While you're buying condolence cards for the Boston Celtics, pick up a few get well messages. Their future may be determined as much in the operating room as on the practice floor.

Larry Bird faces back surgery. Kevin McHale may have an operation on his left foot. No need for any heart transplants, though, so mail some congratulations cards, too.The Celtics' strong spirit nearly did what their bodies couldn't - push the Detroit Pistons to a seventh game in Boston and keep alive their championship hopes.

In the Eastern Conference semifinals against Detroit, the Celtics erased all of an 18-point, third-quarter deficit before losing Game 5, then wiped out a 17-point, third-quarter deficit before being beaten in Game 6.

"It was a heckuva season, and we went down with a fight," point guard Brian Shaw said. "We just came up a little short and nobody should feel bad."

Their hopes died Friday night in a dramatic display of determination by both teams. Detroit survived, winning 117-113 in overtime, taking the Eastern Conference semifinal 4-2.

Before that game, Boston center Joe Kleine denied that the battered Celtics were just hanging on, hoping to squeeze out one more win and then hoping to do it again.

"Nobody really feels that we're hanging on," he said. "We're kind of mad at ourselves for squandering opportunities. That's the way I feel."

But Boston was 27-21 in its last 48 regular-season games after starting at 29-5. And in Game 6 against Detroit, with center Robert Parish sidelined and Shaw and Kevin Gamble mired in a playoff slump, coach Chris Ford's options were limited.

As they moved into a second straight off-season of uncertainty, the Celtics were hanging on to the past - Bird, McHale and Parish - and hoping the future - Lewis, Shaw, Gamble and Dee Brown - would hurry up.

"Sometimes," assistant coach Jon Jennings said, "you just sat there looking at those great veteran players and the great young players and wishing there was a bridge between them.

"If those young players had been around long enough to get that experience, then we would have had that bridge. We're in a delicate position."

Last summer, the Celtics were fighting in court to bring Shaw back from Italy, had no adequate replacement for him if they couldn't and were without a coach.

This summer, they will be left with memories of their courageous effort, but also of unproductive playoff seasons by two starters - Shaw and Gamble - and of how the "Hall of Fame" frontcourt was all in pain.

Parish sat out the finale with two sprained ankles, only the second game he missed all season.

McHale, playing with an injured left foot and ankle, matched his career playoff high and established his season high with 34 points Friday night. Afterward, he said Dr. Arnold Scheller, the team physician, wants to operate.

Bird, his back racked by pain, almost definitely will have surgery that could sideline him for the beginning of next season.

Bird, 34, and Parish, 37, have one year left on their contracts. The Celtics have 10 days from the end of the championship series to exercise their one-year option on McHale, 33.

The Celtics need reliable big men as eventual replacements for the ailing and aging frontcourt. After 12 seasons, Bird remains the key to the Celtics' condition.

In the regular season, they were 10-12 when his back kept him out of action and 46-14 when he played. Even though he missed only one of 11 playoff games, the pain never left and his play suffered.

Against the Pistons, he averaged only 13.4 points after scoring 19.4 per game in the regular season. His rebounding average was down from 8.5 to 6.0 and his assists from 7.2 to 4.4.

That had a snowball effect.

Without his usual defensive rebounding and outlet passes, Boston's fastbreak suffered. So did Shaw and Gamble, who do their best when the game is played in the fast lane.

In the playoffs, perhaps because of his back problems, Bird favored fallaway jumpers, which usually missed, rather than drives to the hoop more likely to draw fouls.

Still, the Celtics went to Bird when they needed big baskets.

He came through in the opening series against Indiana. The story was different against Detroit.

In a 116-111 loss in Game 5, he missed a foul-line jumper with Detroit ahead 106-104 and a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left and the Pistons leading 108-106.

In Game 6, he missed three of his last four shots, including a tough fallaway that would have tied it with 22 seconds left in regulation. He didn't take a shot in overtime.