It was so easy then. Larry Bird came down the court with just a few options in his head—all good ones. Maybe he played the two-man game with Robert Parish. Or maybe he threw the ball inside to Kevin McHale and watched him spin and pivot and fake opponents off their feet. Or maybe for a split second he made eye contact with Dennis Johnson, and—sure enough—DJ found him, just as he peeked around a pick, with a perfectly thrown pass that nobody else in the building even knew was coming. Or maybe Bird set up on the right block with his back to the basket and, like Prospero on his little island, wove spells—a behind-the-back pass to a cutter, a blind bullet to Danny Ainge in the opposite corner, a head fake, a shoulder dip, a baseline jumper, a lefthanded hook, whatever. He had no idea what it would be until he did it.
But it's not so easy anymore. As of Dec. 7, Bird's age will match his jersey number (33). He has been injured, and so have his teammates; one of them, Ainge, isn't even around anymore, having been traded to Sacramento.
Bird thinks the old magic can still work, but everyone is telling him it can't. He is heading for the Hall of Fame someday, although that doesn't mean he has the game figured out.
"Right now I'm struggling," says Bird, referring both to his shooting touch and to Boston's sometimes awkward attempts to learn a more diversified offensive system installed by coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Everything's new, everything's different. I've got to admit I'm not comfortable."
The Celtics closed last week with two victories to get to 9-7, only the seventh best record in the Eastern Conference. A quick glance at the box scores from those games suggests a Bird in his prime rather than a 10-year veteran returning to the lineup after major surgery on both heels. He had 29 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in a 118-95 rout of New Jersey on Nov. 29 at Brendan Byrne Arena, and on Friday night he had 29 points, nine boards and five assists in a 102-89 victory over Cleveland at Boston Garden. But those games were not the best tests. The Nets are a truly horrible team, and the Cavs are a truly decimated one, with All-Stars Larry Nance, Mark Price and Brad Daugherty out with injuries.
There is no doubt that the Celtics, Bird included, will have to get better if they are to be anything more than a splotch of green paint in the title picture.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The theorizing around Boston in the preseason went like this: If Bird was fully recovered from the surgery he underwent on Nov. 19, 1988, there was no reason why the Celtics, 42-40 last season, should not be one of the NBA's strongest teams again.
So, first things first: Has Bird, who is playing almost 37 minutes a game, fully recovered? "Absolutely," he says. "No pain, nothing I can't do." The Celtics medical staff concurs, and trainer Ed Lacerte doesn't even bother with the 45-minute pregame icing treatment he gave Bird's ankles in seasons past. Even Dan Dyrek, a physical therapist who is a close friend of Bird's and who tends to take a conservative position on injuries, is positive about Bird's recovery.
"Larry's ankles and feet, that whole area, are stronger than they've ever been," says Dyrek. "What he's doing now is just putting the shine and polish back on his game."
Let's say that Bird is back almost 100%. Does that mean the Celtics are?
No. Because even when Bird's shine-and-polish process is complete, one roadblock stands in the Celtics' path: a possible conflict between Bird and Rodgers over how the offense is to function.
In retrospect, it might have been easier on the Beantown faithful if Bird and the Celts had not gotten off to such a hope-inducing start. He scored 32 points in a season-opening win over Milwaukee, and the next night he beat Chicago with a late jumper, his 26th and 27th points of the game. In the fifth game of the season, a 117-106 win over Atlanta at Boston Garden, he scored 50 points, after which Hawk guard Doc Rivers said, "He's as good as he ever was."
But then things started to sour for both Bird and the Celts. Over the next nine games, Bird's field goal attempts fluctuated wildly. He went 10 for 26 and 9 for 26 in two losses to Indiana, one of them at Boston Garden, yet he didn't attempt 20 shots in any of the other seven games. He beat Philly on Nov. 14 with a last-second jumper from the baseline, but that was only his 11th shot of the game. During a Nov. 25 loss at Atlanta, he took only seven shots, five fewer than backup point guard Charles Smith, a rookie who can't shoot. Bird looked frustrated, and after the Pistons whipped the Celtics 103-86 on Nov. 18, he sounded frustrated too.
"[Rodgers] just wants the ball moving around the perimeter," said Bird, who finished with 22 points but didn't take a shot in the first 12 minutes. "If that's what he wants, I'll do it. If I only get nine shots a game, that's what I'll do. I'm a point forward right now."
Bird's use of the term "point forward" ignited a controversy in Boston. Coined by Don Nelson in Milwaukee when he used forward Paul Pressey on the perimeter a few years ago, point forward seemed to have a disparaging connotation, as if Bird were saying that Rodgers had turned him into mere window dressing in the Celtics' offense.
Did Bird mean it that way? Or was he just frustrated by a bad loss to a team he doesn't like very much? And in either case, what does he think of Rodgers's offense, which calls for more ball movement around the perimeter and less dependence upon the one-man magic of number 33.
"The last thing I wanted to do that night [in Detroit] was come in and talk about the game," Bird said last week. "We had committed a bunch of turnovers , and it was almost like losing a playoff game. 'Point forward' was just something I said. It was not directed toward anybody, certainly not toward Jimmy.
"I've always had good relationships with my coaches. Jimmy knows more basketball than I do. I respect him, and I will listen to him."
There's no reason to believe that Bird is blowing smoke. He does respect Rodgers's knowledge of the game. But it does not necessarily follow that he and Rodgers are on the same page where the Celtics' offense is concerned. It is Bird who brings up the way the Celtics' offense operated in the championship years of '84 and '86, and it is Bird who clearly implies that it could work now.
Bird emphasizes that Rodgers has never restricted his shooting. But Bird does feel encumbered by the mandate of moving the ball around and getting everyone involved. He would be more comfortable getting the ball down on the block, drawing the double-team, and then creating a scoring opportunity, just as he used to do.
Part of Rodgers's rationale for making the offense more balanced is this: The big four of Bird, McHale, Parish and Johnson are no longer young enough to go 40 minutes a game, so everyone else must play a bigger part. "I'm not going to be the one to say we're older and slower," said Rodgers last week, "but we're older and slower."
Bird totally dismisses the age and wear-and-tear factors. Raise the issue, and he looks as if he has been asked to put on an ascot and go to high tea.
"I've never felt better in my life," says Bird. "I could run all night. Robert is as good as he ever was. Kevin, like me, may be having some trouble with the new offense, but he hasn't lost anything. DJ would agree that he hasn't been playing as well as he's capable of, but he's still good. Age is a mental thing. They can talk about it being a factor all they want, but it is not. I don't buy it."
So there you are. The conflict with Rodgers may be professional and not personal, but it's there nonetheless, and it will become personal if the Celtics don't get stronger. It's not just that Bird sometimes isn't getting his shots—he has put up an average of 18.7 per game, only one less than his lifetime mark—it's that he feels uncomfortable even with the ones he does take. His shooting percentage of .475 at week's end—compared with his career .503—reflects this.
Rodgers respects Bird's opinion, of course, but views the situation differently. "We have to find ways to become more diversified," says Rodgers. "We have to combine the athleticism of the young guys with the experience of the veterans. We feel if we go all one way or the other we'll be lost.
"There's growing pains associated with this process. It doesn't just happen. It's a much faster-paced, much more sophisticated game than it was even a few years ago. We used to be a relatively simple offensive team because we were so overpowering, but we're not anymore. We can't throw five guys out there and say, 'Do what you did four years ago.' It is simply not realistic."
Like Bird, McHale, who is now used as a sixth man, has occasionally had trouble finding shots; he took only five on the night Bird made the "point forward" comment. "In principle, Jimmy's offense makes a lot of sense," said McHale last week. "We should be stronger if we make things more diversified." In reality? "We'll see," he said.
There also is the matter of the backcourt rotation. To say it is unsettled is like saying Eastern Europe is going through a few changes. When John Bagley, who had been starting at the point before suffering a shoulder separation in Indiana on Nov. 21, returns in six to eight weeks, Rodgers faces a tough decision as to what to do with Johnson. DJ is not talking much these days, but it is known that he's not happy. And Jim Paxson, Reggie Lewis and Kevin Gamble—a confused trio of shooting guards—are wondering about their minutes too.
As for the Celtics' defense, it has ranged from fair to plain awful, a fact that has not escaped Bird. "The one thing I don't like about the players we get from other teams is that they don't understand team defense," Bird says. "Eddie Pinckney [acquired from Sacramento in the Ainge deal] might do a great job of guarding [Atlanta's] Dominique Wilkins one-on-one, but that's only part of it. I've never been a great one-on-one defender, but I know enough to always run my man into Robert or Kevin. A lot of guys on this team don't understand that. Until everybody takes team defense to heart, we won't be very good."
Bird also questions the Celtics' heart on the road, its lack of what he calls a "rip someone's head off" mentality. "We used to have it, back in '86 or back when M.L. Carr and [Cedric] Maxwell were here," he says. "Winning at home used to take care of itself. Now we play like crazy to protect the home court and don't have much intensity on the road."
Well, a lot of things are different from the way they were a few years ago, Larry. Some would also say you are different—a step slower, a little more vulnerable to fatigue, a little less able to shoulder a major share of the load, night after night. Did you hear what Indiana's Chuck Person said after his Pacers beat your team 119-111 at Indiana on Nov. 21? "I felt I'd have a mismatch with Larry, but they started off with Pinckney on me," said Person. He meant a mismatch in his favor.
You say they're wrong. But you also say that you're a team player and you'll do it Rodgers's way.
"This is new," Bird says. "Everybody's struggling with it. It's up to me to fit my abilities into the new system. It will happen. I know it will."
Do you really?
ANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
After a loss to Detroit, a frustrated Bird complained about being a "point forward."
ANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
Although he says his heels aren't bothering him, Bird's offense has been inconsistent.
Rodgers is desperately groping for the right mix.
McHale (32), the Celts' sixth man, also has been struggling.
The Celtics' slow start has Bird and the team bent out of shape.