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Celtics a Solid Favorite to Win a 16th Banner

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The National Basketball Assn.'s 40th championship series begins today and it seems to be one that has just about everything in it. Except, of course, the Lakers.

You’ve got the Boston Celtics, naturally, but this time, instead of the Lakers defending their crown, the Houston Rockets are here in their place representing the Western Conference, trying for their second huge playoff upset and their first NBA championship.

At the same time, the Celtics are looking for their 16th NBA title.

Is this a fair matchup? Probably not. So when the Celtics and Rockets tip off today in Boston Garden, there isn’t any question about which team is going to be favored, is there?

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For the first time in recent NBA history, the championship series has a prohibitive favorite. The Celtics are odds-on, 1-4 favorites to beat the Rockets in the series and an overwhelming nine-point favorite in Game 1.

No one is giving the Rockets much of a chance, except the Rockets themselves.

“The Rockets could pose a few problems,” said former Celtic great Dave Cowens. “But they have to beat what is probably the greatest basketball team ever assembled.”

Of course, to the Rockets, this sounds very much like what they heard before they played the Lakers, just before Akeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson and the rest of the unheralded bunch dispatched the Lakers in a brutally swift five-game series.

If the Rockets have proven anything so far, it is that they are not easily distracted by the visions of greatness being placed directly in their eyesight.

Maybe it’s because of the ease in which they blew the Lakers out of the playoffs, or perhaps it’s because they don’t know any better, but the Rockets don’t act very scared.

“Now, we’ve got the experience,” Rocket guard Lewis Lloyd said. “When we’re running, it’s hard to beat this Houston team.

“Overall, I know our backcourt is better than theirs,” Lloyd said. “We’re 6-8 (Robert Reid) and 6-6 (Lloyd). They’re 6-4 and 6-4 (Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge). We’ve got the height advantage and (are) just as quick.”

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Meanwhile, the Celtics are saying only nice things about the Rockets.

“It’s going to be a real challenge playing against those guys,” Celtic forward Kevin McHale said.

Said center Bill Walton: “Ralph is playing great basketball.”

This material is hardly headed for Rocket Coach Bill Fitch’s bulletin board. Fitch, in fact, happens to be one of the more intriguing stories in this series.

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Fitch is a former Celtic coach and he won an NBA title in Boston in 1981 against the Rockets. Two seasons later, Red Auerbach pushed Fitch out the door when he was judged to be too strict and too much of a disciplinarian and wound up in Houston.

Then came Sampson, to be followed by Olajuwon. Now, Fitch is back again.

Robert Reid was a member of the Rocket finalist team in 1981 and he believes Fitch has changed a great deal. Now, Fitch is even more straight than before, Reid said.

“His wardrobe sure has changed,” Reid said. “Now he’s a conservative dresser. In that 1981 series, I looked at his flashy clothes and long hair and said ‘Where did he come from? Straight from the golf course?’ ”

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Fitch is looking good now that he has come back with the Rockets, who are playing the underdog all the way.

Nobody expects the Rockets to win the championship this season and not just because they’re playing the Celtics and Larry Bird, either. Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics can match up with the Rockets on the front line, where Bird, McHale, Robert Parish and Walton compare favorbly with Olajuwon, Sampson, Rodney McCray and Jim Petersen.

There is also a matter of emotion that the Rockets must deal with. Fresh off their stunning upset of the Lakers, the Rockets are confronted once again with the chore of summoning up the kind of emotional play they showed against the Lakers.

As Laker Coach Pat Riley said: “They have to avoid thinking they just won the championship by beating us.”

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Can the Rockets do it? Maybe not, but their fans certainly think so.

When the Rockets arrived in Houston the morning after eliminating the Lakers in Game 5, more than 3,500 fans showed up at Houston Intercontinental Airport for an impromptu parade and victory celebration.

The Rocket players rode through the crowd on electric carts, basking in the cheers.

“The only thing I could compare it to is being born,” Rocket guard Craig Ehlo said.

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The Rockets ought to know it’s all downhill from there.

NBA Notes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continues to get it from all sides. First, Wilt Chamberlain took a verbal pot-shot at him, now Elvin Hayes is doing it. “Akeem (Olajuwon) made Kareem look 49 instead of 39,” Hayes said. “I think Kareem has stayed too long.” . . . Celtic forward Scott Wedman, who has two fractured ribs, isn’t expected to be ready to play until Game 3 at the earliest. To compensate for the loss of Wedman, Larry Bird’s playing time is supposed to increase. Bird is already averaging 42 minutes a game so far in the playoffs. The Celtics also announced that Wedman, 33, has agreed to a new, multi-year contract. . . . The only active Celtics remaining from the 1981 team that defeated the Rockets are Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge. The only Rockets left are Robert Reid and Allen Leavell. . . . Celtic Coach K.C. Jones has decided on his opening defensive matchups: Bird on Rodney McCray, McHale on Ralph Sampson, Parish on Olajuwon, Ainge on Reid and Dennis Johnson on Lewis Lloyd.


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