The way things have been going for the Boston Celtics recently, Larry Bird thinks it's a good thing they won't face the Lakers in a seven-game playoff series anytime soon.
"At the end of last season they were the better team, and so far this season they're still the better team," Bird said. "I know I wouldn't want to play them right now."
Of course, the Celtics and Lakers won't meet in the "real season" until June in the NBA final, a match-up that everyone expects to see, despite the troubles that befell the Celtics in late December.
Until they defeated the Utah Jazz at Salt Lake City Saturday night, the Celtics had lost four consecutive road games. They blew a 25-point third-quarter lead to the New York Knicks and were beaten in double overtime.
They also lost to the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, came from 10 points down in the last four minutes to beat the Bulls, but were also blistered by Portland, 121-103, at Boston Garden, the Celtics' worst home loss in nearly four years.
So what's wrong with the Celtics?
"We just haven't been playing that well," Bill Walton said. "We're in a little bit of a low spot. One thing is that we haven't been able to hold leads. We probably should have won all those games we lost, with the exception of Portland, when we got blown out."
Walton is getting high marks for his play off the bench, but once again Coach K.C. Jones is showing a reluctance to play his reserves very often and has been getting burned in the Boston press because of it.
"The criticism comes when you're on top of the hill," Jones said. "Other teams play their starting guys that much, 35 to 40 minutes, but they're on the bottom so they don't get criticized. Well, we must be doing something right. We've been in the finals two years in a row."
Bird and Kevin McHale have spent more time on the court than any of the other Celtics. Bird, who is shooting only about 45%, has played 16 40-minute games this season, and McHale has played 12 and narrowly missed another when he played 39 minutes in the two-point victory over the Jazz.
The Celtics made three major personnel changes after losing to the Lakers in last season's championship series but none of them, so far, have made an impact.
Forward Sly Williams, who was supposed to help out on the front line, has been released. Third guard Jerry Sichting averages fewer than five points a game, and No. 1 draft choice Sam Vincent, a point guard, hardly plays.
"The team's different from last season," Bird said. "We're still adjusting."
Jones said there's nothing wrong with the Celtics that can't be corrected by such things as rebounding better and pushing the ball upcourt quicker.
"But the biggest thing that has happened is that the other teams are improving," Jones said. "It's not like the old days when we could just show up and win. Now when we show up, the other teams are ready. I think it's amazing we have the record we do at this point. Teams are coming at us with the best they have. We never get a night off."
And what about the Lakers?
"They are phenomenal . . . awesome," Jones said. "With Maurice Lucas there now, Kareem is like a kid in a candy store. He can go out and relax for half a game, then Pat Riley can say to him, 'OK, Kareem, make a few sky hooks and let's go home.' "
The departure of the colorful Williams from the Celtics was not nearly as interesting as his departure from the Knicks.
Williams was never a player who enjoyed practice, so when he missed a workout one day, Knick trainer Mike Saunders phoned Williams' house in New Jersey.
A voice that sounded very much like Sly's answered the phone, identified himself as Sly's brother and explained Williams' absence.
"Sly has some personal problems," he said. "There's been a slight death in the family."
Williams was soon gone.
Del Harris, former head coach of the Houston Rockets and now a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks, writes a column each Monday in the Houston Sports Journal. And, in an unusual move in a recent issue, he ripped the Rockets for not actively pursuing free agents.
"The 'as is' program the Rockets have followed since the end of last season is a slap in the faces of a city begging for a winner," Harris wrote.
While other teams made moves, the only addition the Rockets made was signing 6-11 Granville Waiters, formerly of the Indiana Pacers. Harris pointed out: "Waiters could not make Indiana's team and they have the worst record in the league over the past three seasons."
Waiters was waived and then re-signed, which seems to go along with Harris' assessment of him: "Waiters seems to be more suited to doing what his name implies."
Oddly enough, Harris found no fault with the Rockets for not signing Norm Nixon.
"Even the discussion about the Nixon deal was ludicrous," Harris wrote. "He was not wanted by 20 other teams for various reasons."