It had not been a very pleasant road trip for the Celtics. Oh, sure, they had won two games, but they had lost to Kansas City- Omaha, to Seattle and, last Saturday night, to Golden State. By Boston's standard of excellence, that ranks right up there with leaving oysters two days in the sun. Still, if you have won 24 of 28 in enemy arenas, as the Celtics had before this trip, you have to expect that ill fortune will catch up with you somewhere along the line. No matter. The slick green machine was merely allowing the law of averages to have its way for a while before resuming what Boston does best, running the rest of the league dizzy.
"Suddenly, we are out of sync," said Tom Heinsohn, the Boston coach, before the young SuperSonics zapped his defending champions, 121-95. "When we are playing as well as we can, nobody can beat us. But when we aren't, any team in this league can beat us. If just one guy gets out of sync, we're in trouble."
Against Seattle, the Celtics at first looked as though they had their gearbox back in order. The fast break, both pell-mell and precise, was there, swift and numbing. Stunned by Boston's speed, the Sonics spun like pedestrians trapped in five o'clock traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. Nineteen seconds into the second quarter Boston led by 16 points. Twenty-nine minutes and 42 seconds later Boston was behind by 34.
"I made two mistakes," said Heinsohn, confessing that he had relaxed too early. Facing disaster, Seattle Coach Bill Russell had gone to a lineup of four rookies and Slick Watts, a bald second-year guard with no great reputation as a shooter.
"I figured it was over," said Heinsohn, "and so I started to substitute. That was my first mistake. Our starters weren't tired. I should have let them go. Then Seattle ran off 12 straight points before I finally called a time-out. That was my second mistake. After that, they played like us and we played like them."
Basketball can be a game of momentum, and when the SuperSonics turned the tempo around they rode it until the final play. Tommy Burleson, their 7'2�" rookie who is going to be a fine center because he wants to play, finished with a career high of 28 points. Watts, who had been averaging five points a game, had a career high of 23.
"Who's their third guard?" Heinsohn had asked before the game.
"Rod Derline," someone said.
A 6'4" rookie out of Seattle University and a fine outside shooter, Derline scored 20, his career high. He had been averaging five.