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For Celtics, Even Bad Bird Good Enough

February 17, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

Larry Bird, the equalizer, has been the difference for the Boston Celtics for so long, even his bad shots look good. He can go out and take 17 jumpers and miss 10 of them and look good. He can take aim on two clutch free throws with the game on the line and blow both of them and look good.

Bird's bad games are like expensive suits on fat slobs. They still look fine. Bird's bad games are like Woody Allen movies. Even the worst ones are better than most people's best.

Those who watched the birdie Sunday in his only regularly scheduled appointment in Inglewood were not exactly seeing him at his best. He did not cause a lot of oohing and woohing in Lakerland with long-distance baskets or white-magic passes. He did not amass assists in double figures, nor did he get a steal.

"I wish I could have played better," Bird said sincerely.

All the poor soul got was 22 points, a game-high 18 rebounds and a team-high 7 assists in the 105-99 win by the Celtics, who have won 41 of their first 50 games and almost certainly have stamped themselves as favorites--sorry, defending champion lovers--for the 1986 NBA playoffs.

"They are the better team right now," the Lakers' Magic Johnson said.

They are the better team at least partially because Bird is doing his thing and Johnson is not. Magic played 38 minutes Sunday and made zero baskets, which happens about as often as Woody Allen wears an expensive suit. Bird, who is in the better shape physically at this Magic moment, scored 22 even on a day when he did not shoot well on the move or standing still.

When Boston was winning by six points with 1 minute 48 seconds to play, Bird stepped to the line. Spectators blinked when he missed the two free throws because Larry Bird misses important free throws about as often as Magic Johnson wears Woody Allen's suits. No one expects Larry Bird ever to miss--anything.

Except Bird did exactly the same thing the other night at Sacramento, on the opening night of Boston's western tour following the All-Star break. With a half-minute to play and the Celtics trailing the Kings by three points, Bird was hacked. He missed both of his free throws, and Boston lost.

Ordinarily, Bird shoots freebies with the best of them. During the playoffs last season, he got into a free-throw-shooting contest with an acquaintance between games and, as a handicap, wrapped all four fingers and the thumb of his right hand in tape. Then he shot 100 free throws and sank 86 of them.

No one in Boston would ever blame Bird for anything, but he was certainly excused for blowing those free throws at Sacramento. After all, the only reason the Celtics were in the game at all was that Bird had scored 18 points in the fourth quarter.

Same thing Sunday. So his shooting touch was off. Big deal. When the box scores were mimeographed and examined, there was Bird's name next to a big stack of statistics. Sometimes you cannot tell how well he is playing until the numbers are in.

Bird had been up for this game against the Lakers, which concluded their two-game season series but presumably will not be the last time they meet. "When you go against the best, you like to beat them. And they're the best right now," Bird said, referring to the rings on the Lakers' fingers, not to their current head-to-head status.

"I've seen Magic play better," Bird went on. "But Magic's game isn't scoring anyway. And I know he's still hurting a little.

"Even when he doesn't play his best, Magic still plays a heck of a lot better than anybody," Bird said.

Both sides were a little beaten up, and both sides tried to beat each other up. Johnson's knee was slightly damaged, and Boston's Kevin McHale was still excused from duty. There also was some full-contact karate between Byron Scott and Jerry Sichting, plus a pile driver by Boston's Greg Kite applied to Mike McGee during a wide-open layup, nearly inciting another minor riot.

"I was just trying to foul him--they know that," Kite said. "We didn't go out of our way to do anything to them. If a guy's got a layup, what is it, a 95% shot? You try not to give it to him. Every point counts."

"Well, emotions do get pretty high when these two teams play," Bird chimed in.

"If they want to come at me, I don't care. Tell 'em to come at me," Kite said.

Not much need. Stopping Kite is hardly necessary. It is Bird that must be stopped if anybody is to beat Boston. Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton, Robert Parish, McHale--good men all, but one man sets the Celtics apart. If the Lakers are looking to beat them, they know both how and who.

"I can't think of the playoffs now. There's too much time left," Bird said.

"You still have to decide the home-court advantage," another man mentioned.

"That didn't mean nothing last year, did it?" Bird snapped back.

The guy really doesn't miss much.

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