Eastern Conference Finals
1981-82 Boston Celtics
You're a Celtics fan. As you enter the building for Game 1 of the 76er series, would it not be fair to suggest that very low on your list of conceivable game situations - say, right after the possibility of the Garden being sold at noon to the Krishnas and converted into an ashram by game time - would be the Celtics leading by 48 points with the ball? Would it not be equally fair to suggest that if someone had guaranteed that you would wind up toasting the largest playoff victory margin in the 36-year history of the team that you would feel you had died and gone to Hoop Heaven?
Of course, the answer to both questions is yes, and in the afterglow of yesterday afternoon's astonishing 121-81 Celtics' clocking of the 76ers in the opening game of the NBA Eastern Conference final, there will be a lot of basketball fans wandering around Greater Boston wearing beatific grins today.
Bill Fitch won't be one of them. He figures his job is to shrink hat sizes. So you can bet your autographed picture of Doggie Julian that he will spend most of the next two days attempting to minimize the import of the best game of basketball his team has played in precisely 49 days, or since the Celtics defeated these same 76ers by a 123-111 score on March 21 in the Spectrum.
In fact, Fitch has begun the psych-down already. "If anyone ever had the chance to make a Knute Rockne speech without opening his mouth, it's Billy (Cunningham)," Fitch declared. "He'll just have to turn on the projector before Wednesday's game."
If Billy does, what he will see is basketball the way Boston is supposed to play it. Triggered by a relentless defense (anchored by Robert Parish, he of the seven blocks and countless scares), the Celtics broke out of the Washington slowdown-tempo straitjacket in which they had been imprisoned for five games. The prime beneficiary of the quickened tempo was Larry Bird, who gleefully carved out his second career playoff triple-double with 24 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. "It felt good to get running again," Bird admitted. "Both teams like to run, and it was just a great feeling to play in a game like this."
The game began to get away from the visitors in the final stages of the opening period. Trailing, 23-19, following an Andrew Toney jumper, the Sixers were limited totwo field goals (a Mike Bantom tap-in and a scary Beamonesque flying slammer by Julius Erving) over the next 8:30, so that by the time Erving finally hit a non-layup, the squad was down by 17 (46-29).
Still down by 17 (62-45) at the half, the Sixers completely unraveled in the third period, turning the ball over six times (twice on inbounds passes), shooting 18.5 percent (5 for 27) and avoiding the ignominy of being held to a single-digit quarter when Toney threw in a lefty reverse layup with one second left.
The shelling continued for six more minutes until Boston opened its largest lead (110-62) on two Rick Robey free throws. But the chance to go up by the seldom-seen 50 passed. Charles Bradley's lead on a fast break was stolen by Bantom, and the 76ers were not to be placed in a similar position for the rest of the game.
Boston laid the foundation for this memorable (and much-needed) triumph in the first period with aggressive defense, rugged boardwork (eight second- chance points in period one) and crisp offensive execution. The running blitz didn't materialize at first. Not until Gerry Henderson picked off a poor Erving inbounds toss and went all the way to make it 44-27 did the Celtics pick up a transition basket.
By that time, the Celtics had established two-way half-court superiority. They were also in the midst of receiving a big pick-up from Rick Robey, who scored 15 of his season-high 19 points in the quarter. Robey launched his spree with a jump-hook three-pointer over Darryl Dawkins that gave the Celts a 10-point lead at 36-26 and completed it with a shot whose mindlessness and accuracy summed up the "when-you're-hot-you're-hot" nature of Boston's day. Receiving a pitch-back pass from Bird, who had retrieved a Chris Ford miss, and either misreading or ignoring the amount of time left on the clock (23 seconds), Robey swished a 13-foot jump shot that provided the Celts with a 62-44 lead.
By mid-second period it was evident that the Sixers were out of synch, and the unit of Robey, Bird, Kevin McHale (a quiet 16 points, 11 rebounds), M. L. Carr and Henderson was only too happy to turn out the lights. A crowd- pleasing, transition-oriented run of 14-4 elevated the lead to 52-31 and brought on some serious crowd noise. Maurice Cheeks immediately responded with two baskets, at which point Bill Fitch defused Philly with an excellent timeout. Philly would never be a bother again.
With Philly in foul trouble (Caldwell Jones exited in just 11:39 and personnel trouble (Lionel Hollins already out and Dawkins complaining of leg pain), Fitch wanted the ball to go inside. At 64-47 he yelled, "Take it inside, now. No perimeter game. You've got the lead." As if on cue, Carr drove for two, and that was followed by a sensational driving Bird three-pointer. It was now 69-47 and the stampede was on.
How good were the Celtics on this occasion? Ask Cedric Maxwell. "When Robert and Larry are playing the way they're capable of playing, I don't think they (Philly) can beat us. If we play on all the cylinders we did today, I don't think we can be beaten. And that's not only Philadelphia, but any team in the world. If you want to write something for controversy, that will start it."
Consider it started, Max. And as for you, Celtics' fan, have that silly grin wiped off your face by Wednesday. Sixers have some pride, too.