A championship team finds the going tough
Cornered in the visitors' locker room at the Los Angeles Forum, Coach Bill Fitch of the Boston Celtics talked about what it is like mentally, emotionally, and in terms of motivation to defend a National Basketball Association title. ''I think it's the same with us as it is for any club that has just come off a championship year. There are no more easy games,'' Fitch explained. ''Teams get up for you because of your reputation. As a result, you're constantly playing against everybody's best effort.
''However, there is a plus that goes with that for a championship team. It keeps your players from getting overconfident, or at least it should,'' he added. ''Still, you are constantly reminding players, after a loss, that maybe they should ask themselves: 'Did I put out as much as I would have in the same situation last year?'
''Actually we haven't had many problems with players not doing their jobs. But when that does happen, I'm lucky because of the attitude of some of the veterans on this club. They don't hesitate to put the knife in their teammates (he meant take them aside and talk to them) at a time like that and straighten them out.''
Two of the things Fitch likes best about the Celtics is that they don't rely on any one player every night to win for them and that they are also a team of interchangeable parts.
''The Celtics have always been a bunch of role players, and basically that hasn't changed much,'' Bill said. ''Among the league's 20 top scorers we have only one man, Larry Bird, and if you watch us it's easy to see that we don't go to him that much offensively. In fact, most of the time Bird is looking to pass the ball.
''Instead of having only one player we can depend on . . . late in the fourth period when we need a basket, we have three or four guys who are capable of making that shot for us. A team might make the playoffs without that kind of balance, but in a short series it's invariably going to be beaten.
''In Kevin McHale, whom we use as our sixth man and can play either center or forward, you're looking at a kid who could start for most NBA teams. Even though McHale didn't get that kind of time with us as a rookie, we did go to him for help a lot in the fourth period, and that's the critical part of your game. We've also got another strong center-forward in Rick Robey, plus a guy who can play either guard or forward in M. L. Carr.''
Fitch also made the point that McHale, even at 6 ft., 10 in. and 235 pounds, is often hard for opposing centers to stay in contact with. ''Half the time when they reach around to locate Kevin on defense, he's slipped his cover and gotten closer to the basket,'' Bill said.
The fact that no National Basketball Association team has been able to put together back-to-back championships since the Celtics did it during the 1967-68 and '68-69 seasons has not been lost on Fitch. Once again, the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers are battling for first place in the Atlantic Division, but Fitch is also aware of the overall playoff picture.
''At this point I think you have to consider five teams as having a shot at this season's playoff title -- Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Milwaukee,'' Bill said. ''San Antonio is also right there, especially since it got forward Mike Mitchell in a trade with Cleveland. With Mitchell around, the Spurs don't have to go to George Gervin all the time, and this gives their offense more flexibility.''
''If the Celtics win again, it will probably be because of our defense and balance,'' he continued. ''We can play our bench a lot and still maintain a high level of pressure. We can also use McHale more against certain teams, if we happen to need rebounding, and we've also got a player in Bird who, if a game is close, can turn things around for you in just a couple of minutes.''
Even though the Celtics spent a lot of money partway into the season to sign former Brigham Young All-America Danny Ainge, they haven't played him much.
''Ainge is the same type guard as Tiny Archibald, and as long as Archibald is around, Danny isn't going to play that much,'' Fitch said. ''But we like Ainge's talent, we're picking spots for him, and if Danny doesn't play in all 82 of our games next year I'll be surprised.''