Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 33 vs. the 76ers

Celtics (25-7) vs. 76ers (23-9)
December 19, 1979
Boston Garden

If the Celtics ever made a statement game in December, then this was the one.

And really, was there any doubt the Celtics would lose game #33 of this season?

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“You can call it a glamour game if you like,”  Celtics coach Bill Fitch told Larry Whiteside in the Boston Globe’s game preview.  “I don’t think crucial is the right word.  Not this early in the season.  It’s a very important game, but no matter what happens, we will still be in first place…”

The game, which was not televised but heard locally on WBZ Radio, packed a capacity crowd of 15,320 to see the Celtics hammer the Sixers and eradicate a few demons in the process.

There is a purpose to what these Boston Celtics are doing this year, Leight Montville wrote in the December 20, 1979 edition of the Globe. found in the Boston Globe Archive access.  They are not just playing a random 82-game set of basketball games, are they?  They are settling scores.

Somewhere in the back of their minds, or folded up and kept in the secret compartments of their wallets, there is a tattered and oft-handled list that was compiled during two long years of trouble.  All the names and all the numbers are on the list.  All the transgressions, real and imagined.  All the humiliations.  Somewhere there is this list and now, one by one, the names and numbers and embarrassments are being checked off.

The Bullets … the San Antonio Spurs … the Atlanta Hawks … the screamers behind the bench in New York… the yahoos in Houston … Elvin, EEEEEEEEE, Hayes … Larry, Dr. K., Kenon … Don Nelson and the Milwaukee Bucks.  One by one.  One after another.  Night after night.

And now … the biggest one of all.  The Philadelphia 76ers.

Philly suffered a setback with the loss of Doug Collins with a stress fracture of the right foot and a bone spur on his right ankle a week prior in back-to-backs with the Hawks (a surprising 4-0 so far against Philly).  Julius Erving, who dropped a line of 37/10/8 on the Celtics in their first meeting, was held to 20 points on this evening at the Garden, and the Celtics defense was not intimidated by brute forward Darryl Dawkins.

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And so we give you Boston 112, Philadelphia 89, wrote Bob Ryan in the 12/20/79 Globe.  We give you 15,320 stomping, roaring, cheering fans who, on a night of countless ovations, saved their biggest for Jeff Judkins when took a pass on a fast break, dribbled backward into the right corner and swished a three-point jumper to give the Celtics a 108-81 lead with 3:12 left.   As his coach frantically signaled for timeout.  It is ever thus for these star-struck athletes.  Were a Celtic to throw a brick through a department-store window at high noon on Washington Street, he undoubtedly would be given a civic citation.  The Celtics have won six straight.  They have a three-game lead over the 76ers.  They can do no wrong.

The Bird Era had officially begun.

“People can’t keep us down,” Chris Ford told Bob Ryan.  “Not as a unit, anyway.”

What the Celtics did to their chief divisional rivals was keep the visitors from getting inside, take care of themselves on the backboards (even winning the second-chance point battle, 10-8) and then run like hell.

With the defense sagging masterfully on the cold-shooting 76ers, and with the Celtics connecting on 1 of their first 16 second-quarter shots en route to a 38-point period (18 on the fast break), Boston expanded a shaky 22-18 one-quarter advantage into such comfortable margins as 37-20, 44-26 and 56-35 in the second period.

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Leigh Montville’s column added to the excitement of the Celtics’ rebirth.

How many sad nights had the Celtics spent with these same Sixers in the two woebegone years?  How many cruises had they seen by the Good Doctor, the estimable Mr. Julius Erving from the University of Massachusetts?  How big had the manchild, Dr. Dunkenstein, Darryl Dawkins seemed?  How far away had the greatest rivalry in the NBA slipped, the Sixers off to division championships and folderol, the Celtics off to dark places and quiet conversation?

“I’d have had to have been very skeptical about it, don’t you think?” Cedric Maxwell replied.  “I mean, we were looking forward, but this … this is just a plus, everybody coming together this way.  All the turmoil, all the animosity of those two years are gone.  It’s just beautiful.”

The tune that the Celtics did on the Sixers last night at the Garden was nothing less than the answer to one of their fans’ most wild dreams for two long years.  The Celtics didn’t just beat the Sixers, 112-89, last night.  The Celtics humiliated the Sixers, 112-89.

Philadelphia.  Check.  The rivalry has been born again.

The Celtics returned to action by hosting the Spurs on Friday, and then a quick return bout in Philly on Saturday.

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.

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