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Can Celtics catch 76ers?

For a brief period in late January, the Boston Celtics took over first place in the National Basketball Association's Atlantic Division from the Philadelphia 76ers, although Philly has since regained the top spot and looks as though it is going to keep it.

Nevertheless, Boston's surge was significant for three reasons: (1) for most of the season the 76ers have been the NBA's best team; (2) it was Philadelphia that eliminated Boston from last year's playoffs; and (3) the Celtics were supposed to be weak at the guard positions.

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If Boston did actually enter this season needing to repair a tear in its confidence, head coach Bill Fitch could hardly find a better way than to have his team play at about the same won-lost level as the 76ers.

The popular explanation for Philadelphia's win against Boston in last year's playoffs was that the Celtics were overpowered by the 76ers' huge front line of 6 ft. 11 in. Darryl Dawkins, 7-foot Caldwell Jones, and 6-6 Julius Erving, who often plays as if he's 6-9. In surrendering the battle of the backboards, Boston lost the playoff war.

During the off-season, Celtic general manager Red Auerbach moved to correct that problem by trading with the Golden State Warriors for 7-foot center Robert Parish and by drafting 6-11 rookie forward Kevin McHale from the University of Minnesota.

Although McHale is still learning and works off the bench, assistant coach K. C. Jones says that he is the first true shotblocker that Boston has had since Bill Russell.

The question now is: Have the Celtics improved themselves enough up front to have a real chance of upsetting the 76ers in this year's Eastern Conference playoffs?

"You can never tell ahead of time how a team will react going into the playoffs," Fitch explained. "It's as much mental sometimes as it is physical. For example, if a team thinks it has a weak first-round opponent and starts looking ahead to a later series, that can be enough to ruin things right there.

"In the playoffs you bring your concentration; you come geared to play four tough periods of defense; and you don't wait to dive on the floor for a loose ball. Otherwise you wind up out on the street."

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Fitch says that with Parish now starting between Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell, with McHale giving him muscle off the bench and with Tiny Archibald having a great year in the back court, he feels the Celtics are better equipped than last season.

"I wouldn't say that we're physically equal to Philadelphia yet, but we're close," Bill remarked. "The thing that might help us most in a short series is the leadership of Bird, who knows what the playoffs are like now because he's been through one. We're also a team that can have a poor shooting night and still win with our defense."

Questioned about a report that Parish showed so little interest in the Celtics' way of doing things in training camp that Auerbach was shopping him around the league after only a couple of exhibition games, Fitch replied: "There was never a time when Red and I didn't think that Parish would do the job for us. In fact, he had a great attitude when he reported, and nobody on the club worked harder in training camp. I think you'll find any rumors about us trading Robert to New Jersey for center Mike Gminski were started by the Nets."

Before coming to the Celtics, Parish played four years with Golden State, often scored well, and had his best rebounding season two seasons ago when he grabbed 916 caroms. But despite his big-league size, he was never considered much of a runner, passer, or defender.

What seems to have altered Parish's game this year is that private motivation talk Auerbach always has with new arrivals; Fitch's patience and prodding; plus Robert's own desire to improve.

"When I came to Boston, I felt I had to prove myself all over again," Parish said. "Sure, people had heard about me, but the Warriors never played on the East Coast that much, and nobody really knew what I was all about. But it's easy to do the right things when your teammates are unselfish. You know you're going to get the ball when you're open, and everybody helps each other on defense."

Although Philadelphia will undoubtedly be favored to win the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs, Boston's balance could be extremely tough to overcome, especially if Bird, Parish, and Archibald were all to have a great series. That is, assuming both teams make it to the finals.

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