As Rivalry Renews, a Celebration of a Memorable Chapter
There have been many chapters in the 76ers-Celtics rivalry, with the writing of the next set to start Monday, when the fabled franchises start their latest playoff series.
2020 also marks 40 years since the beginning of one of those monumental entries: Doctor J versus Larry Legend.
Meeting in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals, Julius Erving’s Sixers triumphed over Larry Bird’s Celtics, 4-1. The teams would meet again in the Conference Finals in 1981, 1982, and 1985.
The 1979-80 season was Bird’s rookie campaign and he was sensational. The NBA’s Rookie of the Year (along with Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald) led the resurgent Celtics to 61 wins and the Atlantic Division crown.
Erving, meanwhile, was in his ninth professional season and dependable as ever. Along with Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks, he led the Sixers to 59 victories.
In recognition of their team and individual successes, Erving and Bird were named as forwards on the All-NBA 1st Team.
In 1980, the Sixers and Celtics unsurprisingly dusted off their respective early playoff opponents. After a first-round bye, Boston swept the Houston Rockets in the semis. The Sixers swept the Washington Bullets in the first round and then handled the Atlanta Hawks, 4-1, in the semis.
So, for the first time since 1968, the Sixers and Celtics squared off in the Conference Finals.
The Sixers instantly stole home court advantage with a Game 1 win at Boston Garden, 96-93.
Erving and Bird wasted no time showing they were the focal points of their teams’ respective attacks. Julius finished with 29 points, seven rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. Larry was equally impressive, posting 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and four steals.
Key to the win for the Sixers, however, were the efforts of Darryl Dawkins and Henry Bibby. After shooting 3-for-7 in the first half, Dawkins went 7-for-10 in the second half to finish with 23 points and 10 rebounds. His turnaround jump shot with 2:28 left in the game gave the Sixers a 94-90 lead.
After Boston closed the margin to 94-93, Bibby, who finished with 17 points off the bench, sank a 12-foot jumper with just under a minute left to seal the game.
The second contest wasn’t much of a game.
Bird’s 11 first quarter points spurred a 29-22 start for Boston. The Sixers managed to tie the game, 62-62, midway through the third quarter, but the Celtics quickly responded with a 12-2 run of their own to take a 74-64 lead.
The final tally was 96-90 in favor of Boston.
A bright spot for the Sixers was that Erving continued his fine play (24 points), while Bobby Jones and Steve Mix showed life by combining for 25 points on 12-20 shooting.
With the series shifting to the Spectrum, Game 3 proved the pivotal match of the series.
Celtic forward Cedric Maxwell scored 15 points in the first quarter to give Boston a 28-26 lead. At halftime, the Cs maintained a 47-45 edge.
Then came a deluge in the third quarter that appeared to spell an easy Sixers win. The Celtics were outscored 33-19 in the period. Erving shook off a 2-for-7 shooting performance in the first two quarters to finish the game on an 11-for-15 shooting tear. He winded up with an absurd stat line of 28 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, and five steals.
Despite the third-quarter pummeling, Boston wasn’t down and out yet. The Green Machine almost consummated a comeback by outscoring the Sixers 31-21 in the fourth quarter.
Bird finished the game with 22 points and 21 rebounds, including a perfect 3-for-3 from downtown.
Forward M.L. Carr found himself open for a jump shot to tie the game, but a closeout by the Sixers forced him to drive to the basket. Spotting a seemingly open Cowens, Carr dished the ball off, but Caldwell Jones deflected the pass.
Mo Cheeks snatched up the loose ball with four seconds remaining and ran the clock out.
99-97 win for the 76ers.
Holding a 2-1 series lead, the Sixers forged ahead.
Erving scored 30 points in Game 4, his high for the series.
But down the stretch, Coach Billy Cunningham was bothered by the Sixers’ play.
“It seemed like we went through a series where we just held the ball,” the exasperated coach noted afterwards. “It looked like a football team, using ball-control in the last two minutes to run the clock out.”
Thankfully, the Celtics also struggled to get points in the final frame, as both teams notched just 16 points. Dawkins totaled 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting, while Bobby Jones came off the bench with a magnificent 14 points, seven boards, and five blocks in 31 minutes of play, as the Sixers won, 102-90.
On the brink of elimination, Boston hosted Game 5.
Their rookie sensation struggled mightily in the game. Shooting just 5-for-19, Larry Bird scored only 12 points while also committing six turnovers. Veteran Tiny Archibald had his best scoring game of the series with 22 points plus nine assists, but he uncharacteristically coughed the ball up seven times.
If the Sixers thought this meant an easy ride, they were mistaken. Erving also happened to have his toughest game of the series too - 14 points on 4-for-10 shooting and six turnovers to match Bird.
Furthermore, Dave Cowens - in his final game as a Celtic - and Maxwell did some heavy lifting to cover for Bird. The frontcourt duo combined 39 points and 23 rebounds.
Fortunately, mid-season acquisition Lionel Hollins made his presence felt for the Sixers with a superb effort – a team-high 24 points and seven assists.
And the big difference in the 76ers’ victory? Bobby Jones.
The Sixers’ sixth man scored 19 points on 8-10 shooting in just 18 minutes of action.
Compare that to Boston’s bench that also scored 19 points, but on a combined 7-for-22 shooting.
Finishing off the Celtics, 105-94, the 76ers returned to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1977.
Despite his individual performance in the closeout game, Erving was cool as ever keeping the big picture in mind.
“In a game like this, when I’m not scoring, somebody else is and we’re winning and that’s the name of the game.”
Chocolate Thunder echoed Erving: “A lot of critics say the 76ers don’t play a championship brand of ball, that we don’t play like a team…. But no one or two guys did it for us in this series. It’s a team. If you want to win, it’s got to be a team all the way.”