celtic rookie in memory - and this includes the 1979-80 Bird - has so consistently performed at his best in the last period of a tight ballgame as has McHale in the first 40 games of this season. His scoring, rebounding, defending, intimidating and passing all seem to become sharper with the game on the line. Tired and/or inferior opponents have been consistently unable to cope with a fresh, fourth-quarter McHale.

There obviously isn't much more to be said about Bird's value to this team except that his rebound in Portland from his debacle in Oakland was sufficiently dramatic to rate a scene in his eventual screen biography. Archibald's floor leadership, meanwhile, remains a necessary ingredient in order for the Celtics to win. All too often the offense sputters when Tiny is getting a second or fourth-period blow.

Finally, there is the depth factor. Eight men were always the Auerbachian ideal, as long as the remaining players were well-suited for their roles. The advent of McHale has almost eliminated the practical need for an Eric Fernsten, except for the ever-present possibility of injury or illness. Fernsten was chosen precisely because he does understand his role, however, and he would be the last man to rock the boat with playing time demands. Wayne Kreklow and Terry Duerod are both nice kids. The latter could conceivably help win a game with his shooting if the situation arises.

The immediate question is how difficult it will be to integrate M.L. Carr into the rotation once he is adjudged fit to play NBA basketball. There is little doubt that the team could use backcourt replenishment. But the tremendous improvement of Cedric Maxwell as a defensive forward has somewhat lessened the need for Carr's services as a defensive stopper of small forwards. At any rate, no team could help but be improved by the daily presence of a noted team player such as M.L. Carr.

The Celtics are as big a story as they were last year. Nobody expected them to play as well without Dave Cowens or without the element of surprise that lingered for an entire regular season. But the outstanding play of Robert Parish and McHale, the continued strong play of the key incumbents and the continued professional coaching of Bill Fitch has resulted in such things as a 31-9 record, a 15-6 road record, a distinction of not having lost two games in a row for a half season and a 5-1 rite of passage.

Keep in mind, however, that Fitch believes as baseball people do, that the first game of a homestand is actually the last game of a road trip. In other words, it will still be Christmas when the Suns arrive tonight . So why not put on your best ho-ho-ho face and really welcome this worthy group back tonight?

1 comment:

FLCeltsFan said...

I love Celtics history. Great article.

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