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Celtics Seem to Be Down, Parish Is Out of Game 6

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Times Staff Writer

There are sailboats on the Charles River, sunbathers on the banks enjoying the balmy 60-degree weather, and “I Hate L.A.” T-shirts in the shop windows of the Gaa-den. It’s spring, tra-la, in Celticdom.

But it’s an uneasy one. Somewhere in this favored land, hearts may be light but not in Boston Garden, where Celtics are disappearing like ducks over a waterfall.

Bill Walton played 10 games all season, limped back for the playoffs and is once more “out for a while.” Kevin McHale missed one game of the current series with the Milwaukee Bucks because of an ankle injury, had to be helped off the court after another but is still trucking. Robert Parish, who sprained an ankle during his 30-point, 16-rebound Game 5 Wednesday night, isn’t.

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The Celtics learned Thursday that Parish won’t even make the trip to Milwaukee for Game 6 tonight. The Celtics lead, 3-2, and are still expected to prevail, but what if the Bucks push them to seven? Waiting and resting are the younger, deeper Pistons, with their two platoons of hold-still-Pop-I-want-to-climb-your-back forwards.

What if it’s already too late? The Celtics might have started their stretch drive a little early. Try last November, when Coach K.C. Jones let McHale and Dennis Johnson go 48 minutes in a game. The burden on the Kelly-green ironmen has become a reason for hope in the hinterlands and a cause for alarm, locally.

“I’ve been saying all season, and others have too, that’s it’s got to catch up with them,” Buck Coach Don Nelson said.

Answers the Celtic poet laureate, Bird: “Minutes don’t mean nothing.”

If true, that would be fortunate for the Celtics, whose big guys have all accumulated minutes galore.

On March 1, McHale was leading the NBA in minutes played. Johnson, at 32 the seventh-oldest starter in the league, was No. 6 and Parrish, at 33 the sixth-oldest starter, was No. 7.

Bird trailed only because he’d missed six games with an Achilles tendon injury but his average of 40 minutes a game was high in the league. He went on to become the first NBA player in five years to average 40.

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Whether it was the added burden that got them, the Celtics buckled in the stretch. They were 43-15 on March 1, second best in the NBA. After that, McHale and Johnson were forced out with ankle and shoulder injuries, respectively, and the Celtics lost 9 of 11 on the road. They had to beat the Atlanta Hawks on the last day of the season to hold best record in the East.

So now they’ll have the home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference finals. Assuming they get that far, of course, and that they have anyone left upright.

Growing ever more tired of the subject is the man in charge, Coach K.C. Jones.

“It seems like everyone passes over our injury situation,” he said Thursday after the Celtics practiced--gingerly--in the little gym on the campus of Hellenic College in Brookline.

Of course, says the writer, that’s part of it.

“A part of it?” Jones said. “How can anything else be a bigger part?”

In the beginning, the Celtics planned a bench of Walton, Scott Wedman and Len Bias. Bias, as sure-fire a future star as existed, tragically died two days after the draft. Celtic officials still can be heard saying that’s where it all started.

Wedman had a heel operation in the summer. The writers covering the Celtics were never told of the problem and the club might well have known nothing about it. In training camp, the Celtics learned that Walton was going to be out for a while.

With little advance warning, few moves had been made to reupholster the bench. The prospects who remained seemed to be used grudgingly, especially two who remain well-regarded locally--Fred Roberts and Sam Vincent.

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Roberts, a 6-foot 10-inch bargain-basement free agent from Utah, turned out to be ungainly, if intermittently useful. In his sixth game as a Celtic, he had 23 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists in relief of Bird, who was ejected early in Milwaukee.

But Roberts was only intermittently in the games, too. In one stretch, his minutes went 31-11-1. In another, he went 32-31-25, in which he shot a combined 18 for 23 and scored 40 points. In the next two games, his minutes were 9-2.

Vincent, a 6-2 guard, was the No. 1 draft choice in 1985 and played little as a rookie, in the Celtic tradition. This season, he was still running No. 4, behind No. 3 Jerry Sichting, a better outside shooter, an important plus on the Celtics where Bird and McHale are always getting double teamed.

However, Vincent was still getting consistent minutes until the game in Los Angeles Feb. 15, when the Lakers came from 17 down in the second half. Vincent made a bad pass during the Laker run, after which Jones sent a sub to the scorer’s table. By the time the sub reported in, Vincent had made another bad pass. After that, Vincent pretty much disappeared.

In the playoffs, the whole bench has almost disappeared. The regulars have played 90% of the time in the last two games. The Celtics, long famed for their fast break, have become “opportunity” breakers. They run when it’s there, as opposed to the Lakers, who push the ball up to make it be there. In this series, it’s the Bucks who are pushing the pace.

Suppose, Jones was asked, he had given his young players more time early? Might they be ready now?

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“You’re not making sense,” Jones said.

“Anybody who steps up has to step up a long ways. I could play a lot of people, play our starters 33 minutes and wind up at the bottom of the league.

“Look at other teams. They play their people 33 minutes and where are they? Sitting home, watching.”

There is one other consideration: Celtic starters, rather than complain, have always begged for more time.

“I remember when I was with the Celtics and playing 37-38 minutes a game,” said the new ex-Clipper coach, Don Chaney, a starter on the 1973-74 champions. “And I wanted more.”

If Jones was under any pressure, it was from stars like Bird and McHale, who wanted to stay in. And stay, they did.

“The first thing is, these guys want to win all the games,” said Tom (Satch) Sanders, the defensive stalwart of the Bill Russell era and now with Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sports in Society.

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“I listen to a guy like Bird and I remember Frank Ramsey, Bill Russell, guys who were always grumbling cursing, complaining. They never wanted to lose a game.

“That all means one thing. Bird doesn’t like to come out of games. That’s the Bird we know.”

What else does it mean?

Are the Celtics doomed to follow the last 18 NBA champions who couldn’t repeat?

Are the Lakers, who are deeper, better rested and rolling an overpowering favorite?

“Everybody’s talking about momentum,” Sanders said. “Personally, I believe in seeing. I don’t believe in that destiny crap. I want to see someone come in here and beat them.

“The Celtics aren’t running as much fast break as they’d like to but their half-court game is so much stronger. That’s mostly because of the consistency of Robert Parish. That’s one thing people are overlooking. I have never seen Parish more authoritative on the floor. These aren’t 6-7-8-rebound games.

“Everybody talks about the mighty, powerful fast break. Hey, there’s one thing to remember, a deuce is a deuce, whether you throw it down from your ankles. It may not look as stylish but it counts the same.”

Of course, the Celtics are also famous for rising from what has appeared to be their grave. With Russell, they won their last three championships after failing to win their division title. In the last of the three, they finished fourth in the regular season.

In Boston Garden, Frank Selvy’s shot always bounces out, or Sam Jones’ bounces in, or John Havlicek steals the in-bounds pass, or Gerald Henderson steals James Worthy’s pass in the backcourt, and destiny is once more defied.

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So for the moment, we’ll just say these guys have played a lot of minutes this season and leave it at that.

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