8.17.2009

Celtics Run Out of Gas

Celtics 3, Sixers 4

Eastern Conference Finals
1981-82 Boston Celtics



The ghosts had disappeared now, the four guys with white sheets over their heads, the guys who called themselves "The Ghosts of Celtics Past."

The sign that had been hung directly across from the Philadelphia 76ers' bench - DEJA VU - had been removed and rolled into a ball and returned to someone's attic. The kids with the Kelly green fright wigs were riding the T somewhere. The hard words had been replaced by cheers and the party had been spoiled and the curse was gone.

The Philadelphia 76ers were free of all their torment in the end. They were champions of the Eastern Conference of the NBA.

"What's the best part?" a man asked center Darryl Dawkins as the day was done, the Celtics having been dispatched by a surprising 120-106 score yesterday afternoon at the Garden.

"Just seeing those fans walking out at the end," the big man replied. "Seeing 'em quiet and walking out single file. Usually, they'll be in bunches, calling us chokers' on the way. They couldn't say nothing today."

No matter how much a man liked the Boston Celtics, no matter if he slept every night ingreen pajamas and named his first-born Arnold or Red, the grand performance of the Sixers on this day and in this game could not be denied. The things they did, the way they played, were special. They played a special game on a special day.

Few teams in American professional sport had been treated as harshly as the Sixers had been in the past two days. Squandering a 3-1 lead for the second straight year, blowing a sixth game at home to create this final seventh game, they had been ridiculed. They were chokers, bunglers, inept at the work they did for money.

The question wasn't whether or not they would win, but whether or not they would appear for the game. They weren't just playing for the right to move ahead in the playoffs, they were playing for their existence as a team.

"This game means about $10 million to this franchise, doesn't it?" a man suggested to a Philadelphia sportswriter. "How would this team be able to sell a ticket for next year if it doesn't win this game?"

"This game means the franchise," the Philadelphia sportswriter replied. "Nothing less than that. These guys lose and they might as well move the team to Memphis or somehwere. It never could go back to Philadelphia."

All the pieces of defeat were arranged neatly. The Celtics were the team the Sixers never could beat. The seventh game was the game the Sixers never could win. The site was the place that was the Sixers' perpetual green knoll burial ground.

If the players tuned to a Boston radio station, all they heard was disc jockey babble about what a wonderful Boston day this would be. If they read a Boston newspaper - including this one - all they read was how terrible they were in times of pressure. If they opened their mouths and breathed, they knew their situation.

And they responded.

"I came in here, I told some jokes," Darryl Dawkins said in the crowded locker room. "The way I figured, if somebody tells a joke, you've got to laugh. Even if you're at a funeral, you have to laugh at a good joke."

They had one meeting, two meetings, three meetings. They were still meeting, 10 minutes before the game began, while the Celtics crowd was applauding a dunking show by its team. They returned to the floor. They were terrific.

The feeling was that they were the last survivors at the Alamo, back to back, firing at the hordes that were approaching. Every Sixer was a Charles Bronson responding to all the trouble he had seen. The hesitancy of the last three games disappeared. The Sixers played angry basketball.

"When did you start to feel good about it?" their general manager, Pat Williams, was asked.

"With about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter," said Williams, who had prowled the building nervously for the length of the game. "I think the time was 7:23. We had a little flurry. Julius Erving hit a jump shot. It was the time we've gone into our swoons, and we made a flurry."

That was it. Wasn't it? This time the Sixers led all the way, grinding ahead, and when the time came in the fourth quarter where they historically became shaky guns, they still were grinding. They still were moving when the crunch arrived.

The Celtics were the ones who missed the open shots. The foul shots. The Celtics were the ones who threw the passes that were a foot too high, a foot too low, a foot out of bounds. The Sixers still were driven, angry. The Celtics were the ones who were tired at the end.

"You wonder if we lost this one by using so much emotion in winning the fourth and fifth and sixth games," Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell said. "You win those, you're looking forward to coming home; the crowd's at the airport. You can peak too much.

"Basically, I think we celebrated too soon."

Celtics Pride goeth before the fall. Maybe that is the lesson from this afternoon.

Games are still games. They are different from movies and Broadway shows and concerts in that they aren't planned. Anything can happen. Anything does. The butler doesn't always commit the murder. The encore doesn't always begin with "Start spreading the news . . ." Games are decided by the way the players think and the way they play. Nothing is decided until it is decided.

"It felt like somebody stabbed me with a rusty knife in the back," Darryl Dawkins said. "That's how it felt to be written off the way we were."

The challenge was there, and the Philadelphia 76ers simply took it. They were terrific. End of story.

"Why are you out here?" a tidy little man named Al Domenico was asked as he stood in the Garden corridor as the green paying customers left the building.

"You see that dressing room?" he replied. "You can't move in that place. Look at those people."

Television crews and writers and friends and celebrants pressed through the door, an ungodly crowd. Al Domenico shook his head. He is the trainer for the Sixers, has been for 18 years, a guy who has suffered through all of the indignities the building has had to offer.

"I tried to tell the Celtics this would happen," he said. "Tried to get a bigger room. I guess, though, they didn't want to change anything. I guess that was what they wanted. Wanted to make us dress in the same place."

Al Domenico smiled. It didn't matter now, did it? Didn't matter at all.

The ghosts of the Celtics Past were gone. Forever.

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