As the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers prepared to face each other Wednesday night at 9 (WDVM-TV-9) in Game 4 of the best-of-seven NBA finals -- which the Lakers lead two games to one -- a question was on the lips of more than one person here.

How could the best player in basketball play like one of the worst?

Monday, the Celtics' Larry Bird was named the NBA's most valuable player for a second straight season. But after a 1984-85 regular season in which he averaged 28.7 points a game on 52 percent shooting from the field, Bird has fallen on hard times in the postseason.

In 14 playoff games since scoring 34 points against Cleveland in Game 4 of the opening round series, he has made 129 of 294 shots from the field, only 44 percent. In his last five games, he has made 35 of 89 shots, 39 percent.

As he is quick to point out, his game is predicated on more than scoring. During the regular season, for example, he averaged 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists. But those numbers are down, too -- to eight and five, respectively.

"I know that I'm a 50 percent shooter," he said, "so that should even out. But usually, when I'm not shooting well, I do other things to make up for it, but I'm not doing that too much either."

He has been bothered since the end of the regular season by a variety of ailments, the most troublesome being a sore right elbow. However, he doesn't use that as an excuse. "It (the elbow) locked up on me in Cleveland but, two or three days later, it felt better.

"It's always stiff. But the question is how much extension I can get. If I can only get 70 to 80 percent, I'm in trouble, but if I can get 90 percent extension, it doesn't bother me. The last couple of weeks it's felt really good. It hasn't bothered me at all."

According to Bird, the problem has been one that affects most mortal basketball players. "I'm just not hitting my open shots or shooting well in the games," he said. "I live and die with my outside shot. In the last three or four games, I've been dying with it."

In that sense, he has been no different from the rest of his teammates, who have discovered that those who win through intimidation can also be defeated by it.

"We used to back each other up like in the first game," said forward Kevin McHale. "When Byron Scott hit Danny (Ainge) with a forearm to his head, every one of us knew that, at some point, we were going to try to get him back. Now it's like every man is out there for himself, one on one instead of one on five."

McHale said the Celtics also are indecisive on offense. "If you have a three on two or four on two, you have to press the issue and try and run the ball," he said. "Lately though, we haven't had that but have tried to do too much anyway, which has led to some silly shots."

Today, players on both teams tried to downplay talk of how physical the series has become, saying that the action in the championship series has appeared rough only because of what's at stake.

"This is our living, what we're paid to do: go out and win," said McHale. "I guarantee you, if a burglar broke into anyone else's house and tried to steal $40,000 from out of their kitchen, they wouldn't invite them to sit down and have dinner."

"A lot of players get along and a lot don't," said the Lakers' Magic Johnson. "No one wants to give the other the edge, so if you hit me, I'm going to hit you back. That's what I told McHale when I got the technical on Sunday, 'Just be ready, because you know it's going to come.' "

That's the attitude that Boston has taken regarding Bird's minislump. "He'll come back," guard Dennis Johnson, said. "He always does."

"Larry's our leader," McHale said. "If he said that jumping off of a tall building would help us play better, then I'd start doing it, too. He's got to play better, but we all do."

Bird concluded the discussion: "All I need to do is hit five or six shots in a row and all the talk will stop and I'm just about ready to go out and do that."