It was always "when," not "if."
Wherever two or more Celtics'
fans gathered, the conversation would always begin, "When we play the
76ers in the playoffs . . ." It was the same in Philadelphia.
Unimaginative people (i.e., coaches) refused to talk about the
possibility of a Boston-Philadelphia confrontation, as if the Hoop God
would reach down from the sky and yank out their sacrilegious tongues.
Remember, always, that the first commandment of coaching is "Thou Shalt
Not Count Thy Chickens Before They Are Hatched."
Well, guess what, gang? The incubation time is here. The 76ers threw Atlanta in the trash can and the Celtics
did the Latin Hustle on Houston's face, and so tonight (Ch. 4, WBZ),
the basketball matchup everyone has been begging for will take place
when the two best basketball teams east of the Mississippi square off at
the Garden in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference final.
What matters most is that both teams are ready. "We're the
healthiest we've been all year," says Sixer coach Billy Cunningham.
Likewise, the Celtics
have no serious physical problems, now that Dave Cowens has been cured
of his back miseries. "It was like fixing a leaky faucet," explains
Cowens. "You know it's going to go out. You just have to know how to fix
Bill Fitch wishes he had more time to prepare for the
76ers, but then, he always wishes he had more time to prepare. He'd want
two weeks to get ready for Hingham High. "The 76ers are scary," he
contends. "They have great shot blockers, plus great speed and
quickness. Another thing that impresses me is their experience. I'd say
the East will be well represented in the finals, no matter who wins."
This series cannot be handicapped in normal fashion. The Celtics
won the three Boston meetings between the two by 23, 19 and 23 points,
but that was twice done B.L. (Before Lionel, as in Hollins) and once
done before the former Trail Blazer guard was assimilated into the
Philadelphia system. The December- January-Februar y images of the
Sixers are, in Zieglerian terms, inoperative. They are a vastly improved
team now, and cannot even be discussed in the old terms. Defensively,
this is the best Philadelphia team of all time.
There are no
secrets. "Both teams will want to run," analyzes Julius Erving, "but
they probably won't be able to, because the other team won't let them.
So it will come down to execution of half-court offense and rebounding."
Cowens, The Doctor's spiritual counterpart, looks at the series
thusly: "There are lots of superb matchups, but what makes it really
great is that the teams play together so well. Both have size and
quickness and both like to spread the floor. But both are now running
their offense better than at any time all year. I just hope this series
turns out to be one of the best that's ever been played."
That is a hope shared by each of the 15,320 who will pack the Garden, and each of the 18,276 who will jam the Spectrum.