The only question to be settled by the Eastern Conference playoffs is not which team is the best—the Boston Celtics are—but whether the defending champions should field a second entry composed of their bench. Boston's No. 2 unit would now consist of Larry Bird, Tiny Archibald, Danny Ainge, Rick Robey and Chris Ford, three of whom started when the Celtics won the title last year. Bird and Archibald are still recovering from injuries, but the Celtics have won 21 of their last 23 with a starting lineup generally composed of Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Gerald Henderson and M.L. Carr.
"I don't think there is any question that from top to bottom the Celtics have more quality players than anyone in the league," says Houston Coach Del Harris, whose team lost to Boston in the championship series last year. "I think they actually have two different fives that could make the playoffs in either conference."
Boston may have been made even stronger by the spate of injuries that it sustained last month. During an 18-game winning streak that extended from Feb. 12 until the 76ers put an end to it on March 28, Bird was out for five games with a fractured cheekbone and Archibald missed 11 with stressed ligaments in his right wrist. Meanwhile, Carr was beating out Ford for a starting guard spot. "There's just no dropoff when the subs come in," says Washington Coach Gene Shue, "and very few teams can say that."
Bird's injury may have been significant on two counts. "When Bird went down they were forced to play McHale," says Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams. "Everyone in the league is scared to death of McHale anyway." As well they might be, because McHale is 6'10" and extremely active, especially on defense. "When he's out there with Parish, there are so many long arms in your face you just can't get a shot up," adds Williams. And the Celtics learned something about themselves they might not otherwise have dared suspect. "People felt that without Bird the Celtics wouldn't be the Celtics," says Chicago Coach Rod Thorn, "but they proved they are. Now they feel they're invincible." As Indiana Pacers Guard Billy Knight says, "The Celtics have nothing but pluses all the way down the line. They shoot well, run well, rebound well and defend well. What else is there?"
Well, possibly there is Milwaukee. If ever there was a team whose time had come, that team was this season's Bucks. Milwaukee had made a joke of the Central Division race by Christmas—and had done that largely without the help of Forward Marques Johnson, who was holding out for a million dollars a year, or the right to be a male model, or both. While Johnson was out, third-year man Sidney Moncrief ever so quietly established himself as one of the most feared players in the NBA, leading the Bucks in scoring, rebounding, assists and minutes played. Things seemed to be coming together nicely after Johnson was signed on Dec. 9, and the Bucks, who were eliminated in a pair of classic seven-game conference semifinal series with Seattle and Philadelphia the past two years, appeared ready to win something besides respect. "If we don't win it this year," Center Bob Lanier said, "it's never going to happen."
Perhaps it never will. On March 17 the Bucks lost sixth man Junior Bridgeman for the season with a stress fracture in his left foot. Then, nine days later, Point Guard Quinn Buckner went out for the year with strained ligaments in his right thumb. The injuries will force Coach Don Nelson to use Brian Winters—a sensational shooter but not a good playmaker—in Buckner's spot or to ask Moncrief to change positions from shooting guard to point guard to help fill the void. In any case, Milwaukee's bench, one of the best in the league when Bridgeman and Winters are sitting on it, is now only ordinary. Also, Winters has lately missed games with a pulled groin, forcing Johnson to play guard. "The Bucks' strength was their depth and versatility," says Shue. "They could play with muscle and they could play with finesse, and they could run players in and out and keep everybody fresh."
How well Milwaukee will do now will depend largely on Lanier and Johnson. Lanier gives the Bucks strength and experience at the most important position on the floor, but his knees are so brittle that he has been averaging only 26.7 minutes per game this season. Johnson generally has struggled since his return, perhaps because he hasn't been able to adjust to no longer being the best player on the team, a role that Moncrief usurped in his absence. Johnson finally started to play like the Marques of old during the last week of March, and on April 4 he hit eight of his first nine shots against Indiana and finished with 28 points.
If he can keep that up, Milwaukee will beat Philadelphia in their semifinal series, assuming the 76ers are able to fight their way out of the mini-series.
Of the three other playoff teams in the East—New Jersey, Washington and Atlanta—the Hawks and Bullets have the experience and muscle to score a mini-series upset. "Atlanta is my dark-horse team," 76ers Assistant Coach Jack McMahon says. "When they're healthy—and they're starting to come back—they have a very powerful and good defensive team. Plus, John Drew and Dan Roundfield are hard to stop." Houston Guard Mike Dunleavy adds, "If Atlanta can keep Roundfield and Drew on the floor with [7-foot Center] Tree Rollins, they could surprise some people."
The Nets' inexperience will probably show in the postseason, but the Bullets' size (five men 6'8" or more) and ability to win on the road—20-19 during the regular season—could shock someone. The Sixers are likely to face either Atlanta or New Jersey in the first round—the matchups probably won't be decided until the regular season's final games this Sunday—and though Philadelphia would be a prohibitive favorite against either, the Hawks have given the 76ers problems for several years. Atlanta has beaten Philly three times this season—twice at the Spectrum—despite all those injuries. Now the Hawks are healthy and eminently capable of springing a surprise on any team that looks past them.
The 76ers are confident that if the expected Milwaukee-Philadelphia semifinal showdown does occur, they will brush the Bucks aside. "With that club as it is now," says Julius Erving, referring to the Bucks' loss of Buckner and Bridgeman, "we can beat them in a seven-game series no matter who has the home-court advantage. Those people are very important to their team. I don't think they can go all the way without them." It promises to be a brutal struggle, and as happened last year—when the 76ers blew a 3-1 advantage in the conference final with the Celtics after seven tough games with the Bucks—whoever emerges from the semis may not have anything left for Boston. "The winner would come out scarred," says Utah Coach Frank Layden.
If the 76ers are to beat Boston, they will almost surely have to have Center Darryl Dawkins back at full strength, and Dawkins, who came back March 24 after missing two months with a broken leg, has just begun to show signs of coming around. Though not a great center, Dawkins could usually be counted on to have a couple of 20-point games in the playoffs and add some muscle to Philadelphia's anemic rebounding. He's unlikely to do that well this time. The Sixers were 21-7 with Dawkins out of action, but, as Erving points out, "It doesn't matter how we played without him. It matters how he fits back in."
A few dissenters feel that, at long last, this could be the 76ers' year. "This time they might slip up on Boston," says Harris, especially if Celtic Coach Bill Fitch insists on perpetuating the myth that Bird can play guard for more than short stretches. "It's possible that the Celtics have gone along too well, and that might set things up psychologically for the Sixers." It is hard to imagine Philadelphia beating either Milwaukee or Boston with Dawkins in little more than a spot role, so give the edge to the Bucks in the semis because they're a better rebounding team and because they're due. Scissors cut paper. Then bet the ranch on the Celtics to romp to the conference title. Rock breaks scissors. Then, when the NBA finals are over, look for the Celtics to be riding down Boston's Commonwealth Avenue in their second straight ticker-tape parade. Paper covers rock.