Brace yourselves, fans, but Celtics may be better without Bird

April 23, 1992|By Dan Shaughnessy | Dan Shaughnessy,Boston Globe

BOSTON -- I speak of the unspeakable.

The NBA playoffs start tonight and Larry Bird probably won't play. Prepared to be buried in a compost heap by the loyalists of the Celtic Nation, I wonder if Bird's potential absence might be an asset at this particular time.

Better without Larry? It is preposterous. Would The Doors have been better without Jim Morrison? Would the swimsuit issue be better without Kathy Ireland? Would the Union Oyster House be better if they took clam chowder off the menu?

I pose the question to coach Chris Ford. Are the Boston Celtics better with or without Larry Bird?

"What am I, an imbecile?" Ford exhales. "Ask his teammates if they'd rather play with him or without any leadership. He may give some on defense, but he's still a great 'help' defensive player."

At no time in the last 13 years would this question need to be asked. Bird has been the pillar of Boston's fabled franchise since he first set foot in Camp Milbrook in August 1979. But now the Celtics are winning without him and they are about to start the playoffs. Bird hasn't played in games or practiced with the team in three weeks and can't possibly be in game shape. He's unlikely to start tonight's game (we've typed this before and been proven dead wrong), but there's a silent school of thought that the Celtics at this hour might be better without him.

Trying not to swallow his cigar at the mere suggestion, Red Auerbach says, "Don't let anyone kid you. Larry is still Larry. If he comes in, it's just a big plus.

"It's like if you're coaching a game and you're behind by 20. You put the subs in and they get hot. The refs give you a few breaks and the other team uses their subs. Fans think you've given up, but you start to come back and you cut it to 10, eight, seven points. Now people say, 'Why do you want to put your stars back in? The subs brought you back.' That's bull. It's dumb coaching to give in to that. You go with your best.

"I don't care how you break it down, Larry is still Larry. Always remember that. He makes everybody play better."

It is hardwood sacrilege to suggest the Celtics are better without Bird. But going into tonight's game, the Celtics have won 15 of 16. They have won eight straight, all without Bird. They are running a little. There doesn't seem to be any question that we see the best of Reggie Lewis and Kevin Gamble when Bird is on the shelf. Ed Pinckney also at times seems to flower when Bird's gone. The Celtics this season had two stretches of flypaper defense and both came when Bird was on the mend.

In a rare burst of candor, Ford admits, "In a lot of areas we are better [without Bird], but in some areas we're weaker."

How are you better?

"Probably our transition defense," he says.

Quickly changing the subject, Ford adds, "But at the offensive end, we're better [with Bird] because he passes so well and draws the double team and because of the will he puts out there to win."

More than most teams, the Celtics are able to cope with the uncertainty of Bird's status. The Larry Watch has been part of life around here for the last four years. The Celtics have seen him hop down from the shelf and play as if he'd never been gone. They know that's always a possibility -- that's why there's a reluctance to ever list him as unavailable for any game.

Auerbach says, "As a coach, you've got to plan entirely without him."

CEO Dave Gavitt, like Auerbach a former coach, says, "It's hard any time, but it's not as hard because of who it is. We've had a lot of practice at it now. I think our guys are better equipped to handle it."

Like Celtics players, Ford grows frustrated with the incessant inquiries about a missing person. "I've talked enough about Larry," he says during a postpractice press session. "Let's talk about the guys who are here."

The microphones start to vanish.

"See," says Ford. "As soon as I say no more questions about Larry, everybody leaves."

Somebody asks another question about Bird.

"I don't know," says the coach. "I didn't hold his hand today. I didn't take him to the john . . . I'm outta here."

Bird isn't around to answer questions. He takes a few shots with his teammates early in the day, then stands on the sidelines during the first half of practice. He leaves for therapy before the practice ends.

He wants to play against Indiana. He always wants to play.

Larry Bird in this spring of 1992 is not Willie Mays stumbling around in the 1973 World Series. He might start tonight and score 38 with 17 assists and 21 rebounds. It's never safe to count him out. He is an All-World superstar who this year averaged 20 points, 9.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 45 games. It is folly to suggest any team would be better without his services.

I just had to ask.

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