The snow, swirling down in half-dollar-sized flakes, had begun to blanket North Michigan Avenue as the Boston Celtics left the Water Tower Hyatt House for the scenic bus ride—famous, old rusted El stanchions, historic boarded-up storefronts—to Chicago Stadium. The bus was one of those plush jobs with a flight of stairs leading up to a passenger deck and a small red sign flashing WATCH YOUR STEP. It was an appropriate warning for the Celtics, a very good team mired in a month-long slump and heading into the worst kind of weather the NBA can offer. In a six-day stretch beginning that night, Boston would travel from one end of the snow belt to the other, taking on the Bulls, Bucks (twice) and Knicks, the teams most likely to make the Celtics' pursuit of their first championship in five seasons a stormy one when the playoffs begin.
The need for Boston to step smartly last week had almost nothing to do with the standings. Its 6½-game lead over injury-riddled New York in the Atlantic Division seemed commanding enough to withstand anything short of war, famine, pestilence or Center Dave Cowens retiring to become a full-time auto mechanic. But as Boston fans have learned, first-place finishes—even those as convincing as last year's, when the Celtics posted a 68-14 record, the best in their history and second-best ever in the league—are little solace when their team fails in the playoffs. Which is what has happened to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks the past two springs.
As the current season rolled into its second half, Boston seemed to be practicing for its playoff swoon. After winning 29 of 35 games in the 1973 phase of the schedule, the Celtics greeted the New Year by losing seven of their next 15, a slide that reached its nadir with a dismal collapse in the second half against the Bullets on national TV Feb. 3. Despite Cowens' excellent connections at Peter Langan's Exxon station in Wellesley, where he spends his off-hours tuning up a teammate's car or doing transmission work for a lady friend, Boston's fast break seemed to be suffering the same fate as everything else that moves faster than a walk in New England these days—no gas.
During the slump the Celtics scored 7.6 fewer points per game than they had previously and lost the NBA lead in offense. Their fast break, usually the best in the pros, was misfiring. In last season's playoff, the Knicks demonstrated that by forgoing offensive rebounds and hurrying back to present a well-organized defense, they could force Boston into a pattern game, which is not its forte. That technique did not go unnoticed by other teams, and opponents now regularly send four or even five players scurrying to the defensive end of the floor whenever Boston seems likely to gain possession of the ball. And, predictably, it is the best defenders, the Bucks, Bulls and Knicks among them, who have most thoroughly mastered this tactic.
In the astute opinion of Boston Forward Paul Silas, the Celtics' recent shortcomings had less to do with new defenses than with a mild case of midseason letdown. Boston had not been forcing the ball upcourt—or pressing defensively—with its customary relentlessness. John Havlicek, the team captain and leading scorer, who well recalls the days of his youth when the Celtics did everything superbly and won everything in sight because of it, feels the current squad has not applied old-fashioned dedication to the execution of the patterned offense on which it must increasingly rely. Whoever is right, when the Celtics walked through Gate 3½ and into Chicago Stadium last Tuesday night some of the sheen of their green road uniforms seemed to be gone.
In the sort of extraordinarily well-played game that usually occurs only in the playoffs, the surging Bulls won their ninth straight 100-98, but the regreening of Boston was well under way and there was not a gloomy face in the Celtic locker room afterward. In fact, it was a game in which the pattern and percentages said the Celtics should have won. Chicago held the lead until midway through the third quarter as Boston struggled with its set offense—which scored only 16 points in the first half—but ran enough successful fast breaks to remain close. Then, as often happens when the Celtics apply pressure throughout a game, the Bulls began to weary in the final period and Boston opened a seven-point edge with 3:35 remaining. In the closing minutes it was the Celtics' nonrunning game that first cost them their lead and then almost allowed them to pull out a victory. Boston was unable to break on any of its six final possessions and failed to score on five of them as the Bulls pulled into a 98-98 tie with 24 seconds to go. The Celtics executed one last pattern perfectly, Havlicek taking an open, 12-foot jumper behind a double screen set by Cowens and Don Nelson. One problem: the shot missed. Chicago recovered the rebound and called time-out with two seconds left to set up a play. The final buzzer had already sounded when Guard Bob Weiss' desperate, whirling one-hander swished through from 25 feet to end a game in which there had been 27 ties and lead changes in the final 18 minutes.
"That's the first good game we've played in a month," said Havlicek with a smile an hour later, as he sat down to dinner and a couple of glasses of Pommard at his favorite Chicago restaurant. And he kept smiling even when the waitress chided him for letting her down by missing the final shot and the chef came out of the kitchen and threatened to burn his steak because he was a loser. The waitress then told Havlicek that a man who remembered him from college wanted to buy him an after-dinner drink. "That's very nice," said Havlicek.
"Yeah, I remember watching you when I was at Michigan," the man called across the quiet dining room. "You were at Ohio State at the same time. Let's see, I think you were a year or two younger than me. What year were you?"
"I graduated in '62," replied Havlicek. "Oh, well, I got out in '55. At least Michigan's got a better team now than Ohio State."
"I guess that's right."