It had not been a very pleasant road trip for the Celtics. Oh, sure, they had won two games, but they had lost to Kansas City-Omaha, to Seattle and, last Saturday night, to Golden State. By Boston's standard of excellence, that ranks right up there with leaving oysters two days in the sun. Still, if you have won 24 of 28 in enemy arenas, as the Celtics had before this trip, you have to expect that ill fortune will catch up with you somewhere along the line. No matter. The slick green machine was merely allowing the law of averages to have its way for a while before resuming what Boston does best, running the rest of the league dizzy.
"Suddenly, we are out of sync," said Tom Heinsohn, the Boston coach, before the young SuperSonics zapped his defending champions, 121-95. "When we are playing as well as we can, nobody can beat us. But when we aren't, any team in this league can beat us. If just one guy gets out of sync, we're in trouble."
Against Seattle, the Celtics at first looked as though they had their gearbox back in order. The fast break, both pell-mell and precise, was there, swift and numbing. Stunned by Boston's speed, the Sonics spun like pedestrians trapped in five o'clock traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. Nineteen seconds into the second quarter Boston led by 16 points. Twenty-nine minutes and 42 seconds later Boston was behind by 34.
"I made two mistakes," said Heinsohn, confessing that he had relaxed too early. Facing disaster, Seattle Coach Bill Russell had gone to a lineup of four rookies and Slick Watts, a bald second-year guard with no great reputation as a shooter.
"I figured it was over," said Heinsohn, "and so I started to substitute. That was my first mistake. Our starters weren't tired. I should have let them go. Then Seattle ran off 12 straight points before I finally called a time-out. That was my second mistake. After that, they played like us and we played like them."
Basketball can be a game of momentum, and when the SuperSonics turned the tempo around they rode it until the final play. Tommy Burleson, their 7'2½" rookie who is going to be a fine center because he wants to play, finished with a career high of 28 points. Watts, who had been averaging five points a game, had a career high of 23.
"Who's their third guard?" Heinsohn had asked before the game.
"Rod Derline," someone said.
A 6'4" rookie out of Seattle University and a fine outside shooter, Derline scored 20, his career high. He had been averaging five.
"I learned a few things from this game," said Heinsohn. "One of them was the book on Derline."
Three nights later the Celtics were down in Oakland trying to regroup against the leaders of the Pacific Division whom Boston might meet in the playoffs. The Warriors had had some trouble, losing 13 of 19 games over one stretch. They are another mostly young club, plus Rick Barry, and just before the Celtics arrived in town they had gotten back in stride, winning three of their last four.
Before the game, the Celtics still felt the defeat by Seattle and were restless. "A game like that brings you back to reality," said Paul Silas, the latest to play as Boston's sixth man. "In Seattle we got smoked. A game like that is good for us. It shows that we aren't the greatest team ever. Each time we lose a game we can't wait to play the next one. And usually we blow somebody out."
Historically, Boston's sixth man is the team's second-best forward. Frank Ramsey was the first of the line in the mid-1950s. He was followed in the role by John Havlicek. Then came Don Nelson, and now Silas.
"The sixth man has to be so stable a player that he can either instantly pick up a tempo or reverse it," says Heinsohn. "He has to be able to go in and have an immediate dynamic impact. With Ramsey and Havlicek it was easy to see. They went in as shooters. Ramsey would go in and get off five shots in 20 seconds. Nelson would do a job on the board and hit a few hoops. Now Silas takes over with his defense and his rebounds. It's a tough thing. The sixth man has to have the unique ability to be in a ball game while he is sitting on the bench."
For Silas, the assignment was hard to take at first. He came from Phoenix in 1972, in exchange for the rights to Charlie Scott, and the 6'7", 215-pound forward had not only been a starter but an all-star as well. And now he was going to be a substitute?
"The thought of moving to that weather in Boston didn't thrill me, either," says Silas. "And I had heard about the Celtic traditions, the Celtic pride. To be truthful, I thought it was a lot of nonsense. But when I arrived it was amazing. It's almost like a collegiate atmosphere in a pro world—an atmosphere of total sacrifice for the good of the team, on and off the court. It's a way of life. You just fall into it."
Through last Saturday Boston led the Atlantic Division with a record of 41 and 18, second-best in the NBA. Yet not one Celtic is among the top five in rebounds, assists or steals. And you have to go far down the list of scorers before you'll find Havlicek, the Celtics' top point maker. Everybody scores, everybody rebounds, everybody steals, everybody has assists.
"Everybody has a role," says Silas. "Mine is to come in off the bench and rebound and play defense. You sacrifice personal glory for the team. Winning is what it is all about and whatever sacrifice it takes, a Celtic is willing. Some teams count on one or two men. We always count on eight or nine or 10 to get the job done. And when that many are coming at you it is tough to handle."
"The first thing you learn as a Celtic is that you're not going to play very much," says Paul Westphal, the third-year guard out of USC. He was Boston's No. 1 draft pick in 1972 and is one of six first-round draft choices among Boston's top eight players. Add Heinsohn, who was drafted No. 1 out of Holy Cross in 1956, and you have a pretty good measure of the genius of general manager and former coach Red Auerbach over the past 2½ decades.
"Of course, when I came here I thought I would be the exception," Westphal admits. "Like I felt I was ready to play before they let me. But you look at the guys ahead of you and you know they went through the same thing. Heinsohn has a hard job because he has so many guys who can play."
In their roles as the sixth and seventh men, Silas and Westphal have turned more than a few games around after being sprung from the bench. Silas, who replaces 34-year-old Don Nelson, is playing just under 32 minutes a game and has been devastating on defense while averaging 12.6 rebounds, second only to Center Dave Cowens in that category. He has scored an average of 10.4 points a game as well.
Playing just under 20 minutes a game, Westphal, the best one-on-one Celtic, has been replacing Don Chaney, the brilliant defensive guard who plans on moving over to the ABA next season. Westphal is averaging close to 10 points.
"Chaney is the perfect example of Celtic unselfishness," says Westphal. "His job is defense and rebounding. But he likes to score. Yet, I don't think he's had his play called for him once since I've been here. And he's never complained. I think when he goes to St. Louis he'll show he's a good offensive player. And that Nelson—he'll go on forever. I think he'll outlast Havlicek because he doesn't have any ability to lose. He gets by on brains. Until he gets senile, he'll be playing."
And so the Celtics got ready to face the Warriors. As expected, Heinsohn started Nelson and Havlicek at forwards, Cowens at center, with Chaney and Jo Jo White, the man who makes it all work, the guards. This time the Celtics were able to stop nearly everyone except Rick Barry and the officials, who made some unpopular calls against the Warriors early and thereafter appeared to be intimidated by the raging sellout crowd. After one call a few missiles were fired from the stands. A potato missed the Boston bench and landed in the working area of Johnny Most, who was broadcasting the game back to Boston.
"What kind of nut would bring a potato to a game?" said Most. "A nut who was planning on throwing it, that's who."
With Barry throwing up everything but his socks, the lead seesawed until the final minutes when the Celtics discovered that not only were they coming up short in foul-shot chances, they were barely getting any at all. The Celtics had just one free throw in the final 12 minutes.
At the end it was the Warriors by 114-108, and Barry finished with 42 points. For the Celtics, it was their second straight loss and they headed south for the final game of the trip against Los Angeles, not unaware of the fact that not since the 1971-72 season had a Boston team lost three in a row.
"The ability to be in a ball game while sitting on the bench" is shared by Westphal and Silas.
Nelson, says a teammate, will play forever.