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The Celts will win because they have Bird, who along with Malone is the current MVP favorite. He threw in back-to-back buzzer beaters in late January, one after brushing aside the chalkboard on which Jones was designing a play that would have set up the last shot for Maxwell. It's passé to describe Bird's play—he's averaging a team-leading 27.9 points, 10.4 rebounds a game and a league-leading 45.7% from three-point range—as merely "great"; praise for him now comes in terms of the surreal. "He's so damn good he's making a farce of the game," says San Antonio assistant Scotty Robertson. Add Lil' Davey B. and the Space Kadettes in their recent release Bird Rap: "Larry, Larry Bird (Larry Bird)/His game is so well-rounded it is almost absurd."
The Sixers will win because they have Toney, the 6'3" guard. Since 1982, when he shot them down in the teams' last playoff meeting, the Celtics haven't shown they can stop the Boston Strangler. The key is that Toney not stop himself. In the Sixers' 113-97 loss at Boston Garden on Jan. 20, Toney attempted only one field goal in the second half, leaving the Sixers' coaching staff too puzzled to be angry. "I didn't want to take a bad shot," explained Toney afterward. In a scrimmage at the following day's practice, Toney took 12 shots, buried eight of them and watched Malone and Charles Barkley trash-compact three of the four he missed.
The Celts will win because they'll finally face the Sixers in a playoff with 6'4" guard Dennis Johnson, the defensive specialist they acquired from Phoenix in June of 1983. He put the clamps on Magic Johnson in last spring's finals, and when he's not busy containing Toney, he's hitting 46.3% of his shots—up from last season's 43.7%. "He makes that team," says Williams. "They couldn't play with us without that trade."
The Sixers will win because Barkley, the Round Mound of Rebound, solves their chronic problem of productivity at power forward. As soon as Barkley proved himself as a sub, management sent the incumbent starter at that position, Marc Iavaroni, to San Antonio. "He's plugged our gap," Williams says, "like the Dutch boy at the dike."
Of all these factors, Barkley is the most crucial. He's one of the reasons the 76ers have outrebounded the Celtics by nine a game in the teams' head-to-head play this year and have mined the offensive glass for an average of 17.3 rebounds in those outings. He neutralizes McHale's usual effectiveness in tandem with Parish. And he has no fear. "Having Moses around means there's someone uglier than me on the team," says Barkley, who had a pretty 29 points—a career high—and 18 rebounds in a 110-99 victory over Detroit last Friday.
Yet if he plays poorly, the Celtics are stronger. Maxwell has shown an aptitude for toasting Barkley in the post, goading him into foolish fouls and forcing Cunningham to lose patience and yank him. When the Mound sits, he not only tends to pout, thus rendering him less effective when he goes back in, but he also lets Bird off the hook defensively. "When he's in I've got to play him," Bird says. "I can't help out or double-team." Or cheat toward the offensive end.
If he's aware of his pivotal role in his sport's best rivalry, the Mound hasn't let on. He declines to speak to the press after he plays poorly, reasoning that he hasn't done anything to merit attention. He withdrew from the Slam-Dunk contest at the All-Star festivities, preferring to repair to Leeds, Ala. to nurse a bout of homesickness and patch things up with a hometown honey. But in a game last week against Golden State, Barkley gave new meaning to the phrase "setting a standard" with a dunking display of his own. After stealing a pass from Sleepy Floyd and sailing in for the slam, he hung on the rim to avoid flattening Floyd. The force of the dunk was so great that it moved the entire standard holding up the backboard—all 2,240 pounds of it—about six inches. The game was held up for 23 minutes while the support was put back into position. Talk about having a ton of fun....
In fact, Barkley is more likely to hang out in such exciting places as the pastry section of an Acme in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Upon encountering him there recently one night, wedging a box of cookies under his arm, someone recommended a delicacy called a Tunnel of Fudge.
"Oh, I don't touch chocolate," quoth the Mound, reaching for another box of vanilla cookies. "Gotta watch my weight."
Barkley reported to camp at 283 pounds. "He found out what it means to weigh that much and have to run up and down the floor every night," says Al Domenico, the Sixers' trainer. "He's down to 253. A player only comes in really overweight once—as a rookie. I guarantee you he'll never arrive at that weight again."