From a locker room in Cincinnati last week, following one of the very few games the Boston Celtics have had to win over the past 10 years, came these remarks:
"We're old guys. We can't keep this up too much longer."
"Thirty-two. I'm gettin' up there. It's tougher now."
"Sunday afternoon games after Saturday night games—those are the killers."
Take all of this with salt grains. The talk was by Celtics. So was the victor that night. For a while it had looked as if the era of the winningest team in professional sport was about to end. The Celtics had won seven straight world championships but they were behind two games to one in the Eastern Division semifinal playoffs against the Cincinnati Royals. One more loss and it would be all over.
Boston had struggled all season—advancing age, the loss of hard-driving, offensive-minded corner man Tom Heinsohn and too much dependence upon defense were factors—and had finally been unable to win its own division for the first time in a decade. Knowing that pride had forced the Celtics to go all out to win and that the players might be emotionally and physically debilitated, Cincinnati was eager to take them on. And if the Royals couldn't do the job, Philadelphia was in the wings for the Eastern finale.
Cincinnati had coasted at the end and was fresh for the playoffs. The Royals had a coach whose job was in danger and players named O, Luke, Odie and Happy to make it even more interesting. But they found out that some old dogs never die; they just lie there and kick hell out of you.
Old-dog, living on defense and pride, is what the Celtics have been for some time, done are the explosive bursts, sustained for up to five minutes, that blew opponents off the court. "Now," as one longtime Boston observer says, "the bursts stop a lot sooner."
To document fully the Celtics' slide this year, one has to go beyond old age ( Satch Sanders is the only regular starter under 30) and the absence of Heinsohn. Boston's average winning spread per game in the good years once reached almost 10 points through an 80-game schedule. This year it was down to 4.4. Obviously, the Celtics have been increasingly dependent upon a defense which is just not that good anymore. More significantly, the rest of the league has come up a lot more than Boston has come down. (The Celtics won 54 games this season, more than in three of their championship years.) "Man, I wish people would realize the league is so much better now." says Sanders. " Philadelphia this season is the equal of any of our great teams," says K. C. Jones.
Trying to win the regular season and a much-needed rest before the playoffs, the Celtics pushed themselves to the brink. They won their last six in a row but Philadelphia won 11 straight and the division by a game. Cincinnati, meanwhile, dropped six of its last seven, obviously relaxing. This is what may account for Boston's getting off to bad starts in each of the first three playoff games, losing two and looking sluggish throughout.