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30 Years Ago: Celtics Edge Sixers In Series For The Ages

Posted on April 29, 2011 by A.J. Foss

In 1981 Julius Erving was at the top of his game and Larry Bird was an emerging superstar in the NBA.

Thirty years ago, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers faced off in the Eastern Conference Finals, which is quite possibly the greatest NBA playoff series of all time.

The series went seven games, had five games decided by two points or less, and featured the Celtics overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to win the series and advance to the NBA Finals.

1981 was the second year of the Larry Bird era, who had won the rookie of the year in 1980 and had lead the Celtics to the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history, as Boston finished with a 61-21 record, before falling to the Sixers in five games of the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the offseason, Bird would be joined with center Robert Parish and rookie power forward Kevin McHale, in forming the “Big Three” of the Bird era.

To go along with this legendary frontline, was point guard Nate “Tiny” Archibald and starting forward Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell as Boston went 62-20 in the regular season for the NBA’s best record.

The Sixers also went 62-20 in the regular season as they were led by forward Julius Erving,

who averaged 24.6 points and 8 rebounds per game, to win the MVP award for the regular season.

In addition to “Dr. J”, the Sixers’ lineup featured center Daryl Dawkins, known as “Chocolate Thunder”, defensive specialist Bobby Jones, a pair of point guards in Maurice Cheeks and Lionel Hollins, and a rookie guard off the bench, that would become known as the “Boston Strangler”, Andrew Toney.

Despite finishing with identical records and each team winning three times in the six regular season meetings between the two teams, the Celtics won the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference’s top seed, because of their better division record, earning Boston a first-round bye and meaning that Philadelphia would have to play a best-of-three first round series.

In the early 1980s, nobody was cooler than Dr. J.

The Sixers dispatched of the Indiana Pacers in two games to move onto the next round where they faced with off the Milwaukee Bucks , the winners of the Central Division.

Philadelphia survived to defeat the Bucks in seven games, while the Celtics swept the Chicago Bulls in four games to set up a rematch of the previous year’s conference finals where the Sixers knocked off the Celtics in five games.

The first two games of the series were played on back-to-back nights at Boston Garden, with the two teams winning one game each.

Game 1 went to the Sixers after Toney made the go-ahead free throws with two seconds to go, after Maxwell tripped up the rookie guard on his way to the basket.

Philadelphia held a 100-91 lead with 2:51 remaining to go in regulation, but the Celtics went on a 10-1 run over the next two minutes to tie the game at 101, before the lead changed hands four times over the last 27 seconds.

While their rally fell short, the Celtics’ run in the last minutes of the game would be a sign of things to come during the series.

Boston evened the series the next night with a 118-99 victory, due in large part to a 14-0 run at the start of the second quarter, which broke the game wide open.

The Celtics got a great performance from Bird, who scored 34 points on 14 of 21 shots, and grabbed 16 rebounds, to go along with five assists.

The series shifted to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4 at the Spectrum, a place where the Celtics had lost their previous nine meetings.

The Sixers went on an 11-0 run in the first quarter and never looked back as they won the game 110-100, thanks to 22 points from Erving and 19 from Toney, who was becoming a thorn in the Celtics’ side.

The Sixers built another large lead in Game 4, as they lead 65-48 at halftime, but this time, the Celtics came back and took an 84-83-lead with 10:42 left in the fourth quarter.

Philadelphia was able to regain the lead, and held a 107-105 lead with 16 seconds to go when Bobby Jones missed an eight-footer that was rebounded by Maxwell, giving the Celtics a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime.

But Jones redeemed himself by intercepting Archibald’s pass that was intended for Bird, to preserve the victory and the Sixers a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead.

Bird and the Sixers won the last three games of the series by a combined total of 5 points.

Entering the series, only three teams had overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win a best-of-seven series in the NBA Playoffs.

However, the first of those three occasions occurred during the 1968 Celtics-76ers series when Boston came back from the 3-1 deficit to advance to the NBA Finals where they won their tenth championship in 12 years.

But it appeared that the Sixers were on the verge of eliminating the Celtics in Game 5 when they held a 109-103 lead with 1:51 to play in the fourth quarter.

With their backs against the wall, the Celtics would go on an 8-0 run over the last 1:51 to pull out a 111-109 victory, with the winning points coming from M.L. Carr, who sank two free throws with 20 seconds remaining.

The win was preserved when Parrish stole Jones’ inbounds pass with one second to go, cutting the Sixers’ series lead to 3-2 and sending the series back to Philadelphia for Game 6.

Just like Games 3 and 4, the Sixers built a huge lead in front of their home fans as they lead by 17 points in the second quarter, and held a 57-42 lead in the third quarter.

During the third quarter, Maxwell was shoved out of bounds by Dawkins and fell into the lap of a Sixers fan who had a front-row seat.

Maxwell got up and was walking back to the court, then turned around and attacked the fan, knocking him out of his chair.

Whether the fan said something racially insensitive or according to one story, threw a pencil at Maxwell, both benches cleared to break up the fight.

No player was ejected and Maxwell would only be fined $2,500 for the incident.

The game resumed and the Celtics cut the Sixers’ lead to three points, at 73-70, at the end of the third quarter.

The fourth quarter was tight throughout and Boston lead 98-95 with 1:04 to go, when Toney struck again with a 20-footer to cut the lead to one at the 52-second mark, then stole the ball from Bird 22 seconds later, and had a chance give Philadelphia the lead, as he drove down the lane for the potential go-ahead basket.

But McHale made blocked Toney’s shot and grabbed the rebound, then passed it to Maxwell, who was able to run the clock to down to two seconds before he was fouled by Erving.

“Cornbread” made his two free throws and the Celtics came away their first victory in Philadelphia since January 20, 1979, a 100-98 win that evened the series at three games apiece, with Game 7 back in Boston Garden, where the Celtics held a 9-1 all-time record in Game sevens played at the famous arena.

The Sixers lead though much of the first half and took a 53-48 lead into halftime, but their lead was cut to one after a Celtic 6-1 spurt to start the second half.

However, the Sixers responded with a 12-2 run, that was culminated by a four-point play from Maurice Cheeks for Philadelphia’s largest lead of the game, 11 points.

Boston was able to cut the lead to four points by the end of the third quarter and took the lead in the fourth quarter when they scored the first eight points of the quarter for a 79-75 lead.

That is where “the Doctor” who had a quiet series up to this point, took over the game as he scored 10 of Philadelphia’s next 14 points and gave the Sixers an 89-82 lead with 5:21 left in regulation.

Once again, the Celtics would stage a comeback in the final minutes of the game as they would score the next nine points, the last two coming from Bird on a 12-foot bank shot with 1:03 to go that gave Boston a 91-89 lead.

The Sixers turned it over on their next possession when Carr, the hero from Game 5, picked off a cross-court pass from Bobby Jones that was intended for Erving.

However, the Celtics turned it back to the Sixers when guard Gerald Henderson was stripped of the ball by Lionel Hollins, then gave it up to Cheeks, who was fouled by Henderson with 29 seconds left, sending Cheeks to the foul line with a chance to tie the game.

But Cheeks missed the first free throw and could only cut the lead to one point when he made the second free throw.

The Celtics ran the shot clock to one second before getting a shot off, when Carr launched a jumper from the corner which was missed only to have it rebounded by Parrish, presumably to preserve the Boston victory until Jones stole the ball and called timeout, giving Philadelphia one last chance to win the game with one second left.

But Jones could not get the inbounds pass in as his lob pass went off the top of the backboard and into the hands of Maxwell for the rebound as time ran out, giving the Celtics a 91-90 victory, completing the improbable comeback from the 3-1 series deficit and sending the Celtics faithful onto the floor in celebration.

Eleven days after completing their epic series win over the Sixers, the Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets in six games in the NBA Finals for the franchise’s 14th NBA championship and first of three titles in the Larry Bird era.

The Celtics would face the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals and almost pulled off another comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, as they won Games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7 in Boston Garden.

But this time, the Sixers would prevail with a 120-106 victory, thanks to 34 points from Toney.

The two teams would meet one time in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1985 with the Celtics prevailing in a five-game series win.


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