Decline of the aging Celtics


BOSTON -- It is a foregone conclusion that Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale are going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. The destiny of the Boston Celtics franchise is equally clear but not so lofty.

The NBA's winningest franchise has now been eliminated in the first playoff round in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1951-52.


By next December, Bird will be 34, Parish 37, McHale 33, and Dennis Johnson 36. The Celtics bench has not been reliable or productive -- in Sunday's Game 5 loss to the New York Knicks, Boston's reserves scored a total of four points, all on foul shots -- and there appear to be no stars-in-waiting on the Celtics bench.

Whether the Celtics' decline has merely coincided with the two-year reign of coach Jimmy Rodgers or been because of him is uncertain. Rodgers' intelligence is unquestioned, but his team never developed one reliable style.


At mid-season, Bird was unhappy with his role because the offense called for him to be out on the wing rather than inside where he prefers to play and can get more rebounds and handle the ball more. But the three-time MVP denies he has any problem with Rodgers.

'Our relationship's good,' Bird said after the Celtics' post-season elimination. 'Some press started it all. I respect the man. I respect all the coaches I ever had.'

Bird said that playing for Rodgers has been an 'awesome experience,' and added, 'Of course I don't agree with everything, I agree with 95 percent of it.'

Asked whether a coaching change may take place, Bird responded: 'Jimmy Rodgers will be here long after Larry Bird's gone. Other players will come in here and win championships and they'll forget about me.'

Rodgers, asked about personnel changes, responded, 'We'll look at every aspect of what this basketball team is all about and what it did and didn't do. I'm not sure at this point what is to be done.'

Since Bird arrived in Boston in 1979, the Celtics have won three NBA crowns. Parish, McHale and Bird have played together for 10 seasons and were each All-Stars this year, but it is Bird's effectiveness which makes the difference between winning and losing. In the decisive fourth quarter of Game 5, Bird hit only 1 of 6 shots and missed a reverse dunk with 4:17 remaining that would have brought Boston within two points.


'I made some real bonehead plays down the stretch,' admitted Bird. 'I'm as shocked as everyone else. This is the lowest I've felt since I've been here.'

Also hampering Boston's effort was a second-quarter injury to McHale, who tore the planta fascia tendon in his left foot but was able to continue playing. After the game, he was fitted with a removable cast.

This season, the Celtics won 52 games, an impressive total until it is noted that 17 victories were over the league's four expansion teams and perennial loser New Jersey.

Next year, guard Brian Shaw will be back from his season in the Italian League, and 6-foot-11 Yugoslavian Dino Radja will be eligible to play with the Celtics, whose lone young star is swingman Reggie Lewis.

The team's first-round draft pick is likely to be a guard because Johnson is a free agent and may not return to Boston even if they choose to offer him a contract. While Bird is probably a Celtic forever and Parish would be hard to get even-value in return, every other player is appears expendable.

Reserve center Joe Kleine is the only non-starter nearly certain of being a Celtic next season. The other substitutes: guards John Bagley, John Paxson, Charles Smith and Kevin Gamble, and forwards Michael Smith and Ed Pinckney, were minimal contributors.


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