It may have only seemed so from long range, that Red Auerbach could just about call the NBA shots when the late Walter Kennedy was commissioner. If 'twere so Larry O'Brien demonstrated yesterday that 'taint so now.

Or did he?

In the dispute over veteran forward John Johnson, dealt by Houston to Boston this summer, commissioner O'Brien ordered Auerbach's Celtics to return Johnson to the Rockets - who also get to keep the two second-round draft picks they acquired from the Celts in the trade.

When Johnson came to camp, Auerbach got his first look at his new man's contract carrying over from Houston. He didn't like what he saw and sought to nullify the deal. Auerbach and Rocket cheif exec Ray Patterson huddled with O'Brien in New York for six hours Monday. The commissioner slept on it, then issued his decision that Patterson hailed, nothing that O'Brien "ruled we did not willfully mis-represenr Johnson's contract."

It is a no-cut contract, so maybe Houston is struck with a guy it tried to get rid of - while Auerbach assistant jeff Cohen says "the decision is fine . . . No second-rounder was going to make our team this year or would be likely to make it next year."

So who's relieve John Havlicek as Celt swingman? . . .