Bird’s Rookie Year — ECF vs. the 76ers

Philadelphia 4, Boston 1

**My apologies for the delay in the finale of these posts.  Bruins coverage took up the majority of time, but here is a look at games 3-5 of the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals in Larry Bird’s rookie season.

The Celtics entered the Philadelphia Spectrum with one goal: capture at least one of the next two games to regain the home court advantage.  After winning 61 games during the regular season and quickly sweeping the Houston Rockets, the 76ers took the series opener at the Garden.  The Celtics had yet to win a game in Philadelphia all season, and the team understood that returning to Boston in a 1-3 hole would likely spell doom.

Still seeking his first NBA championship, Julius Erving understood the importance of putting the opponent away early.  The Sixers appeared to have the Celtics beat, nursing a double-digit lead late in the fourth quarter before the C’s made one last attempt to steal back home court.

Bird and Dr. J

The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan detailed the loss:

It was as if Teddy Roosevelt had charged right up San Juan Hill, only to stumble and shoot himself in the leg.  Here were the Celtics, trailing by a 14-point margin with just 6:09 to play, down by just two points with 16 seconds left and in possession of the basketball. Had they somehow managed to pull this one out, it would have gone down as one of their great playoff triumphs of all time.

They never gave themsleves a chance.  For M.L. Carr, one of the men responsible for the comeback surge, threw away a pass intended for Dave Cowens with four seconds left.  Pesky Maurice Cheeks got a hand on the ball (“It would have been a lay up,” sighed Carr) and turned the play into Boston turnover number 25.  There was a scramble for the ball, and Cheeks emerged to dribble out the clock.

And so the Philadelphia 76ers, backed by a vocal capacity crowd of 18,276 at the Spectrum, and inspired by the great Julius Erving during their 33-point third period, took a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference final with a wild 99-97 triumph over the scrappy, but sloppy, Bostonians last night.

Larry Bird delivered 22 points and 21 rebounds in the game three defeat.  Dr. J, three assists shy of a triple-double, added 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists.  The Celtics controlled the glass in this one, but when the C’s lost, one of two situations always cropped up.  Either the team’s lack of size proved costly, or the Celtics were simply sloppy with the ball.  A telling tale in this game were the 25 turnovers from the Celtics, seven of which came from Nate Archibald.  Tiny scored 18 points and added 7 assists, but the Celtics were far more successful throughout the season when Archibald distributed instead of scored.  Following the loss, Ryan spoke with Bill Fitch about the alarming number of turnovers:

As far as a lot of them go, I’ll use the example of trying to eat soup with a fork, Fitch told Ryan, who printed the remarks in the April 25, 1980 edition of the Globe.  Many of them can be easily eliminated, because the passes shouldn’t be tried again.  You can’t have more than one Clark Gable in a production.  Somebody else has to play supporting roles.  A lot of fast-break errors were not made by Tiny (Archibald), but by people who normally fill the lanes.

Trailing two games to one, the Celtics endured a painful loss in game four.  Philadelphia shot nine — yes, 9 — percent in the final quarter from the field yet still found a way to win the basketball game.  Bird finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds, but was out-dueled by Erving’s 30 points.

Julius Erving Passing Ball to Teammate

“It was war out there in that last quarter,”
Erving told the Globe’s Michael Madden.  “No other word for it but war.  But it was defense, too.  Offense comes and goes but defense has got to stay.”

The loss marked the fourth straight game that the Celtics had been held under 100 points, and Philly was proving it could be known for its defense and rebounding.  The Sixers opened the fourth quarter with the ball and, thanks to their grit on the glass, picked up three offensive rebounds and controlled the ball for the first 95 seconds of the fourth.  Turnovers doomed the Celtics in game three, but game four was lost on the boards.

“I felt before the series that we could go on to Boston and win one or two games, and I felt we could win two here,”
Erving told Madden.  “No, it doesn’t surprise me.  This is a talented team here.”

Darryl Dawkins stands over Larry Bird

The Celtics returned home to the Garden for game five.  Philadelphia clinched the series with a 105-94 victory, ending a wildly successful season that ended seven wins shy of a fourteenth banner.  In an interview with Bob Ryan, Fitch discussed a very good year that was a championship shy of being great.

Though plainly disappointed at not going farther, Fitch knows that he and his players had a fabulous season.  “We were somewhere in between the 61 games and the 1-4 against Philly,” he summarize[d].  “We had a great talent in Larry Bird, and the rest of the talent wasn’t dog meat, either.  We had 10-game periods when (Cedric) Maxwell was All-World, or when Dave Cowens was as good as he ever was.  The four games Chris Ford played against Houston were as good as anything he played all year.  We beat some teams with great talent, and it was something to be proud of.”

The 76ers were able to do what so few teams in NBA history had ever done — clinch a series on the Garden parquet.  In an interview with BSMW, Pat Williams, the GM of the 1980 Sixers, shared his thoughts on the win:

“Coming out of the Boston Garden with a convincing win was rare,” said Williams.  “Our continuity was a huge part of our success.  It was very gratifying to see Red not light up that cigar.  To visitors in that building, that was the ultimate: no cigar smoke.  We all wanted to knock off Red, though he made that very hard.  It didn’t happen very often.”

Williams was particularly enthralled with the Dr. J-Larry Bird match-up.

Larry Bird and Julius Erving fight for a rebound

“We’ll never forget those two and the way they played against each other.  They were the two best forwards in the game at that time.  Julius was a little bit older and had been around longer, but Larry Bird wanted to remove Julius from his perch.  They truly got after one another.  Their rivalry was real, it was dogged, and they went after each other every time.”

In Williams’ eyes, the battle between two historic cities in Boston and Philadelphia made the games even more meaningful.

“There is a long, rich history in both cities.  Both cities had an edge, cared deeply, lived and died with their teams, and it was a lifetime pattern.  It was part of their DNA in Boston, and it was the same in Philadelphia.  They absolutely thrived, lived and died, with their teams.  The two cities — two old American cities, two historic Revolutionary War cities — and both deeply involved, caring sports towns.”

In his interview with BSMW, M.L. Carr held no regrets with the way the series ended.

“The fact Philadelphia had played together and were together a little longer than we were, explained Carr, “and there was a better understanding of what to expect at that time.  It was a great situation to get to that point, but it was a lesson that we learned: we were beat by a better team at that point.

The end of the series also marked the final time Dave Cowens would ever play a game in Celtics green.  Cowens retired before the start of the following season, as did “Pistol” Pete Maravich.  Cowens would eventually return to the NBA in 1982 to play a forgettable season for Don Nelson’s Milwaukee Bucks, but both players were rumored to have a growing distaste of Bill Fitch’s coaching style, which some viewed as something of a dictatorship.

Game 5 farewell to Dave Cowens

Cowens’ career as a Celtic ended by leading the team with 22 points and 10 rebounds.  For Maravich, his time on the floor in the series finale was served as a microcosm of his stint with the team.  The former LSU legend played 17 minutes, picking up four points in his final taste of NBA action.  Maravich’s career ended with the shattered dream of an NBA championship, as the team he spurned went onto win the East and face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.  In his autobiography, Heir to a Dream, Maravich touched on his desire to walk away from basketball:

About that time I thought of leaving the game, not because of of the obvious attraction of a serene home life [Maravich and his wife had just had their first child] but rather a combination of feelings I had as I considered the championship ring.

All my life I had depended on the game of basketball and considered it the constant and ultimate supplier of all my needs.  The game fed me, clothed me, brought me acceptance in society, and paid my fare to every place I wanted to go.  A diamond ring and its significance would cap off years of dedication to my provider.  But, I started thinking how empty I would have been if Boston had won the 1980 championship while I had been sitting on the bench.  Would I have been satisfied with a ring I had not helped win?

Also, I thought about what would happen after the championship was won.  What would I do?  Where would I go?  What if the championship didn’t fill the vacuum I felt in my life?  Would I have no goal in life?  Would I even have a reason to live?

Maravich found new life as a born-again Christian before his death from a heart attack during a pick-up basketball game in 1988.  As for the Celtics, Red Auerbach needed to find a way to provide his team with some additional size and depth in the front court.  Even with Ralph Sampson deciding to remain in school, the Celtics still owned the number one and thirteenth selections in the upcoming draft and the league was very interested to see what Red had up his sleeve.

The Lakers went on to defeat Philadelphia in the 1980 NBA Finals.  M.L. Carr explained to BSMW that LA needed to be extremely thankful that the 76ers had knocked out the Celtics.

“There was a never a question of ‘would we have beat the Lakers,'” explained Carr, “because we would have spanked the Lakers.  We absolutely would have.”

 

Celtics_76ers_Game 5

 

 

 

 

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.