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Celtics Still Struggling Without Bird

<i> The Washington Post</i>

He hangs over them like a sword of Damocles, is the unspoken subject of every question asked of them. They are tired of the interrogatories, but know they are little more than a mediocre team without him, one that hasn’t been able to stifle the Washington Bullets’ playoff dreams.

The Boston Celtics have played almost all season without Larry Bird and, despite a 11-4 record since trading Danny Ainge and Brad Lohaus to Sacramento for Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine Feb. 23, are 35-32 and clinging to the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But their demeanor doesn’t permit them to think there’s any chance they won’t make the playoffs. And if Bird comes back? If Bird comes back . . .

The word on Bird is this: The forward hasn’t practiced since March 9. That week, he participated in consecutive practices for the first time since surgery on both heels. But one small area on his right heel still wasn’t better, Bird said. There was swelling. He hasn’t picked up a ball in a formal workout since.

And that’s where it stands, although he was supposed to return to an exercise rehabilitation program this week. Time is growing short if Boston is going to have him for any of its remaining regular season games, much less the playoffs.

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“My crystal ball is not in shape right now, so I can’t predict where we’re going to be at any particular time, but I do know, at this juncture, he’s not ready to go,” said Boston General Manager Jan Volk. “And there’s no indication at this point that we, at a particular point in time, will know that.”

Volk said Boston might put Bird on the playoff roster even if he isn’t completely healthy.

“It would depend on what he was looking like,” Volk said. “If we were encouraged by what we saw, if we saw there was hope that he would be back soon, I think we would want . . . We would certainly want to consider that because if we proceed in the playoffs it would certainly be nice to have him.”

“This is our team right now,” said Boston Coach Jimmy Rodgers. “Without Larry included. When and if he does (return), I look at it as frosting on the cake, and he’ll be nothing but a positive.”

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In the interim, center Robert Parish is averaging 18.7 points and 12.7 rebounds, while Kevin McHale’s scoring average is 22.3, about the same as last season. Second-year forward Reggie Lewis has averaged better than 17 points a game in Bird’s position, and said if Bird comes back, the adjustment will be minimal, even though it would mean going back to off guard full time.

“It really doesn’t change anything,” he said. “The only adjustment would be that I’ll handle the ball more. I’ll still get the same shots I usually get, because of the way our offense is designed-it’s designed for the two and three (big guard and small forward).”

“We know Reggie’s a big-time player,” Volk said. “Another bonus may be a minus, I’m not sure. And that is the deal we made for Danny Ainge may have been clearer to us with Larry not being here. We may not have done this deal had Larry been here and we had a record that was more commensurate with what our expectation was.”

The trade helped to alleviate Boston’s biggest problem, namely that the 35-year-old Parish and McHale, 31, were again getting dangerously close to the 40-minute mark per game this season. Enter Pinckney and Kleine, two bruisers from Sacramento, who have reduced the other front-court players’ minutes, even though McHale and Parish each have played more than 300 minutes more than the next Celtic, Lewis.

The Celtics can field a beefy lineup of the 6-foot-9 Pinckney, the 6-11, 260-pound Kleine, and either McHale or Parish. What that means, of course, is one or the other gets rest time.

“Ed and Joe have played very well,” McHale said. “We’ve got to continue to play better. We’ve had our problems, especially on the road (where Boston is an abysmal 8-24). We let teams dictate what we want to do.

“Of course, there are adjustments. If you picked up your family and moved to Atlanta, wouldn’t you have adjustments? It’s the same damn thing. Life is life. Basketball is basketball.”

Said Rodgers: “We wanted to find a way to get Robert and Kevin some legitimate time throughout the course of 48 minutes, some rest minutes. We had to give up an excellent player in Danny and a good young player in Brad Lohaus, but we were able to find two quality guys who still have experience.”

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Whether Pinckney and Kleine ever start for Boston remains to be seen, Rodgers said. “You start talking replacement, you’re talking nar future, and we’re not nearly in that position yet,” he said. “Guys like Kevin and Robert we plan to have around for some time to come.”

The new Celtics, especially Kelvin Upshaw, now on his second 10-day contract, give Boston quickness it hasn’t had in a long time. But Upshaw, late of the Miami Heat, goes out of control at times, undoing the good he often creates. Rookie Brian Shaw has had an up-and-down season and Dennis Johnson’s average has plummeted to nine points a game.

Down the stretch against the Bucks Tuesday, Boston didn’t look tired. The Celtics just couldn’t click, missing nine of their final 12 shots, including layups by McHale and Upshaw, and turning over the ball three times.

And the Celtics still haven’t been three games over .500 this season.

“You lose a player like Larry,” said Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncreif, “who can do so many things, it limits what you can do offensively. You don’t have that additional player who can get that big rebound. You have to change your style of play.”

“With all of the things that have happened this season,” said Rodgers, “we’re still in a position to make the playoffs and, hopefully, by that time, we’ll really be solid. I think we are definitely going in the right direction.”

“Where there’s hope,” Volk said, “there’s life.”


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