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Let's see, now. Magic Johnson's playing games and Marques Johnson isn't. Hubie Brown leaves coaching to become an announcer and Kevin Loughery leaves announcing to coach Brown's old team. San Antonio, with its Fire and Ice backcourt, is hot, and Houston—an NBA Championship finalist last May—isn't. Oh yes, Boston and Philadelphia are at it again. Round I was fought last Friday night in Boston, and it went to the Celtics 111-103. The other developments had to do with mere basketball. Beantown gave us a glimpse of holy wars.
True, the game was but the first of six regular-season meetings between the two teams, but Boston Coach Bill Fitch says he can remember only one time in the last two years that a Celtics-Sixers matchup wasn't important. That was the last game of the 1979-80 season, when playoff positioning had already been decided. Even so, that was a six-point tingler. "There's been no time to enjoy the last two years because we're so involved with each other," Fitch says. "Sometimes I think it's more important to them to beat us during the regular season than in the playoffs."
The playoffs. They're what made this first game so special, because the last time the two teams met, also in Boston Garden, nothing less than the NBA Championship was on the line. After the Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit in games and went on to win the deciding seventh game 91-90, there was little doubt that they would take the title, and they did, defeating Houston four games to two.
Some believed last season's failure would devastate the 76ers, but they entered Friday's game the winners of 10 of their last 11, and with a 14-2 record, the best in the NBA (but only a half game ahead of the 14-3 Celtics). Half of Philadelphia's wins had come on the road, where it was undefeated. Boston was 9-1 at home. Sixers General Manager Pat Williams said, "If we win, does it prove anything? No. But it would give us a lift psychologically to break service in the other people's building."
"With each game, some little thing gets established," said Julius Erving. "Then the next game you play chess again until you find the things you can use to win in the end."
Of course, all these strategic subtleties wouldn't matter as much if the teams were battling for last place, which hasn't happened very often. "We go through thorough studies of our players on and off the court," Coach Billy Cunningham says. "In the end we'll accept a little less talent in someone who works a little harder for the team. The end of the bench is very important, because they're the ones who can cause the most problems in the locker rooms."
Fitch agrees. "Other teams have as much talent as we do, if not more, but it doesn't mesh as well. Also, you know both teams will play you hard every night. On other teams the players sometimes play not to lose; we play to win." But not always in the same style. Philadelphia, the veteran team, is looser, while the Celtics, perhaps just because they are the Celtics, are more restrained. At midday Friday the Sixers held a short workout in the Garden before owner Harold Katz, the press and anyone who happened to stroll in, while the Celtics, as is their custom under Fitch, drilled in private for almost two hours at Hellenic College in Brookline. On Friday night a pair of television sets in the Boston locker room were smartly switched from a rerun of The Jeffersons to a cassette of the rerun of the exhibition game played on Oct. 9 between Boston and Philly. Boston had won that one 103-94. The game's the thing.
And Boston won last Friday night, although Philadelphia probably had more talent. Sound familiar? Portland prevailed over Philly in the 1977 championship series, L.A. in 1980—but Boston has inflicted the most pain. There was that two-point defeat in the seventh game of the 1961-62 divisional finals (when the Philadelphia team was the Warriors). Three years later another seventh game was lost by a point when an inbound pass was stolen by John Havlicek, and Boston again won the East.
Last spring the Sixers blew a six-point lead with 1:51 to go in the fifth game, a 17-point lead in the sixth and an 11-point margin in the seventh game.
Cunningham missed the 1967-68 fold-up because of a broken wrist. Philly had gone ahead 3-1 in games only to blow yet another divisional title. But now as coach he found last year's defeat especially painful. "It took me several weeks to get over it, to figure out what happened and what didn't," Cunningham says. "I knew certain people wouldn't come back strong, but I had no doubts about this team this year." After the preseason Cunningham dumped his double big-man tandem of Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, replacing C.J. with erstwhile sixth man Bobby Jones, who could do more of those "little things" that all good team players do.