Celtics (31-10) vs. Hawks (26-17)
January 11, 1980
The Celtics hosted the Atlanta Hawks on this date thirty-three years ago in the Garden. Winners of three of the past four, the Celts hoped to build some momentum on this marathon seven-game homestand at the Garden. Sandwiched in-between an intense match-up with New York and a rematch with the Los Angeles Lakers stood the Atlanta Hawks. Hubie Brown’s team of overachievers, on their way to a 50-win season, laid a 28-point beatdown on the Celtics the last time the two teams met. The defeat also marked the Celtics’ only home loss of the season, with a 17-1 record nearly midpoint in the season. A balanced attack from the Celtics’ starting five, as well as a breakout performance from Rick Robey, allowed the Celtics to avenge the loss and defeat the Hawks, 108-93. The game also featured four ejections, all beginning near the end of the first quarter.
Along with the 22 points, Robey (a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line) also added 10 rebounds (six of which were off the offensive glass). At 6’11”, his presence was a necessity after Dave Cowens was ejected for fighting. Short their primary post defender, the Green needed someone to step up, and the former standout from the University of Kentucky delivered. Bob Ryan detailed in the next day’s Globe:
The game had erupted with 2:37 remaining in a very rough first period when Cowens and Rollins threw several punches and wound up being ejected by lead referee Joe Gushue. Cowens was off to a sensational rebounding start (five in the first four minutes, including three on the offensive boards), and during a timeout at 6:10, Atlanta coach Hubie Brown delivered the following message to his troops:
“Don’t tell me Cowens is going over your backs, ’cause we know he’s going over your backs. Knock ‘im down.”
About three minutes later, trouble brewed between the monstrous Rollins and the ever-combative Cowens.
In only nine minutes before his ejection, Dave Cowens rebounded at a feverish rate, picking up 6 boards. His skirmish with Tree Hollins, who had manhandled the Celtics with six blocks the last time the Hawks visited Boston, occurred with 2:57 remaining in the opening frame. The incident, detailed in the Boston Globe by Bob Ryan, set off a string of ejections, with Atlanta assistant Mike Fratello and head coach Hubie Brown among the casualties removed from the game.
Larry Bird shook off any and all injuries to his ankle and a bruised right hand to play 46 minutes. Bird only shot 7-18 from the field for 14 points (and went 0-1 from the line), but found other ways to affect the game: he collected 13 boards, five assists, and four steals.
“I was just glad to find out [his right hand] wasn’t broken,” Bill Fitch told the Boston Globe. “Larry didn’t look good today, but he’ll be able to look good about a week from now. There is no question that he is hurting. Most Birds need their wings. Our Bird needs his feet and hands to win. As good as he is, he’s still not much of a one-on-one player.”
Fitch pointed to Bird’s rebounding and the overall play of Nate Archibald as the game-changers after Cowens’ ejection:
Robey was doing a good job on the boards for the Celtics, but the key man was Bird, who seemed to take Cowens’ ejection as a personal affront, and who was a visibly more aggressive player when Cowens departed.
Bird wasn’t the only player under discussion, nor the only one to be singled out as a result of his play… Nate Archibald missed a portion of practice after he was accidentally hit by a teammate’s elbow. When he returned, he found himself being criticized by his coach, which is nothing new, since Fitch says the team’s playmaker is always in a no-win situation.
“People have been saying that Nate has been playing well this season,” said Fitch. “I can think of 10 times that he didn’t – the 10 times we lost. Now, you can say I’m being tough on Nate, and you’re right. But I know he can do better, and so does he.
“Nate has a tough job. I understand that, and he’s probably caught more hell in the 31 victories this year than the other guys did in the 10 we lost,” Fitch continued. “But the only thing I can be disappointed about in him is if that he fails to smile each day. I took him out against New York and he didn’t get as many minutes (33) as you might think. But sometimes when a guy isn’t going well or is making a mistake, you put in somebody else to help build their confidence. You’d like to find out if Rick Robey and Gerald Henderson are the guys who played poorly against San Antonio Saturday night or the guys who played so well against New York. They need a chance to build up their confidence, too.”
Chris Ford had a wretched 1-9 night shooting, but kept his streak alive with another 3-pointer, making that 10 straight games — and 22 out of the past 23 — with a hoop from long distance. The shot, as Ryan noted, had a lasting effect on the game:
Boston only trailed once (8-6), and led by such checkpoint margins as 21-17, and 54-43 before putting the game away in the final 6 1/2 minutes.
The Celtics, who had only scored seven field goals in the first 16 1/2 minutes of the second half (surviving via free throws), were clinging to an 88-81 lead with 6:45 to play when Chris Ford ignited the key spurt with his only basket of the night – a three-pointer from the left flank. Two more conventional three-point plays, by Robey (a followup) and Nate Archibald (a one-on-one back-in flip over Charlie Criss) boosted the margin to a comfortable 97-85, and that was that.
With the win under their belt, the Celtics could return their focus to Earvin Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the rest of Paul Westhead’s Lakers. In his notebook, Ryan captured some of the excitement of the upcoming contest with LA:
Brent Musberger arrived in town early to do some homework in preparation for tomorrow’s televised game against the Los Angeles Lakers . . . The sellout crowd at the Garden last night gave the Celtics 13 capacity crowds in 19 home games. They are already sold out for tomorrow’s LA game, and that will boost them over the 14,000 mark in average attendance for the first time in their history (past the month of October, anyway) . . . Remember that tomorrow’s game (1 p.m.) will be on Channel 38 and not Channel 7. The latter is committed to the Cerebral Palsy telethon . . .
The Celtics and Lakers tipped off at 1pm on Sunday.