January 26, 1981

The Celtics are either fashioning the best streak this franchise has witnessed in eight years or engaging in the world's longest exhibition season. In other words, you can put that Darryl Dawkins dartboard up on the wall, folks; Philadelphia finally is coming to town.

The patient Celtics' fans have laid out their money 26 times this season to see the Clevelands, Indianas, Denvers and Dallases, all the while desperate to find out the answer to one, and only one, question: "Can we beat the 76ers?"

On Wednesday, they will get their answer in Celtic game No. 52 and Garden game No. 27 as the 76ers, who lead Boston by a game in the Atlantic Division, make their first local appearance of the season.

"Too much will be made of the Philadelphia game by you people (i.e., the media)," asserted Bill Fitch after the Celtics' 115-106 triumph over the Seattle SuperSonics yesterday afternoon. "The first thing I will say to my ballclub if we come into the locker room having beaten them is, Don't think this puts you on top, or that you're better than them.' And if we lose, I'll tell them it doesn't mean they aren't as good, either."

Yesterday's victory - a conquest that was not assured until the final 19 seconds, when Larry Bird (25 points, 10 rebounds) sank two game-clinching free throws to lift Boston into a 113-106 lead) - gives the Celtics 12 straight victories and 24 in their last 25 games dating back to Dec. 9. On the surface, the Celtics could not be heading into a 76er confrontation in better shape.

In reality, however, the Celtics aren't playing particularly well, no matter how many W's pile up. They continue to win because of certain individual performances - did someone mention Robert Parish's 32 points, 17 rebounds and 2 blocks? - because they have mastered the art of the Big Spurt and because they have become an outstanding clutch defensive team. And if they were to get the kind of helpful officiating they received from John Vanak and Mike Mathis yesterday (the Sonics now have the honor of being the most aggrieved visiting team seen here this season), they might lose their next home game in 1997, and then only if they shoot 31 percent from the floor.

Yesterday's noontime get-together was a grinder for the Celtics, who struggled to defeat an incomplete Seattle club that was being hammered by the officials. Seattle somehow hung around the fringes despite getting only 26 minutes from a foul-plaged, frustrated Jack Sikma (eight points, four rebounds). One reason was the eye-catching, soaring, thundering, ain't-nobody-getting-in-my-way play of Boston native James Bailey, who rammed in 23 spine-tingling points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Another was the 17-point second half submitted by classy John Johnson. A third was a good Sonic defense that limited the Celtics to four field goals in the first 10:21 of the final period.

The Sonics definitely were alive with 2:35 remaining, when a Paul Westphal (18) jumper made it 107-104, Boston. The Celtics, who just couldn't shake the persistent visitors all afternoon, had been in possession of their third nine-point lead (107-98) at the 4:40 mark before two Vinnie Johnson foul shots, a John Johnson quick-steal sneakaway layup and the Westy swisher brought the Sonics within three.

A big sequence came when Vinnie Johnson air-balled a jumper under severe Bird switching-off pressure, and Tiny Archibald (invaluable once again with 19 points and 11 assists) banked in a transition jumper with 1:39 left to make it 109-104. Chris Ford - a man can't do more things that don't make the box score than he's doing at present - swiped a JJ pass, and Bird made Seattle pay with a 20-footer from the right. Now it was 111-104 with 1:09 left. Bird's coffin- nailers with 19 seconds to play came in response to a pair of Johnson shots 18 seconds earlier. Ford then provided a theatrical ending by swiping Sikma's in-bounds pass, faking a hook and slipping a behind-the-back pass to Parish for an armpit-bruising stuff.

What distinguished this game was a sensational nine-minute, first-half stint turned in by Eric Fernsten when the Celtics really needed it. Cedric Maxwell went out quickly with a knee problem, and Kevin McHale came on to stink out the joint. Fitch turned to Fernie, who promptly scored nine points while avoiding Bailey facials.

"Eric gets the game ball," declared Fitch. "But, of course, it's an old ball."

So the fans headed home to their TV sets on an upper. But it's weird, isn't it? The Celtics are 42-9, yet in everybody's mind, the season will begin on Wednesday. Oops, Fitch doesn't want us talking like that.

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