Celtics (39-13) vs. Washington (23-28)
January 31, 1980
The Celtics ended the first half of the season by embarrassing the back-to-back defending Eastern Conference champions on their home floor. The NBA landscape was changing: the Celtics had replaced the Bullets as one of the East’s top two teams, and the second half of the season would provide the Lakers with the same opportunity to replace Seattle as the premiere team in the West.
Larry Bird led the Celtics in their 119-103 victory with 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists. After allowing the Bullets to push them around a week earlier at the Garden, the Celtics responded by amplifying their intense and physicality. The Celtics won the battle of the boards, 47-38. Another key for the C’s was the play of Eric Fernstern, who appeared to be on the cutting block the moment Pete Maravich was ready to play. Fernstern, as Bob Ryan noted in the Globe, made his teammates proud with this performance:
But nobody made his teammates happier last night than Eric Fernsten, the quiet, likeable guy with the West Point posture and uncertain future. He earned his salary (which is undoubtedly less than one-tenth of Bird’s) with his best Celtic performance in a 25- minute, 11-point stint without which the big victory could never have been recorded.
Fernsten entered the game early. Rick Robey picked up his second foul with 1:36 left in the first quarter and the score 26-25, Washington. Celtic coach Bill Fitch wasn’t fooling around. Remembering that Fernsten had made a key contribution in Chicago two nights before, Fitch unhesitatingly called upon the slender third- string center and asked him to go against man mountain Westley (Unseld).
“That first half was the most I’ve played in that tempo,” Fernsten explained. “Bill pulled me late in the half and said, You didn’t go to the offensive boards the last three time downcourt.’ I told him I was tired. But I felt pretty good. I got up at 6 o’clock this morning and ran the stairs in my building so I had decent wind.”
His teammates want him to succeed very badly, and they all believe he has a place on this team. “Every player on this team can play,” said Cedric Maxwell. “Eric just needed a chance, and now with Dave out he’s getting it. He gives me fits in practice. What you’re seeing now is the real Eric Fernsten.”
Fernsten believes his recent playing time is finally enabling him to prove that he belongs in the league. “Bill has faith in me, and I hope I’m not embarrassing him,” he said. “I’m trying to learn every time out, and I believe that if you don’t improve, you don’t belong here.”
To Chris Ford, Fernsten’s big game demonstrates what this Celtic club is all about. “It was the same old story tonight,” he said. “This is a complete team. I don’t think people in the outside know the full feeling we have here. Everyone has confidence in everyone else. The guys believe in each other so much.”
Before the second half of the season would begin, Bird and Archibald would play as reserves for the Eastern Conference in the All Star game (Dave Cowens was replaced by Bill Cartwright). Ryan discussed the significance of the pair playing in the game:
There may be no player happier to be here than Archibald, whose major concern has been to expunge the flu bug from his system so that he might perform up to his standards. Tiny has had a rough three years, and it is widely believed that had the Celtics placed him on waivers at any time during the summer he would have gone unclaimed. For him to come back and make the All-Star team is a stunning achievement.
Bird is coming off a week in which he has played the finest basketball of his brief NBA career. He has stopped being so polite and respectful of his elders and has begun asserting himself offensively. He left customers, rival coaches and teammates babbling in Chicago, Boston and Landover with his sensational play in those three ports.
Bird told the Globe, “I don’t know if I belong; maybe they put me on the team to sell tickets.”
As for the remainder of the season, many questions still faced the C’s. When would Cowens return? Who would be cut (or traded) to open up a roster spot for Pete Maravich, and what impact would have on the team? With the Celtics atop the NBA and the Bruins holding the third best record (31-14-7) in the NHL, could both teams make extended playoff runs? (Just like the Celtics, the Bruins were also being carried by a rookie — 19-year-old Raymond Bourque).
Regardless of all the questions and dissenting opinions, the Celtics held one thing in their favor: they were going to battle with Larry Bird.
Bird, Bob Ryan wrote in a column entitled “Larry Bird, Celtics MVP,” is barely two-thirds of the way through his first regular season in the NBA and already he is being taken for granted. People have a hard time admitting the obvious. Out-of-towners are pretending that other rookies are his equal as a ballplayer when they are not. What’s even more amazing is that many people locally are so casually accepting his greatness.
I wonder exactly what game people have been watching if they haven’t noticed what Bird has been doing. Hey, people, wake up. Larry Bird is the reason for the passing madness which has engulfed the Celtics. Larry Bird has given this team, which is neither very strong nor very swift, a dimension of full-court basketball it couldn’t have otherwise. Without Larry Bird the Celtics would be much easier to defense. You must realize this.
It’s no accident that the smart opponents are the ones who appreciate him the most. Jamaal Wilkes was lavish in praise of Bird, and just the other day Bill Walton declared that Bird had done a lot more for the Celtics than Earvin Johnson had done for the Lakers because Bird had turned around a team while Magic had essentially augmented Kareem, and that Bird’s approach to the game reminded him of [John Havlicek]’s. The flip side, of course, is that a moron like Joe Bryant declares that Bird is “too slow.”
The Celtics had transitioned from Bill Russell to Dave Cowens, and now from John Havlicek to Larry Bird. The team would open the second half of the season on Wednesday, February 6 at the Garden against Philadelphia with Bird leading the way.