They're still winning and they're still wearing those hideous green sneakers, but there has been a big change recently in the Boston Celtics.
The team playing Phoenix at noon today on CBS (WDVM-TV-9) and the Bullets Tuesday at Capital Centre has taken on a different look and changed its modus operandi because of injuries to two seemingly indispensable players.
When Tiny Archibald fell and tore ligaments in his right (nonshooting) wrist Feb. 17 at Golden State, the Celtics lost their floor leader and primary play maker.
Five games later, Larry Bird's cheekbone was fractured by an elbow from Milwaukee's Harvey Catchings. Bird, an all-star forward, missed five games.
There probably isn't another team in the NBA that could survive the loss of its chief ball handler, plus its leading scorer and best all-around player, and keep on winning. The Celtics not only have remained in first place in the Atlantic Division, they have won 10 straight.
"I don't know if our image has changed, but our method sure has," Coach Bill Fitch said after Friday night's 113-109 victory at New Jersey. "We had an exchange of roles. We're playing a lot differently, but fortunately the results have been the same."
Boston's back court has been overhauled, with Gerald Henderson replacing Archibald and M.L. Carr taking over for Chris Ford, who missed three games with back problems and probably won't get his job back. Rookie Danny Ainge, brought along slowly in his first two months, now is the third guard and gives the team a different look.
"Our biggest adjustment was after Tiny was hurt," Fitch said. "A lot of people thought we couldn't win without him, but Gerald has played very well. He doesn't do the same thing Tiny does, but he gets the job done."
In the 12 games he has started, Henderson, 26, has averaged 15 points and 5.4 assists and has made 54 percent of his shots.
"When Tiny went out, we had to revise our fast break," the coach continued. "Those first two practices were like going back to the seventh or eighth grade. We started all over. Before, Tiny always handled the ball. Now everybody is handling it."
Carr, a converted forward, has started the last 10 games. A better defender and stronger player than Ford, Carr is averaging 12 points, five rebounds and two steals a game.
"M.L. missed the first 26 games with a fractured leg and just now is getting back to where he was last season," said Fitch. "He's an excellent defensive player and gives us some help on the boards."
The Celtics need another rebounder as much as Capitol Hill needs another lobbyist. With Bird, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Kevin McHale and Rick Robey up front, Boston has the strongest group of rebounders in the league.
The most startling change in the Celtics involves Bird. He's a substitute. That's right: probably the best all-around player in the league has been healthy for the last two games, but can't get his starting job back.
"It's tough to move right back in the lineup," Bird said after scoring 18 points in 25 minutes against the Nets. "The team is going good right now and you don't want to break the chemistry.
"We've got three of the toughest forwards in the league," Bird went on. "It's tough to find time for all three. It doesn't matter to me about starting as long as I get the same amount of minutes. Right now I'm content to leave things the way they are."
Coaches traditionally are a superstitious breed: they abhor tinkering with anything that's successful. If the Celtics keep winning, Bird may wind up as the best sixth man in basketball.
"I'm not superstitious," Fitch insisted. "Right now things are going well and Larry's learning a new role. He's always heard about what's its like to come off the bench and now he's finding out. I don't know when I'll start him. It's nice to have a guy like him to call on when you need a sub."
The improvement of McHale is another reason why Bird's return to regular status has been delayed. The second-year forward from Minnesota has had 60 rebounds in his last six games and is averaging 13 points a game playing opposite Maxwell.
"I think our team has changed a lot since the first of the year," McHale said. "I think we're much better now. We've overcome a lot of adversity and a lot of injuries and we've gotten better and better.
"With Larry and Tiny out, we've had to count on some other guys and they've all come through. More guys are contributing and their confidence is growing. We're more versatile now and I think that will help us in the playoffs."