Celtics (49-15) vs. Detroit (15-50)
March 2, 1980
Boston Garden

In a game that saw Larry Bird pour in 41 points, the Celtics picked up their sixth straight win and 50th win of the season with a three point victory, 118-115, over the Detroit Pistons.  This marked the first time since the 1975-76 season that the Celtics had registered at least 50 wins.  With 16 games remaining, the possibility of 60 wins still loomed, which would be the first time the C’s hit that mark since the 74-75 season (and the sixth time overall in franchise history).  The 50 wins marked a career high for Bill Fitch.

Bill Fitch

A day prior to this noon tip-off (before the game, the Celtics entertained their fans with a mixed two-on-two college basketball tournament at 11:15am between four teams from Boston College, Boston State, MIT and Bentley), the Celtics won the coin flip against the Utah Jazz for the no. 1 pick in the upcoming 1980 NBA draft.  The Jazz general manager Frank Layden called the league office and called “heads,” but league commissioner Larry O’Brien announced the result was tails.  Unlike his Jazz counterpart, Red Auerbach was present for the coin flip (there was actually another coin flip prior to this that Utah win, allowing the Jazz to make the heads or tails call).  For what it’s worth, the NBA no longer employs a coin flip to make its biggest decisions.
The Celtics attained the right to that draft pick earlier in the season from a deal with the Detroit Pistons.  After Red Auerbach passed away in October of 2006, Dick Vitale — who made the deal with Auerbach — shared his thoughts of the deal on ESPN.com:

I talked to Red many times over the years, and I told him he should thank me for Boston’s success. You must be wondering, why I would say that?  When I was with the Pistons, we made a deal.  We traded for Bob McAdoo, for two draft picks.  One ended up being Kevin McHale, the other was utilized in a deal that gave the Celtics a pretty good big man named Robert Parish.  Boston also landed M.L. Carr — so, in essence, the Celtics did very well, thank you.

You know who got the best of that deal …

Purdue’s Joe Barry Carroll and Louisville’s Darrell Griffith were two highly touted prospects in the draft, but the Celtics organization — namely Auerbach — had its mind set on one player: Ralph Sampson.

Ralph Sampson soars through the air as a young Danny Ainge (22) looks on
Ralph Sampson soars through the air as a young Danny Ainge (22) looks on

An excerpt from Auerbach and John Feinstein’s Let Me Tell You A Story: A Lifetime in the Game shares more detail:

At the time, Sampson was a seven-foot-four freshman at the University of Virginia who appeared to be the game’s next great big man.  Even at his height, Sampson could handle the ball like a guard, had a soft shooting touch, and ran the floor, if not like Russell or Cowens, then remarkably well for a man his size.  Even with Sampson on the team, Virginia struggled during the regular season and ended up in the NIT after failing to make the NCAA Tournament.  Sampson finally got rolling in the NIT and the Cavaliers won the tournament, beating a good Minnesota team in the final in Madison Square Garden.  Red was at that game and came away talking like a lovesick teenager about Sampson’s potential.  He was convinced he could get Sampson to leave Virginia after his freshman year for the chance to become a Celtic – and play next to Bird.

Sampson changed the direction of the Boston Celtics by deciding to remain in school.  Auerbach changed direction: after learning the Warriors were salivating over Joe Barry Carroll, he and Fitch convinced Warriors GM Al Attles to trade Robert Parish and the third pick for the no. 1 pick in the draft.  Since Carroll would be the franchise center, the team wouldn’t have a need for Parish.  The Celtics had their way and got their man in Kevin McHale, whom Auerbach preferred over Carroll for his propensity to play so hard on the floor.

Bob McAdoo did make a difference in this particular game, finishing with 32 points and nearly single-handily broke the Celtics’ winning streak.  Neverthless, Bird’s masterful 41-point performance was too much for Detroit.  Leigh Montville in the Boston Globe described the final moments of the game during a post-game story on Pistons coach Richie Adubato:

Dave Cowens was free and hit a 15-foot jumper to give the Celtics a one-point lead with 14 seconds left.  OK, the Pistons still had the ball and time.  Adubato called the play he wanted.  Yes!  John Long was going to pass the ball in at midcourt to Eric Money and then Money was covered . . . and stumbled? was pushed? what? . . . and Long threw the ball directly into M.L. Carr’s hands.  Carr drove the length of the floor for a whocka-whocka dunk and the final 118-115 score.  The Pistons, even though they had 11 seconds left, never did call a timeout to try a three-point play. Bob McAdoo threw up a three-point try on the run that failed.  End of game.

“We should have called a timeout,” Richie Adubato says.  “I told our guards if anything happened to call a timeout.  I told ’em.”

“There should have been some help for Eric on the pass-in too,” Adubato’s assistant, Herman Kull, says.  “Somebody should have come up to give John another option to pass to. He just never moved.”

“Little things,” Adubato says.  “All these little things that kill you.”

The Celtics continued to do the little things better than any team in the NBA.  The C’s were now two games ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers (49-17) in the loss column.

The Celtics now returned to the road, traveling to Texas for their next two games to battle Eastern Conference foes in the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.