Part of Rodgers's rationale for making the offense more balanced is this: The big four of Bird, McHale, Parish and Johnson are no longer young enough to go 40 minutes a game, so everyone else must play a bigger part. "I'm not going to be the one to say we're older and slower," said Rodgers last week, "but we're older and slower."
Bird totally dismisses the age and wear-and-tear factors. Raise the issue, and he looks as if he has been asked to put on an ascot and go to high tea.
"I've never felt better in my life," says Bird. "I could run all night. Robert is as good as he ever was. Kevin, like me, may be having some trouble with the new offense, but he hasn't lost anything. DJ would agree that he hasn't been playing as well as he's capable of, but he's still good. Age is a mental thing. They can talk about it being a factor all they want, but it is not. I don't buy it."
So there you are. The conflict with Rodgers may be professional and not personal, but it's there nonetheless, and it will become personal if the Celtics don't get stronger. It's not just that Bird sometimes isn't getting his shots—he has put up an average of 18.7 per game, only one less than his lifetime mark—it's that he feels uncomfortable even with the ones he does take. His shooting percentage of .475 at week's end—compared with his career .503—reflects this.
Rodgers respects Bird's opinion, of course, but views the situation differently. "We have to find ways to become more diversified," says Rodgers. "We have to combine the athleticism of the young guys with the experience of the veterans. We feel if we go all one way or the other we'll be lost.
"There's growing pains associated with this process. It doesn't just happen. It's a much faster-paced, much more sophisticated game than it was even a few years ago. We used to be a relatively simple offensive team because we were so overpowering, but we're not anymore. We can't throw five guys out there and say, 'Do what you did four years ago.' It is simply not realistic."
Like Bird, McHale, who is now used as a sixth man, has occasionally had trouble finding shots; he took only five on the night Bird made the "point forward" comment. "In principle, Jimmy's offense makes a lot of sense," said McHale last week. "We should be stronger if we make things more diversified." In reality? "We'll see," he said.
There also is the matter of the backcourt rotation. To say it is unsettled is like saying Eastern Europe is going through a few changes. When John Bagley, who had been starting at the point before suffering a shoulder separation in Indiana on Nov. 21, returns in six to eight weeks, Rodgers faces a tough decision as to what to do with Johnson. DJ is not talking much these days, but it is known that he's not happy. And Jim Paxson, Reggie Lewis and Kevin Gamble—a confused trio of shooting guards—are wondering about their minutes too.
As for the Celtics' defense, it has ranged from fair to plain awful, a fact that has not escaped Bird. "The one thing I don't like about the players we get from other teams is that they don't understand team defense," Bird says. "Eddie Pinckney [acquired from Sacramento in the Ainge deal] might do a great job of guarding [ Atlanta's] Dominique Wilkins one-on-one, but that's only part of it. I've never been a great one-on-one defender, but I know enough to always run my man into Robert or Kevin. A lot of guys on this team don't understand that. Until everybody takes team defense to heart, we won't be very good."
Bird also questions the Celtics' heart on the road, its lack of what he calls a "rip someone's head off" mentality. "We used to have it, back in '86 or back when M.L. Carr and [Cedric] Maxwell were here," he says. "Winning at home used to take care of itself. Now we play like crazy to protect the home court and don't have much intensity on the road."