Behind -- or below -- the scenes, 'Tiny's' hustle propels the Celtics

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Only in the National Basketball Association can a man slightly taller than six feet be called Tiny and not stir ripples of laughter. At that height everything in the NBA is more difficult -- like getting your shot off, playing the tough defense, or making the rainbow pass against opposing centers who can change most ceiling lights standing on their tiptoes.

Nevertheless this is the working world of guard Nate (Tiny) Archibald of the Boston Celtics, who doesn't come to play every night as much as he comes to blend his skills with those of his teammates.

Whether it's the regular season, in which Boston posted a 62-20 record, or the playoffs, in which the Celtics are set to begin play tonight against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals, Tiny provides leadership from the backcourt.

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The point is that Boston, with one of the tallest front lines in the league, doesn't need a lot of scoring from its guards to win. Of far more importance is the take-charge job Archibald does for Celtic Coach Bill Fitch.

So it is frequently Tiny who makes the pass that leads to a score inside for center Robert Parish or forwards Larry Bird or Cedric Maxwell, triggers Boston's fastbreak offense, and brings the ball up court against the press.

Of course there were times in his early years with the old Cincinnati Royals and the Kansas City-Omaha teams when Archibald was the whole show on offense. For example, back in 1972-73, Tiny became the only player ever to lead the NBA in scoring (34-point average) and assists (11.4 per game) in the same season.

Tiny's role, because neither Cincinnati, nor Kansas City-Omaha had the depth to be a winner in those days, was different from what it is now. Then he was expected to shoot at least 20 times a game, create scoring opportunities with his speed, and let his teammates provide whatever help they could on defense.

But although Tiny starred in most pro basketball film clips on the 11 p.m. news, his team made the playoffs just once, in 1974-75, and then didn't get past the first round.

Since coming to Boston from Buffalo as part of a seven-player trade in 1978, Archibald has changed his game from mostly offense to making better players of those around him. In fact, at first no one was even sure he would stay with the Celtics after missing the previous season entirely --and most of the one before that -- because of injuries.

Archibald's value now lies in the way he keeps Boston on an even keel, always providing leadership in the clutch, always getting the ball to the player who can do the most with it, yet not passing up his own shot when it's there.

Although Bird, Parish, and Maxwell all outscored him this season, only Bird played more minutes. And Tiny performed so well for the East squad in this year's All-Star contest in Cleveland that he was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

"When a guy has been as big a scorer as Archibald was, you usually don't expect him to be a leader in other departments," Fitch explained. "What happens is that one talent generally suffers from the other. But I think that when Tiny saw what the Celtics needed to win was a backcourt man willing to sacrifice his own offense and just lead, he decided to become that man. Another thing I like about Tiny is that he is a strong finisher, meaning that he doesn't fade on you in the fourth period."

As a youngster growing up in the Bronx, Archibald had plenty of chances to go wrong, but what rescued him was the early encouragement he got from the people who ran the playground basketball program in his area -- people who recognized his skills and gave him the opportunity to develop them.

Part of the reason he is called Tiny is because of a slight build that makes him look more like a pencil-thin shortstop than a basketball player. But there are racehorses that could use his stamina; playmakers who would like to have his touch with the ball; and plenty of people who work pressure jobs who could use his even disposition.

It is quite possible that Boston's playoff foes aren't worried nearly as much about how many points Archibald will score as they are about how much his intangibles will increase the effectiveness of his teammates.

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