Fitch says that's hogwash. "Too much talent is when you have players who are ready to and can go for 48 minutes," he says. "Take Tiny, for example. He's 34 years old, and he can't play 48 anymore. He got mad at first; hell, I'd get mad if someone told me I was 34 and couldn't do everything anymore. But he still gets his quality minutes [an average of 27.4 per game]. It may seem like there's been a lot of juggling, but back in October and November I was looking ahead to April and the playoffs."
Bird, for one, thinks Fitch did an excellent job of maneuvering the troops but also concedes that all the shuffling probably cost the Celtics in terms of continuity. "We never really got a string going," he says. "It seemed like we'd win four, lose two, win four, lose two. There were so many changes in the lineup that there were times when we didn't move the ball around like in the past; the flow and timing were a step behind."
During the regular season there was never a compelling reason to get that step back. By the end of January it was obvious that Boston wouldn't catch the 76ers and also that Central Division-leading Milwaukee wouldn't be able to bump the Celtics out of the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. As a result Boston became, according to Center-Forward Kevin McHale, "an average team. If we won five games in a row it didn't matter; if we lost five in a row it didn't matter. So what was the point?"
A flurry of What's Wrong With The Celtics? newspaper stories appeared in Boston and across the country. Some described the players as bickering incessantly with each other. Others said that General Manager Red Auerbach had demanded that Buckner be made a starter in order to justify the trade. Still others implied that the players were tired of Fitch's drill-sergeant coaching methods.
While the first two assertions were false, there was truth to the suggestion of some player discontent with Fitch. Ironically, it came during a season in which Fitch wasn't the martinet he had been made out to be in the past. "I think he recognized what a difficult year it was for all of us, and he eased up quite a bit," McHale says.
Not that Fitch totally abandoned his biting manner. "The man has a lot of good things to say, he just has some awful ways of saying them," says one Celtic. "You can only call someone dumb or stupid for so long." Adds another, "Everyone rebels in his own little way. I can't get into someone yelling about why I didn't get over a double pick. I wonder if someone in a normal business gets yelled at for not getting over to the Xerox machine the right way." Says McHale, who isn't as obsessed with basketball as Fitch might like, "I long for the day when something I do out on a basketball court affects Wall Street."
During a road trip just after the All-Star break, something happened that might have brought the players and Fitch closer together. In Seattle one evening, he lost about $400 to a pickpocket in a bar. When the team assembled the next day, all the players had jokingly taped shut their jacket pockets. Fitch wasn't amused, and the gulf widened.
Regardless of Boston's problems, hardly anyone gave Atlanta a ghost of a chance in the miniseries—except the Hawks themselves. Although Boston had won five of the six regular-season meetings between the clubs, Atlanta players were among those who no longer regarded the Celtics with awe.
Despite an offense that averaged only 101.6 points per game, 19th in the league, the Hawks made the playoffs, sneaking into the sixth and final Eastern Conference spot by winning 18 of their final 28 games.
Indeed, Atlanta felt it had more than a fair shot at toppling Boston. Said one Hawk official before Game 1, "With the Celtics, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. It's just that you freeze a little bit when you think about playing the Celtics. I'll concede that Bird is one of the two best players in the league, but Cedric Maxwell can be beaten, can't he? Is it stupid to say that Archibald has reached the end of the line? Is it inconceivable to feel that Ainge isn't ready yet and that Henderson is a pretty ordinary guard?"