The Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and the Sixers included some enticing subplots: Boston rookie Larry Bird going against Dr. J, Julius Erving, and Boston center Dave Cowens matching up with Chocolate Thunder, Darryl Dawkins. The story, by John Papanek, was written after Game 1 of the series.
This is an article from the April 27, 2009 issue
In the Boston locker room before the game each contributor to this semimiraculous season (by winning 61 games against 21 losses the Celtics had equaled their victory total for the two previous miserable seasons combined) prepared for the showdown in his own way. Guard Chris Ford and M.L. Carr, the sixth man, both veterans of a circus known as the Detroit Pistons, read their mail. Forward Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell worked 20 minutes on getting his shoelaces just right. Dave Cowens, twice a championship center, once an MVP, once a runaway Christmas-tree farmer, last year the coach of the worst Celtics team in 29 years, serenaded—yes, serenaded, in a voice that could shatter tin—his neighbor Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who wasn't one of coach Cowens's favorite guys but who is now the guard who makes the Celtics go. Cowens sang, "Tiiiiiiny bubbles ..." and laughed when Archibald looked at him as if he were crazy.
Other Celtics—like Pistol Pete Maravich, who took a pay cut of approximately $525,000, frizzed his hair and painted his sneakers green just to be a part of all this—watched a video of their last regular-season game with Philadelphia. Coach Bill Fitch desperately wanted his team to be ready for anything the Sixers might pull. So the tape showed Erving scoring about 10 baskets the 101st Airborne couldn't have stopped. Sudden sharp yells disrupted the calm: "Help! Help! Help!" They sounded more like yelps.
Anxious eyes focused on Larry Bird, slumped in a corner, looking, as he always does, emotionless.
"Larry, what's wrong?" asked Rick Robey, the backup center.
"Nothin'," said Bird in his Hoosier drawl. "I'm just practicin' up my defense for Dr. J.
Bird had been the player who, in the words of Celtics president Red Auerbach, "had made the difference" for the team that season. In Boston they speak of the Russell era, the Cowens era. This is the dawning of the Bird era. Maravich, once dubbed "the guard of the '70s," hails Bird as "the forward of the '80s."
But as the series with the Sixers began, Bird's defense was causing concern. Maxwell would be busy trying to keep Caldwell Jones off the backboards. Cowens had to worry about Darryl Dawkins, who was coming off a 30-point, 11-rebound performance in the final game of Philly's 4--1 triumph over Atlanta and was bound to unleash some of his chocolate thunder on Boston Garden's parquet floor sooner or later. Ford would have his hands full with Lionel Hollins, a superb shooter, and Archibald would have to be the Tiny of old to chase Maurice Cheeks around all night.
That didn't leave a lot of help for Bird on Erving. Not that anything short of divine intervention would do the job anyway, for the Doctor has been playing his best basketball since joining the 76ers four years ago.
"Larry's defense has improved tremendously for a guy who can barely outrun Red [Auerbach]," said Fitch. "But J. I don't know who in this league can stop J."
Boston's intention was to stop Philadelphia's brutal fast break, on the theory that an Erving standing still is better than an Erving in full flight. But when the Doctor shoots the way he did in Friday night's opener—12 for 22, 29 points—Erving on ice skates would be formidable. Boston slowed Philadelphia down, all right, but the Celtics' own spectacular fast break was shut down as well, and they lost 96--93.
Erving wound up averaging 23.0 points as the Sixers won the series in five games.
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