It's Showtime for another Celtics-Sixers Tilt

January 28, 1981

Will it be "Gone With The Wind," or "Heaven's Gate?" Will it be a glorious seven-layer cake, or a mess in the bottom of the oven? Can it possibly be what the fans and media want it to be? If anticipation could guarantee the quality of a basketball game, tonight's long-awaited Boston Garden confrontation between the 44-9 Philadelphia 76ers and the 42-9 Boston Celtics (Ch. 4, 7:30) will be a cross between the Phoenix Triple OT and the 1957 St. Louis Double OT. Long before the Thanksgiving turkey hit the table, Garden regulars had circled Jan. 28 on their calendars, avoiding appointments, postponing winter vacations and advising certain women that taxiing to the hospital with labor pains wouldn't be so horrifying.

Boston vs. Philadelphia (either incarnation) has been a big deal since long before many current hoop afficionados were born, but this particular meeting has a special flavor. Not only are these ancient combatants clearly the class of their conference, and probably the league (until Magic regains his health), but so, too, they are constructing records in keeping with the greatest seasons of all-time. Seldom does any team get this far into a season claiming a defeat total in the single digits. Rarer still are the occasions when two teams, in the same division, have that honor. Tomorrow morning only one will remain.

Tonight's game is the first of five remaining regular-season clashes between the Celtics and 76ers. Perhaps none until the Last (Sunday, March 29) will match this one for pregame excitement, however. It would not be unrealistic to label these as pre-playoff playoff games, and so let us examine the matchups, strengths and weaknesses of these two outstanding basketball teams:

FORWARD - Ooh, la la . . . Julius Erving and Larry Bird. Each of these virtuosos has a persona that far transcends his statistics. The Doc has broadened his game in the last two seasons to include well above average outside shooting and strong rebounding. Bird is the consummate team basketball player, a unique force who can shred you with Cousy-like passes, drown you in a sea of three-pointers, batter you with traffic rebounds or foil you with steals. In their first meeting (117-113 Philly OT triumph on Nov. 1) Erving erupted for 45, while Bird had 36, plus 21 rebounds. They will spend little time guarding each other.

Caldwell Jones, Philly's quiet 7-foot power forward, is a superb role player. He is a superior rebounder and a remarkably diligent and agile defender for a man of his size. Cedric Maxwell is an artful inside scoring machine, a good rebounder and a very clever inside passer.

GUARD - Maurice Cheeks is an All-Star without portfolio, a tough, smart, selfless lead guard who can make a play, guard people and stick in open jumpers when forced to do so. Rookie Andrew Toney has made people in Philly say, "Doug Who?" with his slick shooting and passing.Tiny Archibald is currently at the peak of his second career. Only those with long memories can recall his shoot-em-up days in Cincinnati and Kansas City. He now bedevils foes with his end-to-end offensive pressure, and he has become an extension of coach Bill Fitch on the floor. Chris Ford cannot be properly evaluated by anyone who does not understand the intricacies of basketball. His only apparent assets are height (6-5) and a long-range shooting touch, but his ability to be in the right place at the right time is no accident. What he happens to be is a great basketball player, as opposed to being a great  talent.

CENTER - People in Philadelphia, plus many others around the league, swear that Darryl Dawkins is improving, that there is less funk and more force in his game. He can do it all on occasion, from shooting, to rebounding, to rejecting, to passing to making clutch plays.Robert Parish has been not only Boston's, but also the league's, surprise story. He has been the best all-around center in the East, but he does have something to prove tonight, given the disparity between Dawkins and himself back on Nov. 1. Parish
fouled out in 22 minutes with nine points and nine rebounds. Dawkins had 24 points (8 for 9) and seven rebounds, and he made the play that sent the game into overtime.

BENCH - Philadelphia's trump card. This is one team in which the old Auerbachian ideal of strengthening yourself through substitution is often a reality. Bobby Jones, a 6-9 running forward, is the first man since Paul Silas in 1975 to become an All-Star while coming off the bench. He is a disruptive force on defense and an opportunistic rascal on offense. Transition is his middle name. Steve Mix is the last active graduate of the Vern Mikkelsen-Rudy LaRusso-Don Nelson School of Tough Forwards. He is cerebral, tough and
competitive. Lionel Hollins is probably the best third guard in the league. He is 27-years-old, a former starter on a championship team and as good as he ever was. Yet he is not starting. No other so-called third guard can make that statement.

Boston's key three people are rookie Kevin McHale, Rick Robey and Gerald Henderson. The Rook has been a major factor this season, and it would be hard to imagine the Celtics without him. But he is no Bobby Jones - yet - and possibly not even a Steve Mix in big games. Robey has not been as sharp as he was last season because Parish's development has reduced his playing time. Henderson blows hot and cold, and at the moment he is in a slump. Only someone with green corpuscles would rate Boston's bench with Philadelphia's.

This analysis would appear to make a strong case for Philadelphia being the superior team. But the Celtics have gone 42-9 mainly owing to a unit feel no other team has matched.So what's it all about? Bill Fitch, who wants everybody to look at it as one game out of 82, weakens a bit when he admits, "Well, maybe if we win, by the time I get into the locker room I'll feel a bit better than if we had just beaten Seattle or Phoenix." Cedric Maxwell says, "Whoever made up this schedule knew what he was doing."

So look at it anyway you like, but by the time the ball is thrown up tonight, everyone will be of one accord. When a 44-9 teams meets a 42-9 team, a mere "great" game won't be satisfying enough. That's a lot of pressure to put on these players, but would they really rather see Dallas warming up at the other end? Let's hope not, anyway. It would be nice if the players cared as much about this as everyone else does.

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