THE CELTICS : OK, So They Can Play a Good Game; Problem Is, They Talk One, Too

Times Staff Writer

Nothing much fazes the Boston Celtics these days. Not a blowout defeat at Portland, not a pair of less-than-spectacular victories at Seattle and Golden State and not the possibility they can't win the NBA title again unless Ray Williams suddenly appears to bail them out.

The season rolls on and so do the Celtics, whose 43-10 record is the best in professional basketball.

Perhaps it is the measure of a great team like the Celtics that they can win a couple of ho-hummers, then show up on the Laker doorstep today with this, well, attitude that they've got still very much intact.

"We've got some very, very cocky players on this team," Celtic guard Dennis Johnson said.

Cedric Maxwell is one of them. Boston's power forward, who wrecked the Lakers in Game 7 of the championship series, said the Celtics get serious real quick when they play the Lakers.

"It's a funny rivalry," Maxwell said. "I think we respect each other a lot, but once we step on the court, it turns into a completely different situation. They don't like us, and we don't like them.

"Both teams are so cocky and so arrogant," he said.

Along those same lines, there's M.L. Carr. You remember M.L.? Pat Riley does. He can still see Carr waving a towel in last year's championship series and covering himself in newsprint.

"It's fun to go back and forth in the newspapers," Carr said. "That way, I don't have to take out an advertisement.

"But I'll tell you. Pat is too sweet," Carr said. "I would even think that Pat might want to invite me to dinner. I'd go, too. I'm just jealous because his suits are a little bit prettier than mine."

The thing about the Celtics is that they play even better than they talk. And while absolutely no one talks better than M.L., no team has played better than Boston this season.

If the Celtics don't beat you with Robert Parish in the middle, they beat you with Kevin McHale off the bench. If that isn't enough, then Larry Bird turns himself loose, and you know what that means.

"If I could shoot like that guy, I'd wrap my arm in silk paper just so no one would touch me the rest of the day," Dennis Johnson said.

The Celtic problem is a shooting problem in the area Bird does not work--the backcourt. That's why Boston appears close to signing Williams, the free-agent guard who played last year with the Knicks. But before the Celtics can sign Williams, arbitrator Arthur Stark has to decide just how much the Celtics can pay him.

Fred Slaughter, who is Williams' agent, and players association counsel Larry Fleisher contend that Williams should make $125,000, which is how much the Celtics are under the salary cap and the value of Gerald Henderson's contract last season.

Gary Bettman, the league's lawyer, doesn't agree. Bettman contends that Williams should be paid only a pro-rated portion of Henderson's old contract based on the number of games Williams would play with Boston the rest of the season.

Henderson, of course, is the reason this whole discussion about the Celtic backcourt came up. Boston sent Henderson to Seattle before the season began, a move that enabled Danny Ainge to become effective as a starter but also weakened the depth at the guard position.

So while Henderson is having a good year with the SuperSonics, the Celtics are having a tough time finding someone to play guard besides Johnson and Ainge.

Henderson is not sympathetic to his former employers.

"I'm living up to my end of the bargain, and they have to live up to theirs," he said. "They have another dilemma now."

The Celtics worry about their guards, but not about their depth. Not any more. Coach K.C. Jones said he has a handle on the situation and doesn't care what anyone else thinks.

Actually, worry is not something the Celtics spend a lot of time doing. Other people do it for them, especially about the backcourt.

Like when they played at Portland. Jones, who used six guards in the first quarter, has been playing musical third-guards, sort of in reverse. Carlos Clark was there for a while, only to take a chair. Quinn Buckner has been revived lately.

Bird admits that the Celtics might have some shortcomings with depth in the backcourt and that Williams would help out.

"If we do have a problem, it's the guards coming off the bench," Bird said. "When Ray comes here, if he does, we'll be all right. We need him because he can do a lot of things for us."

Even with their backcourt troubles, the trick to beating the Celtics seems to be not falling behind them going into the fourth quarter. Boston is 35-0 this season when leading after three quarters.

McHale said that when the Celtics play the Lakers, there aren't any tricks at all.

"They're one of the few teams that think they can really go out there and beat us on a nightly basis," McHale said.

"A lot of teams feel they have to play almost perfect basketball to beat us. The Lakers feel, 'Hey, the Celtics have to play good to beat us .' There are 20 teams in the league who don't have that mentality."

And there are a whole lot of other teams who can't match the Celtic mentality. They play, they talk and they win. Sometimes, all three happen at once.

Before the game at Seattle last Thursday night, Jones pulled Maxwell aside and told him to get his act together. Maxwell was so psyched, he scored 18 points in the first half before getting ejected with two technical fouls.

In very un-Celtic-like fashion, he got his two technicals without saying a word.

Maxwell earned his first technical after he was called for a blocking foul. Maxwell fell to the floor and flopped around on the court, which official Tommy Nunez did not appreciate.

A little later, Maxwell missed a free throw. He slammed the ball off the floor and it ricocheted off the backboard back into his hands. Official Jess Kersey said goodby to Max.

"I plead temporary insanity," Maxwell said.

It's all good clean fun, said Dennis Johnson, who believes the Celtics play better when they're talking back in the newspapers or busy cutting up.

"We laugh about it, but on the far end of it, we're very, very serious about winning," he said. "I guess it's a way of relieving pressure. But you don't psych the good teams. They come back."

Jones also talks, but the funny stuff he says is usually about himself. He can coach, but he sings pretty well, too. Jones likes to front a seven-piece band in the lounge of a Boston hotel.

He said he favors ballads like "San Francisco," "Misty" and "It's Impossible."

Jones described his style: "Not very good."

Jones also said he doesn't let his players hear him sing.

"I don't want to lose their respect," he said.

So what we've got today at the Forum looks like one of your classic NBA matchups: a coach who sings and players who talk against a coach who dresses nice and players who haven't had much to talk about when they've faced the players who talk.

Maybe the Celtics have the right idea. It's all in developing the proper attitude. Jones said there's nothing wrong with his team's attitude, or the Lakers' either.

"They're on top of the league along with us and Philadelphia," he said. "To have that kind of feeling, you have to have a sense of cockiness or confidence about yourself. So when one meets the other, that's the level the game's going to be played on."

Now you're talking.

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