Celtics (34-11) vs. SuperSonics (35-13)
January 20, 1980
The Celtics again showed they were not quite ready for showtime, dropping another game to a top-tier NBA team. In a double overtime battle, Seattle — the defending champion as well as favorite to win the championship — used their experience to defeat the Celtics, 108-106.
Despite some of the low shooting percentages on the box score, The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan gushed over the contest:
It was the kind of game that made fans feel a sense of smugness for having shelled out the money to see it; that made winning players proud to have hung in there and losers proud to have participated; and that made CBS wonder how it came to be that in showing it prior to the Super Bowl the network had managed to serve the chateaubriand before the goose livers, as it were. It was a basketball game played at the highest level, and if you don’t understand how a game in which the two participants combined to shoot a collective 42 percent from the floor could be labeled “great,” then it’s obvious you’re heading for a failing grade in Hoopology 101. For the 108-106 double-overtime Seattle conquest of the Celtics before an enraptured capacity Garden gathering of 15,320 yesterday afternoon was nothing less than an affirmation of two things – the first being that the NBA at its best is basketball at its best, the second being that nobody should accuse the SuperSonics of overstating the case if they choose to warm up to “We Are The Champions.”
The win marked the seventh consecutive win for the Sonics, with four of those wins coming on the road. Seattle was led by their point guard, Dennis Johnson. DJ, the eighth of sixteen children, starred at Pepperdine before the Sonics drafted him in the second round of the 1976 NBA draft. After a dreadful game 7 in the 1978 NBA Finals where Johnson shot 0-14, he reemerged the following season to lead the Sonics to their first ever championship and captured the Most Valuable Player award. In this particular game, as Ryan explained, DJ was again a difference-maker:
One golden moment in this game will never be forgotten. It came with one second left in regulation time when Dennis Johnson, the third option on a desperation play, drilled in game-tying three- point field goal from in front of the press table (into which he tumbled after releasing the shot). That miracle shot negated a Boston comeback that had begun with a stumbling Celtic team trailing, 76-70 (7:52 left), a resurgence that had been fueled by a pair of Chris Ford three-pointers (he had five in the game), and that had been culminated with a free throw by Larry Bird, the victim of a loose-ball foul with three seconds to play and the Celtics leading by an 86-84 score.
ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote a terrific piece after Johnson’s death in 2007, marveling the affect he had on his teams:
DJ will be remembered by everyone who was there as one of the best big-game guards who ever played. Basically, it’s Clyde Frazier, Jerry West, Sam Jones, Reggie Miller, Michael Jordan and DJ on the list. From 1978 to 1988 with three different teams, DJ played in six NBA Finals and two other conference finals, going down as the best all-around guard for 11 straight seasons on teams that won 47, 52, 56, 57, 46, 53, 62, 63, 67, 59 and 57 games. He averaged 17.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds for his playoff career — including an astonishing 23-game run for a banged-up ’87 Celtics team on which he averaged 19 points, 9 assists and a whopping 42 minutes a game guarding the likes of John Lucas, Sidney Moncrief, Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Magic.
(Note: Seattle traded him for Paul Westphal in 1980 and finished 22 games worse the following season; Phoenix traded him for Rick Robey in 1983 and finished 12 games worse. Nobody ever seemed to appreciate DJ until he was gone.)
Johnson and backcourt mate Gus Williams torched the Celtics, but Boston refused to give in to Seattle’s pressure. Bird (15 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists) had another solid game, but Chris Ford and his five 3-pointers led the C’s with 26 points. Dave Cowens (8-24) had another poor shooting night, but the Celtics did not have any depth at the center position, forcing Cowens to play 49 minutes. Bird and Tiny Archibald, who finished with 19 points and 9 assists, both played 53 minutes each. Both teams relied heavily on their starting five, with the Seattle reserves outscoring Boston’s inexperienced bench, 20-17 (Former Celtic Paul Silas finished the night with 13 rebounds off the bench in only 26 minutes).
Rebounds were critical in deciding the outcome of the game. Seattle won the battle of the boards (63-49) and was able to get 20 offensive rebounds to the Celtics’ 10. Ryan commented in the following day’s paper that the loss was demoralizing for the Celtics:
None of this demeans Boston, which now trails the 76ers by one game in the Atlantic Division and stands 1-5 in matches against Philly, LA and Seattle. The Celtics played hard and they made honest mistakes against a great team. But two Sunday toughies in a row is rough on the coach. “It’s like analyzing a funeral,” Fitch lamented. “It’s like saying to someone in the family, Are you crying big tears or little tears today?’ “
“A game of ifs,” said Ford. “Yes,” agreed Silas, “if DJ doesn’t make that shot, it’s history.”
The Celtics returned to the Garden to conclude their seven game home stand for a rare Tuesday night affair with the Houston Rockets.