Now, Ainge doesn't quibble when Bird says McHale has been this season's most valuable player on the Celtics, who meet the Lakers today in a nationally televised game that will leave one team with the best record in the National Basketball Assn.
But Bird is going too far, Ainge protested, when he claimed that whenever Ainge has a bad game, McHale is responsible.
"Kevin ribs me a lot," Ainge said with a grin Saturday at the Loyola Marymount gym, where the Celtics practiced after arriving from Portland, Ore.
"And he thinks he has the power to control whether I have a shooting slump or not. He said I wasn't going to have a good West Coast trip, but he hasn't said much lately."
How could he? Ainge scored 26 points against Portland, 24 the night before against Golden State, for his best back-to-back games this season.
Then again, right now the Celtics are hitting on all cylinders. They've breezed through the first three games of a brutal eight-game western trip, winning by an average of 15 points against Denver, Golden State and Portland.
Since losing back-to-back blowouts to Milwaukee and Philadelphia just before Christmas, the Celtics have won 21 of 24 games, and haven't lost at Boston Garden since the Lakers ended their 48-game winning streak on the parquet last Dec. 12.
And at last weekend's All-Star Game in Seattle, to which the Celtics sent three players -- Bird,McHale, and center Robert Parish -- Bird surprised observers by saying that McHale had betterMVP credentials than he did, Bird's three straight MVP awards notwithstanding.
Was Bird being uncharacteristically modest?
"I don't think Larry's being modest, I think he's being honest," Ainge said. "Kevin's been unbelievable.
"He's such a great postup player. There hasn't been anybody in the league that's been able to shut him down."
Last season, McHale's first as a starter, the 6-10, 225-pound forward with the long arms -- size 40 sleeve -- and broad but hunched shoulders -- averaged 21.3 points and 8.1 rebounds and led the team in blocked shots with 134.
This season, McHale has elevated those numbers to All-Star level. He leads the team in scoring -- and is fourth in the league -- with a 26.7 average, has a league-leading 61% shooting percentage and is averaging 10 rebounds a game and 2.43 blocks. Friday, against the Trail Blazers, McHale poured in 37 points (14-of-19 shooting), had 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block and 1 steal in 39 minutes.
In 49 games this season, McHale has scored 20 or more points 46 times.
That's why Bird has to smile when told that people are calling the Lakers' trade for Mychal Thompson a good one because Thompson matches up so well against McHale.
"There isn't anybody we know about in the league that they could pick up who could stop Kevin McHale," Bird said.
"He's making 60% of his shots. He can score on anybody. Last year, there were a couple of players who could push him out of position, and take away his shot.
"This season, it doesn't matter who's on him -- even if it's two or three guys -- he's going to score.
"We're all playing pretty well, but I think he's been our most consistent player so far."
Boston Coach K.C. Jones submits further evidence to McHale's MVP case. "He's also playing defense against the best scorers in the league, and that's hard work," Jones said. "I agree with Larry.
"You reach a point where you hit a plateau as a player -- in your sixth, seventh or eighth year -- where you say, 'Hey, I'm at the top of my game right now.' And that's really where he (McHale) is at right now."
Even though Thompson did not practice with the Lakers Saturday morning -- he was scheduled to arrive here Saturday night -- Jones expected to see him on the Forum floor this afternoon.
"I wouldn't be surprised at anything," Jones said. "If he's in L.A., he'll be in the game."
Thompson and McHale were college teammates at the University of Minnesota. Thompson was the No. 1 player taken in the 1978 draft; McHale was the third player taken in 1980.
"Mychal's a good player," McHale said. "People are going to be surprised. He's played me pretty well in the past. We've had some good matchups.
"I thought the Lakers needed another big person to match up against the big teams. A.C. Green is a real solid player and real aggressive, but he's probably just 6-8. (Green is listed at 6-9.) When teams have guys 6-10, 6-11, you've got to have another big guy."
Bird said he expected to see the Lakers in the NBA finals, whether or not they added another big man.
"I honestly thought they'd be there anyway," he said. "And if we don't get (Bill) Walton back, it'll be a big downfall for us.
"With a healthy Walton, I don't know if they (the Lakers) could have matched up with our size inside for a total 48-minute game.
"Now, we're on the outside, looking in."
Of course, with a win over the Lakers today, the Celtics will be on top, looking down.
"This is a very big game for us," Bird said. "If we beat the Lakers and lose to Utah (Monday), it's still a good trip.
"I didn't really want to play them in December. We had absolutely no bench at the time. Now we have a pretty good bench -- Darren Daye is playing exceptionally well with the first group, Jerry Sichting is playing a lot better, Sam Vincent is giving us a good four, six and eight minutes, and Greg Kite is doing a lot better, now that he's set in his role.
"We're both a lot better teams now than we were in December."
And even Ainge should expect to have another good game today, McHale said.
"We need him against the Lakers," McHale said. "After that, I'll put him in a slump."