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After Larry Bird scored 14 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 30, the Boston Celtics were 19-10 and pressing the New York Knicks for the NBA's Atlantic Division lead.

Then, Bird was forced to the sidelines with an inflamed nerve in his lower back. As expected, the Celtics sagged without their 13-year veteran.In the last 28 games without Bird, the Celtics have struggled with a 12-16 record. They went 4-9 in February, including victories in their only two games in Boston Garden.

Now, two months into 1992, Bird is expected to return to action Sunday night when the Celtics meet the Dallas Mavericks at the Garden.

Bird, who underwent lower back surgery last June, was the league's only player among the top 20 in scoring, rebounds and assists when he left the lineup. He could be just what the Celtics, now 31-26, need for a jumpstart in the final weeks of the season. But the Celtics are wary of that line of thinking.

"One guy isn't going to turn this around, we've got to do it as a team," said 38-year-old center Robert Parish, who signed a new two-year contract while Bird was out.

Ed Pinckney, who has filled in for Bird in the starting lineup, said "we can definitely use him" but "whether he'll cure anything is hard to say."