Celtics vs. Sixers: The Most Prolific Playoff Rivalry in NBA History
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Sixers-Celtics, seventh game.
For the first two-thirds of its existence, nothing said “NBA” like those four little words.
Oh, the images they conjure in the memory bank of a fan of a certain age.
Bird and Dr. J.; Chet Walker and a Havlicek steal.
Greer and the Jones boys (Sam, K.C. and Wali); Archibald, Cheeks and that damn Andrew Toney.
“Beat LA,” Johnny Most, and Dave Zinkoff’s “Dipper Dunk.”
McHale, Parish and even more Jones boys (Caldwell and Bobby).
Russell’s dynasty, and Wilt’s 1967 Team for the Ages.
In a rivalry as old as the league itself, these two storied franchises have engaged in an Eastern playoff clash 18 times, Red Auerbach’s Beantowners emerging victorious in 11 of those series, eight on the road to a title, while the C’s fell to the eventual league champs in 1955 and 1967.
As a temporary respite from the tedious and clumsy arrival of the 2011-12 NBA season, the Abacus Time Machine offers the five most “spirited” playoff series in this classic confrontation.
First a Little History
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Did you know that Pennsylvania’s City of Brotherly Love was devoid of NBA basketball during the 1962-63 season? It’s true.
Philadelphia’s original franchise, Eddie Gottlieb’s Warriors, had bookended the league’s first decade with titles in 1947 and 1956, but were relocated to the West Coast in 1962.
Curiously, the 76ers-to-be, still based in Syracuse and operating as the Nationals at the time, swept a Wilt Chamberlain-led Warrior squad in the 1961 Eastern Division Semifinals.
By 1963, Upstate New York and the mid-sized Midwest were no longer up to the task of supporting a major professional basketball franchise. Rochester’s Royals had uprooted to Cincinnati in 1957. Even Chicago proved temporarily not up to the task, as its Zephers morphed into the Baltimore Bullets.
The Nats, whose founder Danny Biasone had invented the 24-second clock and who had never missed the playoffs, were sold to Philadelphia paper manufacturer Irv Kosloff and transported south (both geographically and out of the ’64 playoffs).
Wilt’s return home from San Francisco in January of 1965 staunched the playoff drought at one but actually made Havlicek a hero. Hondo was just the first, though, as the Sixers and Celtics were to play 60 playoff games in 10 series between 1965 and 1985.
The Whole Series
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|1952-53||East Semis||Boston over Syracuse, 2-0|
|1953-54||East Finals||Syracuse over Boston, 2-0|
|1954-55||East Finals||Syracuse over Boston, 3-1|
|1955-56||East Semis||Syracuse over Boston, 2-1|
|1956-57||East Finals||Boston over Syracuse, 3-0|
|1958-59||East Finals||Boston over Syracuse, 4-3|
|1960-61||East Finals||Boston over Syracuse, 4-1|
|1964-65||East Finals||Boston over Philadelphia, 4-3|
|1965-66||East Finals||Boston over Philadelphia. 4-1|
Philadelphia over Boston, 4-1
|1967-68||East Finals||Boston over Philadelphia, 4-3|
|1968-69||East Semis||Boston over Philadelphia, 4-1|
|1976-77||East Semis||Philadelphia over Boston, 4-3|
Philadelphia over Boston, 4-1
|1980-81||East Finals||Boston over Philadelphia, 4-3|
|1981-82||East Finals||Philadelphia over Boston, 4-3|
|1984-85||East Finals||Boston over Philadelphia, 4-1|
|2001-02||East First||Boston over Philadelphia, 3-2|
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The unexpected offseason death of beloved Celtic owner Walter Brown eliminated any infinitesimal possibility that a Red Auerbach squad might become complacent.
The longest-tenured players were now Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn, in his final season, joined by Sam and K. C. Jones, Satch Sanders and John Havlicek. Auerbach’s ultimate eight-man rotation was rounded out by former All-Star forward Willie Naulls and scrappy Buckeye backcourt man Larry Seigfried—average age 29, all defending champs. These Celtics would lose consecutive games on only two occasions, string together winning streaks of 11 (to open the season) and 16 games, and establish a new league standard by amassing 62 regular-season victories.
The 76ers, on the other hand, had quietly assembled some talented pieces of a champion-to-be: savvy Larry Costello (a champion coach-in-training himself) and scrappy Hal Greer manned the backcourt while young stud Chet Walker and rookie Luke Jackson were adjusting to the pro game.
Any pretense of anonymity was traded in at midseason to acquire Wilt Chamberlain. A 9-2 welcome-home tease notwithstanding, the third-place, .500 team Wilt joined in January finished the regular season 40-40, trailing Boston and Cincinnati. Nevertheless Coach Dolph Schayes’s charges earned a shot at the Boston juggernaut by dropping Oscar Robertson’s stout Royals three games to one.
Home court, championship mettle, and Russell’s 32 rebounds offset Chamberlain’s 33 points and 31 boards in Boston’s 127-118 victory to open the series. Wilt’s Game 2 numbers in Philly, 30 and 39, evened the series but induced a Russell-led Celtic lockdown that limited Wilt to one first-half field goal in a Game 3 win. Hal Greer’s 30-foot buzzer-beater bought overtime and a series-tying Philly triumph, and home court held true to set up a Boston Garden Game 7 showdown on Friday April 19.
The battle-tested Bostonians seemed in firm control with a five-point lead, 39 seconds remaining, and the NBA’s three-point field goal still 13 seasons away. Even after two Wilt free throws, a Celtic 24-second violation, and an essentially undefended Dipper Dunk, a 110-109 advantage and possession with five seconds to go looked safe…until Russell’s inbound pass struck an overhanging wire.
Turnover, Sixer ball, big trouble.
Greer passed the ball in and was to take the final shot behind a Luke Jackson screen.
But John Havlicek essentially dove and deflected that pass, Sam Jones dribbled out the clock, and Red’s dynasty rolled on.
Walter Brown would have loved this finish.
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In the summer of 1966, Alex Hannum was hired to coach the 76ers. He had led Wilt’s 1964 San Francisco Warriors to the NBA Finals, and was the only coach to have won a playoff series from a Russell team with the 1958 St. Louis Hawks.
He was inheriting a 55-win team and was replacing the NBA’s Coach of the Year.
His mandate, clearly, was to win a championship; nothing less would suffice.
Through 50 games, Coach Hannum’s squad had fashioned five winning streaks of at least seven games, the streaks interrupted by lone defeats. In the standings, that read 46-4, .920. Absent a 12-game fortnight (or so) of .500 ball, these Sixers won 62 of 69, an astounding .899 clip.
Boston’s 60 victories—for a rookie coach, let’s bear in mind—seem pedestrian in comparison.
Whether Hannum pushed the right buttons or an extraordinarily talented team had simply arrived at its moment in time, Philly adopted a pressing, fast-breaking style of play, in the image of their nemesis.
For the fourth time in his career and second consecutive year, Wilt led the league in field-goal percentage—a whopping 68.3 percent. (Only two other guys shot over 50 percent.) He had separate streaks of 32 and 35 field goals without a miss.
Six Sixers averaged double-figure scoring, four at 18 points or more.
Not even a serious mid-season injury to veteran guard Larry Costello slowed their roll, as hometown favorite Wali Jones seized onto opportunity when it knocked.
Philadelphia led the league in field-goal percentage, free-throw attempts, scoring and margin of victory.
In addition to his outrageous shooting, Wilt led the league in rebounding and was third in assists.
The team’s 68 wins was unprecedented in league annals.
But neither the 76ers nor their star had ever beaten a Bill Russell team in a playoff series, including a disappointing 4-1 loss in 1966 on the heels of a splendid, division-winning regular season.
Former coach/GM Red Auerbach had added two veterans, sharp-shooting forward Bailey Howell and rugged postman Wayne Embry, to his successor’s arsenal, and the defending champs had won five of the nine regular season matchups, each team winning twice on the other guys’ floor—the 76ers only Philly losses of the season.
Opening-round 3-1 dispatchings of the inconsistent Royals and the not-ready-for-prime-time Knicks assured the “thREe-match” for the Eastern Division crown.
Determined finally to win a Game 1 from Boston, Wilt produced a gem: 24 points, 32 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks. Hal Greer’s 39-point contribution to the 127-113 rout was quiet in comparison.
The Sixers had affixed a firm grasp on Game 2 in Boston as well, until a scrappy second unit sliced a 14-point deficit to one in the waning minutes. Instead of reinserting regulars Sam Jones and Bailey Howell, however, Coach Russell opted to stick with what was working. But the magic had worn off and the 76ers righted the ship, taking a 107-102 decision.
For Game 3, the younger legs of John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried were starting for Boston, but 30 Greer points and 41 Chamberlain rebounds later, the Sixers had a 115-104 victory and an insurmountable 3-0 series lead.
A champion’s pride, 60 or so points from Sam and Hondo, or maybe just the law of averages produced a 121-117 Game 4 Boston survival, but Wilt took them off life support with another monster game—29 points, 36 rebounds, 13 assists—in the 140-116 clincher.
Boston was dead but soon studying up on reincarnation.
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Not one to miss an opportunity, Wilt Chamberlain parlayed his first NBA title, a training-camp holdout and the threat of the fledgling ABA into a $250,000 salary. By comparison teammate Hal Greer, a nine-year vet and seven-time All-Star, was making under $40,000. Of course Greer, a Hall of Famer in his own right, wasn’t getting ready to win his third consecutive MVP award, either.
After a somewhat sluggish start, the 76ers found their stride along with their holiday cheer and cruised to 62 wins and the best record in the league.
Wilt fulfilled a personal goal by leading the league in assists, along with his customary rebounding and field-goal percentage crowns. Some of Wilt’s more interesting stat lines that season included 52 points accompanied by 22 missed free throws, and the impressive night when he combined 21 points with 22 assists and 25 rebounds—a triple score before it was a dot-com.
Player-coach Bill Russell’s now K.C. Jones-less Celtics dipped to second in the league in scoring defense for the first time in four years, yet were still able to manufacture a 54-win campaign.
A preseason strategy session among Russ and his veteran players had devised a more collaborative approach to game management, and a confident team entered the playoff wars.
Despite a 2-1 hole, Boston survived its opening round series, against Detroit, better than did the Sixers, who lost key reserve Billy Cunningham to a broken wrist at the hands of not yet Zen Master, just plain Hatchetman Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks.
Uncanny 58 percent shooting and 87 combined points from John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bailey Howell allowed Boston to draw first blood in the Division Finals.
After several days postponement in deference to the Martin Luther King national mourning, only Havlicek brought his shot back to the series, as Philly’s balanced attack—four guys hit for 20 or more in Game 4—built a three games to one lead.
Then, inexplicably, midway through the next game, the defending champs lost their collective shooting touch, making just 35 percent of their field goal attempts the rest of the series.
Coach Hannum’s boys couldn’t close out a series they had under control.
The Celtics escaped.
And in his final game in a Philadelphia uniform, a 100-96 defeat, the league’s leading shooter attempted only two second half field goals.
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Following a 1-2 opening to their 1980-81 season, the Philadelphia 76ers proceeded to win 32 of their next 34 games. After an up-and-down start of their own, Bill Fitch’s elongated version of the Boston Celtics began a stretch—fittingly on Larry Bird’s 24th birthday—of 25 wins in 26 games, culminated by a defeat of the Sixers on January 28 that nudged Philly out of first place for the first time since October.
Robert Parish had found a good rhythm with his new teammates, and the rust from Tiny Archibald’s preseason holdout had worn off.
For their part, the Sixers were drawing comparisons to their legendary 1967 predecessors, right down to an injury to a veteran guard (Doug Collins) opening the door for a young hotshot (Andrew Toney).
Though the teams would finish with identical 62-20 records, a playoff bye and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs was on the line as the teams squared off in Game No. 82 at the Boston Garden, a 98-94 Celtic triumph.
Twenty-three days later, the Garden party resumed.
For the second consecutive year, Philly immediately stole the home-court advantage, Toney draining the winning free throws after a bad Cedric Maxwell foul. The lead had changed hands four times in the final half-minute after Boston had rallied from a late nine-point deficit.
Due primarily to the unconscious 14-for-21 shooting of Bird, the series was evened the following night, despite another Toney offensive explosion.
Sixer coach Billy Cunningham’s Game 3 decision to put league MVP Julius Erving on Bird allowed Caldwell Jones to roam free to the tune of 14 rebounds and, more crucially, five blocked shots. Indeed CJ and Darryl Dawkins induced Parish into 13 misses in 14 tries.
Despite chasing Bird around, Erving scored 22, leading five double-digit Sixer scorers in a 10-point win.
The Sixer trouncing proceeded apace through the first half of Game 4, but Chris Ford, Parish and Bird led a furious third-quarter Celtic climb out of an 18-point hole.
In the game’s waning seconds with Philly up by two, Archibald uncorked a perfect lead pass to Bird. Except a speeding Bobby Jones, whose missed shot had begun the sequence, jumped the route, intercepted the pass, and sent Boston to its 11th consecutive setback on a Philly floor.
Philly had Game 5 in hand, 109-103, Lionel Hollins’s 23 points topping a quartet of Sixers scoring 20-plus. But M. L. Carr’s two foul shots capped an 8-0 run, Parish picked the pocket of (appropriately enough) Bobby Jones, and Game 6 became necessary.
The 76ers took to the Spectrum floor for the game Dr. J. had deemed their Game 7 with a purpose, building a lead that peaked at 35-18. Boston fought but floundered until the fight spilled literally into the stands early in the third quarter, Maxwell scuffling with a fan. The inspirited visitors clawed all the way back, and a Kevin McHale rejection of Andrew Toney with 14 seconds to go ensured the sports fan’s savoriest sweet, two old rivals in an ultimate game.
The finale followed the familiar pattern of thrusts and parries.
A 14-5 Philly run, triggered by 10 Dr. J. points, turned a two-point deficit into an 89-82 advantage with 5:23 left.
The Sixers would score exactly one more point in its 1980-81 season.
Ultimately, Bird rebounded a wild Darryl Dawkins miss, took it the length of the floor, and banked in the series winner with just over a minute remaining.
Mo Cheeks could convert only one of two potentially game-tying free throws at the 29 second mark, but…
The Bird wasn’t letting this one get away.
The 76ers now four-year-old debt to their fans remained unpaid.
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The horn sounded to end the pre-game warm-up.
It was Sunday, May 23, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
But the visitors were nowhere to be seen; they’d all walked off the court with about three minutes showing on the overhead clock.
Just when the Boston Garden crowd seemed ready to utter a collective “Wazzup,” led by team elder statesman “Stoic” Steve Mix, the Philadelphia 76ers strode to their bench.
As they’d been doing regularly over three straight years of this compelling playoff drama, the Celtics fell behind early.
The Garden faithful remained upbeat, certain their heroes were stout, the opposition notorious.
Bring on those Lakers!
Boston and Philly again had posted the best records in the league.
Determination and vengeance pushed the Sixers to the forefront early as the C’s were getting healthy.
Then in late February, with 76ers center Darryl Dawkins rehabbing a leg injury, Boston embarked on an 18-game winning streak, going an even five weeks between losses. This streak began as Larry Bird was coming off a four-game injury hiatus and off the bench as a super sixth man.
The Sixers, despite a 116-98 Garden trouncing that snapped the streak, were relegated to second place, a dreaded mini-series, and a rematch with the dangerous Milwaukee Bucks as a prelude to the perennial showdown.
Hardcore hoopsters hoped for a reprise of the ’81 series, in which the combined margins of victory was 37 points, five of the seven won by a combined nine points.
Alas, the seven ’82 games would deliver a hefty 131-point combined victory margin.
Oh, but the pageantry.
The Boston boys followed up a Game 1 40-point drubbing of Philly with a 23-turnover stinker to allow their foes again to erase home-court edge promptly.
The series turned, in more ways than one, in Game 3. Tiny Archibald was lost for the duration to a dislocated left shoulder in the opening minute, and three opportunities, on the heels of a frantic fourth-quarter comeback from 14 down, to tie the game came up empty in the final minute.
Andrew Toney’s 39 points, including a 15-point outburst in the third quarter, fueled a 119-94 victory that gave the Sixers their customary three-games-to-one advantage. To add insult to Archibald’s injury, Lionel Hollins’s veteran leadership was available to coach Billy Cunningham for the first time in nearly a month.
Neither Hollins nor anyone else could spark the 76er engine in Game 5 as a four for 26 second quarter set the stage for a 29-point blow-out that had a gleeful Garden gathering serenading the Sixers off the floor with a not-so-well remembered chant—“See You Sunday!”
Through halftime of the sixth game, it seemed the Garden faithful would not get their wish. But a 27-point Philly second-half meltdown led to an ugly 88-75 final. In the game’s final 18 minutes, the 76ers actually converted TWO field goals (two more were awarded on goal tends).
But lightning was not to strike twice for Coach Fitch’s comeback kids. The Celtics’ expected third-quarter spurt, following Philly’s fast start, was thwarted by a couple of costly turnovers from the hands of rookie guard Danny Ainge, playing for the unavailable Archibald.
The C’s never quite regained their stride, falling 120-106, and the last word was left to the Garden crowd.
The same Garden crowd who’d taunted them four days earlier.
The same Garden crowd who’d unnerved them with sheeted Ghosts of Celtics Past earlier that afternoon.
With under a minute showing on the clock, faintly in a “What are they saying?” kind of way at first, then finally discernible.
“Beat LA, Beat LA!”
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This classic playoff rivalry was born in the spring of 1953 when the second-place Syracuse Nationals squared off with Red Auerbach’s third version of the Boston Celtics in a best-of three East Division Semi-Final series. After the Celtics swiped home-court advantage with an 87-81 victory, Bob Cousy’s 50 points wrapped up the series two nights later in four overtimes, 111-105.
Exciting, edge-of-your-seat night at the Garden, you’d figure, right?
Not unless you’re infatuated with stalling and a lot of foul shots. Cousy made 30 of 32 free throws, and this game helped create the impetus for the birth of the shot clock two seasons later.
And two seasons later, 24-second clock ticking, the Dolph Schayes-led Nats met Boston in a best-of-five East Division Final.
During the regular season, each team had successfully defended its home court five times (splitting two neutral court matchups, as well), and the pattern continued until Syracuse broke through in Game 4 to close out the series.
They went on to struggle past Fort Wayne in seven tough games, becoming the first team with black players, Earl Lloyd (pictured) and Jim Tucker, to claim an NBA title.
The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76er world champions-but-for-Bill Walton featured some Chocolate Thunder, a Jellybean and Guilford College’s gift to the World—second-year men Darryl Dawkins, Joe Bryant and Lloyd Free, respectively—but it was the dysfunction of the defending champion Celtics, featuring the UCLA twins Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe along with the volatile Charlie Scott, that induced center Dave Cowens to embark on a 30-game sabbatical.
The Celtic old hands, particularly Jo Jo White (40 in Game 6) in his only playoff encounter with Philly, were able to force a seventh game in this Eastern Semi-Final.
But George McGinnis, Dr. J, et al were not to be denied…yet.
This nearly aborted NBA season will mark the tenth anniversary of the most recent revival, a first-round series ruled by the home court. Paul Pierce got the better of Allen Iverson in five games, the only contribution of either player to this historic legacy.
Does Boston’s Big Three have enough left in the tank?
Is Doug Collins about to channel his inner Billy Cunningham and lead his former team back to prominence?
Will their paths cross this spring?
Time—and the whim of Brother Stern?—will tell.