There was no way to explain it, really, no straightforward strategic reasons why the Boston Celtics came back from the brink of humiliation three times in the course of a week before beating the Philadelphia 76ers 91-90 for the NBA Eastern Conference championship Sunday, in a seventh game that never should have been. At least no way for the Sixers to explain, which was why they hustled out of Boston Garden with scarcely a word. "This is a down time. See you next year," said Julius Erving, who as much as any 76er tossed the series away when one basket—two measly points—would have won it.
There were scars and bruises, enough bodies scattered and shattered in last week's final three games to make the sport seem more like ice hockey than basketball But in the end it came to this: Boston got the better of the banging, and in a season during which the Celtics and the Sixers had identical 62-20 records, during which they split the six games on the regular schedule and the six—before Sunday—more in the playoffs, the Celtics proved to be better by a single point. Either the 76ers did one of the great choking acts of all time by blowing a 3-1 lead in games or this thing called Celtic Pride that the guys in the green shoes kept talking about all week is for real.
Look at it any way you want, but here's the history: Six points behind with 1:51 to play on their home court in Game 5, the Celtics outscore Philly 8-0 to win 111-109. Down 17 in the second period in Game 6 and playing in the Spectrum where they have lost 11 straight, the Celtics claw and clobber their way back to win 100-98. Then, on Sunday, Boston is down by 11 in the third period, by seven with 5:23 left in the game. But the 76ers don't make another bucket. Boston out-scores them 9-1 and wins the series.
It was miracle enough that Boston was even around for Game 7. Then, in an attempt to ensure that the Celtic comeback would fall short, 76er Coach Billy Cunningham spent hours trying to figure out how to avoid the kind of finishes his team had suffered through in Games 5 and 6. "More rest for Julius and Darryl [Dawkins]," he said. "With Bobby Jones and C.J. [ Caldwell Jones] and Steve [Mix], we should never have anybody tired out there." Paying closer attention to playing time was clearly needed. After his woeful five-for-17, 16-point performance in Game 6, which brought his shooting down to 42% for the series, Erving had said, "I'm tired and sore. I'll be happy if I'm tired or sore on Sunday."
On Sunday he was soaring, even if he was sore, scoring 11 points in the first half and 10 in the fourth period. With Bobby Jones, Erving shared the defensive duties on Larry Bird (23 points), while Dawkins and C.J. got Celtic Center Robert Parish into foul trouble. As they had in six of the seven games, Philly got out to a strong early lead.
"We were determined not to let them get back, no matter what," said Erving. "We were going to play as if it were 0-0 at halftime."
The Celtics did get back but not for long. Just when another Philly fold looked imminent—their five-point half-time lead had shrunk to one—Erving and Dawkins led a surge, culminating in a four-point play, three by Maurice Cheeks on a layup and free throw and one more by B. Jones, on the free throw after a technical foul on Bird. 67-56.
"I know this sounds crazy," said Boston's icy-cool rookie forward, Kevin McHale, "but I looked up at the board and envisioned an 11-point play."
Sure enough, the Celtics almost pulled one off, running off an 8-0 spurt led by Cedric Maxwell, who, in addition to winning the award for the most improved defensive player of the year for his work on Erving in the series, scored 19 points. Early in the fourth period, Boston finally took the lead, at 77-75, after a bomb by Tiny Archibald. But then a refreshed Erving came off the bench and simply made the game his own. He hit a bank shot, ran a fly-by layup past McHale, threw down a running fast-break jam, scored on an 18-footer and spun in a reverse layup after rebounding his own miss. Ten quick points and the Sixers led 89-82 with 5:23 left. It was time for Philly to protect the lead, go home and forget the whole Boston ordeal. The 76ers just forgot too soon.
While bodies flew on every play, Philadelphia, as it had in all its losses, again proved it couldn't play half-court basketball. Erving threw a horrible cross-court pass that Bird picked off and Archibald converted into two free throws. Then, Bobby Jones threw an even worse one that Bird flicked to Parish, and Parish flicked into the Boston basket. At 89-87 in Philly's favor, Parish rejected a Dawkins shot—one of three blocks by the Boston center in the second half—and Bird, fouled by Erving, made two free throws to tie the score.