The Boston Celtics hardly had returned to their locker room after winning the NBA championship with a 114-97 triumph over the Houston Rockets Sunday when the questions began to flow as freely as the champagne.
Their glittering year -- a 67-15 regular-season record, the fourth-best in league history; a 15-3 playoff run, and a home record of 50-1 with victories in the last 41 games -- led to numerous inquiries about the team's chances next season to become the first NBA team to repeat as champion in 18 years. There was another, even more intriguing question: Were the 1985-86 Boston Celtics the best team of all time?
Boston Coach K.C. Jones, who played on eight championship teams in nine seasons with the Celtics and has coached the team to two championships in the last three years, had his own opinion. "I know about the '67 76ers and the '72 Lakers who won 33 straight games in the regular season , but this one is the best," he said.
Only twice did the Celtics lose back-to-back games. The second time it happened, March 8 in Washington and two days later in Dallas against the Mavericks, it took three-point field goals in the final seconds to do it. Boston had a pair of eight-game winning streaks along with runs of nine, 13 and 14 games. Only two teams, New Jersey and Philadelphia, managed to beat Boston more than once during the regular season.
When asked the difference between the Celtics and the Rockets, Houston guard Mitchell Wiggins appeared perplexed. "Between us and them?" he asked. "It must be that chemistry thing. It sure ain't talent."
Don't tell that to Larry Bird, the three-time league most valuable player who also received his second playoff MVP trophy during the series. There were other all-stars such as Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and chemistry was clearly a factor. But the Celtics' greatest quality all season may have been their sheer will to win.
In seasons past, the Celtics had to spur themselves on by feigning anger at anything that could be perceived as an injustice, a ploy many team members learned from their former coach, Bill Fitch, who directed the Rockets into the championship series. This year, the Celtics needed no such false inspiration, although they could call upon emotion when necessary.
Such was the case during the series against the Rockets. After winning handily in Games 1 and 2, Boston went to Houston for the next three games and lost the first and third there. Both losses were physically draining, particularly Boston's 111-96 defeat in Game 5, which included a bench-clearing brawl and the ejection of Houston's Ralph Sampson.
When Parish said he felt as if he had been on a "two-week road trip to the West Coast," there were whispers his team was tiring, that perhaps it was just a matter of time before Houston's young legs wore out the Celtics, the oldest team in the NBA.
That talk infuriated the Celtics.
"I remember when Portland came in here and pretty much dominated us in a 121-103 win on Dec. 6, the Celtics' last home defeat ," said assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "This team responds to losses like that. There was also the Christmas Day game a 113-104 double-overtime loss to New York that seemed to turn the season around."
Said guard Dennis Johnson: "It's very hard to play us after we lose a game. Maybe it's because Larry gets all frustrated. When you're in someone else's home, like we were in Houston, it's your turn to take all the abuse; you hear it, you see the fingers shaking in your face, no question. But after we got back here, we weren't really worried."
Playing in Boston Garden, where they hadn't lost in more than six months, was surely a factor in the Celtics' confidence. There also was a feeling on the team that no one wanted to lose what they had worked so hard all year to achieve.
A critical step toward the championship was taken last summer when free agent center Bill Walton phoned Celtics President Red Auerbach. Walton had been turned down by every team he'd called, including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. But Auerbach took the chance. A short time later, a deal was struck and a team that already had Bird, the quintessential workaholic, added a second zealot.
Walton, the winner of the league's sixth man award this season, played the season with a perpetual smile on his face. Any query, no matter how innocuous, seemed to elicit a response of, "I'm just happy to be here, playing with the Celtics."
"We gave Bill a hard time all year about that, but it was something that we needed," said McHale. "I don't think I've played with anyone who was so enthusiastic about playing every day."
In turn, that enthusiasm began to catch on as the long NBA season ground on. "There were no guarantees we'd win, but as the season went along and each individual saw how they were developing, I think we thought the year would be special," said Johnson. "We hit strides that no one had hit before this year.
"I'm very glad to see this last day, but I'll remember this season. I'll look back at it and think about all the guys who've only gotten to play in one playoff game or one playoff series or maybe just a Western Conference final."
In all probability, Houston's Akeem Olajuwon and Sampson eventually will be members of a championship team. And the Rockets may well be the team of the future.
Still, the Celtics, or at least Bird, are already thinking about next season.
"It's tough to repeat," Bird said. "I guess you have to hope to get into a groove during the playoffs. This is the best team I've ever played on, but there's no time to take off. I want to get started with my work now so that we can come back and get it next year."