The NBA / Thomas Bonk : Celtics’ Top Six Putting In Long Minutes

If the Boston Celtics win the NBA championship again, K.C. Jones could set a modern record for winning the most games with the fewest players.

No team has successfully defended its title since the Celtics did it 15 years ago, but Jones is trying to repeat by using what is basically a six-player team.

The question is whether that’s a good thing to do.

The Celtics are running the risk of burning out their top six players, or possibly hurting themselves by not developing their bench players in case one of the super six gets injured.


Jones uses Kevin McHale, judged the best sixth man in basketball last season, as his primary non-starter in support of Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. The only other reserve Celtics who play at all in most non-blowout games are Scott Wedman and Carlos Clark.

The second halves of two consecutive Celtic games played recently show Jones’ reluctance to use his bench. In the first of those games, the top six Celtics scored every point after intermission, and in the second, they scored all but two points in the second half.

Jones, naturally, doesn’t fear either burnouts or injuries.

“Minutes played are just a statistic,” he said. “There are other ways to rest players than in games, like having them sit out all or parts of practices.”


The Philadelphia 76ers, who are battling the Celtics for the best record in the NBA, take an entirely different approach to substitutions, possibly because they have a better bench. Coach Billy Cunningham regularly uses 10 players.

The 76ers are 16-3 since Dec. 11 with two of those defeats to the Celtics. Boston is 15-5 in the same span.

“What the Celtics are doing must be all right because they keep winning,” Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.

The last NBA championship team to use as many players as the 76ers regularly do was the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors, who won with 10 players in action in at least 67 games.

Rick Barry, now an NBA cable television broadcaster, was the Warriors’ star that season. He questions the Celtics’ strategy.

“They can ill afford a major injury,” he said. “They’re basically a six-player ballclub and those six guys are playing a lot of minutes. They might run out of gas. Whether playing very few people will ultimately take its toll, I don’t know, but I do know that teams who use a lot of players, like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, are going to give them trouble.”

Add Barry: “They should already concede the West to the Lakers. They have so much depth. Jamaal (Wilkes) hardly plays anymore and he’d be a starter on most teams. The only problem the Lakers have is losing to teams they have no business losing to.”

Add Jones: After the Celtics had come from three points down in the final 44 seconds to defeat the Lakers last week, Jones was asked whether the game reminded him at all of last year’s championship series against the Lakers.


“Does the Pope wear little red shoes?” he said.

Getting hurt during a game is one thing, but guard Mike Dunleavy of the Milwaukee Bucks is out for the year, maybe for the rest of his career, after the most unusual injury of the season.

Dunleavy suffered a herniated disk in a freak accident when the airplane in which he and the rest of the Bucks were traveling stopped suddenly to avoid hitting a fuel truck while taxiing to the gate at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

“Can you believe this?” Dunleavy asked. “I mess up my back sitting with my seat belt on in an airplane that’s on the ground.”

The incident, on Dec. 1, also injured Kevin Grevey, Charles Davis and Coach Don Nelson.

“The steward was handing us our coats,” Grevey said. “I looked out the window and the wing was about a foot short of hitting the truck. It was an unbelievably freak thing.”

Grevey was among the lucky ones who got only whiplash-like injuries. Dunleavy wasn’t lucky at all.

“If I come back, it’s gonna be a miracle,” he said.


Dunleavy said his only options are enzyme injections to dissolve the disk, or surgery. He said he doesn’t know what to do yet.

“If you have to make a bad decision, you might as well put it off until tomorrow,” he said.

Dunleavy’s attorney, who happens to be a personal injury specialist, has advised him to wait until the full extent of his disability is known before taking any legal action against the airline.

“All I know is that I’m labeled now,” said Dunleavy, whose contract expires after next season. “I’ve got a bad back. That’s going to give me a hard time getting guaranteed money. And if I can play, how well can I perform?

“The whole thing is so unreal. If I got trampled by some 250-pound player and got hurt, that’s the normal risk you take on the court. But to be injured in an airplane, in your seat, with your seat belt on, taxiing on the ground is something you just don’t expect.”

The Utah Jazz may re-sign forward John Drew, who was waived in December after he had a drug relapse.

Frank Layden, Utah coach and general manager, said Drew will be evaluated when he returns to Salt Lake City from a drug treatment center. To return to the Jazz this season, Layden said Drew must first show progress for an unspecified period in an after-care program.

“If John proves he deserves a chance this time, then the Jazz would be interested in him,” Layden said. “We are not signing him when he steps out of the hospital like we did last time.”