Celtics (0-1) vs. Philadelphia (1-0)
April 20, 1980
The Celtics opened the playoffs by demolishing Houston. After the sweep, Rockets coach Del Harris anointed the 1980 Celtics as “the best team I’ve ever seen.” The C’s, however, were given a rude awakening in the opener of the conference finals, as Philadelphia used a combination of style (Dr. J), power (Darryl Dawkins), and grit (Henry Bibby) to wrestle away homecourt. Game Two was a different story, as the Celtics relied heavily on their starting five and fought off every Philly comeback to hold on and win, 96-90.
Bob Ryan examined the victory in the pages of the Boston Globe the following morning, a game that saw all of Boston’s starting five in double figures:
There can be no denying that the Boston half of the morning box score is an eyebrow archer. Boston substitutes accounted for a mere 28 of the 240 playing minutes. Fitch stayed with his five-man mule team, and nobody will ever be able to convince him he did not do the right thing.
“If,” he said, “I run into a carbon copy of this game anywhere along the line, I’ll do it again. I think this team is as well-conditioned as any in the league. My players have the right to ask out for a blow, and the substitutes for each player can put themselves in for their man if they think they should. I may run a dictatorship, but it’s with a diplomatic-democratic twist.”
Larry Bird, who played 46 minutes, led all scorers with 31 points and, as evidenced in the video, put his body on the line for the Celtics. The NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year also picked up 12 rebounds. Ryan touched on Bird’s play, which ultimately was the difference between victory and defeat.
After missing his first three shots, he sank 13 of his next 15 attempts from the floor, and the variety of his offense suggested a man playing “Horse” with himself. The level of the 76ers’ defense in this game matched their first-game effort, but this time The Rookie made shots no 6-foot-9 man has a right to make. It was that simple.
“He made some incredible shots,” conceded Sixer coach Billy Cunningham. “There wasn’t much you could do about it.”
The game was not entirely perfect for Bird. He accumulated only one shot at the free throw line, delivered only two assists, and turned the ball over an alarming eight times. Despite the defeat, Philadelphia saw vulnerability in their opponent. Larry Whiteside’s story from the Globe had Julius Erving’s take on Bird’s 31-point night.
“Let’s face it,” said Julius Erving. “Larry had an outstanding individual game. Everybody knows he is capable of doing that on any given night. He’s got that kind of ability. But he wound up taking 30 shots, and everybody knows that is not the kind to team game that the Celtics have played all year. I just don’t know if he’ll have that kind of success if he has to do it every night. It worked in this game. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Ryan touched on the sequence that gave the Celtics their first victory of the series:
The game wasn’t put away until the final nine minutes, or until the Celtics, who had blown a 15-point second-period lead down to a tie at 62-all, answered the final Sixer thrust with big baskets by Cowens (14) and Bird. Philly was still hanging tough at 76-70 when Cowens responded to a delightful low-post mismatch with Steve Mix by swinging into the lane for a hook with 9:18 left. Bird then expanded the margin to 10 at 80-70 with a jumper from just inside the three- point arc. The 76ers were unable to reduce the deficit to less than 10 until garbage time, as the Celtics twice expanded the lead to 13, the second time at 90-77 with 3:41 to play.
The Celtics also reasserted themselves on the glass. After the Sixers picked up nine more defensive rebounds than the C’s in the series opener, Bird (12 rebounds) and Cedric Maxwell (15 rebounds) shifted the direction of the series by limiting Philly’s second-chance opportunities. The Sixers shot 48 percent in Game One, yet barely managed 44 percent from the field in Game Two.
“I just went out there with the same confidence that I’ve had all season,” Bird told the Globe’s Whiteside. “We proved we were the best team in an 82-game season. Now we’ve got to prove we’re the best team in the playoffs. I didn’t mind the fact that I played so long. In a game like this, and playing against a talented club like Philly, you don’t really want to come out.”
The Globe’s Leigh Montville, who now writes for Sports on Earth, detailed the scene in the Celtics’ locker room after the game:
“Sloppy,” a man tried to tell Celtics’ guard Chris Ford. “You won, but you looked sloppy.”
“What do you mean?” Ford fairly shouted. “Everyone out there is fighting tooth and nail. Maybe from where you’re sitting the game looks sloppy, but if you’re playing you know the games aren’t going to be picture-perfect because nobody’s going to let them be. Maybe you can say everyone’s making mistakes. I say everyone’s just trying like hell.”
The Celtics had not won in Philly since January of 1979. In order to avoid returning to the Garden facing a 3-1 deficit, the C’s would need to find a way to procure a victory at the Spectrum. While the Celtics were only seven wins away from a championship, the Boston Bruins had just bowed out of the playoffs after losing, 4-1, to the New York Islanders (who were beginning a run of four straight Stanley Cup victories). The Globe’s Ernie Roberts asked Harry Sinden his thoughts on the Celtics:
One writer asked Sinden if he thought it unfair that the Bruins had to play eight games in 11 days while the Celtics seemed to have the luxury of a two- or three-day rest between playoff games. Harry grinned. “I don’t think it is pertinent,” he said, “but who should I complain to? Mr. (Larry) O’Brien (commissioner of the NBA)? Actually I hope the Celtics win their title because I’d like to see one championship team come to Boston.”
The Celtics traveled to Philadelphia for Game Three.