The Ghosts of Celtics Past didn’t win it. The fans didn’t win it. Their own shooting - be it from the floor or the foul line - certainly didn’t win it.
Defense won it. Inspired, determined - maniacal is not even too strong a word - defense won it. It was more than a clinic; it was an entire post- graduate course, and because of it the 1980-81 Celtics have become a major part of basketball history.
What seemed so totally improbable with 1:43 remaining in Wednesday’s fifth game, when the 76ers were one intelligent possession away from dispatching the Celtics in five games, became a gratifying reality yesterday with a 91-90 victory that completed a three-game blitz of the Sixers and sent the Celtics into the championship final against the Houston Rockets tomorrow night at the Garden.
As has been written approximately 173,464 times in the past week, only three other teams in NBA history had successfully extricated themselves from a 1-3 hole in a seven-game series. But in none of the other cases did the comebacking team win the three games it needed by margins of two, two and one points. In none of the other cases did the comebacking team continually rebound from serious deficits the way this Celtic team did in the past three games. It is neither a hyperbolic, nor an ethnocentric statement to contend that this was, without question, the gutsiest series comeback in the 35-year history of the world’s foremost basketball league.
In order to win the game, the series and the everlasting devotion of a
fanatical following that has become as intense as any this town has ever seen, in any sport, the Celtics held the 76ers to one point in the Philadelphians’ last 10 possessions. Trailing by an 89-82 score with 5:24 remaining following a classically acrobatic Julius Erving reverse layup of his own miss, the Celtics limited the 76er offense to a lone foul shot by Maurice Cheeks with 29 seconds left, and Boston leading by that 91-90 score. In those final 324 seconds, the 76ers committed five turnovers (three being steals by the truly incomparable Larry Bird, of whom too much simply cannot be said), missed six shots (three on one possession) and came away with that one foul shot when two were needed.
Bird capped a series in which he averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds a game with what proved to be the game-winning basket, a Havlicekian stop-and-pop banker from 17 feet on the left following his own defensive rebound. The score was tied at 89 apiece with 1:07 left (on two Bird foul shots - he is shooting 91 percent from the line in the playoffs) when Darryl Dawkins powered in for a layup. Now it must be understood that during those final five-plus minutes only acts considered to be barbaric by Huns and Visigoths were to be considered worthy of Darrell Garretson’s and Jake O’Donnell’s whistles. Both Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell hammered Double D, who, not too surprisingly, missed the shot. Bird somehow emerged from the ensuing altitudinous convention of violent tall people with the rebound, whereupon he proceeded down the left sideline.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Bird later explained, “but I wanted the ball in my hands. That’s the only place in the world I wanted it.” He never gave it up, dribbling into the forecourt and calmly banking in the tie- breaking basket with 1:03 left.
But this was hardly the end of the story. When M.L. Carr picked off an atrocious right-to-left Erving cross-court pass intended for Bobby Jones 14 seconds later, the fans were ready to light up their mental cigars. But Lionel Hollins poked the ball away from Gerald Henderson, and away went Cheeks, who would wind up being fouled by a retreating Henderson with 29 seconds left.
The Celtics had one thing in their favor; namely, that they were not in the bonus. This became a paramount issue when Cheeks’ first attempt clanked off to the right. He sank his second shot, pulling the Sixers within one point.
The Celtics worked the ball down until Carr fired up a corner jumper with six seconds remaining in the game, and one of the 24-second clock. Parish, a major factor amidst some foul trouble, picked off his fifth offensive rebound of the day, only to lose it to Jones with one second to play.
One more second of good defense now separated the Celtics from their 14th trip to the championship final. Jones tried a lob pass underneath to Erving, but the ball hit the top of the backboard, and Maxwell came down with the rebound as the delirious patrons mobbed the floor.
The Celtics had somehow prevailed despite shooting 36 percent from the floor and - ugh - 63 percent from the line. They had done it despite again spotting the 76ers a double-digit second-half lead, this one a pair of 11- point (67-56, 69-58) third-quarter deficits.
Boston never really had any outside shooting, except an occasional Bird jumper. Archibald shot 3 for 14. Chris Ford was 3 for 10. Parish was a mediocre (for him) 7 for 17. The bench shot a combined 4 for 19. So what did the Celtics do for offense?
One thing they had was Maxwell, who submitted a 19-point, 6-rebound game on top of another outstanding defensive job on Erving. They also had control of the offensive boards, where they bagged 19 points on 18 offensive rebounds, to Philly’s 8 and 14, respectively. Eight of Parish’s 16 points were on the offensive boards. And, of course, they had Bird, whose 23 points included his second three-pointer of the playoffs.
Philly had gotten off to a very encouraging start (31-26 after one period) thanks to the combined 14-for-14 shooting of Dawkins (16), Bobby Jones (13) and Caldwell Jones (12, but none in the second half). Not until Caldwell missed a hook with the Sixers up by a 39-30 score did a member of that triumvirate miss a shot. Philly had also come out running (the Sixers were even aping the Celtics by running after Boston baskets), and appeared to be doing a good job of forcing the play in their unenviable role as the visiting team to a lion’s den.
Boston found itself in the Sisyphus role by the third period. The Celtics knocked a 53-48 halftime deficit down to one at 55-54 (thanks to Bird’s three- pointer), only to see the Sixers respond with a 12-2 blast capped by a four-point play (Cheeks three-point followup and a rare technical on Bird) that built the lead to 11. At 69-58 Rick Robey literally picked himself off the floor and stuck in a jump hook to key a little run that narrowed the deficit to three (69-66). Baskets by Steve Mix (with whom Robey had a brief post-third quarter jam) and Cheeks boosted the lead to seven before the Celtics succeeded in entering the final period down by four (75-71).
Spurred by the crowd, the Celtics opened the fourth period with eight unanswered points in the first 2:12, the final two being a clock-beating bomb by Carr. What Boston did not know was a) that it would go 6:44 without a field goal and b) that Doctor J was preparing his final series assault.
Erving, only a peripheral offensive factor in the final four games of the series, threw his artillery at the Celtics over the next four and a half minutes, scoring 10 points on everything from a graceful fadeaway to the pretty followup that gave the Sixers the 89-82 lead with 5:24 to play.
But somewhere in here the Celtics decided that Erving just wasn’t going to beat them, that somebody else would have to do it. “We began doubling Doc,” recalled Bird. “We knew they were calling the 4 play, and we started doubling him. It was almost helter-skelter. We started to go after everything.”
Philly’s demise began with an Andrew Toney (and whatever happened to him?) miss at 4:48, a shot leading to a Maxwell fast-break free throw. Bird promptly stole an Erving pass for what would prove to be the first of three consecutive Sixer turnovers. The momentum was all Boston’s now, especially since the referees were, uh, letting ‘em play underneath. Bird’s theft of a Bobby-to- Caldwell dish-off at 4:02 became a Parish turnaround jumper with 3:44 to play (89-87). Bird tied the game at 89 with two foul shots (2:51) following a Hollins turnover. And that’s where the scoreboard remained until the Bird banker, staying the same through three Philly misses (Erving twice and Hollins) and an Archibald missed jumper.
The defense had done it, all right, and what is defense but a product of determination and industriousness? “Philly is a better team physically,” said Maxwell. “They have more natural talent than us. I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of talent, but they can run faster and jump higher. The moral of this story is that a good team can beat a squad. They’re a good team, but we executed better in the end.”
To defeat an outfit strong as Philadelphia three straight times, however, a team needs something else. It needs luck, for sure, and it also needs heart. Even down six points on Wednesday with 1:43 left, the Celtics still thought they could win.
“Everybody believed,” said Chris Ford. “We did it because we never stopped believing.” Think about this: In the past quarter century, has any other local institution, be it academic, financial, ecclesiastical or athletic, given local citizens more to believe in than the Boston Celtics?