Talented Celtics look improved but still face specter of Philadelphia

With all the expensive talent bursting at the seams on the Boston Celtics, it would probably be considered a gross exaggeration to say that new coach K.C. Jones has the toughest job of any bench boss in professional sports.

But how else would you describe a man whose team is in the same National Basketball Association divison as the defending world champion Philadelphia 76 ers, who still have MVP Moses Malone playing center for them?

In fact, does anyone need to be reminded that Boston didn't even get to test Philadelphia in last year's Eastern Conference championship series? The Celtics , if you remember, cashed in early when the Milwaukee Bucks swept them in the second round of the playoffs.

If you know anything about Boston's tradition of coming from behind in the playoffs, what the team failed to accomplish in post-season play last spring under coach Bill Fitch was very un-Celtic-like. That defeat may even have contributed to owner Harry Mangurian, who certainly didn't need the money, selling the franchise to a group headed by Donald Gaston.

Although Boston split six regular-season games with Philadelphia last year, the 76ers have an edge at center and in the backcourt.

As good as Celtic center Robert Parish can sometimes be, Malone is stronger, quicker, steadier, and a much better rebounder.

Opposing NBA teams usually wind up playing Philadelphia's game because Moses makes them play it. And while Boston's Larry Bird is a better all-around forward than Julius Erving, the plus in Bird's points-per-game average over Erving last season was fewer than three.

''What will make things tough for Boston to catch Philadelphia is the Celtics backcourt,'' said General Manager Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers. ''Even with the addition of Dennis Johnson, Boston still doesn't have a playmaker like the 76ers' Maurice Cheeks or anyone who can shoot the ball like Andrew Toney. Injuries could change things, of course, but the way Malone plays up front, plus the talent gap in the backcourt, I don't think Boston is ready to handle Philadelphia in a playoff situation just yet.''

What the Celtics do have, though, is a team that matches up well with practically every other club in the NBA, including the Lakers. Bird and Cedric Maxwell have played together long enough so that they complement each other at the forward positions. Coming off the bench, Kevin McHale pitches in with points and rebounds, while Scott Wedman provides instant scoring punch.

Despite widespread reservations about the Celtic backcourt, the main focus of the critics is how Boston matches up against Philadelphia, and not necessarily the rest of the league.

Guard Quinn Buckner, who had an off year under Fitch, is much more relaxed under Jones and has been playing that way. And so far guard Danny Ainge seems much more comfortable and effective coming off the bench than he was as a starter. Jones also has two very important role players available in M. L. Carr and Gerald Henderson. Meanwhile with the off-season acquisition of Johnson from the Phoenix Suns, the Celtics now have five players who at one time or another have been members of the NBA's All-Defensive team. Besides Johnson, include the names of Bird, McHale, Buckner, and Carr.

Anyway, it makes old-timers remember that Boston had its greatest years when the Celtics were starting the three best defensive players at their positions in the league, meaning center Bill Russell, forward Satch Sanders, and guard K. C. Jones.

If you're wondering why Boston General Manager Red Auerbach promoted Jones (last year's assistant to Fitch) to the head job instead of going outside the organization, it has to do with Auerbach's fierce loyalty to his former players.

This doesn't extend to the point, however, where Red would hire anyone he didn't think could do the job. But Auerbach got two world titles out of the Celtics during former player Tommy Heinsohn's tenure as coach and Jones, after all, did take the Washington Bullets to the NBA finals one year.

Although speculation seems to grow each season as to when Auerbach will retire, this is not a man whose self-winding energy could ever switch from premium gas to regular and run smoothly. Red is smart enough to know this.

''As long as there is something to grab for that's worthwhile in pro basketball, I'll probably be around,'' Auerbach told me years ago. ''As long as I feel that way, as long as I can look ahead and get excited at what I see, I'll have a tendency to want to continue to run things.''

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