Celtics (0-0) vs. Houston (0-0)
April 9, 1980
**After yesterday’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon, I send my prayers to all those affected.
With the NBA playoffs set to begin and the Celtics traveling to New York, it’s a good opportunity to look back at the Celtics playoff run from the 1980 season. After finishing a 61-win season, the Celtics healed up during their first round bye and awaited the winner of the Houston-San Antonio best-of-three series. As soon as Houston discarded the Spurs (Moses Malone dominated with 37 points and 20 rebounds in the series finale, while Calvin Murphy added 33 points),the Celtics took the series opener against the Rockets, 119-101.
Having won all six of the regular season meetings, the C’s were thrilled with the match-up. Yet regardless of regular season success, Del Harris’ Rockets still offered a plethora of talent, ranging from Hall of Fame talents at the end of their career like Murphy and Rick Barry while also hitting opponents with a superstar in the making in Moses Malone. A couple of other future NBA head coaches, Mike Dunleavy and Rudy Tomjanovich, also suited up and played meaningful minutes for Houston.
The Rockets were never able to catch the Celtics off-guard after their lengthy break, largely thanks to the work of former Celtic John Havlicek. In the April 8, 1980 edition of the Boston Globe, Bob Ryan commented on coach Bill Fitch’s strategy to include the Bouncin’ Buckeye in his team’s playoff preparation:
Maybe Bill Fitch thinks that class and experience can be transmitted to his team by osmosis. Why else would he invite John Havlicek to work out with his ballclub?
Wearing the No. 27 made famous by Kevin Stacom and Marvin Barnes, Havlicek has been taking part in Celtic practices prior to the playoff opener against the Houston Rockets tomorrow night. “Bill just said that if I wasn’t doing anything to come over and work out with them,” Havlicek explained. “It gives him another body so he can come up with different looks.” We all knew Fitch was thorough, but this time he may have reached new heights.
The Rockets, whom the Globe reported were staying in Danvers at the Radisson since all rooms were booked in the posh Boston hotels, struggled all night to contain Dave Cowens. The Celtics center, rumored to come off the bench due to soreness in his big toe, started at Fitch’s behest. His energy on the defensive end of the floor, 17 points, and 13 rebounds confirmed that the rest during the 10-day break served him well. Strange to say Cowens helped limit Malone to just 27 points and 13 boards of his own, but his relentless, aggressive style of defense definitely bothered the big man.
“It’s no secret how I play against Moses,” Cowens told Bob Ryan after the game. “If he gets the ball down low, you’ve got to be very lucky; he’s very aggressive and can’t be stopped. In fact, I don’t even worry about the rebound. I try to screen him off and hope I get help from Larry Bird, M.L. Carr or whoever is in there.”
Malone and his Rockets trailed immediately against the Celtics, getting hit with a 39-point blietzkrieg during the first quarter and were already trailing by sixteen, 39-23, after the first twelve minutes. Instead of focusing on allowing eleven more turnovers than the Celtics, the Rockets were fixated on what they perceived to be a lack of consistency from the officiating crew. A capacity crowd at the Garden did not appreciate the complaining coming from the mouth of the Houston MVP:
“I think the fact that the man had three fouls in the first half and sat down, then had none in the second tells you something,” Malone told Ryan afterward. “The calls have got to be called. I don’t think it makes a difference in my game if Cowens or Robey is out there if the calls are being made. But they have to be called. I could be physical like that. If I wanted to beat up on people, I could. But that’s just not my game.”
Cowens said his success last night was not based on individual skills alone. Nor was his offensive outburst.
“Mainly, I just try to play the position,” he said. “Know where the ball is and where my man is and what my teammates are doing. If they are denying the passing lanes, then it means Houston has to do something else to get the ball inside. Moses gets the ball low a lot of times on picks. You’ve got to beat him to that spot.”
The Celtics also received standout performances from Cedric Maxwell (15 points, 6 offensive boards, 12 rebounds), Larry Bird (15 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists), and Nate Archibald (10 points, 9 assists). The Celtics took care of the basketball and limited themselves to only 12 turnovers for the night.
For as wonderful as the Celtics started the game, the Rockets crept back to within a point (69-68) early in the third quarter. Thanks to the offensive efficiency of sharpshooting guard Chris Ford, who finished with a team-high 19 points, Boston was able to pull away to take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series. Ford, the original 3-point king, did not connect on any of his three-point attempts, instead hitting seven field goals and all five of his free throws. After missing a good chunk of the end of the regular season, Bill Fitch displayed his confidence in Ford even after Pete Maravich had been a key contributor to the Celtics winning the division. During the game two recap, a closer look will be taken at Maravich’s role after finally accomplishing his goal of contributing to a winning team in the playoffs.
The Celtics remained at the Garden game for game two on Friday, April 11.