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The Talk of the NBA : Celtics Appear to Be Greatly Improved This Season

October 09, 1985|PETER MAY | Hartford Courant

No one can accuse the Boston Celtics of complacency this time.

Many teams would be content to sit on a 63-19 record and a National Basketball Assn. Championship Series appearance and spend the summer on the golf course and at the beach. Boston was somewhat guilty of that last season, allowing the championship hangover and the great 1984 start to convince them that there was no need of help.

But there was no such dawdling this summer. The Celtics were by far the most active of teams in the off-season, and it has paid off. The 1985-86 Celtics, with at least four new people, are immeasurably improved over last year and, barring injury, loom as the favorite to win another championship flag.

There is no perceptible weakness. An injury to Robert Parish? No problem, the Celtics will just swing Bill Walton into action. Help for Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson? No problem, the Celtics have a gem of a rookie in Sam Vincent and a legit third guard in Jerry Sichting. Concerned about not having a small forward? No problem, the Celtics will bring in Sly Williams, give him an alarm clock for every room and set him loose.

There is one big question, however. Can Larry Bird avoid a recurrence of the elbow and finger troubles he had last year? He has showed little effects in early exhibition games. Can Walton stay healthy in any number of areas?

Those are questions to ponder, but they also are unknowns. Coach K.C. Jones must reduce the minutes the starters play each game, which he should do given the new depth on the bench. Last year, Ainge (34.2 minutes), Bird (39.5), Johnson (37.2), McHale (33.6) and Parish (36.1) all set career highs for minutes played. In part, that was because of Jones' conservative coaching nature and his inherent trust in those players. But it also was evident that the above quintet got tired as the Laker series progressed.

But with Walton and Williams to help up front (along with Scott Wedman and maybe even Greg Kite) and Sichting and Vincent available in the backcourt, there should be no excuse or even temptation to run up such figures for the starters this season.

Red Auerbach of the Celtics has taken the lead for the Executive of the Year Award. The urge is to think the NBA is now a two-team league, but that is premature. It is up to K.C. and the rest to make Red look good again for the umpteenth time.

It is not quite like a boxer standing alone for 30 minutes and losing a pound to make weigh-in (as Marvin Hagler once did). But Los Angeles Laker officials say Walton failed a physical on July 1. However, the 7-1 redhead (look closely, he is taller than Parish despite his 6-11 listing) passed one in Boston seven weeks later.

The Lakers say Walton did not live up to medical expectations because of his checkered past involving bone spurs in his feet and an unhealed fracture in his wrist.

"All I care about are the conclusions," Celtic General Manager Jan Volk said. "I have a five-page report on Bill, single-spaced, listing everything. Some of it I don't even understand, like a navicular bone. What's that? But the conclusion is that he can play for us."

Dr. Thomas Silva, the Celtics' team physician, noted Walton was not being asked to play marathon minutes. And he said there are no absolutes in such matters.

"It's never quite black and white, and in this case, it's in the gray area," Silva said.

But some observers feel the Lakers purposely failed Walton to make him a presumably undesirable commodity for the Celtics. The Lakers knew that the Clippers never would allow Walton to play for their crosstown rival. And the Lakers did not want him to play for the Celtics, so failing him in his physical was their way of trying to prevent such a move. They sent out the word that Walton was damaged goods and that they were not interested.

"The Lakers did everything possible to keep the Celtics from getting Walton," one source said.

The Lakers doctor who examined Walton was Dr. Robert Kerlan, a renowned physician, but one who nevertheless had told Walton years ago that Walton should hang up the sneakers. The two are not exactly blood brothers.

The Celtics are taking a risk, but they are the first to admit that. Anything involving Walton is a gamble, it seems. But Boston is convinced that any abnormalities Walton may have are more the result of alleged dirty tricks by the Lakers than actual injuries.

Said Philadelphia assistant Jimmy Lynam, Walton's coach with the Clippers last year: "The one thing he has retained over the years is that he is one of the premier defensive rebounders. I don't think he can help but make an impact as long as he stays healthy."

The Philadelphia 76ers are not exactly the healthiest or happiest of crews. Andrew Toney was in a walking cast this summer for his ankle injury and, for reasons still unknown, the team waited until just recently to operate on Bobby Jones to remove a bone spur from his foot.

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