There's no place like home for defending NBA champion Celtics

Dominique Wilkins walks slowly down the cement causeway, through the creaking doors hanging at crazy angles from their hinges, past the warehouse-style players' exit, and into the dimly lit, cramped elevator. There, he shakes his head and makes a gesture of total puzzlement. And well he might.

The star forward of the Atlanta Hawks had brought his particular brand of liquid magic to Boston Garden, leading a strong-legged, young team on a nine-game winning streak as it headed into a game that was an important prelude to the National Basketball Association playoffs, which begin tonight. They were facing a Boston Celtics crew that had staggered toward the playoffs on tired legs, with some key injuries and a string of embarrassing defeats on the road.

But 48 minutes later the Celtics' battered starting five, in this aging arena - with its bowed girders and battle-armor seat decks looking as if they were designed by the Army Corps of Engineers - had claimed yet another victim at home.

In the process, the defending NBA champion Celtics answered lingering questions about whether they had, somewhere in reserve, that storied playoff intensity one hears about in sports conversations.

Clearly it has not evaporated and should be a factor in Boston's opening best-of-five playoff series, which begins tonight in the Garden against the Chicago Bulls.

The Atlanta-Boston contest gave a sneak preview of the match-up between experience and youth that will be played out time and again in the playoffs.

The Celtics and the Hawks were battling for first seed and the home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and when the home court is the august Boston Garden, a lot is at stake.

Consider, for instance that only one of the Celtics' last 75 opponents has taken a win away from the Garden. Consider also that, in this age of shining sports temples, such as the Hawks' homeport Omni, the derelict Boston Garden holds an aura and reputation - not only for the tradition of champions that has prevailed there, but for the gritty intimidation of the place.

``I don't think our guys are spooked coming in here or anything,'' Atlanta coach Mike Fratello observed after the regular-season finale. But he later added that he doesn't know why the Celtics so consistently win in the Garden any more than ``the other 76 [opponents] that lost here in the last two years know.'' And a seriously fatigued Wilkins, after first saying, ``It's a hard arena to play in, but it's a fun arena to play in,'' adds that ``it's hard to come in here and feel your back against the wall.''

Indeed, the Garden can feel as close and surly as an unfriendly hangout at 2 in the morning.

And a lot hotter. In 1984, for example, the air-conditioning-pampered Los Angeles Lakers wilted in 97-degree heat and watched the championship literally slip away from their sweaty fingers.

The heat that sweltered the Boston Garden on Sunday was of a different order entirely, with the flames provided by Larry Bird and fanned by a hotly charged supporting cast. After an opening 3 minutes, in which the Hawks enticed the Celtics into their own run-and-gun style of play, racking up a 12-5 advantage, Celtics coach K.C. Jones called a timeout that launched the Celts into a never-look-back game of passing, shooting, and defensive pyrotechnics. And here was where the puzzled head-shaking of Wilkins came into play.

On one level, it was the mutual understanding and experience of Boston's veteran players, built around an average of six years together, meeting Atlanta's average three years of close acquaintance on the creaking parquet at the Garden.

The Celtics held a clinic on half-court offense, it's true. But what one also saw out there was an order of communication and control that comes only with time and practice. It was evident when Bird took a cross-court pass from Dennis Johnson, then dumped it behind his head to Robert Parish as he ran under the basket for an easy two points, or when Johnson and Bird conducted a silent conversation in their private language of basketball dexterity.

``If you come in emotionally over-charged and a little too revved up,'' Fratello mused about his own team's inexperience and exuberance, you may find things running away from you. The answer is to ``control your emotions, which is what they [the Celtics] do.''

The playoffs will test this control again and again, however, as the defending champions face such foes as the Bulls and then either the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers, teams that have the running stamina to draw them into the tiring contest of legs that has brought the Celtics quickly down in recent months.

Should they survive this string of playoff hurdles, including a possible conference title series against Atlanta, Boston will no doubt face Los Angeles, a team that has beaten it soundly in both meetings this season.

Those match-ups showed the weakness of Boston's bench, which only lately has evidenced some promising stirrings with the return of the injured Bill Walton and the improved play of Darren Daye. They also displayed just how ruthlessly the fast-break intensity of the Lakers can cut through the Celtics' defense. The only consolation Boston can carry through the playoffs to that grim encounter is the comfort of a home-court advantage in the dreadnaught ambiance of Boston Garden.

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