Celtics (0-0) vs. Philadelphia (0-0)
April 18, 1980
The Boston Garden
The Celtics began the Eastern Conference Finals at the friendly confines of the Boston Garden against the Philadelphia 76ers. The two teams split the six regular season meetings, with each team winning their home games. Rumors that Philly could not win in Boston proved premature as the 76ers dominated the game’s third quarter and stole the opening game of the series, 96-93.
Despite an eight-point halftime lead, the Celtics lost their compusure in the second half and the lapse cost them the home court that took all season to earn. A look at the list of high scorers provides a quick glimpse at the game and, ultimately, the series. Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell led the Celtics with a respective 27 and 21 points, but were out-done by Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins, who posted 29 and 23. The opening game served as a microcosm of the series as whatever the Celtics did well, the Sixers were able to do better. The Celtics were held to just 16 points on the fast break, while the 76ers scored 19. The Celtics outscored the 76ers on second chance baskets, but Philadelphia held Boston scoreless in the fourth quarter in that same category.
“The makeup of a champion changes over time,” said Jan Volk in his recent interview with BSMW, “but if you look at all of the teams that contended and eventually won titles in that time period through the 80s into the 90s, you had young contending teams that had to be battle-tested. It happened to Chicago, it happened to Detroit, and it happened to the Celtics. Those were the major teams of that era and they all went into the playoffs at one point in time and were beaten. Playing Philadelphia was part of our maturation process.”
Billy Cunningham’s 76ers immediately exposed major flaws for the Celtics. The defensive boards were a particular disaster area, with the Philly winning the battle of those boards by nine, 35-26. Whether playing on the youth level or in the NBA, the direct relation of rebounding to winning is one of the few fundamental laws still remaining in the game of basketball. Dave Cowens had a solid night with 10 rebounds, but the combined effort from Philly was too much for the Celtics. Erving picked up seven rebounds, Caldwell Jones grabbed eight, and Dawkins collected ten. As much as the NBA was licking its chops at the prospect of a long-running feud between Julius Erving and Larry Bird, much of this Celtics-76ers series would be decided in the trenches by Cedric Maxwell and Darryl Dawkins. The opening round went to Dawkins.
“I threw up a power dunk. Dawkins made a power block. He was awesome. Not many centers in the game have the ability to work inside and outside. He can control a game with just physical ability,” said Cedric Maxwell to the Boston Globe’s Larry Whiteside. Philadelphia finally thought the 23-year-old Dawkins, already a five-year NBA veteran, was on his way to becoming the game’s next dominating center.
“I think he really began to come into his own late in the regular season when Julius (Erving) got hurt. He knew he had to take a bigger role in the offense and he did. It continued in the Atlanta series and you saw it tonight. It didn’t look like it at the time but getting Erving hurt was a blessing in disguise,” said Sixer coach Billy Cunningham.
Known by his “Chocolate Thunder” nickname and a bevy of slam dunks, such as the Gorilla Slam, Dawkins put together a critical stretch in the fourth quarter with his block on Maxwell and then, after the Celtics had knotted the score at 88, unleashed a scoring barrage with six straight points for Philly, a stretch from which the Celtics never recovered. Whiteside’s story gave more detail on Dawkins’ play:
There was no disguising the man they called “Chocolate Thunder” last night. Only modesty prevents him from saying that he is a new force inside, and one the Celtics must deal with, and quickly, if they are to avoid future pitfalls.
“I’m not going to let people say I’m the key,” asserted Dawkins, who threw his 6-foot, 11-inch, 251-pound frame around last night with reckless abandon. “The Doctah (Julius Erving) is still the key to this club.”
“What I was able to do tonight was good because it helped the team. But it was not by accident or because they were feeding me. We take what the other team is giving us, and many times I happened to get the ball in a position where I could score or get a rebound. But I worked for that position. I’ve caught hell in this building over the years and never have played particularly well. Both (Dave) Cowens and (Rick) Robey are good centers. But tonight, I worked hard and my teammates worked just as hard to get the ball to me.”
Cowens was on the bench late in the fourth with five fouls, and Dawkins exposed the lack of depth for the Celtics in the middle of the paint. The team’s inability to defend down low was suspect all season, as the likes of Moses Malone, Bill Cartwright, and even an aging Wes Unseld chewed up the Celtics down low. The problem reared its head at the worst possible time against Philadelphia, and it was an issue the C’s would have to correct over the off-season.
In addition to the usual suspects of Bird, Erving, Maxwell, and Dawkins, the play of Philly guard Henry Bibby helped decide the fate of the game. Bibby, the father of future NBA point guard Mike Bibby, came off the bench to deliver 17 points, four rebounds, and four assists. The Globe’s Ray Fitzgerald detailed his impact:
And then there’s Henry Bibby. If Julius Erving is rated a 10 on the excitement scale, Henry Bibby is down there around 1 1/2, somewhere east of Rex Morgan. Erving is the Jaguar, Bibby the battered Chevy pickup.
Erving was great, Dawkins was great, but so was Bibby.
“I’ve been an All-American in college,” he said. “I’ve been a star. It was no big deal. I’m not ever going to be a star on this team. All I want is a job in the NBA, and to do that job the best I can.”
Spoken like a true team player, which I guess is what Bibby is.
“I’ve always admired him,” said the Celtics’ Chris Ford. “He does the little things, the important things that aren’t always noticed. Every season, he goes to training camp knowing he’s the veteran who might be cut. But he’s there when the season starts, and when it ends. He’s got heart.”
The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan also detailed both teams’ displeasure with the officiating crew, a constant complaint throughout the history of the NBA:
Neither side was pleased with the identities of the officials selected by supervisor Norm Drucker to work this important game. Joe Gushue was the lead, and his partner was Ed Middleton. The opinion of both sides was that Middleton should have been watching on TV in Fargo, or maybe Liechtenstein, and Gushue, if here at all, should not have been the lead man. “How many other NBA games were there tonight?” Bill Fitch asked rhetorically. He also said, “It’s silly for me to be sitting here trying to analyze this game for you people, because my feelings about this whole evening bear no relation to this business. I lost something even before the game started when I walked out there and saw some of the things I was going to have to contend with.”
Nice to know some things never change.