Dawkins stayed in the starting lineup as the enforcer for the smallish front line. He was averaging more than nine rebounds a game while shooting 62.2% from the floor before missing a pair of games last week with a hyperextended right knee. It was hoped that he would recover for the Celtics, but a noticeable limp restricted him to only 11 minutes. "It's better to lose him for one night than one month," said Cunningham.
Apart from the on-the-court changes, Philadelphia has benefited from a change in attitude as well, according to Erving: "Last year we entered the season believing we had to win the championship or be considered failures. So in the regular season, winning was routine and losing was almost catastrophic. We weren't learning anything about us over the course of the season, how we were playing, how we used people, the character of the team.
"We have to decide when to be structured and patterned and when to just go out and play. We didn't do that against Boston last year. This year we're learning how to enjoy each regular-season game and still be therein the end."
There is where Boston returned after Celtic tradition took a three-year leave of absence following the 1975-76 championship, because of uninspired players and over-inspired owners. The nadir came in the 1978-79 season when Boston finished last in the Atlantic Division, 25 games out of first with a 29-53 record. But before that sorriest of seasons even started the Celtics had begun closing in on the man who would help lead them out of the wilderness—Larry Bird. In the draft they picked Bird as a junior eligible, and in 1979 he joined the team. He would become the catalyst for the new/old Celts, who, oddly enough, were patterned in part after Philadelphia. Fitch was in his first season in Boston. "The Sixers blew us away in an exhibition game in Maine [120-101] that year, and I said I'd be happy if we could be half as good as they were," he recalls. "They were the standard that we were trying to shoot for."
The Celtics finished that season 61-21, having achieved the best one-year turnaround in NBA history. Boston even split the season's series with the Sixers, but Philly stuffed the Celtics in the conference playoff finals in five games. In the off-season the 76ers again were the inspiration for change in Boston as Fitch tried to figure out a way of keeping up with the Joneses while keeping the Doctor away.
Unable to out-finesse the Sixers, the Celtics decided to bludgeon them, trading for Robert Parish, drafting Kevin McHale and planning to give more time to Rick Robey off the bench.
However, the Celtics' delicate balance and camaraderie may soon be disrupted when Danny Ainge, late of the Toronto Blue Jays, dons his new green sneakers. He has signed a five-year Celtic contract at an estimated $350,000 per year. And when he's activated it will be goodby to one of the less visible Celtics. Still another move will have to be made when M.L. Carr comes off the injured list, where he's spent the season so far because of a fractured right leg.
"The fellas have treated me as well as can be expected under the circumstances," Ainge says, "but I'm sure there may be some hard feelings if someone has to leave."
"I drive around town and hear my name being tossed around on the radio talk shows all the time," reserve Center-Forward Eric Fernsten said before Friday's game. "One guy calls in and I'm a Celtic; the next one calls and I'm not. No one's as worried about what's gonna happen tonight as what's gonna happen next week."
On this night, at least, the mystique was intact. Ainge was sitting at the press table next to the Boston bench. Chris Ford, whose playing time is likely to be cut when Ainge joins up, bombed the 76ers with three first-period three-pointers as Boston raced to a four-point lead at the quarter that became 13 at halftime.