Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 2 vs. the 76ers

Celtics (0-1) vs. Philadelphia (1-0)
April 20, 1980
Boston Garden

The Celtics opened the playoffs by demolishing Houston.  After the sweep, Rockets coach Del Harris anointed the 1980 Celtics as “the best team I’ve ever seen.”  The C’s, however, were given a rude awakening in the opener of the conference finals, as Philadelphia used a combination of style (Dr. J), power (Darryl Dawkins), and grit (Henry Bibby) to wrestle away homecourt.  Game Two was a different story, as the Celtics relied heavily on their starting five and fought off every Philly comeback to hold on and win, 96-90.

Bird SI Cover

Bob Ryan examined the victory in the pages of the Boston Globe the following morning, a game that saw all of Boston’s starting five in double figures:

There can be no denying that the Boston half of the morning box score is an eyebrow archer.  Boston substitutes accounted for a mere 28 of the 240 playing minutes.  Fitch stayed with his five-man mule team, and nobody will ever be able to convince him he did not do the right thing.

“If,” he said, “I run into a carbon copy of this game anywhere along the line, I’ll do it again. I think this team is as well-conditioned as any in the league.  My players have the right to ask out for a blow, and the substitutes for each player can put themselves in for their man if they think they should. I may run a dictatorship, but it’s with a diplomatic-democratic twist.”

Larry Bird, who played 46 minutes, led all scorers with 31 points and, as evidenced in the video, put his body on the line for the Celtics.  The NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year also picked up 12 rebounds.  Ryan touched on Bird’s play, which ultimately was the difference between victory and defeat.

After missing his first three shots, he sank 13 of his next 15 attempts from the floor, and the variety of his offense suggested a man playing “Horse” with himself.  The level of the 76ers’ defense in this game matched their first-game effort, but this time The Rookie made shots no 6-foot-9 man has a right to make.  It was that simple.

“He made some incredible shots,” conceded Sixer coach Billy Cunningham. “There wasn’t much you could do about it.”

The game was not entirely perfect for Bird.  He accumulated only one shot at the free throw line, delivered only two assists, and turned the ball over an alarming eight times.  Despite the defeat, Philadelphia saw vulnerability in their opponent.  Larry Whiteside’s story from the Globe had Julius Erving’s take on Bird’s 31-point night.

“Let’s face it,” said Julius Erving.  “Larry had an outstanding individual game.  Everybody knows he is capable of doing that on any given night.  He’s got that kind of ability.  But he wound up taking 30 shots, and everybody knows that is not the kind to team game that the Celtics have played all year.  I just don’t know if he’ll have that kind of success if he has to do it every night.  It worked in this game.  We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Larry Bird driving past Caldwell and Bobby Jones

Ryan touched on the sequence that gave the Celtics their first victory of the series:

The game wasn’t put away until the final nine minutes, or until the Celtics, who had blown a 15-point second-period lead down to a tie at 62-all, answered the final Sixer thrust with big baskets by Cowens (14) and Bird.  Philly was still hanging tough at 76-70 when Cowens responded to a delightful low-post mismatch with Steve Mix by swinging into the lane for a hook with 9:18 left.  Bird then expanded the margin to 10 at 80-70 with a jumper from just inside the three- point arc.  The 76ers were unable to reduce the deficit to less than 10 until garbage time, as the Celtics twice expanded the lead to 13, the second time at 90-77 with 3:41 to play.

The Celtics also reasserted themselves on the glass.  After the Sixers picked up nine more defensive rebounds than the C’s in the series opener, Bird (12 rebounds) and Cedric Maxwell (15 rebounds) shifted the direction of the series by limiting Philly’s second-chance opportunities.  The Sixers shot 48 percent in Game One, yet barely managed 44 percent from the field in Game Two.

“I just went out there with the same confidence that I’ve had all season,” Bird told the Globe’s Whiteside.  “We proved we were the best team in an 82-game season. Now we’ve got to prove we’re the best team in the playoffs.  I didn’t mind the fact that I played so long.  In a game like this, and playing against a talented club like Philly, you don’t really want to come out.”

The Globe’s Leigh Montville, who now writes for Sports on Earth, detailed the scene in the Celtics’ locker room after the game:

“Sloppy,” a man tried to tell Celtics’ guard Chris Ford.  “You won, but you looked sloppy.”

Chris Ford and Lionel Hollins fight for a loose ball

“What do you mean?” Ford fairly shouted.  “Everyone out there is fighting tooth and nail.  Maybe from where you’re sitting the game looks sloppy, but if you’re playing you know the games aren’t going to be picture-perfect because nobody’s going to let them be.  Maybe you can say everyone’s making mistakes.  I say everyone’s just trying like hell.”

The Celtics had not won in Philly since January of 1979.  In order to avoid returning to the Garden facing a 3-1 deficit, the C’s would need to find a way to procure a victory at the Spectrum.  While the Celtics were only seven wins away from a championship, the Boston Bruins had just bowed out of the playoffs after losing, 4-1, to the New York Islanders (who were beginning a run of four straight Stanley Cup victories).  The Globe’s Ernie Roberts asked Harry Sinden his thoughts on the Celtics:

One writer asked Sinden if he thought it unfair that the Bruins had to play eight games in 11 days while the Celtics seemed to have the luxury of a two- or three-day rest between playoff games. Harry grinned.  “I don’t think it is pertinent,” he said, “but who should I complain to?  Mr. (Larry) O’Brien (commissioner of the NBA)?  Actually I hope the Celtics win their title because I’d like to see one championship team come to Boston.”

The Celtics traveled to Philadelphia for Game Three.

 

Philadelphia Game 2

Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 1 vs. the 76ers

Celtics (0-0) vs. Philadelphia (0-0)
April 18, 1980
The Boston Garden

The Celtics began the  Eastern Conference Finals at the friendly confines of the Boston Garden against the Philadelphia 76ers.  The two teams split the six regular season meetings, with each team winning their home games.  Rumors that Philly could not win in Boston proved premature as the 76ers dominated the game’s third quarter and stole the opening game of the series, 96-93. [Read more…]

Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 4 vs. the Rockets

Celtics (3-0) vs. Houston (0-3)
April 15, 1980
The Summit

The Celtics punched their ticket to the conference finals by sweeping away the Houston Rockets, winning the fourth and final game of the series, 138-121.

M.L._Carr

The C’s shot a scorching 63 percent from the field and featured four players in double-digits.  Larry Bird led all scorers with 34 points.  Bird, who also pulled down 10 rebounds and picked up 7 assists, came within just three assists of picking up his first playoff triple-double.  Even now, 33 years later, M.L. Carr still gushes when discussing playing alongside Bird.  In his recent interview with BSMW, Carr touched on the skills that allowed Bird to make an immediate impact in the NBA:

Larry’s understanding of the game made him so special.  Bill Russell used to say, “the game of basketball is not how high you can jump or how fast you can go, it’s how quick you can cut off angles because the game is a game of angles.”  Larry understood that probably better than anyone at the time.  He wasn’t a great leaper but he cleared out space for rebounding opportunities.  Defensively, he used angles to outsmart some of the quicker guys.  He had an incredible basketball IQ for a kid that young.  And put that together with his offensive skills, and I’m talking more than just shooting, because his ability to see the floor and pass were uncanny for a guy his size at that time.

Carr had a solid game of his own, coming off the bench to add 23 points in just 21 minutes.  Though the team was, both figuratively and literally, still centered by Dave Cowens, and the whole league was buzzing about Larry Bird, the Celtics were still very much Chris Ford’s team.  In just his his second season with the Celtics, the 31-year-old Ford had earned the trust of Bill Fitch.  Ford was no longer at the point where he could average 15 points in 4 assists per game, the numbers he posted during the 1979 season, but his gritty style of playbuilt a reservoir of  faith in his coach’s eyes.  Fitch relied on Ford’s steadiness, whereas the same could not be said for Fitch and Pete Maravich.  After enduring some miserable seasons with Detroit as well as a losing season in his first year with Boston, Ford made the most of his opportunity in 1980.

Chris Ford

Carr explained Ford’s impact to the team:

We had an unbelievable bond among the guys, but I can still remember Chris Ford being one of our driving forces.  Chris had never been this close to a championship.  He was unbelievable, from the first day of practice to the first time on the bus, every time you saw him, he was all about winning.  He was the real driving force behind everything we did.

Ford was also the MVP of the series against Houston. 

The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan touched on Ford’s two-sided play and overall effectiveness in the conference semis:

No Celtic has done his job better in this series, and thus far he’s the playoff MVP.

“His hands are moving all the time,” marveled Cedric Maxwell, “and if he isn’t stealing a pass, he’s deflecting one.”

“We all know what is on the line,” said Celtic guard Chris Ford.  “We know we have to do it right now.  This is a unique team and the guys are all unselfish.  You may stop one or two guys for awhile, but somebody else will take up the slack.

Ford, currently a coaching consultant for the New York Knicks, and the rest of the Celtics looked forward to a trip to the conference finals.  After disposing of Houston in ten straight games during the season, the challenge from the opposition was about to become considerably steeper.  All other Celtic-related issues, like trying to build a new home away from the Boston Garden and a relentless pursuit of Ralph Sampson (who decided to remain in school), were replaced with a sole focus on the Philadelphia 76ers.  Bob Ryan detailed the ensuing encounter in the Globe:

The tidal wave named Philadelphia is about to meet the avalanche named Boston.  The confrontation everyone from Chatham to Cape May has been begging for since Thanksgiving will start on Friday night at the Boston Garden, now that the 76ers have laid the Atlanta Hawks to rest.

The Sixers knocked out the Atlanta Hawks in five games, and Hawks coach Hubie Brown explained to the Globe that the impending series between the Celtics and Philly would be a clash of the titans.

“The Boston-Philadelphia series,” said the vanquished Brown, could go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, if both teams continue to play the way they are now.”

The Globe also picked the brains of a couple of the Rockets on how the Celtics would match up with Philly:

“It should be a fantastic series,” said Rudy Tomjanovich.  “They both have high-powered offenses, each team has a great forward, and they can both hit the boards.  I was really impressed with Maxwell, and Carr could start for anybody else in the league.  I think the Celtics have more depth, so I’d probably pick them.”

Forward Robert Reid voiced a dissenting opinion, claiming that the ease with which the Celtics dispatched Houston will work against them.

“I’ll go with Philly,” said Robert Reid.  “Because they have more experience in tight playoff situations, and we didn’t give Boston that much of a workout.  They don’t know how they will react under pressure.  And Philly can give Boston more trouble with the running game, whereas we didn’t have the speed to do it.”

Reid’s prescience aside, the Celtics opened the best-of-seven series against Philadelphia at the Garden on Friday, April 18.

 

Game 4 vs. the Rockets