Sixers vs. Celtics: The '80s Rivalry
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics have met a record 20 times in the NBA playoffs, including the 2018 matchup. There have been three particularly hot periods of strife between the franchises. The 1950s era when the Syracuse Nationals led by Dolph Schayes tangled with the Celtics seven times in nine seasons (1953-1961). Then there was the late 1960s when the Wilt Chamberlain-led 76ers took on Boston five consecutive years (1965-1969). And then there’s the 1980s where Philly and Boston battled four times in six seasons from 1980 to 1985, all of them in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In honor of the Julius Erving and Larry Bird era of the rivalry, let’s rundown the 1980s showdowns between the 76ers and Celtics.
1980: Philadelphia 4 – Boston 1
The Celtics finished the regular season with 61 wins, a dramatic turnaround from their 29-win 1979 campaign. Meanwhile, the Sixers ran off 59 wins, which were the most for the franchise since 1968. Despite the homecourt advantage, the Celtics endured a gentleman’s sweep by the 76ers. The pivotal moment was Game 3 in Philly with the series knotted at 1-1.
The 76ers entered the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead and held a 97-90 edge with 1:52 to go. A Lionel Hollins jumper gave Philly its final two points as the Celtics closed the gap to just 99-97 after a Pete Maravich hook shot and a Bird three-pointer. The Celtics couldn’t get over that final hump, though, as the Sixers held on for the win and a 2-1 series lead.
With that key victory, the 76ers eventually captured the series 4-1 thanks to double-digit wins in Games 4 and 5.
1981: Boston 4 – Philadelphia 3
This series is not a pleasant one for Philly fans, but it still has a strong case for the greatest playoff series ever played. And the Game 7 might be the greatest game ever played. All basketball fans are urged to watch this series from beginning to end, but we’ll put our focus on the final frame of the final game.
The fourth quarter of Game 7 was defensive bedlam in Boston Garden. Neither team shot particularly well and both were diving all over the court for loose balls trying to create second chance points for themselves while denying it for the other team. The havoc – spurred on by the boisterous crowd – was impenetrable.
Erving delivered what offense Philadelphia could muster in fourth quarter scoring 10 of the 76ers’ 15 points. Outside of Erving, Philadelphia proved unable to reliably score, while Boston made good on some fortuitous defensive efforts, but they too were stuck in the muck producing just 20 points.
Fortune struck Boston when Bird gained control of a ricocheting ball, stormed up court and banked in a fastbreak jumper with a minute left. That proved to be the game-clincher as both teams settled in for 60 more seconds of live wire defense that left the other unable to breath, much less score. Boston took the game 91-90 and thus the series 4-3.
The nail-biter was a fitting, if bitter, end to the 76ers-Celtics rivalry in 1981. During the regular season, both squads won 62 games. Their regular season matchup had ended 3-3. Five games of this ECF series were decided by a combined total of eight points. If these two squads played forever they’d probably still be within one point of each other.
1982: Philadelphia 4 – Boston 3
This series looked like déjà vu of the ’81 tangle. Philly up 3-games-to-1, but Boston storms back to force a Game 7 at the Garden. This time, however, the Sixers responded with a resounding beatdown of the Celtics led by the “Boston Strangler,” Andrew Toney.
In the 1981 Game 7, Toney saw limited time and scored only eight points. For the 1982 finale, Toney was electrifying scoring 34 points on 14-23 shooting. Backing up the guard’s sizzling effort was the Doctor with 29 points of his own and a smorgasbord of hustle stats: five assists, four rebounds, three steals and three blocks.
The defensive slog of the previous year was replaced by a 120-106 76ers victory defying expectations of fans and media that the Sixers would wilt under the pressure of yet again blowing a 3-1 lead on the road. Indeed, it was only the second time in history that the Celtics had lost a Game 7 on their homecourt.
1985: Boston 4 – Philadelphia 1
This 76ers squad was a mishmash of eras. Bobby Jones and Erving were nearing the end of their illustrious careers. Maurice Cheeks and Moses Malone were just on the other side of their athletic peaks, but still outstanding. Andrew Toney was reaching the apex of his prowess. And a young mound of rebounding fury, Charles Barkley, enjoyed a breakout rookie campaign.
In Billy Cunningham’s last season as head coach, the Sixers put together a splendid 58-win regular season. Unfortunately, the Celtics were smackdab in the middle of Larry Bird’s zenith. The savant forward had won his second of three consecutive regular season MVPs and the Celtics smashed Philly into an 0-3 series hole.
Coach Cunningham made a pivotal adjustment for Game 4, inserting Barkley into the starting lineup and having Bobby Jones return to a familiar bench role. The tactic worked beautifully as the rookie forward responded with 15 points and 20 rebounds, while the sage veteran Jones went 7-8 from the field for 14 points. Combined they delivered a 115-104 Sixers win.
For Game 5, Barkley remained in the starting lineup. Although he finished with a modest 13 points, the configuration still resulted in great team results. Mo Cheeks was the star that night with 26 points on 10-15 shooting. Nonetheless, Boston closed out the series on their home court, 102-100. One wonders how much closer the series would have been if Barkley were in the starting lineup from the outset.
But the previous lineup had blitzed the Bullets and Bucks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Those are the quirks and breaks of basketball.
Unfortunately, that 1985 series would be the end of the 76ers-Celtics rivalry for the 1980s. Boston made the ECF again in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Philadelphia meanwhile underwent a dramatic overhaul as Moses Malone suffered an eye injury scuttling the 76ers’ playoff hopes and a potential rematch with Boston in 1986. That ensuing offseason, Malone was traded to the Washington Bullets and Bobby Jones retired from the NBA. In 1987, another retirement (Erving) and injury (Toney) further hampered the 76ers.
The next time Philly and Boston would meet in the playoffs would not be until a 1st Round series in 2002 and again in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in 2012, both won by the Celtics in do-or-die games. The 2018 series, with another burgeoning cavalcade of stars, appears the inauguration of a fourth round of heated 76ers-Celtics playoff duels. If they’re anything like the previous three, we’ll be buzzing about these matchups for decades to come.