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Up There Where The Air Is Rare

Flying high above the rest of the NBA, old rivals Boston and Philly are on a playoff collision course

A lot of little unlikelihoods have cropped up among the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers this season. First, their two purists became pugilists. Then one of those purists overruled his coach in the last seconds of a close game. That same player, who no one thought could possibly improve, actually has gotten better. A lousy shooter became a good shooter, a good shooter a better shooter and a terrific shooter a reluctant one. And a rookie described the toughest veteran on his team as "ugly"—and got away with it.

All of which should make us more appreciative of how a large likelihood—that the Atlantic Division's two preeminent powers would outstrip everyone else in the NBA—has come about. After Sunday's 113-100 defeat of the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics were 46-12 and seemingly unfazed by a recent spate of injuries that threatened their torrid pace. "Yeah, torrid," says Boston's Kevin McHale, "torrid enough to lead by half a game." Indeed, there were the Sixers, just behind the Celtics with a 45-12 mark. Like a couple of telecommunications satellites, Philly and Boston are in high orbit over' the Atlantic—and the Pacific, for that matter. "They seem," says Chicago Bull forward Orlando Woolridge, "to have moved into their own league."

Each team has done it in its own style. Coach K.C. Jones's Celtics, with their rec-hall looseness, are called the K.C.A.C.

"Hi!" McHale said to a little girl with a Cabbage Patch doll as he boarded a plane recently. "What's her name?"

"Doreen Belinda," the girl replied.

"Did you know," McHale told her, "that if I smash Doreen Belinda's head in, you could get an Official Cabbage Patch Doll Death Certificate?"

Boston has fed off that kind of good-natured ruthlessness all season as it seeks to become the first NBA titlist to repeat in 16 years. Celtic M.L. Carr, who regularly talks trash to opponents, can't understand why his filibusters are objects of scorn around the league. To Carr, "woofing" is nothing more than a matter of, well, "articulating" goals. "We just tell you about it while we do it," Carr says. "It isn't meant negatively. If you tell someone you'll do something, you're challenging yourself to do it."

The Sixers, on the other hand, are so dour and tight-lipped in their mission that coach Billy Cunningham has been called Captain Queeg. "There's no way the Knicks should score that many points off us," scolded Philly's Julius Erving, whose early-season fisticuffs with Boston's Larry Bird have long been forgotten, after the 76ers beat New York 131-129 just after the All-Star break. "This game shows we've got a long way to go."

In their four meetings thus far, Boston and Philadelphia have both won twice: In 16 quarters of competition, the Celts have out-scored the Sixers by a grand total of six points. No wonder the two are in a virtually certifiable Official Cabbage Patch Doll Dead Heat. The winner probably won't be settled until the Eastern Conference finals, where the two teams seem sure to meet.

Of course, the 76ers will win then because they have their pride to recoup. After exiting so ignominiously last season, at the hands of the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the playoffs, Philly, which waltzed to the league title in 1983, will have it in for any team standing in its way. Boston, by contrast, must beat the NBA's champs-don't-repeat jinx.

Then again, the Celts will win, because they have the stronger killer instinct. They're 38-0 in games in which they've led through three quarters. "We strike fear in other teams' hearts," Carr said after a rare Boston loss, a 111-103 stumble at Portland on Feb. 12. "You could see it in their faces tonight when we got within five." Philadelphia, on the other hand, is more likely to lose late leads and games it shouldn't—like those home-and-home losses to Cleveland within 67 hours in mid-February.

The Sixers will win because Cunningham uses 10 men, while the Celtics' second six—everyone but the starters plus McHale—don't carry their weight. Why, for instance, did Boston's lesser half play only 11 minutes and not score in a 108-97 beating of the Knicks on Jan. 7? Could it have been out of fear of New York centers Ron Cavenall and James Bailey? If the 76ers, as Pat Williams, their general manager, says, are "one ligament away from mediocrity," the Celtics are even more vulnerable to injuries like the ones that sidelined starters Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish last week. Parish missed only two games with a turned left ankle, but Maxwell, the 6'8" forward who sparked Boston's seventh-game victory over the Lakers in the NBA finals last spring, is out for a month after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

The Celts will win because they've finally settled on a regular backcourt pairing. With the trade of starter Gerald Henderson to Seattle during the preseason, Boston unburdened Danny Ainge of the pressure to prove himself while coming off the bench. Ainge, for his part, voluntarily indentured himself to a couple of summer leagues and has become what he never was, not even as a Toronto Blue Jay—someone who hits for average. A lifetime .462 marksman coming into this season, he's now shooting .545. "When defenses go down to double on us big guys," says the 6'10" McHale, "Danny sticks the heck out of that jumper."

The Sixers will win because they have a better third guard and a real backup center. Henderson's departure may have given Ainge peace of mind, but it also robbed Boston of its only source of raw speed. Neither of the Celtics' backcourt substitutes, Quinn Buckner and Carlos Clark, has proved to be a match for Sixer sub Clint Richardson, who scored 15 in the teams' most recent meeting, a 122-104 Philly runaway on Jan. 30. Similarly, McHale is most effective playing forward alongside Parish, the center whom he must also back up. The 76ers have two players—forward Bobby Jones and center Clemon Johnson, who's temporarily laid up with a sciatic-nerve problem—who specialize at one or the other of the two jobs McHale must do.

The Celts will win because they've developed a mental edge. "They've avoided that insidious disease of championshipitis," says Williams, whose Sixers suffered a terminal case last season. Over the long haul, that could make the difference in the divisional race. And by winning the Atlantic, the Celtics would not only secure the home-court edge in the playoffs but also get the better seeding in what promises to be a gruesome Eastern Conference playoff, where the Celts, in the Milwaukee Bucks, and the 76ers, in the Nets, have historical nemeses. At the moment, the team finishing with the best conference record would get Atlanta as a first-round opponent; the divisional runner-up—and third seed behind the Central Division winner—would draw Washington, New Jersey or Chicago, all tougher customers than the Hawks.

The Sixers will win because they play the best pressure defense in the league, and they apply it where Boston is weakest, on the backline. While pressing upcourt or doubling down when the ball goes into the post, the Sixers' guards, led by Maurice Cheeks, cause all sorts of mischief. Case in point: At Washington on Jan. 13 the 76ers were down 91-75 with 13 minutes left when they decided to D it up. Andrew Toney rang up nine points and Malone grabbed seven rebounds in the fourth quarter, and the Sixers held the Bullets to 3-for-23 shooting in the quarter en route to a 115-104 victory. Cheeks, who's sinking a career-high 57.5% of his shots, had 25 points in that game and keyed the defense that has given the Sixers a league-best 21-8 road record.

The Celts will win because they're the Celtics. Their coach has as many championship rings as he does fingers.

The Sixers will win because their center feasts on Boston. Injuries dogged Malone last season, but now he's back in MVP form, averaging 25.5 points and 13.1 rebounds. He has been particularly imposing against the Celtics (28.8 and 15.8). Meanwhile, Parish perishes against Philly, scoring six points fewer than his 17.3 season average. On Jan. 30, Malone drew nine fouls from Parish and McHale, went 16 for 16 from the line and finished with 38 points and 24 rebounds. "Moses is healthy this season," Cunningham says. "It's as simple as that."

The Celts will win because Red Auerbach will make some great, late personnel addition—like acquiring free-agent guard Ray Williams, who signed an offer sheet with Boston late last week. As usual, there'll be initial skepticism at the move; as usual, Red will look clairvoyant when it's all over.

The Sixers will win because the Celtics' delicate chemistry will suffer from trying to integrate a volatile element like Williams at such a late date. And what is Boston's pursuit of Williams if not an admission that management doesn't feel it has a solid third guard?

The Celts will win because they have Bird, who along with Malone is the current MVP favorite. He threw in back-to-back buzzer beaters in late January, one after brushing aside the chalkboard on which Jones was designing a play that would have set up the last shot for Maxwell. It's passé to describe Bird's play—he's averaging a team-leading 27.9 points, 10.4 rebounds a game and a league-leading 45.7% from three-point range—as merely "great"; praise for him now comes in terms of the surreal. "He's so damn good he's making a farce of the game," says San Antonio assistant Scotty Robertson. Add Lil' Davey B. and the Space Kadettes in their recent release Bird Rap: "Larry, Larry Bird (Larry Bird)/His game is so well-rounded it is almost absurd."

The Sixers will win because they have Toney, the 6'3" guard. Since 1982, when he shot them down in the teams' last playoff meeting, the Celtics haven't shown they can stop the Boston Strangler. The key is that Toney not stop himself. In the Sixers' 113-97 loss at Boston Garden on Jan. 20, Toney attempted only one field goal in the second half, leaving the Sixers' coaching staff too puzzled to be angry. "I didn't want to take a bad shot," explained Toney afterward. In a scrimmage at the following day's practice, Toney took 12 shots, buried eight of them and watched Malone and Charles Barkley trash-compact three of the four he missed.

The Celts will win because they'll finally face the Sixers in a playoff with 6'4" guard Dennis Johnson, the defensive specialist they acquired from Phoenix in June of 1983. He put the clamps on Magic Johnson in last spring's finals, and when he's not busy containing Toney, he's hitting 46.3% of his shots—up from last season's 43.7%. "He makes that team," says Williams. "They couldn't play with us without that trade."

The Sixers will win because Barkley, the Round Mound of Rebound, solves their chronic problem of productivity at power forward. As soon as Barkley proved himself as a sub, management sent the incumbent starter at that position, Marc Iavaroni, to San Antonio. "He's plugged our gap," Williams says, "like the Dutch boy at the dike."

Of all these factors, Barkley is the most crucial. He's one of the reasons the 76ers have outrebounded the Celtics by nine a game in the teams' head-to-head play this year and have mined the offensive glass for an average of 17.3 rebounds in those outings. He neutralizes McHale's usual effectiveness in tandem with Parish. And he has no fear. "Having Moses around means there's someone uglier than me on the team," says Barkley, who had a pretty 29 points—a career high—and 18 rebounds in a 110-99 victory over Detroit last Friday.

Yet if he plays poorly, the Celtics are stronger. Maxwell has shown an aptitude for toasting Barkley in the post, goading him into foolish fouls and forcing Cunningham to lose patience and yank him. When the Mound sits, he not only tends to pout, thus rendering him less effective when he goes back in, but he also lets Bird off the hook defensively. "When he's in I've got to play him," Bird says. "I can't help out or double-team." Or cheat toward the offensive end.

If he's aware of his pivotal role in his sport's best rivalry, the Mound hasn't let on. He declines to speak to the press after he plays poorly, reasoning that he hasn't done anything to merit attention. He withdrew from the Slam-Dunk contest at the All-Star festivities, preferring to repair to Leeds, Ala. to nurse a bout of homesickness and patch things up with a hometown honey. But in a game last week against Golden State, Barkley gave new meaning to the phrase "setting a standard" with a dunking display of his own. After stealing a pass from Sleepy Floyd and sailing in for the slam, he hung on the rim to avoid flattening Floyd. The force of the dunk was so great that it moved the entire standard holding up the backboard—all 2,240 pounds of it—about six inches. The game was held up for 23 minutes while the support was put back into position. Talk about having a ton of fun....

In fact, Barkley is more likely to hang out in such exciting places as the pastry section of an Acme in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Upon encountering him there recently one night, wedging a box of cookies under his arm, someone recommended a delicacy called a Tunnel of Fudge.

"Oh, I don't touch chocolate," quoth the Mound, reaching for another box of vanilla cookies. "Gotta watch my weight."

Barkley reported to camp at 283 pounds. "He found out what it means to weigh that much and have to run up and down the floor every night," says Al Domenico, the Sixers' trainer. "He's down to 253. A player only comes in really overweight once—as a rookie. I guarantee you he'll never arrive at that weight again."

Philadelphia's weighty concern over the Mound's pounds can be traced to the back ailments that plagued him at Auburn. Thus far, however, Barkley's only infirmity has come in training camp. It was an appropriately Pantagruelian malady: an infectious boil in his armpit that had to be lanced, forcing him to forswear deodorant for a week.

What, then, will happen when we get a whiff of spring and the playoffs are nigh? "It seems like we're on a head-on collision course," Dennis Johnson says. "It's what everybody would like to see."

But what will we see?

Count 'em up: eight arguments in Philly's favor, seven in Boston's. But count, too, on one more unlikelihood. The Celts in seven.



When Malone is on a roll—he scored 38 vs. the Celtics here—he can even rock Parish.