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But in the playoffs Philadelphia has found more thorns than roses. Last year's sorry ending was typically embarrassing. After trampling Boston four games to one in the Eastern Conference finals, Philly stubbed its toe against Los Angeles, the final night of ignominy coming when Magic Johnson, a rookie starting at center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, scored 42 points in The Spectrum as the Lakers won the title and sent the 76ers slinking away like whipped dogs yet again.
And so this season, during December and January and on into February, while Boston stacked Ws as if they were firewood, everybody held his breath and waited for the Sixer collapse. And waited. While Boston was winning an amazing 25 of 26 games, Philadelphia took 20 of 25 and held on to first place until Jan. 28, when Boston beat the 76ers by three points in Boston Garden.
That enabled the Celtics to move into first, but they may have used up too much of themselves getting there. The next night they lost to Chicago and dropped out of the lead. After the All-Star Game break and Wednesday's defeat in Philadelphia, they traveled to Milwaukee on Thursday and lost again, 113-103. That marked the first time since Bill Fitch took over as Celtic coach and Bird joined the team at the start of the 1979-80 season that Boston had dropped three in a row.
The Celtics' problem now is poor health. Bird suffered a badly bruised thigh in the first Philly game. M.L. Carr, switched to the backcourt this season, missed 41 games with a broken foot and is still trying to regain his form. To make matters worse, the team has just begun a grueling schedule of road games. Boston's 111-98 win over Indiana Friday and 123-107 defeat of San Diego Sunday were two of just three games the Celtics will play in Boston this month.
Last week in Philly, Fitch considered the schedule and the injuries, and didn't sound at all like a man whose team had recently won 13 straight. "We can't get greedy," he said. "We're going to be a good ball club when the playoffs start. We don't have to be better than Philly until the end of the year. We want to do unto them as they did unto us last year."
The next night in Milwaukee, a cautious Fitch didn't play Bird in the fourth quarter as Boston lost again. But back in Beantown Friday night against the Pacers, Bird played 38 minutes and scored 31 points, and the Celts won easily. On Sunday against San Diego, still playing hurt, Bird got 19 points in 29 minutes.
Despite the Celtics' injuries and the ominous road schedule, it's far too early to write them off. After all, they still have the second-best record (45-12) in basketball. This is a team which, a week before the end of training camp, was shocked when Center Dave Cowens retired. Guard Nate Archibald, the floor leader, was a holdout until just before the season started. The Celts dropped three of their first seven games while they got comfortable with Robert Parish in the middle and rookie Kevin McHale coming off the bench to block shots. They were down before they were up, and they'll be up again. Says Parish, "It's like the Yankees. There's a lot of pride that goes with being a Yankee and with being a Celtic. We'll be back on the right track. We're not going to give up."
Last week's developments surely must have been comforting to Cunningham, who has had a tough time convincing the demanding Philadelphia fans and a skeptical press that he knows what he's doing. When Cunningham signed on in 1977, he was regarded as merely a caretaker for perhaps the most talented team in history. Cunningham convinced the front office, however, that in order for the trees to grow he needed to prune some unwanted talent. The club dealt away George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Joe Bryant and Harvey Catchings.
Then Cunningham demonstrated an ability to take young talent and age it. He brought along Dawkins and Point Guard Mo Cheeks, and last season when Collins again was hurt, Cunningham had a rookie, Clint Richardson, step in. This year his nursery project is Toney, and whenever the rookie makes a mistake, he gets ready to shake the hand of his replacement, veteran Lionel Hollins. The result of all this maneuvering is that no one in history has won 200 games faster than Cunningham, whose career record at the end of last week stood at 207-91. And in a league prone to the distant and vacant stare, his players listen when he talks. "He's learned as a coach," says Caldwell Jones. "The first two years he was like a rookie. Now he's calmed down and gotten into the coaching."
Cunningham's method was illustrated by two minor incidents in Wednesday's game. In the first, the Celtics' Parish was whistled for his fifth foul. Cunningham immediately jumped to his feet and was at the sideline calling a play and yelling for his team to inbound the ball, even before the referee could signal Parish's number to the scorer's table. He wanted play to begin before Boston could substitute for the vulnerable Parish. The Sixer players could see their coach was not asleep at the switches.