At first glance, the Boston Celtics' 98-79 victory over the Atlanta Hawks last Sunday in the third and deciding game of their Eastern Conference miniseries was one of the ugliest in NBA annals. Bodies were strewn about the Boston Garden court. In the centerpiece brawl, Atlanta Center Tree Rollins bit the right middle finger of Boston Guard Danny Ainge, causing a wound requiring five stitches. Rollins wasn't unprovoked. The normally peaceable Ainge had elbowed Rollins and then had put a takedown move on him that might have made Dan Gable proud. Ainge was ejected, but not Rollins. There were 38 turnovers and 46 personal fouls. All in all, not a pretty picture.
But to Celtic Coach Bill Fitch, the victory, which advanced Boston to the conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, was merely picturesque. "We may not always play well," said Fitch, "but we play hard."
That wasn't strictly the case during the regular season, but on Sunday the Celtics were as mean, snarly and unattractively effective as ever. Perhaps, as Hawk Coach Kevin Loughery said afterward, the brawl was a minor matter. "Stuff like that used to happen twice a game in the old days," he said. But, for the Celtics, that bristling scene—in fact, the entire stick-it-to-'em game—may have been just the jolt they needed.
That Boston found itself in a miniseries for the first time in six years speaks volumes about its frustrating 1982-83 season. When you regularly win Atlantic Division titles, as the Celtics had the past three years, you get accustomed to the respect—and week of pre-playoff rest—that go with finishing first. So although its 56-26 record was the third-best in the league, Boston entered the series against Atlanta with something of an inferiority complex.
During the regular season, as the gap between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Celtics widened—it would be nine games as the season ended—that old green magic seemed to diminish.
This view was hotly disputed last week by Boston's magician-in-chief, Larry Bird. "The bottom line is that we're still the Celtics," he said. "Ask L.A. and Philadelphia who they fear, and I'll bet they say us."
And, indeed, the Celtic record against division winners wound up at 10-6: 3-3 against Philly, 2-0 against L.A., 3-3 against Milwaukee and 2-0 against San Antonio.
However, according to one Boston player, "We had been winning just because we're the Celtics, but now teams are saying, 'That's bull,' and coming at us hard. And this team doesn't handle losing very well. Everyone—the players and the coaches—acts differently when we don't win."
Some Celtic watchers foresaw problems even before the season began. By trading the rights to Dave Cowens, who retired in 1980, to Milwaukee for Guard Quinn Buckner, Boston had acquired a quality "Celtic-type" player, but also had created a glut in a backcourt that already included Ainge, Tiny Archibald, Gerald Henderson, as well as swingmen Charles Bradley and M.L. Carr. Everyone but Carr started at least five games, resulting in a hodgepodge of combinations, reduced playing time for some individuals and bruised egos.
The frontcourt, already perhaps the best in the league, became even deeper in mid-January when Boston traded bench-warming rookie Center Darren Tillis to Cleveland for Forward Scott Wedman, a career 15.3-points-per-game scorer. Now it appeared for sure that the Celtics had too many able bodies, which can be almost as deadly as having too few. "What you want is eight really good players and four mediocre ones," says one really good Celtic. "Before, guys like Eric Fernsten and Terry Duerod [subs on recent Celtic teams] really had no aspirations of being great players and didn't demand playing time. Now, with so many good players on the team, it's easy to get disgruntled."