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Only seconds remained before the start of Sunday's seventh game between Boston and Philadelphia for the NBA's Eastern Conference championship—a game that, if the Sixers lost, would have been the most devastating in a succession of postseason 76er swoons. And, suddenly, materializing almost before their eyes in Boston Garden stood five Boston fans wearing hooded sheets bearing the legend THE GHOSTS OF CELTICS PAST. On the backs of the sheets were the names and numbers of golden oldies Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders and Don Nelson, Celtics who so often eliminated Philadelphia—names of players who haunt Sixer fans to this day. "That's when I got scared," Philadelphia's Julius Erving said. "I thought it was the Klan."
But that blast from the past didn't help the Celtics Sunday, nor did the championship banners, nor that legendary little man who sits on the rim guiding in Boston shots. By defeating the Celtics 120-106 to gain the NBA finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Sixers delivered themselves from what surely would have been eternal damnation. As Celtic Coach Bill Fitch said afterward, "I bet [76er Coach] Billy Cunningham weighs 100 pounds less now, and I can feel about 95 of them on my back."
This Philadelphia team played like the old run-and-shoot gangs of the late '70s, and the runningest and shootingest were Erving and Andrew Toney. The Doctor, who vowed after Philly's 88-75 loss in Game 6 that he wouldn't go down passing, scored 29 points. Toney, a/k/a the Boston Strangler, got 34.
"Sometimes two-footers don't go, and other times 25-footers do," Erving had said after Game 6. "Sometimes you do everything right and the guy still makes a shot. The game is as unpredictable as it is beautiful, and that's why I love it."
After breezing 114-85 in Game 5 in Boston and embarrassing the Sixers in Game 6 in Philly, the Celtics seemed poised for the hat trick by again beating Philadelphia in Eastern final playoffs after being down three games to one. "When people start pushing us around we have a tendency not to back down, but just not to do anything until after it's happened," said Sixer Guard Clint Richardson after Game 5. "We have to get hit in the face before we get aggressive."
"Since 1976, with Erving and George McGinnis and those guys, there have been such great expectations for this team," said Guard Lionel Hollins. "But we've gotten older while other teams have gotten better. Look at Boston. They were terrible in '79. But last year, this year...that shouldn't matter to our fans. We give them entertainment every night. They could be in Cleveland."
Shouldn't matter to Philadelphia fans? After Boston opened the Sixer series with a blowout win and then lost three in a row, people weren't saying Philly had a commanding lead, they were saying they could fold again.
Center Robert Parish, the Celtics' leading playoff scorer, second-leading re-bounder and surely their MVP, had slumped in Games 2 through 4. "I don't know about the 76ers crashing the boards," Parish said. "They do do a good job of crashing on my back, though."
Then in Game 5 Parish's slump ended as he scored 15 of his 26 points in the first quarter, mostly on shots made facing the basket instead of his rainbow turnaround jumper. Because that shot is unblockable, whenever Parish got the ball with his back to the basket one of the Philadelphia guards helped double-team the ball, either clogging the passing lanes or forcing Parish into a more awkward shot.