Celtics Ready Themselves for Shot at Banner 13

If the final round of National Basketball Association playoffs goes the full seven games, a score of weary athletes may still be playing their winter sport in the Boston Garden on June 9 - while the neighboring Red Sox are rolling into baseball's midseason.

Sports traditionalists may find this confusion of the seasons intolerable. Executives at CBS were unable to fit some of the semifinal basketball action into their recent scheduling. But among true believers in the unique intensity of the pro playoff experience, such carping is always drowned out by the joyful din in the basketball arenas. Watching the slashing elbows of rival centers Dave Cowens of Boston and Alvan Adams of Phoenix or the raw courage under pressure shown by last-second shotmakers like Boston's John Havlicek and Phoenix's Keith Erickson, it is hard to worry about the 100 or so games that have built slowly up to his climax. Playoff ball is theater of the moment, and this year's moments have been so extraordinary that I'd be happy if they went on all summer.

The NBA playoffs always serve as a kind of crucible that refines the purest elements in the characters of men and teams. Easy formulas and statistical comparisons seldom hold up in the playoffs. Superior teams don't always win; great competitors do prevail - which is why the proud Boston Celtics boast a spiritual secret weapon in the dozen world-championship banners that hang from the Garden rafters high above them.

After the Celtics eliminated the gritty Cleveland Cavaliers last week to advance to the finals, the architect of all those world titles sat on an equipment trunk and answered questions about the evening's heroes. "Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott made the big plays when they had to," said general manager Red Auerbach. "Just like a kid named Bob Cousy once did, and another kid named Bill Russell did." Auerbach puffed his cigar and paused for emphasis. "These are the Celtics, you know."

If the Celtics represent the richest of traditions, their rivals, the phoenix Suns, testify to the exciting surprises that often emerge in post-season action. The Suns, who have made the playoffs only twice in their eight-year existence, won just two games more than they lost this year; they were given almost no chance against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who were supposedly building a dynasty with their fast-paced, ten-man attack.

But the Suns have thrived in the playoff heat. Blending castoff veterans like Erickson, Gar Heard and ex-Celtic Paul Westphal with talented rookies like center Adams and explosive guard Ricky Sobers, they have controlled the tempo of their games and made the crucial shots that inexperienced playoff clubs are supposed to miss. When first Erickson and then Sobers made last-second plays to snatch the fourth game of the semifinals from the Warriors in double overtime, the champions were the ones who began feeling the pressure. By the end of the series, the playoff glare was exposing a bickering, incohesive Warrior team that may have grown cocky and vulnerable in its single year at the top. Shockingly, golden boy Rick Barry seldom got the ball or shot it as the Warrior hopes slipped away - and his coach Al Attles could only comment ruefully, "Maybe the Suns are the Warriors of this year."

The Suns do have the kind of depth and nothing-to-lose attitude that drove the Warriors last year, and on the surface they seem to have a chance to upset the wounded Celtics. But the Celtics have never played on the surface; their power source runs deeper, and it has seldom been more apparent than in their victory over Cleveland. Hard-fought and low-scoring, that series was less classic basketball than survival, a game the Celtics mastered long ago.

Clever Bill Fitch, the Cavaliers coach with the ready one-liners and the Baskin-Robbins assortment of leisure suits, attacked Boston with scrappy defenders, an inspirational leader in aging center Nate Thurmond - and the support of the noisiest crowd in basketball. Celtic coach Tom Heinsohn, a snarling bear of a man whose bench demeanor fits the title of his book - "Heinsohn, Don't You Ever Smile?" - had to counter with a limited bench and a limping star in John Havlicek. But when Boston faced disaster in the pivotal fifth game, the Celtics pulled out a classic old playoff trick - a bit of manipulation of referees and fans seldom seen since Auerbach himself gave up coaching a decade ago.

First, in a flurry of tossed towels and angry epithets, Heinsohn got himself thrown out of the game. Whether that feat triggered a subconscious tendency toward compensation by the refs is an eternal basketball question - but the fact is that soon afterward the Cavs' irreplaceable Thurmond fouled out of the game. At about the same time, Auerbach made a great show of striding from the stands down to a seat near the bench - driving the Boston crowd into a frenzy. Then, to top off the drama, assistant coach John Killilea sent the injured Havlicek into the game. With every emotional force suddenly flowing Boston's way, it was only a matter of time before Havlicek sank a pair of foul shots to clinch the game - and the Celtics rode the crest right through the next game in Cleveland to capture the series.

"The Cavs were the bright new faces, the popular team," said Heinsohn. "Now the Suns will be the same way. I guess everybody in the country will be rooting like hell for Phoenix." But beneath those championship banners in Boston, the sentiments of non-Celtic fans have very little force. The eager Suns may be about to learn what Red Auerbach has always understood about playoff time. These are the Celtics, you know.

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