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Something had seemed askew right from the beginning. There were the Philadelphia 76ers with all those playoff veterans, coming off a season of hard work, team harmony and splendid success. Their prodigious individual talents had finally been blended to produce the team's best season—59-23—since the Chamberlain years. Yet the Boston Celtics were still expected to win the NBA Eastern finals. Boston's rise from the rubble to a 61-21 season and its four-game sweep of Houston in the Eastern semis certainly helped shape that opinion. But so, it seemed, had all those championship banners hanging from the rafters and Red Auerbach's cigar. Who out there didn't want to believe in the Boston Celtics?
But after Philadelphia beat the Celtics 105-94 in Boston last Sunday to win the series four games to one, in retrospect the Celts' fatal flaws were all too apparent. "It seems obvious now how much better we are, doesn't it?" said Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham. "I'll tell you. We never thought we'd win it in five."
Why not? The 76ers, after all, had a grown-up and determined Darryl Dawkins who had finally learned how to play this game, alongside indomitable defender Caldwell Jones. Boston had a tired Dave Cowens alongside noted nondefender Cedric Maxwell. Philly had a back-court of Maurice Cheeks, a point guard for the '80s, and Lionel Hollins, a fine shooter just three years removed from a championship in Portland, who had been stolen in February for a 1981 draft choice. Boston had Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who vitiated his fine comeback season with a wildly erratic series, and Chris Ford, another reclamation project who, against the Sixers, couldn't shoot the ball into the Charles River from the bank.
Julius Erving scored only 14 points in the final game, after averaging 27 in the previous four, but by that time Bird, the only Celtic who had a chance to stop him, was so tired that he shot five-for-19 and scored but 12 points against the defense of Jones and Jones—Caldwell and Bobby—who took turns harassing him. After his rookie season ended in unexpected disappointment, just as his collegiate career had a year ago, Bird said sadly, "We were considered the best team, but they put us away like we were nothing."
And so the Sixers did. The Celtics might have thought from the previous four games that if they held Erving to 14 points, the fifth would be theirs. But no. Instead, Hollins took over from the start, scoring 24 points on an assortment of jumpers, drives and trips to the foul line against Ford and M.L. Carr. And Bobby Jones, one of the best sixth men in basketball, maybe the best defensive forward and the fastest, most sure-handed fast-break wingman alive, threw in 19 points on eight-of-10 shooting, while Dawkins had 18 and Caldwell Jones 12.
Boston was able to get within two points of the Sixers a couple of times in the second period and to within four early in the third. But the 76ers never became rattled. "We can beat them too many ways," said Hollins. "Doc doesn't score, so we score for him."
And Philadelphia played defense—forcing Archibald to make seven turnovers and Bird six. "I suppose we didn't play very well," said Cowens, who, with 22 points, had his only decent offensive game of the series. "We just couldn't get anything going for any length of time. The fine points weren't there, It's sort of a shock, because I don't think anyone on this team thought we were going to lose."
Whether the magic simply ended for the Celtics in Philadelphia in Games 3 and 4, or whether the 76ers finally realized the destiny that Fitz Dixon's millions began buying in the mid-'70s will surely be grist for analysis.
But the record shows that neither game was a classic, that except for a 12-minute segment of Game 3, which ought to be preserved in the Smithsonian for future generations, Philly's strategy mostly consisted of sending in fresh defensive troops who made the Celtics fold up quite docilely.