Old seems to fit the Boston Celtics. Old dynasties, old heroes. Paul Revere at the scorer's table yelling, "One if by land, two if by Havlicek." And last Sunday they looked like the same old Celtics. After days of struggle, frustrations, harsh feelings and yards of adhesive tape, the Celtics finally got back on top of things, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-94 in the Boston Garden and moving ahead 3-2 in the Eastern Conference playoff finals.
Boston came into the game with Captain John Havlicek on the bench with a sore foot, Dave Cowens wondering whether he needed glasses to find the basket and the whole team befuddled by a Cleveland attack that moved the ball around like so many shell-game artists. The Celtics emerged with Cowens scoring 26 and Havlicek, in the game for the final 5½ minutes, sinking two crucial free throws with 11 seconds left.
Through the early going in the series, the most interesting speculation had concerned the Cavaliers, such as whether Nate Thurmond actually slept in his coffin by day, the better to haunt the Celtics by night. And the Bickersons—Coach Bill Fitch and Owner Nick Mileti—who apparently decided the playoffs were the time to zing each other.
The 34-year-old Thurmond had clearly spooked the Celtics, and Cleveland fans had taken to calling him Dr. Defense as he stifled the normally rampant Cowens. His face alone would qualify Dr. Defense for Medicare, to say nothing of his balding pate, spindly frame and misshapen legs. "I used to play 45 minutes, then go dancin'," sighed Thurmond. "Now I can't even go walkin'."
May 23, 1976
With regular Center Jim Chones disabled by a broken bone in his right foot, Thurmond stood between Cleveland and probable elimination. Boston vowed to make Thurmond "a very tired man." The 13-year veteran suffered leg cramps in the opening game, but after that he seemed to get stronger each day. "I don't feel like I'm stealing my salary," he said.
Meanwhile, that flamboyant manipulator of franchises, arenas and Sicilian sayings, Nick Mileti, railed that Fitch was "a front-runner," an "ordinary coach" who wanted "to be a star." Fitch, for his part, was leading Mileti in standing ovations at the Coliseum outside Cleveland.
One difference between team owners and factory owners is that the factory owner does not care who gets the credit for a successful product as long as he gets the profits. Fitch took a club that could have been nicknamed Cadavers and built it into a championship contender. Now he wanted out. He asked Mileti to release him from his three-year contract—this being a season particularly rich in NBA coaching vacancies—and Mileti refused. Fitch, however, declined to unpack the shipping cartons in his new Medina home. "It boils down to whether Belfast can beat Rome," he said.
Neither Belfast nor Rome was able to cope with Boston in the first two games. At home in their banner-hung Garden, the Celtics twice toyed with Cleveland, then turned on enough to win 111-99 and 94-89. Only Paul Silas was not convinced. "One of these nights," said the Boston star, "we're going to reach back and nothing's going to be there."
As they headed west for Cleveland and Game 3, there were signs Silas was right. Cowens' inside game was less than imposing, Charlie Scott was off stride in the backcourt and Boston had a rash of injuries, the worst being Havlicek's.
In suburban Richfield, 21,000 revelers turned the Cavaliers' arena into the Cleveland Air Horn. When the Celtics left the building, having lost 83-78, they looked dumb, if not deaf. "I never knew 21,000 people could hate so loud," said Boston Coach Tommy Heinsohn.
He tried to shrug off the defeat, citing poor Boston shooting, not good Cleveland defense, as the culprit. Boston charged Cleveland Guard Jim Cleamons with name-calling. Silas said he thought the Cavs were "weak on defense." Where? "All over," he answered.
In Game 4 on Friday night the Celtics began by trying to take the ball inside. Thurmond stopped that. Then Havlicek reinjured his foot after six minutes, and suddenly Boston was a team looking for a solution.
Bingo Smith scored 27 points for Cleveland in the fourth game, but the Cavaliers won it because of their instant offense—Campy Russell and Austin Carr, two players who seemingly do everything wrong but come up with something right. Russell would need a dictionary in order to spell "defense," and Carr is unsure with the ball, but they came off the bench for 28 points in the 106-87 victory as Boston crumbled.
"What's Paul Silas think now?" asked Thurmond. "Defense? If I can't play defense, I don't belong in this league. Ask him now if we're weak all over."
Boston looked ruffled and exasperated. In the first half Heinsohn charged onto the floor like an aggrieved bear after Cleamons taunted him. And as they walked to the dressing room after the game, the Celtics were showered with beer from the stands. "So they won two games," said Heinsohn. "Big deal. They may have a brand new arena, but they don't have a big-time attitude."
"The Celtics think they're the only ones who can play hard," said Cleamons.
Someone asked Heinsohn if Cleveland's defense was better. "Yeah," he said. "They kicked Havlicek in the foot." Then he looked around him and saw Havlicek soaking his foot in ice, Don Nelson getting worked on for a sore knee, Steve Kuberski's dislocated finger being wrapped and Cowens limping with a bone spur and said, "We got problems." They were nothing, it turned out, that a trip back home wouldn't help.