You'll have to pardon those effete Eastern snobs for applauding the earthquake that wiped out the western half of the NBA. Houston? Kansas City? Please. Why not let the winner of Philadelphia vs. Boston take on the best of the Italian League for the world championship? Even the miraculous Moses Malone, who scored 42 points and had 23 rebounds Sunday to lead the Rockets to the 100-89 win that put Houston ahead of the Kings 3-1, can't obscure the fact that both Western Conference finalists finished the regular season with losing records.
The 76ers and the Celtics? They each had 62-20 records, best in the league; split six games this season, each winning its three at home; and they were replaying last year's Eastern Conference final, which Philadelphia won four games to one. The Sixers want to make good after two unsuccessful trips to the finals in the last four years, and they're a better team now, with a rookie scoring guard who has the weirdest shot this side of the Y. Wait till you see him. But the Celtics are improved, too, with a pair of new big men Red Auerbach found to replace Dave Cowens. There's only one thing wrong. The Celtics can't seem to win a game in Philadelphia.
In fact, in the opener of the best-of-seven series, they couldn't win in Boston, either. "It's just one game. You gotta win four. There ain't no home-court advantage in the playoffs." What else would one expect Boston's Larry Bird to say on April 21 after a sensational Boston Garden cliff-hanger, in which the lead changed hands four times in the final 27 seconds before Philly pulled it out 105-104? Basketball needs no talking. That's why coaches have been known to tape their players' mouths shut in practice. One move, one nod, one blink is worth a million words. "You think I'm going right, baby, but it's slide left and see you later," or "I cut, you pass," or "Shoot it and I'll ram it down your throat." All are bits of the unspoken dialogue between two great teams in the playoffs. Cats and mice don't have time to negotiate.
Neither do Birds. Bird, the former Hick from French Lick (Ind.), is no great orator, but his basketball game speaks volumes: 33 points and 10 rebounds worth in Game 1.
But, still, this one got away from Boston and gave the home-court advantage to the 76ers. Considering each team's inability to win on the road against the other this season, that meant something. Moreover, the opening home-court loss by Boston recalled only too vividly what happened in last year's Eastern final: Boston lost the home opener and that was more or less it.
Bird's performance could have won the game for the Celtics—his two free throws gave them a 104-103 lead with four seconds left—but it didn't. It only proved that playoff basketball almost always goes beyond the tangibles. For instance, a couple of questions: 1) Which would have the greatest effect on the series' outcome: (a) Boston's eight-day rest after demolishing the Chicago Bulls in four straight games in the conference semis; (b) Philadelphia's momentum after a hard-fought seven-game Eastern semifinal against Milwaukee; or (c) Philadelphia's fatigue from same? 2) Who is Andrew Toney and what does he have in common with Lloyd (All-World) Free?
Before the series started, the strategic priorities were clearly drawn, though circumstances would ultimately change them often. The first was muscle. Boston's legion of big men, Robert Parish, Bird, Rick Robey and rookie Kevin Mc-Hale, would have to secure the defensive backboard—the launch pad—and kick the payload out to Nate (Tiny) Archibald, commander of the game's best fast break. Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins, Caldwell Jones, Steve Mix and Bobby Jones would have to thwart that plan, force the Celtics into a half-court game "and then trigger the Sixers' own formidable break. In the opener Parish, who since joining Boston from Golden State this season has been seen as the reincarnation of Bill Russell, took down 13 rebounds and blocked four shots, but overall the inside game was a stalemate.
So the next priority was finesse. Each team had an offensive weapon of singular brilliance at forward—Bird of the Celtics and Julius Erving of the 76ers. It was a given that neither would guard the other, simply because the special effort required to play such defense would detract from that player's offense. Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham learned that fact last year when he assigned Erving to Bird for the first two games of the series, and The Doctor was too tired to operate on offense. Cunningham subsequently turned that job over to the Jones boys—Caldwell and Bobby—and gave them the duty again this time around, while Boston Coach Bill Fitch gave the Erving watch to Cedric Maxwell and McHale.
Boston won that battle, holding Erving to 25 points on 8-for-20 shooting. But the one thing the Celtics hoped wouldn't happen, did. They were burned—and burned badly—in the backcourt, where Archibald and Chris Ford, both 32 years old, share time with M.L. Carr, a converted forward, and a flighty second-year man, Gerald Henderson. Most of the damage was done by Toney, a 23-year-old rookie reserve out of Southwestern Louisiana, who lit up the Garden for 26 points, mostly on odd-looking jumpers that he seemed to squeeze two-handed from behind his head, as though he were shooting giant watermelon seeds. Toney instantly became a certified Boston villain, much as Free had been when he personally took the Celtics out of the playoffs as a 76er rookie back in 1977.
The final indignity came after Bird's free throws had apparently won the game. With two seconds left. Maxwell stuck out a leg to deliberately trip Toney, who had beaten Cornbread en route to what would have been a game-winning Philly field goal. Sixer Guard Lionel Hollins was asked if he was nervous with the fate of the game resting in the hands of a rookie on the foul line. "Not a rookie like him" said Hollins. And Toney calmly sank the free throws.