He was in enough trouble already, so Cedric Maxwell finally showed some off-the-court sense. He kept his mouth shut about that spectacle in the Spectrum, the inexcusable rage that had him hitting a 55-year-old fan with the sort of head-high tackle that makes linebackers all-pro.

It was so ugly, so apparently thug-like that anything less than a suspension by NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien would not seem proper. Should the wheels of NBA justice move swiftly enough to keep the Celtic forward from playing against the 76ers in the Eastern Conference champoinship game here Sunday?


Will they?


Maxwell attacked Ray Kohl a second or so after being shoved hard enough out of bounds by Darryl Dawkins to land on top of Kohl. Maxwell pulled himself off Kohl and walked back toward the court. Kohl yelled something at Maxwell and swung his fist in the air. Suddenly, Maxwell turned, charged Kohl and clobbered him.

"I'm sorry," Maxwell said. "I've got no more comment. It's something I've gotta talk about with the commissioner."

Dawkins agreed that Maxwell had been stupid, though for a different reason. The Spectrum was not Maxwelll's house, after all, and a lot of his blood, if not the very last drop, might have been spilled.

You mean sinful Cedric might have been in more danger than old Kohl?

"Does dynamite blow up when the fuse is lit?" Dawkins replied.

That was why Dawkins dashed into the melee Maxwell created. In such an atmosphere in Philly, he was not sure Maxwell would come out whole.

"Goin' in there, with 40 or 50 fans," said Dawkins, still stunned. "There's no tellin' what might have been in somebody's pocket. He might not have know what happened to him 'till he walked back out and his head fell off. Some people might say he had guts. I say he was stupid. Wrong." f

Mawell was both. Kohl obviously provoked Maxwell. If he did not, he would have violated one of the commandments of being a Philadelphia fan: thou shalt intimidate the opposition whenever possible. But nothing less than being struck first -- and wickedly -- is cause for even considering what Maxwell did. We expect that sort of behavior in hockey, but not civilized sports.

Maxwell did volunteer: "You play with a lot more intensity after something like that."

He and the Celtis both escaped Philadelphia alive.

"They say you get a high sky diving," Maxwell said after Boston slipped ahead once again at the end andstole the game the Sixers needed to clinch the series. "Well, we just jumped off Mount Everest."

Sixer fans will invite the team to jump into the Schuylkill if the Celts win Sunday, recover from a 3-1 deficit and become the conference champs. What they will do to the players if that happens might make Maxwell's mugging seem tame.

How can that be avoided?

"By pulling them away from the basket on offense," said Julius Erving. "By doing that and then working the ball low to Darryl."

Erving was talking in what amounted to a recovery room for him. For one of the few times in his career, the Doctor had botched a major operation. He was just five for 17 from the field and had as many turnovers (four) as assists. The ordeal of checking Liarry Bird on defense had affected his offense.

"We don't run as many plays to me because of that," he said. "We want to use Darryl more, because we think we have an advantage there (against Robert Parish)."

Erving is the major reason that works or fails.

"I've got to hit a few jump shots from outside, like I was missing out there a while ago," he said. "If I stick a couple, it means my man can't drop back and help Parish on Darryl. And it also means he has to come close enough to me for me to drive around him.

"They played a pretty good first half without me making a wholesome contribution (the Sixers had a ninepoint lead with Erving scoring just six points). But strategically I can't just go into the tank."

His most embarrassing moment, ironically, was making a free throw with two seconds left. Ahead by three points, the Celtics sent their most experienced tackler, Maxwell, to grab Erving as soon as he took the inbounds pass in the final three seconds. Better to put him on the freethrow line for two shots than give him a chance to hit a tying three-pointer.

"Nobody ever should get off a three-pointer in a situation like that," Celtic Assistant K.C. Jones said. "You've got to grab the guy. But so many times teams do get off a three-pointer, because your natural instinct is to stay near the basket.

"He (Erving) messed up by missing the first foul shot."

True. Had Erving made that shot, he could have thrown up a leather brick the second time, tried for a long carom off the rim for a teammate to possibly tip back in for the tying basket.

When he missed the first shot, the Sixers' only hope was for a miss that could be tipped back to three-point range. Erving made it -- and the Sixers were sunk.

"When we got up, 3-1," Erving said, "all we talked about was not taking them lightly, playing hard every minute, not letting up. That's still what we're saying. They're a lot like us at being able to come from way back (17 points Friday night). They move the ball well and can get to the foul line."

And out jof the tightest spots imaginable, on and off the court. Was Maxwell grateful for Dawkins coming to his aid? Had he realized, as Dawkins did, the potential for something riot-like?

"It happens, pal," he said, walking toward another Everest.