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Hardly routine

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  December 22, 2008 09:31 PM

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On Feb. 24, 1982 the defending champion Boston Celtics, with a 37-15 record, pounded the Utah Jazz, 132-90. Said Jazz coach Frank Layden, "We were helpless."

The Celtics would not lose again for 32 days.

The streak reached 18, and it is that franchise record that the Doc Rivers gang is trying to break when they play the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday at the TD Banknorth Garden.

It was a different type of Celtics team than the one we know today. With Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, and Kevin McHale around, it was, shall we say, a far more carefree and irreverent group.

For example, the last play of the third quarter was a touchdown sneakaway pass to Bird. "Just call me Harold Carmichael," Bird said. "You think the Sullivans want me in Foxborough?"

Four days later, a 122-110 dispatch of the San Diego Clippers in the books, Boston played the Milwaukee Bucks on a Sunday afternoon. With 41 seconds remaining in the half, and the Celtics leading by a 53-50 score, Milwaukee center/forward Harvey Catchings, a very nice fellow, but an aggressive player, cocked his right elbow and let if fly. Said appendage made contact with the face of Larry Bird.

Ouch.

Larry was gone for the day. The Celtics held on to win, 106-102, but the big story was Larry Bird, especially since the Celtics were due to leave for the entire Texas trip.

It turns out that Larry was injured, all right, but that the concern was deemed more "cosmetic" than physical. He was lucky. He had been spared any kind of serious physical damage other than the threat to his good looks. As one doctor put it, a century ago, he might have been sentenced to live the rest of his life with a hole in his face, but now he'd just have to be patient and everything would be fine. Oh, and when he does return, he'll have to wear a mask.

And so off they went on the Texas trip. They were also missing starting point guard Tiny Archibald, who had suffered a wrist injury. But these two losses seemed to energize them. They regarded this Bird-less and Tiny-less trip as a fun challenge.

They began by defeating Dallas, 101-97. The next one to fall was San Antonio, which was a very formidable team led by the vaunted Iceman, George Gervin. They concluded the trip with a 100-98 victory over the Houston Rockets, the winning basket being supplied on an inside three-point play by back-up center/forward Eric Fernsten with 35 seconds left to play.

Was this the equivalent of last year's memorable Texas conquest? No. The Mavs were a 28-44 team in their second year of existence. The Rockets were a 46-36 team a year removed from a surprise appearance in the Finals, where they had lost to the Celtics in six games. The Spurs were a very solid 48-34 team. The Rockets and Spurs were good, not great teams, but the fact is few people ever make, it through Texas unscathed, then or now.

With victories over New York and Detroit, the Celtics had run off eight straight, all without Archibald and the last five without Bird. Now Larry was ready to return to action against Indiana, and it certainly made sense to ease him back. So, for the first time since his junior year at Springs Valley High School in French LIck, Ind., Larry Bird would be coming off the bench.

With a face mask.

It didn't seem to bother him. The Celtics beat the Pacers, 121-100, and Larry Bird, coming off the bench for the first time in eight years, had 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists, all in the second half. He was 7 for 7 in the third quarter.

Asked when Larry would get back in the starting lineup, Fitch said, "We'll ride this thing out for a while."

With Bird as a sixth man, the Celtics took care of New Jersey, Phoenix, Washington (at Hartford), Atlanta, and San Antonio. On March 21, coach Bill Fitch, who prided himself on his moxie, announced that Bird just might remain as a sixth man for the remainder of the season. After all, the Celtics hadn't lost since his return,

Larry celebrated this news by going 12 for 14 in a 123-111 triumph over the their ancient rival.

The streak was now up to 15 games and Larry publicly was signing off on the experiment. "I'm never tired anymore," he pointed out.

Larry and his mask were NBA chic. The Larry Legend had taken on a new aspect.

Chicago was victim No. 16. Then came Cleveland. Larry went for a nice 25-12-8 submission as the Celtics cruised, 136-115. Now the Celtics had tied the record of the 1959-60 club. Detroit, a 33-36 team was all that stood between the Celtics and a new franchise record.

Final score: Boston 125, Detroit 104. Eighteen straight. A new Boston Celtics record. "I'm proud of them," Fitch declared.

On Sunday, March 28, the 76ers came to town. They were ready. They dominated from start to finish, smashing the Celtics, 116-98, in their own building. "The ball game belonged to Philadelphia," said a gracious Fitch. "And we have not accomplished what we've accomplished by making excuses."

The streak was gone, but Bird was still coming off the bench. Fitch maintained that rotation for six more games, five of them Celtics' victories. Explaining that Larry needed the minutes in order to get ready for the playoffs, Fitch decided to put Bird back in the starting lineup against Chicago with four games to go in the regular season.

The Celtiics lost, 120-115. Whaddya gonna do?

POST-SCRIPT: The Celtics finished as the No. 1 seed in the East with a 63-19 record. They beat the Washington Bullets in what may have been the best forgotten five-game series in NBA history (including an overtime and fifth-game double-overtime battle) before bowing to the 76ers in seven games (this after, for the second year in a row, falling down 3-1 before winning Games 5 and 6). Unlike the year before, however, they lost Game 7 at home to the inspired 76ers.

So what these 2008-09 Celtics are saying is correct. A big regular-season winning streak is fine, but it doesn't guarantee you a ring.

That said, what the Celtics did in 1982 without Larry was sensational, and what Larry did while peering through plastic was phenomenal. But when wasn't Larry Being Larry something memorable?

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About bob ryan's blog Opinions, observations and anecdotes from Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
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