May 5th, 1980
v.s. Philadelphia 76ers: Then The Celtics Blinked
In the eyeball-to-eyeball cockpit of the NBA playoffs those Jones Boys—Caldwell (below) and Bobby—caged Larry Bird as Philly triumphed in five games
Something had seemed askew right from the beginning. There were the Philadelphia 76ers with all those playoff veterans, coming off a season of hard work, team harmony and splendid success. Their prodigious individual talents had finally been blended to produce the team's best season—59-23—since the Chamberlain years. Yet the Boston Celtics were still expected to win the NBA Eastern finals. Boston's rise from the rubble to a 61-21 season and its four-game sweep of Houston in the Eastern semis certainly helped shape that opinion. But so, it seemed, had all those championship banners hanging from the rafters and Red Auerbach's cigar. Who out there didn't want to believe in the Boston Celtics?
But after Philadelphia beat the Celtics 105-94 in Boston last Sunday to win the series four games to one, in retrospect the Celts' fatal flaws were all too apparent. "It seems obvious now how much better we are, doesn't it?" said Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham. "I'll tell you. We never thought we'd win it in five."
Why not? The 76ers, after all, had a grown-up and determined Darryl Dawkins who had finally learned how to play this game, alongside indomitable defender Caldwell Jones. Boston had a tired Dave Cowens alongside noted nondefender Cedric Maxwell. Philly had a back-court of Maurice Cheeks, a point guard for the '80s, and Lionel Hollins, a fine shooter just three years removed from a championship in Portland, who had been stolen in February for a 1981 draft choice. Boston had Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who vitiated his fine comeback season with a wildly erratic series, and Chris Ford, another reclamation project who, against the Sixers, couldn't shoot the ball into the Charles River from the bank.
Julius Erving scored only 14 points in the final game, after averaging 27 in the previous four, but by that time Bird, the only Celtic who had a chance to stop him, was so tired that he shot five-for-19 and scored but 12 points against the defense of Jones and Jones—Caldwell and Bobby—who took turns harassing him. After his rookie season ended in unexpected disappointment, just as his collegiate career had a year ago, Bird said sadly, "We were considered the best team, but they put us away like we were nothing."
And so the Sixers did. The Celtics might have thought from the previous four games that if they held Erving to 14 points, the fifth would be theirs. But no. Instead, Hollins took over from the start, scoring 24 points on an assortment of jumpers, drives and trips to the foul line against Ford and M.L. Carr. And Bobby Jones, one of the best sixth men in basketball, maybe the best defensive forward and the fastest, most sure-handed fast-break wingman alive, threw in 19 points on eight-of-10 shooting, while Dawkins had 18 and Caldwell Jones 12.
Boston was able to get within two points of the Sixers a couple of times in the second period and to within four early in the third. But the 76ers never became rattled. "We can beat them too many ways," said Hollins. "Doc doesn't score, so we score for him."
And Philadelphia played defense—forcing Archibald to make seven turnovers and Bird six. "I suppose we didn't play very well," said Cowens, who, with 22 points, had his only decent offensive game of the series. "We just couldn't get anything going for any length of time. The fine points weren't there, It's sort of a shock, because I don't think anyone on this team thought we were going to lose."
Whether the magic simply ended for the Celtics in Philadelphia in Games 3 and 4, or whether the 76ers finally realized the destiny that Fitz Dixon's millions began buying in the mid-'70s will surely be grist for analysis.
But the record shows that neither game was a classic, that except for a 12-minute segment of Game 3, which ought to be preserved in the Smithsonian for future generations, Philly's strategy mostly consisted of sending in fresh defensive troops who made the Celtics fold up quite docilely.
Even after Erving's blitz—19 points in those classic 12 minutes that put the 76ers up by 14 points with 6:10 left to play—the Celtics still found themselves with the ball and a chance to win in the final 16 seconds. But they fumbled it away on their 25th turnover, an appalling number for such fine passers and ball handlers, on a confusing play invented for the moment by Coach Bill Fitch. Philadelphia won 99-97. As for Game 4, the 76ers, leading 86-74 at the end of the third quarter, won 102-90 even though they made only two baskets in 23 attempts in the fourth.
It wasn't that the Celtics were unprepared for the 76ers. In fact, they might have been overprepared and over-coached. Instead of sticking with the game that earned them the best record in the NBA and the sweep of outclassed Houston—the simplest of running, passing and shooting games—Fitch constantly changed lineups. He kept his bench warm, and at times grumpy, with regulars like Archibald and Maxwell for committing a few turnovers. Fitch was hauling around so much tape and TV equipment some players began calling him Captain Video. This is the man who installed a special antenna outside his hotel room in New Jersey a while back to pick up a TV game from Philadelphia, the man who sometimes vacates the bench during games to view replays in the locker room.
Still, Cunningham was able to show off a new defensive trick in Games 3 and 4 to slow down Bird, who had won Game 2 with 31 points and had scored 27 in the opener. Instead of having to chase Bird, Erving switched to Maxwell, who rarely ventures more than a layup away from the basket. Meanwhile, the alternating tandem of Jones and Jones took Bird. He had 22 and 19 points in Games 3 and 4, respectively, but he tired sufficiently to let his man, Erving, loose for 28 and 30.
Bird's fatigue showed in Game 3, and he said, "I think the Doctor knew it." Did he ever. Boston led 58-57 when Erving lit up the Spectrum. First he took off from the foul line, floated to the basket and made a finger-roll layup off the fast break. Then he hit a 15-foot jumper over Bird. Next came a reverse layup from behind the glass. Then he assisted Bobby Jones on a layup. And so on...and on.
After the game, the Doctor said. "I amaze myself with what I do maybe one percent of the time. The other times it's merely repetition. The buildings and the names and the faces change, but, generally, I do what I expect of myself. And I don't think about my dunk shots. I just make sure I have a place to land."
The play Fitch dreamed up in Game 3 came with 16 seconds left and the Celtics down by two. Pete Maravich was supposed to take the shot, but the Celtics passed the ball aimlessly, and Maravich never knew what to do with it. Finally, Carr rolled it toward Cowens, who fumbled it away. Afterward, some Celtics put the knock on Fitch. Said one, "He has about 200 plays but we use five. Why did he pick one of the other 195? Nobody knew what was going on."
Game 4 was the most puzzling of all. The 76ers shot that miserable .087 in the fourth quarter, yet they blocked an astounding 15 Celtic shots in the game—five by Bobby Jones, four by Dawkins, two each by Erving, Caldwell Jones and Steve Mix. Twice in the fourth period the 76ers went four minutes without scoring, and in those eight minutes the Celtics got exactly eight points.
"Has something happened to this team?" said Fitch. "No. We're not going to fall for that one. This team is happy. We're working. They're blocking our shots. If we can manage to get the damn ball into the basket, get a little lucky...."
As Fitch said those words in the locker room, there was a loud crash and a scream. A large mirror had fallen from above Carr's locker, shattering on his head, and opened a four-inch gash on the back of his right shoulder. The accident left a chill in the room. Fitch looked ashen. "You see what I mean about things not going right?" he said.
After Sunday's crusher, Fitch had tears in his eyes, though the relief from the strain was just as' apparent. "Knowing you're not as bad as they made you look is some comfort," he said. "If people really want to know how good we are, they'd better buy a season ticket and come in here next year to find out."