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Celtics Offer No Excuses for Defeat, but Do Take Aim at Playoff Format

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

If you think Larry Bird was hurting before, with bone chips in his elbow and swelling in his right-index finger, you should have seen him Sunday.

This time, the hurt went much deeper. Right to the heart.

“When you lose, you’re a failure,” the Celtic forward told an army of media personnel that advanced on his locker in seemingly endless waves. “Today, we played like a bunch of guys who failed. It took us over 100 games to get here and we let it slip away. I feel bad for us. The crowd was there; the players were not.

“But what can you say? When you shoot 35% (actually 36.5%), it’s time to lock up the building for the summer.”

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All the Celtic fingers in the Boston locker room were pointing inward Sunday. It was equal parts humility mixed with admiration for the guys in the other locker room. All the talk of the L.A. Fakers, the quiche eaters versus the blue-collar guys and showtime versus the work ethic had dissipated.

Even M.L. Carr got humble. The only thing he was waving after his team lost the championship series was a white flag.

“There are no excuses,” he said. “You could say, how about Cedric Maxwell (who had limited mobility following knee surgery), but they didn’t have Jamaal Wilkes. They deserved to win. I never think we can lose here, but you’ve got to go out and do it.

“With all that has gone back and forth between me and (Laker coach Pat) Riley, I’ve got to give him respect.”

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Could this really be the same M.L. Carr who approached Riley at halftime Sunday and repeatedly shouted obscenities at him until the Laker coach finally asked for a security guard?

The only beef to be found in the Celtic locker room had to do with the NBA’s new 2-3-2 format for the championship series, a format that gives the team with the second-best regular-season record the home court for the middle three games. In the past, the format has been 2-2-1-1-1.

“Next year, if they have a 2-3-2 format, we may lay down and go to sleep,” Bird said. “It’s not to our advantage. If it comes to that, I guarantee I will not be playing (at the end of the regular season). I’ll be resting. We will not worry about having the best record. Let L.A. have the best as long as we have a better record than everybody else.”

His coach isn’t any big fan of the new format either.

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“It favors the team that comes in second,” K.C. Jones said. “They get the home-court advantage. That’s a fact, not an excuse.”

Bird, who hit just 12 of 29 shots from the floor Sunday, placed the major blame for his team’s failure to repeat as NBA champion squarely on his own shoulders.

“I thought I could carry the team today, but I was just out there,” Bird said. “I thought I was ready to play. I thought it was my day. I couldn’t believe the shots would not go in. I took 29 shots and every one that missed, I said to myself, ‘The next one is going in.’ But my shots were just falling short. I didn’t play my game all day long. I’ve been the hero. You’ve got to be the goat sometimes.

“We just didn’t bang and push and do the things we did last year. Last year, we would have done anything. Our hands weren’t like they had been in the past. Balls were slipping through and rolling around.”

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Bird has been plagued with bone chips in his elbow, a sore finger and a sore ankle during the playoffs. But as he has throughout the postseason, he refused to fall back on those ailments after Sunday’s performance.

“My elbow feels great,” he said. “You can’t go back now and say you had a lot of injuries. It feels great.”

Asked if he was planning on seeing a doctor this summer, Bird replied, “Yea, you’re talking about Dr. J. (Julius Erving), aren’t you?”

When he had finished accepting the blame for his failures, Bird began to take some of the blame for those of his teammates.

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Danny Ainge made a crucial turnover in the fourth quarter, with his club down by just five, when he fired a pass that landed untouched on the press table.

“The fault for that was more mine than his,” Bird said. “He saw the back-door play, but I was cutting out. I get on Danny when he doesn’t throw the back door enough.”

In another corner of the of the Celtic locker room sat Kevin McHale. His season ended on the Boston bench where he was banished after fouling out with 5:21 to play, having contributed game-high totals in points (32) and rebounds (16).

“I wished I was in there,” was all he would say.

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Danny Ainge was in there. Sort of. He managed to hit only three of 16 shots from the floor. His backcourt partner, Dennis Johnson, was little better, hitting but 3 of 15 with 5 turnovers and only 4 assists in 43 minutes.

Riley made a lot of defensive switches. Johnson found himself guarded by the other Johnson (Magic), as well as Byron Scott and Michael Cooper. Ainge also saw several different looks from the Los Angeles defense. But even the open shots wouldn’t fall.

“Unfortunately, all three of us, Larry included, went cold,” Ainge said. “That just doesn’t happen. Not very often. It didn’t happen all year. It seemed like there was a lid on the basket.”

Dennis Johnson preferred to speak about the shots that did go in, the shots of series MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who hit 13 of 21 from the floor Sunday and led his club with 29 points.

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“That hook is the most consistent thing ever,” Johnson said. “He’ll throw that thing until he’s 64 . . . maybe 74 years old. It will always be there.

“They played a smart game. They jumped on loose balls. Kareem hit every cutter that went through the lane. You have to give credit to the Lakers.”

Johnson’s coach certainly did.

“They played super,” Jones said. “They came into foreign territory where there was all green and no gold around the court. If you want to say something about the coaching, you’ve got to say something about Pat Riley. He’s been in the finals four years in a row. (Mitch) Kupchak and (Kurt) Rambis hit the boards and got the loose balls. (James) Worthy gave them offense (28 points). But when it got really dirty, they went into . . . um . . . what’s his name, number 33.”

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That, of course, is Abdul-Jabbar, but Bird reserved some of his praise for Kupchak, the back-up center.

“He came in and got points and rebounds,” Bird said. “He added something for them. I didn’t think he could play.” For Bird, the worst minutes were the last two with his team down by 10 and obviously not coming back.

“It’s tough to stay out there,” he said, “when you know you’re going to get beat.

“It’s going be a tough summer. Maybe you need waking up like this sometimes. We are just going to have to come back next year and win so we can go after those back-to-back titles again.”

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One figure not in the locker room was Red Auerbach, team president and the figure who huffed and puffed on his ever-present cigar through all of those years of Celtic championships and all of those Laker tears as coach and then general manager.

On the day when Jack Kent Cooke’s balloons finally came tumbling down, when the Celtics lost a title for the first time ever on their home court, Auerbach quietly sat and talked with Bird for a few minutes. “I can’t say what we talked about,” Bird said. Auerbach then headed upstairs to his office. Reports were mixed on whether or not he had a cigar with him.

For Dennis Johnson, his exit from the locker room will be toward an uncertain future.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” he said. “When I walk out that door, I’m a free agent.

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“I’m going home to Los Angeles. I still live there. I grew up there. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”


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