Last season, the Boston Celtics' self-esteem seemed to be measured only in terms of revenge. If Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins scored 40 points, the Celtics would feel compelled to bury the Hawks in their next meeting. A victory by Chicago could only be made right by Boston winning the next two times the teams met.
This season the Celtics are so good that retribution against any team but the Los Angeles Lakers is irrelevant. Beating the Cleveland Cavaliers is pedestrian. Even whipping their biggest rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, has become a rather banal exercise for the Celtics, who have the best record in the NBA (47-11) and are playing as though they mean to keep it.
For that, the team would like to thank the Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks. A 121-103 loss on Dec. 6 to the Trail Blazers is the only blemish on a 25-1 home record. Two weeks later the Celtics blew a 25-point lead to the Knicks and lost in double overtime on national television. Immediately afterward, Boston went on a 13-game winning streak and has gone 27-4 since.
"That was the turning point," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "We were playing bad but winning. Something had to happen to get the players' attention."
Concurred Kevin McHale: "We were playing terrible basketball. We'd just do whatever we wanted because in the end we knew that we had three or four guys that no one on the other team could stop, so we'd go to them and pull the game out."
Think about that. This team is so good that Jones was decrying its effort at a point in the season when the Celtics' record was 21-6. And McHale was calmly stating that his team has not one, not two, but rather three or four unstoppable players.
"They're arrogant, cocky, defiant and in their own minds, invincible," said Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams. "Other teams can't act that way because they're not as good; Boston has a swaggering toughness."
The Celtics' locker room reflects the team's self-assurance. Before a recent victory over the Knicks, someone saw McHale getting dressed for what would be his first action since the Feb. 9 All-Star Game and said that he'd forgotten who the forward was. McHale didn't miss a beat.
"I hear there's going to be an old-timers game before the real thing tonight," he said. "I'm going one on one against Cazzie Russell."
"Good thing it's one on one," cracked the Celtics' assistant coach, Chris Ford. "Because no one else would ever get a pass from either one of you."
A short distance away, trainer Ray Melchiorre taped the ankles of little-used reserve center Greg Kite, much to the chagrin of forward Larry Bird.
"Isn't it about time you started taping up some real players?" asked Bird. As he approached the training table, guard Dennis Johnson already was there.
"You said real players," Johnson said; "I guess that meant me."
Throughout the cacophony, center Robert Parish sat stoically. Parish, the best running center in the NBA, always sits stoically, except during the playoffs, when he doesn't sit at all, rushing off into a private world that doesn't include idle chitchat.
"There are just too many people, too many questions to be answering, too many distractions," he said. "I need total concentration and then in the postseason I can't have it."
For five seasons, what Parish has needed most has been rest. His opportunistic style of play, beating his opposite number down the floor for easy fast break baskets, is nice but grinding over the course of the season, especially combined with the rigors of half court play.
In the past, Kite has provided little in the way of relief, so by the conference finals, Parish, exhausted, has been but a shell of himself, his statistics down in nearly every category.
If that's not the case this time around, he will have the Celtics and Bill Walton to thank. Playing 19 minutes per game, Walton has become a lock for the NBA's sixth-man award, his sphere of influence reaching far beyond the seven points and seven rebounds he averages.
Walton was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent. He had initiated the moves that brought him to Boston by calling President Red Auerbach of the Celtics and asking him if he was interested in his services. Now Walton seems certain to surpass his career high of 67 games played. That he may win an individual award or two is nice, but it won't be until the spring that he will realize what he's gotten himself into.
"Clearly, he's been everything we've wanted and expected," said Celtics General Manager Jan Volk. "We won 63 games a year ago without him though, but not the two that would have given us the championship. This year we would have been pretty good, too, but we wanted him because of those two games."
The overwhelming desire to wrest back the NBA title from the Los Angeles Lakers -- who beat the Celtics, four games to two, in last season's championship series -- has been the Celtics' driving force.
This season, they have beaten the Lakers twice and made at least one believer. "They're hungry, on a mission, all that stuff, just like we were last year," said the Lakers' Magic Johnson.
How ironic that Walton, originally a southern California beach bum, is the man that Beantown is counting on so heavily to regain the championship.
"June is a long, long ways away; I'm only thinking about today and tomorrow," said Walton, who betrayed himself in his next breath. "I haven't been in a playoff since 1978. I'm sort of looking forward to that atmosphere."
According to the 76ers' Pat Williams, that atmosphere includes "that filthy old building, with smells found nowhere else in America." Dank Boston Garden is but one reason Williams believes that, if the Celtics are to be knocked off, it will have to be his team to do it.
"L.A. is a good team, but they're too nice," he said. "The Lakers are fancy passes and limousines. Us against Boston is a black-eye series. Them against L.A. is a black-tie one."
One Eastern Conference assistant coach, who was watching the Celtics methodically dismantle the San Antonio Spurs at the time, agreed. "Teams just play them too nice," he said. "Everyone acts like they're afraid of them when what they should be doing is knocking them on their butts. Then we would see how tough they really are."
That's a lot easier said than done and may not be very beneficial to a team's health anyway. The Celtics go into each game with four men listed at 6-10 and above, plus Bird, who probably is a tougher street fighter than any of the bigger men. Guards Dennis Johnson and David Thirdkill aren't bashful either.
Guard Jerry Sichting, who joined the team from the Indiana Pacers before the start of this season, said that when his former team played the Celtics, "I hated 'em. I wanted to beat 'em real bad. It seemed the way they carried themselves was just cocky.
"Now I think that's just part of being on the team. It's like Red says, 'Don't be retaliators, be instigators.' I think that's the team's philosophy."
At the most basic level -- out on the basketball court -- the Celtics have an "all in this together attitude" that other teams don't come close to approaching. Walton and Sichting have enhanced what already was a fine passing team to the point where the most impressive aspect of the team's play is ball movement. On some occasions, the ball is passed around five or six times before a shot is taken; on others, the basketball never touches the ground upon crossing half court.
"They don't let their egos get in the way," said Rory Sparrow of the Knicks. "It's hard for a team to find cohesiveness because of individual talents. Players usually assess their talent as more than what it is. They don't stay within their role and it causes disruptions for everyone else. That doesn't happen with them."
"The best thing," said Dennis Johnson, "isn't knowing that Larry Bird can pass the ball. It's knowing that if I'm open he will pass it. It's the same thing with Parish or Danny Ainge or McHale."
The Celtics' ability to play basketball in its purest sense has enabled the team to transcend any number of potential stumbling blocks that could trip lesser squads. For example, making a moot point of the eight-whites, four-blacks racial makeup of the team.
"I think it just shows that there are some whites who can still play the game," said Lakers Coach Pat Riley. Added Williams: "All the white guys we've ever drafted failed. Now we've got one white and 11 blacks but no one cares. The stakes are too high to worry about the racial makeup of your team. Boston happens to be blessed with the three best white players in the league."
McHale and Walton are indeed among the NBA elite but Bird has carved out a niche of his own. In stretching his season averages to 25 points, 10 rebounds and 6.6 assists, the seventh-year veteran has six triple doubles in his last 11 games, just missing in three of them.
Playing on the wing, in the back court or even inside, Bird dominates professional basketball, an honor usually accorded bigger pivotmen. That he will win his third consecutive NBA most valuable player award seems a foregone conclusion.
Listening to Bird though, it's easy to see that the statistic he's most proud of is the fact that he's started each of the Celtics' 58 games this season, overcoming finger, elbow and back problems to do so. That he is playing so well now gives an indication of how much he was limited earlier in the season when he was playing hurt.
"I guess people didn't really believe me when I said I was hurtin' but that's the way it usually goes, isn't it?" he said. Actually, Volk said that the team briefly considered sending Bird to the sidelines until his assorted aches and pains abated, but his positive response to therapy made that unnecessary.
For that, the Celtics are more than a little thankful. "Larry does so much that you tend to take him for granted," said McHale. "When he was hurt, you began to realize what it would mean if he wasn't there.
"I started saying prayers that he would get better."