Celtics (2-0) vs. Houston (0-2)
April 13, 1980
The Celtics took command of the Eastern Conference semi-finals series against the Rockets with a 100-81 victory at the Summit in Texas.
Led by 20 points and 10 assists from Nate Archibald, the Celtics moved one step closer to advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. Similar to the Celtics’ current playoff opponent in the New York Knicks, the 1980 Rockets had firepower in Moses Malone (28 points, 9 boards) and Robert Reid (23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists). but the rest of the team was rendered ineffective. The Celts were able to find Houston’s weaknesses. Even though Malone was constantly double-teamed, he did not accumulate one assist the entire game. In an interview with BSMW, longtime Celtic M.L. Carr — who was capping off a very successful first season with the Celtics — spoke about his team’s success against Houston.
Our team’s talent was unbelievable, but the other part of it was that there was a hunger among the guys. Tiny had not won, Cowens had, but hadn’t won in a while and he was trying to get another one, Chris Ford had never won a championship, Pete Maravich had never won, I had never won, so there was an incredible hunger, along with the collection of talent, and we were truly about the team.
Coming in that year, the Celtics were rebuilding. Obviously, they’d had one of the worst years of their time, but Red was adamant about bringing the team back to where it should be. The team went out and drafted the Larry the year earlier, brought Chris Ford in the year before it, and signed me and Gerald Henderson as free agents. We had no idea it would go as well and as quick as it did.
I always wanted to be a Celtic. Saying that could have hurt me in negotiations, but they really pursued me hard. Red was very, very good, and sold me on the fact we could turn this team around. He laid out a role for me, and I had been a Celtics’ fan since I was a child growing up. Red was very involved, and that helped us get on track. After we won the division, we were so excited after the game. We were jumping up and down, and Red walked into the locker room. Red asked, “what are you all doing?” We told him we were so excited to have won the division and had the best record in the league. “We don’t celebrate division titles here,” Red said. “We only celebrate championships.” He brought us right back to reality.
We had Cowens, Max, Tiny, these guys who had gone through a very tough time the year before. But, for me, it was a chance to come from the Detroit Pistons. In three years there, I’d been to the playoffs only once. I knew this was a chance to be a part of something special.
Rockets coach Del Harris had predicted his team would shoot close to 50 percent from the field back at the Summit. That number never came to fruition, as Houston shot 41 percent from the field (32-for-78) but allowed eight more shots and twelve more successful attempts for the Celtics. The C’s, who only made eleven free throws and went 1-5 from long distance, hit 51 percent of their shots and stretched an eight point halftime lead to 14 after three quarters, and then went for the jugular in the fourth and final frame. Chris Ford stood out with his third consecutive superb game, finishing with an all-around line of 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.
The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan detailed the Celtics dominance in the series:
The Celtics are simply burying the Rockets with superior team play at both ends. When Tiny Archibald got hot, for example, Chris Ford passed up a wide-open 18-foot jumper from the right to pitch the ball back to Archibald at the top of the key. Tiny obliged by swishing a jumper. But perhaps the most impressive displays were on defense. One, in particular, pleased Bill Fitch.
“It came in the third quarter,” Fitch said. “Rick Barry made a good penetration, and he wanted to throw the ball back out to an open man. It was a smart play. But Tiny did the thing we’re always preaching – he pursued. He picked the pass off and turned what would have been a good offensive play by Barry into a good defensive play for himself. And there were two other times when Rick Robey came from behind Malone to intercept passes. The reason he could do it was the pressure on the ball, which prevented the pass from getting there until Rick could get in front of Malone.”
Jan Volk, who served as the team’s general manager from 1984-1997, started with the Celtics organization in ticket sales in 1976. By the spring of 1980, his role evolved to assisting team president Red Auerbach in the front office. Volk was also gracious enough to share some time with BSMW discussing the season, the playoff run, and how the team emphatically removed the losing culture that had crept into the Boston Garden.
There was a renewed appreciation for what winning was all about that season, said Volk. We began asserting ourselves with a new cast of characters. The team, centered around Larry Bird, had many great players. We were a contender and the appreciation, particularly by the fans, was even more intense because they now really appreciated what they had. I think that’s pretty common to appreciate what you have after you lose it, and we had got it back. We had a period of time where we were in transition both on the court and in ownership.
Though it was a small sample size, Bird performed brilliantly in the playoff spotlight. He shined in game three with 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. Volk admitted that even the Celtics were impressed with Bird’s immediate impact in the league, but also noted that this was not Larry’s team, a fact that was freely accepted.
Larry came in recognizing this was Dave Cowens’ team. Larry is a very confident guy, but he did not assert himself in deference to Dave Cowens the way he ultimately did subsequently after Dave retired.
Volk also touched on a couple of areas where the rookie from Indiana State surprised even Red Auerbach:
I don’t think anybody knew Larry was going to be as good as he turned out to be for his entire career. Red would say that he was particularly pleased that Larry was such a good rebounder. He did not realize, at that point [when Bird was drafted], he was such a good rebounder. And, despite the fact that he didn’t look to be a terrific defensive player, he was a very good team defensive player. So those were two aspects of his game that were underappreciated by the time he was drafted.
Draft Bird early and waiting a season may look easy now, but the Celtics suffered through a miserable season while Bird dominated at ISU. And there was no guarantee that Bird would sign with the Celtics, though thanks to the Bob McAdoo move with Detroit, Boston could have actually drafted Bird with the top choice in the 1980 draft. Fortunately, he signed and revitalized the Celtics with an MVP-caliber year that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Volk recalled the process that led to drafting Bird:
Portland had two picks. They picked Mychal Thompson with their first pick, and they had the seventh pick. We had the sixth and the eighth. If we didn’t take Bird with our first pick, that sixth pick, he would have gone to Portland. Portland was the only other team we felt could take a chance, more reasonably take a chance than the other teams, but there was a reasonable likelihood that the other teams couldn’t wait the year, and there was an argument to be made that we couldn’t wait, either. But we did.
We sold out a game on a Wednesday evening early in the season against the World Series. If you went out on the street, you couldn’t have found one-out-of-a-hundred-people who could name two players playing [on the opponents]. And yet, we sold out. That was a testimony to what we had, which turned out to be extraordinarily special.
Volk still admires the relationship that Bird and Auerbach formed, beginning in the fall of 1979.
Red respected Larrry, not only in his abilities, but also his work ethic. I know Larry respected what Red had accomplished. I don’t think there is much an understanding of historic perspective today, but Larry knew what it was. Larry was happy to be here: he didn’t want to be any place else and we didn’t want him to be any place else.
Ryan touched on Bird’s impact in his first playoff series in the Globe:
Larry Bird hooked up with his roommate, Rick Robey, for three consecutive baskets in one stretch, and each was different in nature. The first was a bullet pass from the right wing to a cutting- across-the-lane Robey. The second was a great left-to-right, fast- break lead. The third was an artful little pick-and-roll bounce pass. “When Rick comes out, sets his pick and rolls quickly,” explained Bird, “I can see the whole floor. If he sets his pick and stands there, it clogs things up. But he knows how I play now, and we work together real well.”
Fitch on Bird’s offense in this series: “I’d give him a 7 on a 10 scale, but only a 5 on a Bird scale. The encouraging thing, however, is that he’s coming. He’s going up instead of down.”
The Celtics were still trending upward, though no one, even those in Philadelphia, had the prescience to know that was going to change any time soon. The C’s remained in Houston and looked to sweep the Rockets the following night.