Celtics face challenge in retaining superpower status in playoffs

Great teams (the sport doesn't seem to matter) can go on winning championships just so many times before age, indecision, poor draft picks, injuries, or the opposition catches up with them. Subject: the Boston Celtics. Despite having been in the National Basketball Association playoff finals four consecutive years (beating Los Angeles in '84 and the Houston Rockets in '86 and losing twice to the Lakers), Boston no longer comes with that kind of guarantee.

While the Celtics ran away with this season's Atlantic Division title and are second only to the Lakers in terms of overall records, they could face a sterner test as the playoffs begin this week.

It has to be a matter of concern, for example, that they haven't won in either Detroit or Cleveland since 1986. If they do reach the final, and if Dallas should upset Los Angeles in the West, the Mavericks' bench strength could wear the Celtics out. And if it comes down to a Boston-Los Angeles final once again, they will definitely be facing an uphill struggle against the defending league champions.

Asked recently if Los Angeles is a better team now, Boston coach K.C Jones replied, ``Yes, and they have been ever since they beat us in last year's playoffs.''

Jones said the principal difference is that the Lakers have an experienced, productive bench, while the Celtics are still trying to build one. In fact, K.C.'s offensive options just about disappear every time he has to go to his reserves, except for recently acquired guard Jim Paxson.

Also, in an ironic twist, the Los Angeles team that used to complain about Boston's rough play has become the bully - at least as far as the Celtics are concerned.

``They have people who like to bang you around,'' says Jones. ``When we had players like Russell, Heinsohn, and Cowens, we were like that. But now we are more of a finesse team.''

Asked to respond to criticism that by having his five starters on the court for 38 to 45 minutes a game, he burns them out by the playoffs, Jones replied:

``The people who say that stuff don't know what they are talking about. How do they explain how we managed to win two world championships in the past four years? And the two we lost weren't because our players were tired, but because two of our regulars were injured.

``The whole reason for the regular season is to win as many games as you can to gain the home court advantage in the playoffs,'' K.C. continued. ``I play my starters according to game situations, and not by the clock.

``You don't ever sacrifice games to give your bench people experience. That kind of reasoning doesn't apply here. If you don't always play to win, what's the sense of playing at all? Besides, we don't have any tired players.''

Still, if the Celtics have an ordinary bench, why not go out and get players who will make them more competitive?

``It's not that easy,'' Jones said. ``Usually that kind of player is not available. We have some kids who are going to help us eventually [he was referring to rookies Reggie Lewis, Mark Acres, and Brad Lohaus], but you have to give them time to develop. Some things you can't rush.''

In fact the Celtics have made what moves they could during the season, acquiring veteran center Artis Gilmore from Chicago, dealing for Paxson, and picking up journeyman guard Dirk Minniefield off the waiver wire. Those who went to make room for this threesome were Jerry Sichting, Greg Kite, and Conner Henry.

Gilmore, a 16-year veteran who used to be an all-star, now moves just faster than a statue and is a poor imitation of Laker backup center Mychal Thompson, who can also play forward. But Paxson, who had not played much with Portland because of injuries, adds some badly needed backcourt scoring punch, while Minniefield leads the fast break well and can rev up the offense in spurts.

As always, though, the big man for Boston will be three-time league MVP Larry Bird. And he says if the Celtics do wind up playing Los Angeles, they must overcome their habit of giving the Lakers too many easy baskets.

``In order to beat the Lakers, we're going to have to play them tougher defensively,'' Bird said. ``We have to be more physical. The problem is that we don't have enough guys on this team who can go out and bang people around.''

Before thinking about L.A., of course, the Celtics must deal with Eastern Conference rivals like Atlanta, Chicago, or Detroit. But while any of these teams is capable of an upset, as the Pistons showed last year by carrying Boston to seven games, chances are the Celtics can still reach the final depending primarily on Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, and Dennis Johnson.

A Celtics-Lakers series, however, no longer looks like Dempsey vs. Tunney; Sandy Koufax vs. Willie Mays; or Jack Kramer vs. Pancho Gonzales. The Lakers have a great starting five too in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, A.C. Green, Magic Johnson, and Byron Scott - plus a deeper and superior bench.

Boston did seem to improve in the second half of the season while Los Angeles played spottily at times, but this really has little relevance to the playoffs. The Lakers, hard hit by injuries to Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, and Worthy, and bored with a division lead that had become too big to lose, dropped some games they ordinarily would have won. But they are still the first team in NBA history to have won 60 or more regular season games for four consecutive years, and once again they will have the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs as long as they are involved.

With all this plus the team chemistry that comes from continued success, they will indeed be hard to beat - as the Celtics are well aware. ``The Lakers are the best team in the NBA right now for two reasons,'' admits Bird. ``One, they play extremely well together. Two, they know what their roles are and they are only interested in winning.''

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