BOSTON — The inhibiting effect of pain is not a popular subject around Larry Bird's locker. Anyone who asks about the condition of Bird's aching back is almost assured of receiving a disgusted glare and a terse rejoinder. Sarcasm is not out of the question.
"It's 100 percent," Bird might snap.
But it is difficult not to ask, especially when it is so obvious that Bird's game, already profoundly affected by the double-heel surgery that caused him to miss 76 games two seasons ago, also is at the mercy of his back. So are the Celtics' chances of returning to the championship series after a three-year absence.
Since January, Bird's back has throbbed because of a nerve and disc problem that sometimes causes Bird pain all the way down his legs to his feet. To Bird's credit, he does not use the back as an excuse for his play, which, considering his Hall of Fame standards, has been average.
"He doesn't moan about being hurt," Celtic forward Kevin McHale said. "You've got to respect him for that."
In many ways, in fact, the 34-year-old Bird still acts like the player who won three consecutive Most Valuable Player awards in 1984-86. Perhaps injury has humbled his game, but it hasn't humbled his confidence.
"He's always saying that he's going to go out there and kick somebody's butt," said Celtics guard Reggie Lewis. "I don't think he'll ever change from that. He wouldn't be Larry if he didn't have that kind of an attitude. That's just part of his game. That's Larry."
But this is a different Bird -- one who grimaces every time he shoots, one who lies on the sideline on his stomach to get relief for his back when he's not playing in games, one who grits his teeth to withstand the pain when sitting in the locker room after games, and one who wears a plastic back brace while sitting on planes for long periods of time.
This is a Bird whose confidence and arrogance -- staples of Celtic tradition -- come with a qualifier: Bird and the Celtics can kick anybody's butt, if they can remain healthy.
When Bird and McHale were healthy, the Celtics were 26-5. If Bird had not missed 18 games with back problems and McHale had not missed 14 games with torn ligaments in his left ankle, it is likely the Celtics would have the best record in the National Basketball Association. They still are the Atlantic Division champions, and they still are challenging the Chicago Bulls for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
But recently, they have been flat. They lost games to the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat after having fourth-quarter leads of 17 points. It took a last-second shot by Robert Parish for them to win a home game against the decimated Cleveland Cavaliers, who were playing without center Brad Daugherty. They also lost in Orlando to the Magic.
They are a respectable-but-not-awesome 29-17 since their brilliant start. Celtics Coach Chris Ford says his team "is in the doldrums." He says he scolds the players for lackadaisical play, "but I'm just looking at blank faces."
Maybe there are good reasons. Maybe the faces are blank to hide physical pain. Maybe they are blank because of the disappointment of knowing that a championship that seemed so close early on is, because of physical limitations, so far away.
"When everybody was healthy," Bird said, "we played great basketball. We're not playing great basketball now and it's getting close to the playoffs so, yeah, there is a concern."
And there is more of a concern because Bird is not performing the magic needed for the Celtics to win. The pain is so bad that he is not sure he will return next season, even though he is scheduled to make $7 million. He may need back surgery in the offseason.
But that's not to say that, in the big picture, he has lost confidence. He does admit, however, he has fallen from the elite group whose membership, in his opinion, numbered exactly three.
"I figure I'm not up there with Magic and Michael anymore," Bird said. "But the other 95 percent, I can handle them just as well as anybody."
Still, since the heel surgery, he has not been the same. In nine seasons before the surgery, when he had healthy legs, near-perfect form and endurable pain, Bird made 50.3 percent of his shots. Last year, his first back after the surgery, he made a career-low 47.3 percent.
The back problems obviously have not helped. In his first 31 games this season he made 47.5 percent of his shots, which still was not up to his past standards. But since he returned to the lineup Feb. 6 after missing 13 consecutive games, he has made only 43.1 percent from the field. He now is making a career-low 45.4 percent while averaging a career-low 19.4 points.
"I don't think Larry is playing with the same fluidity," Ford said. "I imagine he's trying to play through the stiffness. I've always thought the best sign of whether his back is bothering him is if he gets the ball and shoots it quickly. He hasn't been doing that."
Even though he does not like to talk about his physical condition, it is obvious Bird is depressed about the back pain and the effect it will have on the Celtics' championship aspirations.
"My game depends on what it always has depended on," Bird said. "If I feel good, I usually play good. And if I feel bad, I usually play bad."
The statistics are not what they were. So does that mean he feels bad?
"I'll say the same thing," he said. "If I feel good, I play good."
So how does he feel about the Celtics' chances of winning a title?
"If everybody is healthy and we play hard, we can go all the way," he said. "I don't think there is a great team out there. There are a lot of good ones, but I don't think there is one team that overshadows the rest. The most important thing for us is to do well in the playoffs. It's going to take a lot of luck."