A Not So Chipper MVP : Larry Bird Insists His Elbow Injury Isn’t to Blame for His Slump, but Celtic Coaches Fear Otherwise
On the day Boston forward Larry Bird was honored for the second consecutive season as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, he continued to dodge questions about an issue that he claims isn’t one.
The bone chips of contention are the ones floating around in his right elbow. He said again on Monday that the injury hasn’t affected his shooting, which has gone from bad to worse in the last three weeks.
Veteran Bird watchers say otherwise.
So do his statistics.
Bird was an overwhelming choice for the MVP trophy, having led the Celtics to a league-best 63-19 record while shooting .522 from the field and averaging 28.7 points during the regular season.
But in the playoffs, he has been a Bird of a different feather.
The only time he openly complained about pain in the elbow was before Game 3 of the opening playoff series against Cleveland. He took that night off, then returned the next game to score 34 points.
In 14 games since then, he has taken 294 shots and made 129 for a .438 percentage.
He didn’t score a field goal in the last 18 minutes of the Celtics’ 136-111 loss to the Lakers in Game 3 of the NBA championship series Sunday at the Forum.
Yet, he insists that the only times he has felt pain since the game he missed are when reporters ask him about the injury. That pain, he indicated, is not in the elbow.
“It locked up on me in Cleveland,” he said of the injury. “But two or three days later, it felt better.
“It’s always stiff. But the question is how much extension I can get. If I can only get 70% to 80%, I’m in trouble. But if I can get 90% extension, it doesn’t bother me. The last couple of weeks, it’s felt really good. It hasn’t bothered me at all.”
To make his case, Bird said he has been shooting well during practices, in which he often takes as many as 300 shots.
“I just haven’t been shooting well in games,” he said. “Everyone says the elbow is the reason, but that’s not the reason. I live and die with my outside shot. In the last three or four games, I’ve been dying with it.”
That’s no excuse, which is the reason Bird offers it.
But even though Bird doesn’t ask for the benefit of the doubt, his coach, K.C. Jones, gives it to him.
“Sure, it’s the bone chips in the elbow and everything else that’s affecting his shooting,” Jones said, pointing out that Bird also has a jammed index finger on his right hand and a sore ankle.
“I know the rhythm of his shot. I know it’s not there. But when I ask him about it, he says the shots just aren’t falling. I say OK. What else can I say?
“He won’t complain because he would see that as a sign of weakness.”
Asked if he has a solution, Jones said, “I’ve fired myself as the shooting coach.”
The Boston assistant coach who knows the most about shooting because he did it so often as a player, Chris Ford, said Bird’s shots are noticeably different than they were during the regular season.
“Anybody who knows anything about shooting can detect it,” he said.
Boston guard Dennis Johnson told Bird at halftime Sunday that he appeared to be flipping the ball toward the basket instead of extending his arm fully and following through.
If that’s the case, it would indicate that Bird is relying more on his wrist in shooting and, thus, avoiding pressure on the elbow.
Another reason to believe Bird is favoring the right elbow is that he’s taking more shots than usual with his left hand, particularly short hooks and layups. No one in Boston has seen as much junk thrown since Luis Tiant pitched for the Red Sox.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Bird has been ineffective as a scorer. Like Tiant’s, Bird’s junk isn’t bad. Even though he made only 17 of 42 shots in the last two games against the Lakers, he had 50 points. For the first three games of the championship series, he’s averaging 19.6 points.
But considering that the Celtics are accustomed to getting almost 10 more points a game from him, they’ve had difficulty making up the difference.
Perhaps more disturbing to Bird is that he hasn’t been able to compensate for his poor shooting with the other outstanding areas of his game, rebounding and passing.
In last year’s championship series against the Lakers, Bird averaged 14 rebounds. In three games this year, he has averaged 8.3. He had only seven rebounds and three assists Sunday.
None of this has altered the Lakers’ view of Bird. Resisting the temptation to relax defensively, they continue to give him the respect that the game’s best outside shooter deserves.
“We tell the guys guarding him that they can back off, but not so far that they can’t get back to him as soon as he gets the ball,” Laker assistant coach Dave Wohl said.
“If he starts getting open shots and hitting them, his confidence will return. We don’t want him to see the light until his first pickup game of the summer.”
That might not be too soon if surgery is required on Bird’s elbow. Boston’s team doctor, Thomas Silva, originally diagnosed the injury as bursitis. But after Bird sought a second opinion, X-rays revealed the bone chips.
If possible, Bird would prefer to avoid an operation.
“That’ll take 10 or 12 weeks of my summertime to recuperate,” he said. “I want to keep improving my game. If I lay around, I won’t improve.”
Asked if he’s the NBA’s best player, Larry Bird once said, “If I was picking a team, I don’t know if I’d take a slow white boy who can’t jump first, but I’d have me in there somewhere.” Asked the same question Monday, after winning his second straight MVP award, Bird was noncommittal. Not so Celtic president Red Auerbach. “There’s no doubt about it,” Auerbach said. “All year long, he’s proved it.”
Noting that Bird is the first non-center to win back-to-back MVP awards, Auerbach said: “To win the MVP from the forward position is much more difficult than from the center and guard positions.” Asked if the other players who have won consecutive MVP awards, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone, were as valuable as Bird, Auerbach chose only to compare him to Russell and Chamberlain. “I can say Russell,” he said. “I leave the other guy out.” Chamberlain will have a chance to respond during Game 4 Wednesday night, when he is a guest commentator for CBS.
Bird received 763 of a possible 780 points in MVP voting, including 73 of 78 first-place votes. Magic Johnson was second with 264 points, followed by Malone with 218. Abdul-Jabbar was fourth with 206.