You'll have to pardon those effete Eastern snobs for applauding the earthquake that wiped out the western half of the NBA. Houston? Kansas City? Please. Why not let the winner of Philadelphia vs. Boston take on the best of the Italian League for the world championship? Even the miraculous Moses Malone, who scored 42 points and had 23 rebounds Sunday to lead the Rockets to the 100-89 win that put Houston ahead of the Kings 3-1, can't obscure the fact that both Western Conference finalists finished the regular season with losing records.
The 76ers and the Celtics? They each had 62-20 records, best in the league; split six games this season, each winning its three at home; and they were replaying last year's Eastern Conference final, which Philadelphia won four games to one. The Sixers want to make good after two unsuccessful trips to the finals in the last four years, and they're a better team now, with a rookie scoring guard who has the weirdest shot this side of the Y. Wait till you see him. But the Celtics are improved, too, with a pair of new big men Red Auerbach found to replace Dave Cowens. There's only one thing wrong. The Celtics can't seem to win a game in Philadelphia.
In fact, in the opener of the best-of-seven series, they couldn't win in Boston, either. "It's just one game. You gotta win four. There ain't no home-court advantage in the playoffs." What else would one expect Boston's Larry Bird to say on April 21 after a sensational Boston Garden cliff-hanger, in which the lead changed hands four times in the final 27 seconds before Philly pulled it out 105-104? Basketball needs no talking. That's why coaches have been known to tape their players' mouths shut in practice. One move, one nod, one blink is worth a million words. "You think I'm going right, baby, but it's slide left and see you later," or "I cut, you pass," or "Shoot it and I'll ram it down your throat." All are bits of the unspoken dialogue between two great teams in the playoffs. Cats and mice don't have time to negotiate.
Neither do Birds. Bird, the former Hick from French Lick (Ind.), is no great orator, but his basketball game speaks volumes: 33 points and 10 rebounds worth in Game 1.
May 3, 1981
But, still, this one got away from Boston and gave the home-court advantage to the 76ers. Considering each team's inability to win on the road against the other this season, that meant something. Moreover, the opening home-court loss by Boston recalled only too vividly what happened in last year's Eastern final: Boston lost the home opener and that was more or less it.
Bird's performance could have won the game for the Celtics—his two free throws gave them a 104-103 lead with four seconds left—but it didn't. It only proved that playoff basketball almost always goes beyond the tangibles. For instance, a couple of questions: 1) Which would have the greatest effect on the series' outcome: (a) Boston's eight-day rest after demolishing the Chicago Bulls in four straight games in the conference semis; (b) Philadelphia's momentum after a hard-fought seven-game Eastern semifinal against Milwaukee; or (c) Philadelphia's fatigue from same? 2) Who is Andrew Toney and what does he have in common with Lloyd (All-World) Free?
Before the series started, the strategic priorities were clearly drawn, though circumstances would ultimately change them often. The first was muscle. Boston's legion of big men, Robert Parish, Bird, Rick Robey and rookie Kevin Mc-Hale, would have to secure the defensive backboard—the launch pad—and kick the payload out to Nate (Tiny) Archibald, commander of the game's best fast break. Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins, Caldwell Jones, Steve Mix and Bobby Jones would have to thwart that plan, force the Celtics into a half-court game "and then trigger the Sixers' own formidable break. In the opener Parish, who since joining Boston from Golden State this season has been seen as the reincarnation of Bill Russell, took down 13 rebounds and blocked four shots, but overall the inside game was a stalemate.
So the next priority was finesse. Each team had an offensive weapon of singular brilliance at forward—Bird of the Celtics and Julius Erving of the 76ers. It was a given that neither would guard the other, simply because the special effort required to play such defense would detract from that player's offense. Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham learned that fact last year when he assigned Erving to Bird for the first two games of the series, and The Doctor was too tired to operate on offense. Cunningham subsequently turned that job over to the Jones boys—Caldwell and Bobby—and gave them the duty again this time around, while Boston Coach Bill Fitch gave the Erving watch to Cedric Maxwell and McHale.
Boston won that battle, holding Erving to 25 points on 8-for-20 shooting. But the one thing the Celtics hoped wouldn't happen, did. They were burned—and burned badly—in the backcourt, where Archibald and Chris Ford, both 32 years old, share time with M.L. Carr, a converted forward, and a flighty second-year man, Gerald Henderson. Most of the damage was done by Toney, a 23-year-old rookie reserve out of Southwestern Louisiana, who lit up the Garden for 26 points, mostly on odd-looking jumpers that he seemed to squeeze two-handed from behind his head, as though he were shooting giant watermelon seeds. Toney instantly became a certified Boston villain, much as Free had been when he personally took the Celtics out of the playoffs as a 76er rookie back in 1977.
The final indignity came after Bird's free throws had apparently won the game. With two seconds left. Maxwell stuck out a leg to deliberately trip Toney, who had beaten Cornbread en route to what would have been a game-winning Philly field goal. Sixer Guard Lionel Hollins was asked if he was nervous with the fate of the game resting in the hands of a rookie on the foul line. "Not a rookie like him" said Hollins. And Toney calmly sank the free throws.
Afterward, Toney was asked about his unusual shooting style. "It's not unusual to me," he said. That's all right. Bostonians don't think they have accents. In the unhappy Garden exodus one was-heard to mutter, "If the Celtics don't go any fahtha this year, I'm through."
The next night another fan in the Garden lobby seemed to be calling on the Deity for help: "A god! A god! What we need is a god!" One had to wonder if the speaker wouldn't settle for, say, Russell or Bob Cousy or at least John Havlicek. "Ah-chibahld is good but not great," the fan continued. "We need a god." Oh, a god. A guard! Another rap at the back-court. No more of those this night, though, as Archibald scored 19 points and had four assists, and Ford and Carr bottled up the hated Toney, at least until Bird led the Celtics out to a flash 19-point first-half lead that never diminished as Boston won 118-99.
The crowd booed Toney lustily, but not nearly so passionately as it hooted Dawkins each time he left the game. Double D was in foul trouble all the way and collected a measly eight points and seven rebounds. As for Toney, Ford played right up in his face like a bulldog, so aggressively, in fact, that Ford picked up three fouls in the first period. The crowd loved it, and few realized that Toney had clicked for 35 points—you got it, 35—until the final stats were announced.
"I don't think Toney will beat us again in the series," said Fitch. "O.K., he got 35. But 35 when you're down 20 means our defense was working where it should."
Where it worked was everywhere else, especially on Erving, held by Maxwell and McHale to 12 points. "I was the goat, in Game I," said Maxwell. "So I knew I needed to make up for it tonight."
Underneath the basket, Boston brought all its power to bear, dominating in rebounds 52-41. Parish had 12 of them, along with four blocked shots and 17 points. Caldwell Jones, Philly's best rebounder, could get his hands on only five, mainly because his hands were full of Bird. "Nah," said Jones. "I think...I was...I got...whew...how many points did he get?"
Bird got 34, and 16 rebounds. He hit 14 of 21 shots from everywhere, whether guarded by Jones One, Jones Two or two Joneses and a player to be named later. He worked the basketball masterfully, playing his defender like a yo-yo on a string. "He's the best flat-footed faker I've ever seen," said Bobby Jones. With the ball held low and to the side or above his head. Bird would send his man streaking this way or that with a mere flick of an elbow or a nod of his head. If his man stayed with him, he would whip a fake pass behind his back, and then, when the defender turned his head, Bird would pull the ball back and flick away the quickest and truest 22-footer since Jerry West.
Bird is still shy with the press. Nevertheless, 30 reporters waited while he took a 40-minute shower. When he emerged they sang Hail to the Chief. He smiled. He was asked if the game was easy for him. "Easy?" he said. "I worked harder tonight than ever. It's never easy, because you're banging, pushing, scratching for everything you get."
Optimism flowed from the Garden portals once more. "It's got to be Auerbach," said a cabbie settling behind the wheel. "Parish, McHale, Carr, I never even heard of 'em before. What're they going to do when Red retires? Hang a cigar from the ceiling, or what?"
So it was on to Philadelphia's Spectrum, where the Celtics hadn't won since Jan. 20, 1979. That's nine straight, including playoffs. "I've never won a game there. What's it like?" said Bird to Ford. "I can't remember," said Ford. For this trip, Boston switched hotels, hoping to break the jinx, but on Friday night the 76ers pulled out all the stops to make the Celtics fidget: a sellout crowd; spotlighted intros; swirling stars projected onto the floor; fireworks exploding from the ceiling; and Grover Washington Jr. wailing the national anthem on the tenor sax.
Erving was the first to arrive in the Sixers' dressing room, looking refreshed. "Two nights in my own bed," he said. "Just what the doctor ordered." What Cunningham ordered turned out to be just as important, and it accounted for the smug look on Erving's face. Surprise! The Doctor would be The Defender this night. He draped his long arms and body all over Bird, absolutely denying him the ball and making him work for virtually every one of his points. This definitely wasn't an easy night for Bird. And that made everything fall into place defensively for Philadelphia. Instead of having to chase Bird around the perimeter, Caldwell Jones lay back in the pit, where he collared 14 rebounds and blocked five shots. He and Dawkins stopped Boston's inside game cold, contributing to Parish's missing 13 of 14 shots and limiting him to just eight rebounds. "I wouldn't say that this was one of my worst games," said Parish. "I'd say it was the worst."
Philadelphia outrebounded Boston 50-48 and outscored the Celtics 27-17 on fast breaks to win 110-100. It was a reversal of Game 2: Philadelphia got out fast, thanks to an 11-0 run in the first period, opened an 18-point lead and then pulled away again after Boston got to within six in the fourth period. Erving scored 22 points, and there were 19 more from Toney—"I still say he's not the guy who'll beat us," said Fitch—16 each from a running Bobby Jones and a shooting Hollins and 15 from a ferocious Dawkins, who said he prefers the later games of a series "because [the refs] let us do a lot of bumpin' 'n' bangin'."
Erving chortled because he was singled out for defensive, rather than offensive, excellence. "Usually when people bring up my defense they criticize it," he said.
Meanwhile, Fitch was looking around his locker room saying, "This team has to get somebody who can put the ball in the basket besides Larry Bird." If he spotted someone, he didn't point him out.
"All I know," said Bird, "is that if we can't win in Philadelphia, we don't deserve to be NBA champions."
And in the first half of Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, also in the Spectrum, the Celtics looked as if they couldn't win in a schoolyard. Meanwhile, Philadelphia came out smoking, making 58% of its first-half field-goal attempts, passing with exceptional timing and accuracy, blocking nine Celtic shots and zooming to an 11-point lead early in the second quarter. Bird, again played by Erving, missed seven of his eight first-half shots, though his 11 rebounds were nearly half of Boston's total. One stretch epitomized Bird's frustration and, in a larger sense, symbolized the Celtics' apparent Philadelphia jinx. Bird had two shots blocked by Erving; he committed a lazy man's foul on Bobby Jones; he turned the ball over on traveling and five-second violations; and then, wrestling for a defensive rebound, he was flung ignominiously to the floor and was left there to watch helplessly while the indefatigable Toney sped off for a fast-break dunk.
It was another blowout, or so it seemed, until Ford suddenly got his outside shot warm. Bird shook loose from his slump and Parish came out of hiding in the third period. Boston scored 11 straight points in one span, shot 67% for the quarter and cut an 18-point deficit to one. Said a confounded Cunningham afterward, "You go in at halftime and tell them how well they played in the first half, tell them what they have to do to maintain their lead, and then they almost blow it."
The fourth period probably decided the series, and that quarter came down to the last minute. After Archibald had broken away with a Parish rebound to cut the Sixers' lead to 107-105, Philadelphia gave the ball away on a 24-second violation; but with a chance to tie the game with 36 seconds left, Parish missed a 12-footer. Twenty seconds later Bobby Jones missed an eight-footer. Maxwell got the rebound for Boston and pitched it to Archibald as Jones went for the steal. Archibald never saw Fitch call for a timeout. Instead he pushed the ball to midcourt and launched a pass that looked as if it would hit Bird perfectly on his flight to the basket. But at the last moment Bobby Jones came soaring in like a free safety to make a game-saving interception.
Jones' play left everyone amazed. "That's why I call him White Lightning," said Dawkins, who calls himself Chocolate Thunder.
White Lightning himself could barely describe his feat. "This is the way I remember it," said Jones. "I was trying to get the ball out of Maxwell's hands after the rebound, then all of a sudden it's back in my hands." It was that simple, except that all of a sudden Jones had covered 94 feet of basketball court. "I guess I just ran back and spotted Bird when I was at midcourt," said Jones. "I never saw the ball until it was in my hands."
Not one of the 76ers would consider the series won, their chance to play for the NBA title again all locked up. But neither would any Celtic dare to predict three straight wins. After all, that would require beating Philly at the Spectrum in Game 6, and after Sunday's 11th straight loss there, Fitch was referring to the Sixers' arena as "this house of jinxes." All in all, the Celtics would rather not go back to Philadelphia. Ever.