The play is so old and dusty it actualy seems innovative to the present generation of Boston Celtics.

"A heckuva thing," said Rick Robey. "Never saw anything like it before."

"Me neither," said Cedric Maxwell. "And the way he goes to the boards I can understand why the Rockets use it."

The he, of course, is Moses Malone, who has become the he of basketball during the NBA playoffs. Moses versus the Celtics of the NBA championship, with one of the sidelights the sort of schoolyardish play most grown men would be too embarrassed to try.

For anyone who thinks a whit about how to free giants more often near the basket, the wonder is why no team other than the Rockets uses the tactic. Terry Holland ought to diagram it for Ralph Sampson as soon as he listens to Celtic Assistant K. C. Jones' verbal diagram:

"It happens when you're fronting Moses, trying to deny him the ball. So when your man is overplaying him, the Rocket out front with the ball throws it against the backboard. Moses, who's the best offensive rebounder in basketball anyway, already has position. So he simply wheels around, catches the ball off the glass and puts it back in."

Simple in design, spectacular in execution. If this off-the-glass gas embarrasses the Celts in the next week or so and the copycats of basketball borrow it, we can imagine the ramifications. Virginia opponents might need ladders to keep Sampson from scoring on every play.

Also, some chronic brick thrower will point excitedly at the official scorer after one of his typical efforts all but dents the rim and shout:

"Pass! That was a pass, not a shot! The big lug over there shoulda caught it."

It seems so much fun. Line-drive passes instead of lobs. Basketball played like bumper pool.

"Larry Bird did it a couple times himself last year," Jones said. "He'd be at the top of the key, shoot the ball over his man hard off the glass, run around him, grab the rebound and put it back in."

Now comes Kevin McHale, a Celtic rookie with the mind of a sporting thinker already fossilized, to tell us why the play never has become popular -- and never will.

"A gimmick," he snorted. "And gimmicks don't win championships. Running and passing and rebounding win championships."

"I can't see Houston trying it more than two or three times against us," Maxwell said. "Not the way we help inside on the ball. Know one way to stop it?"

A butterfly net?

"Put a whole lot of pressure on the guy throwing the ball," Maxwell said. "Make it impossible for him to get off the kind of exact pass he needs. The timing on that has to be excellent."

Bill Fitch, the Celtic coach, who thinks like George Allen at times, wants the Rockets to know most of what can go wrong with the pass that allows Moses to part defenses. He saw the play frequently in service ball a generation ago and tried it when he had Nate Thurmond with the Cleveland Cavaliers; Red Auerback used it now and then with the '40s Washington Caps.

"It's great when it works," Fitch said, "but it's the biggest embarrassment you can imagine when it fails, if the opposition comes up with the ball instead of your big man. It's a lotta egg on your face."

There would be an omelet spread across the collective Celtic face if the closest thing to a one-man team, a gang two games under .500 during the regular season, beat Boston and won the NBA title. The Houston Malones have all the cliches on their side -- underdogs, nothing to lose, etc. -- and the law of averages.

The Celtics have won the last 13 games against Houston.They should win four more, if not four in a row, because they have the speed and a center of their own to make Moses seem mortal. In their two victories over Houston this season, some of Malone's usual numbers have declined and one of Robert Parish's has soared.

Moses averaged 20.5 points and 12.5 rebounds against the Celts and the center they acquired before the season. But he made just 15 of 38 shots. Parish, meanwhile, was making an astonishing 75 percent of his shots, 21 or 28.

"He will be occupied more this series (than against Los Angeles and San Antonio)," Parish said. "He won't have any rest periods. We'll try to get him in a transition game. He doesn't like to run, like most centers."

With that special pass, it would seem especially frustrating for Parish, virtually impossible for him to keep the ball from Malone.

"It's possible that our center might have to take himself off the boards," Jones said. "Sacrifice some of his game just to try and neutralize Malone. He's more dangerous off the offensive boards than the defensive boards, and gained so much confidence since the L.A. series. You've gotta front him, 'cause if he gets the ball too low nobody can stop him."

Parish has some bump-a-rump defense in mind.

"Push him out as far on the floor as I can," he said. "Make him shoot farther out than usual. You can't leave him alone for an instant. He reminds me of a 6-10 Paul Silas."

To M. L. Carr, Malone is unique.

"With, say, (Darryl) Dawkins he's bulky, strong and all that," Carr said, "but he's got to bring the ball down (to perhaps chest level) before he takes it back up. Moses goes up and gets it till it's done."

One of the fan fantasies of sport is that gifted players enjoy playing against somebody at least slightly better in pressure games, that they thrive on the challenge, live for it almost. A former Cowboy all-pro guard, Blaine Nye, was asked about that before a Super Bowl game, and he said:

"I'd rather play against a donkey any day."

And what of Parish in this series? The performance of his life against basketball's current media darling could bring immense fame and wealth. Does he relish the opportunity?