The National Basketball Association playoffs are almost won by the team having the best center -- a lesson in history in which some of the key figures have been Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Each has played on at least two world championship teams, and Russell, of course , led the old Boston Celtics to an incredible 11 titles in 13 years.
It probably would be a mistake, however, to assume that the Houston Rockets are going to beat the 1980-81 Celtics in the current playoff finals just because they have the league's outstanding pivotman in 6 ft. 11 in. Moses Malone. While Moses is every great thing they say he is, including maybe the league's most valuable player, his supporting cast might not be quite good enough to get him into the winner's circle.
First let's acknowledge that this is not the same Houston team that lost two more games than it won during the regular season while finishing in a tie with Kansas City for second place in the NBA's Midwest Division. This is a team that didn't really come together until the playoffs when it suddenly found holes in the Los Angeles Lakers' defense; chinks in the San Antonio Spurs' armor; and cavities in the Kansas City Kings' board work.
For this, Head Coach Del Harris deserves the ultimate tribute for the way he has organized his defense; kept Malone the hub of his offense; and provided Moses with the help he needed on the boards by constantly rotating three forwards. Their names are Robert Reid, Billy Paultz, and Bill Willoughby.
Harris has also substituted well, not only by keeping as much fresh personnel on the floor as possible, but by making sure that none of his players gets overpowered in matchups.
The best way to contain Houston, of course, is to nullify Malone, partly by having your own center come somewhere near his offensive totals, but mostly by having one forward drop off his man to help out against Moses on defense.
While Reid cannot be left alone because of his outside shooting ability, the same cannot be truly said of Paultz and Willoughby, who averaged only 13 points a game between them during the regular season. The fact that Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Kansas City all tried this drop-off tactic previously against Houston and lost doesn't necessarily mean that Boston can't make it work.
The Celtics have been successful this year (a league-leading 62-20 record followed by playoff victories over Chicago and Philadelphia) because they are primarily a team of role players, dedicated to their jobs. General Manager Red Auerbach and Head Coach Bill Fitch have created a team where everyone is a specialist, from center Robert Parish to forward Larry Bird to guard Nate Archibald to backup center Rick Robey.
Parish, often criticized for his indifference when he played with the Golden State Warriors, had exactly the kind of balanced season that Boston hoped for with almost 800 rebounds and an 18.9 scoring average.
Bird is the key to the Celtics because of his leadership, passing ability, strength on the boards, and shooting -- and Larry is also one of those players who can adjust his own game to the flow of events.
Generally, before Bird takes the offense into his own hands, he ascertains what the team lacks that night and provides it. And even though half the forwards he plays against can outjump him, his timing and his ability to block out under the boards make him one of the best rebounders in the league.
Cedric Maxwell, who starts at the forward position opposite Bird, is a player with a lot of peaks and valleys in his game, but one who was also third on the Celtics in scoring and rebounds and is a high percentage shooter.
The fellow who might cause Houston more problems coming off the bench than it expects is Kevin McHale, a 6-11 rookie center-forward who rarely scores big but who plays the tough defense and rebounds well. Boston obviously will use both McHale and Robey to spell Parish in an attempt to wear Malone down during the best-of-seven series.
While backcourts by themselves seldom win NBA titles, they often orchestrate them with their playmaking. The Celtics have an all-star guard this year in Archibald and three unspectacular but steady helpers in Chris Ford (who starts next to Archibald), plus Gerald Henderson and swingman M. L. Carr, who also sometimes plays forward.
Houston's highest scoring guard, 5-9 Calvin Murphy, doesn't even start. Instead he is used as a sixth man by Harris, who likes the offensive lift Murphy almost always provides coming off the bench.
Generally Harris starts Mike Dunleavy and Tom Henderson in the backcourt and uses Allen Leavell in a reserve role. All three are good ball handlers and passers, and while they don't penetrate much offensively, they can sometimes be dangerous because of their outside shooting.
The fact that Boston has won 13 straight from Houston dating back to 1978, including the only two regular-season games they played this year, probably should not be taken at face value.
Since the playoffs began Houston has been a different ball club -- smarter, more together, more physical, and more dedicated than it was during the regular season.
Even though everyone knows Malone must have a super series both offensively and on the defensive board for Houston to win, it would be wise not to underestimate the big man' s potential to dojust that.