The only thing wrong with us," said Tommy Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics coach, after his team had been thrashed for the second time in a row by Washington in the Eastern Conference playoff finals, "is that we just are not putting the ball in the hole. Now, I don't understand why that is so difficult for people to understand."
All week long, Heinsohn had been swamped by explanations for the two defeats—and remedies. Dave Cowens and John Havlicek, for instance, supposedly were not "involved" enough in the offense. Or the Celtics weren't running in fast-break fashion, but in confusion. Stop playing Havlicek so much, he's too old. Or why isn't Havlicek playing more? Boston was wasting too much defense on Elvin Hayes, who was going to score anyway. Or not enough: double-team the Big E, that'll do it.
"Bull," Heinsohn snapped. "People are saying we've overprepared. How can you be overprepared for a good team like Washington?
"Contrary to what anyone says, the fact is that we are getting a man open but the ball isn't going in. It wasn't our execution. It wasn't Washington's defense. It wasn't our shot selection. The ball just isn't going in the hole. And when you don't shoot well against a tough team like Washington you are in trouble."
In those opening two games, which Washington won 100-95 and 117-92, the Celtics somehow managed to miss 127 of 207 shots. Between them, Cowens and Havlicek sank only 27 of 80 shots, which seems like a fair amount of involvement, if not very helpful involvement. But then, only Jo Jo White was hitting with any consistency for the Celtics. The all-star guard scored 27 points in the opener, 18 in the second game.
Meanwhile, Washington, led by the magnificent Hayes, was playing with a hot hand. For the first two games, more than half of everything the Bullets put up went in. Hayes had 34 points in the first one—when Washington came from 12 back at halftime to win—and 29 in the second. And the Bullets apparently had found an effective blockade for the Celtics' fast break.
Actually, it is a simple defense, and when Washington is scoring it works beautifully. As soon as one of the Bullets puts the ball in the air, Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter and Mike Riordan turn and run for the other end of the court, leaving Hayes and Wes Unseld to worry about possibly grabbing an offensive rebound. Sometimes, even Hayes will turn and retreat with his three smaller teammates. "We don't get too many offensive rebounds," says Riordan, "but it sure kills their fast break."
On Friday, after the defeats, the Celtics held a tough practice. They made some adjustments in their offense, mainly looking to get Cowens in lower, and to get Havlicek more open. "I'm best when I'm moving without the ball," said Havlicek. "That's when it is the toughest to guard a man—when he doesn't have the ball."
"We've finally got it together," said Heinsohn after practice. "We're more intense now than we've been in a long time. We're going to win this thing in seven games. And if we don't, then come and tell me what everybody is saying."
A year ago the Celtics were a hungry ball club. Now they were an embarrassed one. And Havlicek was bridling about references to his age. "I'm going to come out firing," said the 35-year-old Celtics captain.