10.25.2008

Athens Meets Sparta for the First Time Since ECFs

1981-82 Boston Celtics

Tonight at the Garden we will have Athens vs. Sparta, Volume 35, Chapter 1. Who's Athens, and who's Sparta? That depends on whether your area code is 617 or 215.

AC 617 (Boston) enters tonight's renewal of this historic NBA rivalry with a 14-3 record. AC 215 (Philadelphia) comes here with a 14-2 record. Even those of you unable to balance a checkbook can deduce, therefore, that the winner of this game (Ch. 4, WRKO, 7:30) will emerge as the first-place team in the Atlantic Division of the NBA.

The major participants are loath to admit that there will be anything extra involved in this game, contending that it's just an early December game against a key divisional rival, and that nothing will be resolved, one way or the other, as far as the Big Picture is concerned.

But anyone watching these two clubs go at it during the opening exhibition in Hartford back on Oct. 9 knows differently. Such is the mixture of mutual fear and respect among these players that a "routine" game involving the Celtics and 76ers is impossible to comprehend. An inordinate percentage of the NBA players who care about their product will be on the Garden floor tonight.

A possible downer for the Celtics' fans is the impaired physical status of Sixer center Darryl Dawkins, who hyperextended his right knee last Saturday night in a game against Detroit, and who sat out the last two Philly games. Without Dawkins, who would the fans hiss (perhaps Andrew Toney)? At any rate, nobody is certain whether or not Dawkins will play.

But Julius Erving will play, and lately his presence has meant even more trouble than usual for Sixer opponents. The Doc is averaging a cool 25.1 points a game. He is shooting nearly 59 percent from the floor. He's 32, and playing as well as ever. Bobby Jones will be 31 in two weeks, and he, too, is at his peak. Jones has been starting all season, and the effect of the change can be seen in the team's 14-2 record.

Each team has done a strange thing this week: Lost a game. Boston was nipped by Indiana on the road, while Philly, playing without Dawkins, lost a close game at home to San Antonio. All this means is that instead of entering this game with a combined record of 30-3, they come here with a combined record of 28-5. Pity.

Boston vs. Philadelphia is not just a line on the schedule; it's a connotation. It conjures up images of fast breaks, blocked shots, strong team defense and fierce rebound struggles. And the best part is that when it's only Chapter One it means there will be five more to go, not to mention the playoffs.

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