Doc Missed Some Bunnies


January 29, 1981


He sat as he always sits, the legs stretched onto the locker room floor, the ice bags on each knee. He talked as he always talks, the basketball philosopher, the representitive to the United Nations from the only country governed by a 24-second clock. The man of basketball dignity. The man of basketball reason. The Doctor.

"The shots at the end," Julius Erving said. "Let me see, the shots at the end . . ."

The first one? Yes, a drive. He went into the air, found no room around the Boston Celtics' Cedric Maxwell, and had to switch his direction. The shot missed. The second? Yes, a hard layup. He rolled it across the basket and gravity, itself, seemed to be denied. The ball did not fall into the cylinder. The third? Right, the open jumper. He missed.

"What are you going to do?" Julius Erving philosophized. "A couple of layups . . . a 50-50 chance they're going to drop . . . and they didn't. Somebody has to take take the shots and I'm never afraid to do it. I'll take the weight. That's my job."

There was craziness taking place outside, in the corridors of Boston Garden last night, the good taxpayers of our city just screaming hoo-rahs and tying yellow ribbons around an oak tree or two as the Celtics finally smote the Philadelphia 76ers, 104-101, to rekindle yet another mid-season sports dream, but inside there was a more analytical tone to the conversations. The game was a game. Another game.

What did it prove?

Nothing. Really.

All that truly was learned was that on Jan. 28, 1981, in the 52d game of the Celtics' season, they were able to outlast a nemesis that had begun to bother them last spring. The Doctor missed three shots down a closing two minutes and 30 seconds. The Celtics scored four of the six points that were scored during the frenetic time span, everybody seemingly botching a shot, a pass, something, down the stretch before Robert Parish routinely plunked home two foul shots with nine seconds left. The Sixers botched the try at the end- of-game three-pointer.

What did it prove? The Celtics won this one game. That was what it proved. Period.

"You could say the Celtics really wanted to win the game and it's a big achievement for them," Erving said. "But you also could say it was a big achievement for us. We came in here last year and lost by 19, 18 and 23 during the regular season. Tonight we played our first game here and lost by three. If you want to look at it that way, this would be an achievement for us.

"And I" - and here he smiled - "would say that's a convienient way of looking at it."

The truth was that this was only the first round of a heavyweight fight, a night for measuring distances, checking tendencies, feeling in the dark. Since the teams hadn't played since the first month of the season and since they will play four more times in the final 29 games, not to mention an almost- certain return date in the best-of-seven playoffs, this was a beginning much more than an end.

These are two teams that are going to roll around a lot of basketball floors together before this season is over. There can be great variations in the things that can happen during that time.

"The best part, I think, is that we're both helping each other to realize our potential," Erving said. "The way the Celtics have been pressing us and the way we have been pressing the Celtics has been good for each of us. We've been making each other play. All season long."

The most interesting part of this go-round was how the Celtics tried to handle the good Doctor. In the tail end of last season's all-winter wrestling match, when the Sixers pulled away at the playoff end to win four of the last five games, the Celts basically tried to stop Erving mano-a-mano with Larry Bird. When that didn't work all that well, they tried a number of people, but never Maxwell.

Last night Maxwell basically had the job. Kevin McHale also had it for awhile, but basically Maxwell was on the Julius Erving time clock.

"It's something we've really done all year," Maxwell said. "I've been taking most of the scoring forwards. The idea is that Larry is more pivotal to our attack, so why should we tire him out? Let him use more energy on the offensive end because - and I'll be the first to admit it - guarding someone like Julius Erving can be very tiring.

"You'll be working on him, working on him, think you're doing really well, then he'll do something that will destroy everything you've done. For the entire quarter."

Maxwell said at the end he was just trying to get in front of Erving, just trying to be a roadblock. There was help coming from everywhere inside and he was glad that he had that. He was glad to hold Erving to "only" 35.

"It was a good win for us because I think people have just been waiting for us to beat Philadelphia to prove that we're real," he said. "It's like everything else we've done this season. People have said very nice, but let's see what you do against LA, against Phoenix, against Philadelphia.' Well, now we've done something against all of them."

He entered that thought as his analysis. What did the game prove? That. The Celtics could beat the Sixers. One time. One night. They did it.

"You always want to beat Philadelphia," Cedric Maxwell said. "You get caught up in the nostalgia of all the games these two teams have played over all these years. You play a team like this, you sort of step into history, so to speak."

"Did you step into any history tonight?" he was asked.

"Oh, no," Maxwell said. "That's a long time from now. The history will be determined at the end . . ."

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