At first glance the defending champion Boston Celtics, who have been playing at an .800 clip since the season began, might seem to be rim and backboard above everybody else in the National Basketball Association. Well, they're not. They have been wearing the Philadelphia 76ers of Moses Malone and Julius Erving like a tail all season -- a situation that could reverse itself at any time. The 76ers don't lose much either. Thus the Celtics, despite their balance, their tradition, and MVP Larry Bird, might not even win their division, let alone the NBA playoffs.
``We're not just concerned about Philadelphia, we're concerned about everybody,'' explained Boston coach K. C. Jones. ``Last year there were several young teams out there like Detroit thinking playoffs; now their confidence is at a point where they are thinking division title and they play like it.
``While we're probably better than we were a year ago, we're not the kind of team that has many easy games,'' Jones continued. ``Because our current record projects out to more than 60 victories, writers take our big numbers for granted. But we need that cushion in case we have injuries later on. When we didn't have Kevin McHale a while back, we lost a couple of games that we probably would have won had McHale been available.
``The way Kevin can come off the bench and give us scoring or instant rebounds or a fill-in for Robert Parish at center gives us a luxury most other teams don't have,'' Jones said of the 6 ft. 10 in. forward who fills the team's all-important ``sixth man'' role.
``And when McHale and Parish are in there at the same time and we can post Kevin up in close,'' he added, ``we're going to get a mismatch in our favor almost every time.''
Asked if the Celtics missed guard Gerald Henderson, who had an exceptional playoff last spring against the Los Angeles Lakers but was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics during the off season, Jones replied:
``Naturally you never want to give up an established player like Henderson, who hustles all the time, dives on the floor for loose balls, and on certain nights can be a pretty good shooter. In fact, when I told the squad that we were sending Gerald to Seattle, everybody on the Celtics got mad at me, and I mean upset enough so they wanted to talk about it. Henderson was not only a popular player with his teammates, but also a popular person.
``Neither Red Auerbach or myself was too happy about losing Gerald either. But anytime you can get a future first-round draft pick for a guard, you have to do it. Besides, we all agreed that we had to find more playing time for Danny Ainge, who is a lot younger than Henderson, and seemed ready to start for us.
``If we had kept Gerald and his big contract, we'd have felt that we had to play him a lot of minutes in order to justify our investment. And that wouldn't have been too bad, but at the same time we'd be holding down a kid who needed to play in order to continue his development. You have to look down the road in this business, and our decision obviously was based on what we felt was best for the ball club.''
Reminded that Bird has increased his scoring approximately five points a game this year, Jones had an explanation for that too.
``In studying films of last year's games, we noticed that while most of our opponents would do anything to keep Bird from getting the ball inside, they usually gave him the outside shots,'' K. C. said. ``Larry is too good a shooter for us not to take advantage of a situation like that, so we simply decided early this season that we'd better get the ball to him more often than we have in the past.''
Bird, after the Celtics beat the Clippers in his only Los Angeles appearance this season, must have spent close to 30 minutes with the media discussing the problems of winning back-to-back NBA titles.
``You can talk about the breaks or injuries or players losing their desire as contributing factors to a champion's downfall,'' Larry explained. ``But I think the biggest obstacle to winning successive titles is mistakingly believing that you can do it again the same way you did the previous season, and with the same personnel. You can't. You have to make yourself a better team the second year, and for recent NBA playoff winners that hasn't been happening.
``I'd like to think the Celtics won't make that mistake this year -- that we've already become a better team. But we won't really know for sure until the playoffs, where you almost always have to win at least one game on the other guy's home floor, where you can't have any serious injuries, and where you can't afford many mistakes.''