Celtics (54-17) vs. Hawks (44-28)
March 14, 1980
A difficult stretch continued for the Boston Celtics. With the season nearly 90 percent complete, the Celtics struggled to hold onto the lead in the Atlantic Division, dropping three of the past four games, including this affair in Atlanta, 88-87.
Indiana did a favor for the Celtics, knocking off Philadelphia, so the Green Team remained one game in front of the 76ers. The C’s lost this non-televised game (heard locally on WBZ) despite 23 points from Larry Bird, a 14/16 night from Cedric Maxwell, and a 13/11 performance from Rick Robey. As well as the frontline played, the Celtic guards struggled to find any consistency, and that included the return of Nate Archibald. The Celtics committed 20 turnovers to just 12 assists, a ratio they rarely encountered throughout the season. Dave Cowens, rounding into post-season form, finished with 13 points and 8 rebounds, but Gerald Henderson — coming off his most impressive game as a professional with 14 points and 10 assists — struggled to produce, shooting 1-6 with one assist. The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan looked for some positives in a disheartening loss:
On the surface, the evening could be viewed in a totally negative light, since the Celtics seemingly wasted a strong defensive game. But with the 76ers dropping a 104-94 decision to the Pacers, no real harm was done. And there were two significant developments coming out of this defensively oriented game.
The first was a strong performance by Dave Cowens, who put his offense (13 points on 6-for-11 shooting), his rebounding (8 power retrieves) and his defense together for the first time since his return to the lineup on Feb. 26. The second positive note was the spectacular late-game heroics of Bird, whose jumper with 1:02 remaining pulled the struggling Celtics close at 84-83; whose tremendous pass resulted in a Cowens layup with 26 seconds left that gave Boston an 85-84 lead, the first Celtic advantage since 57-56; and whose clever cut-and-fake drew the two free throws with nine seconds left. Then there was the matter of sinking both in a non-bonus situation.
In addition to soundly beating the Celtics in the assists battle (24-12) as well as in limiting turnovers (five less for Atlanta), Hubie Brown’s Hawks received 11 offensive rebounds and 12 defensive rebounds in a career high night for Wayne “Tree” Rollins. Though the Celtics guards suffered through an off-night, Rollins highlighted Boston’s biggest issue: defending the paint. Premiere post players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone had their way with the Celtics, and though the interior defense had improved from October to March, it still served as a fatal flaw looming for the Celtics.
The victory put the Hawks in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye as Atlanta had basically secured the Central Division title. Ryan noted the significance of the Hawks winning the division:
Speaking of the playoffs, here is the latest update on tiebreaking procedures should Boston and Philadelphia wind up tied for the Atlantic Division lead and are also 3-3 in their season’s series. The first criterion will be conference record, and going into last night’s action, the teams were tied [at 38-12]. Next would be Atlantic Division record, and there Philly had the edge with 14-3 as opposed to Boston’s 13-5. Step four is record against conference playoff opponents, and then the edge would swing back to Boston, thanks to Philly’s 1-4 record with Atlanta.
The C’s returned to action for a back-to-back with a Saturday battle against the Knickerbockers at Madison Square Garden.