BOSTON — When he's alone on a court with a basketball, he's like any other little kid with an imagination. He's Larry Bird, and the opponent is always Michael Cooper.
"Funny," Larry Bird was saying Thursday, "but I always win. I get my 40, and then I go in."
It's that time again--and wasn't it only yesterday that MVP Magic Johnson and the rest of the Lakers were drinking championship champagne one time when Bird didn't win--for another round of Lakers-Celtics, tonight in the Boston Garden.
And funny, isn't it, that neither Bird nor Cooper, Celtics nor Lakers, have been able to beat anybody lately. Bird scores 40 Wednesday night, and the Celtics lose. Cooper scores 2 points in 42 minutes, and the Lakers lose, too.
Are they choking on their eggs Benedict in Bel-Air because the Lakers have lost four of their last five? Well, they're crying in their clam chowder in Charlestown, too, because the Celtics have lost four of their last five. That includes a rare defeat at home Wednesday night in Boston Garden, which in the regular season usually happens only once a year.
Always in December, too. The Celtics had won 34 straight on parquet before losing to the Denver Nuggets, 124-119. They had won 48 straight until the Lakers nailed them last December, 117-110. The December before, it was the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Celtics haven't lost two in a row at home since the end of the 1984-85 season, and Bird skipped one of those. No one can remember the last time they dropped back-to-backers when the games meant anything.
As usual, the parallels between the Lakers and the Celtics are striking, only this time in a negative way.
Magic Johnson has a sore Achilles' tendon? So does Bird. Two of them.
The Celtics had to make do without the firepower of Kevin McHale? The Lakers were missing James Worthy.
The Lakers lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers? Well, so did the Celtics.
The Lakers are a poor imitation of the Lakers? Well, the Celtics are a poor imitation of the Celtics.
"We're not playing well," McHale said Thursday before doing some extra shooting at the Celtics' Hellenic College practice site. "You can say whatever you want, but we're not playing well.
"We play well in spurts, which is OK as long as your lousy times are average, but our lousy times have been really, really bad.
"It's frustrating. I hate to come out and play that way."
Have you heard these words before? Drop McHale into the Laker dressing room after one of their recent horrors, and he'd fit right in. He knows it, too.
"They're probably saying the same things we are right now," McHale said.
And they're being asked the same questions, too, such as whether it's possible that the rest of the league has caught up to the two superpowers.
"Right now, the gap has closed completely," said McHale, who has played four games since recovering from foot surgery. "But I still say, give us a week off and then hold the playoffs, and we'd win."
Please don't forget it's early, one Celtic after another reminded interrogators, echoing another Laker refrain.
"I've found that teams hit a low point after the first 10 games of the season," Bird said. "Teams sort of get bogged down. That's why I think you have to be a running, fast-break team to be successful.
"After the first 10 games, we really slowed it down. We're not going up and down the court."
It didn't start out that way for the Celtics. Bird, after the toughest summer conditioning program of his life, arrived 20 pounds leaner, was jumping higher and driving quicker than at any time in the past.
"I felt great coming into camp," he said. "The first eight games I played pretty good, and I was getting better and better.
"But all of a sudden, I got injured and that has been a step backwards."
Bird's sore Achilles' kept him out of four games, and he says he's still not all the way back. Team doctor Arnold Scheller said it will be another two to three weeks before Bird will be OK.
"Right now, this is the best I've felt since I've been injured," Bird said. "I anticipate having a great year. That's what I'm banking on.
"I know that by next week, I'll be a better player."
That in itself of course will make the Celtics a better team. But Bird doesn't want to wait till April to see those improvements.
"Yes, we've only played 18 games, but pretty soon 18 games can turn into 40, and then you say, 'Well we've still got half a season to go,' " Bird said.
"You've got to put a stop to it sometime. If you don't, it's going to create bad habits."
Losing, of course, is one habit to which the Lakers or the Celtics are accustomed.
Boston Coach K.C. Jones said he had a short list of things the Celtics need to work on. But after Jones got through reeling them off--"boxing out, running the half-court offense, fast-breaking, and defensive transition"--he might as well have passed out copies of "Red on Roundball." What's left?
"Eighty-seven has already been a pretty crazy year," McHale said. "Guys get hurt, and we can't sustain anything. Maybe '88 will turn it around."