Thursday, February 25, 2010
Fight For The Ages
Sometimes a torch isn’t passed between players and/or teams. Once in a while, it is wrestled away, with the resultant burns and bruises.
The preeminent NBA rivalry of the 1980s is remembered as the Celtics-Lakers. That’s near impossible to argue against, but often lost in the debate is Boston’s heated battles with the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of that decade.
Starting with Larry Bird’s rookie season in 1979-’80, the Celtics and 76ers met in three straight Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia took two of those series, but Boston dug out of a 3-1 hole to bury the 76ers in 1980-’81 and then went on to win the title. The 76ers signed Moses Malone for the 1982-’83 season, and then claimed their own championship. There were plenty of testy moments between the teams, including a no-holds-barred brawl during a preseason game in 1983-’84, a season that ended with the Celtics winning another title.
The 76ers and the Celtics both started the 1984-’85 season by winning their first five games before the teams’ first meeting on Nov. 9. But for anyone watching that game, it seemed that Philadelphia’s window as a championship contender was closing fast. The 76ers’ lineup that game (minus an injured Andrew Toney) featured luminaries like Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and a rookie off the bench named Charles Barkley. Those are all impressive names, although only Cheeks and Barkley were not getting long in the tooth.
Despite being the sixth game of the season for both teams, it still had that elusive feeling often called a “playoff atmosphere.” The aging 76ers seemed to wilt in that pressure, missing layups and turning the ball over seven times in the first quarter. Erving, in his 14th professional season, looked especially out of sorts, though his graceful athleticism was still evident. The Celtics-friendly announcing crew of Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman showed their respect to the face of 1970s basketball by calling him “J.” Not “Erving,” “Julius” or even “Doctor J.” Just “J.” That’s just cool.
Philadelphia only stayed in the game because of the youthful spark that Barkley provided. Barkley checked in and immediately went to work on Boston’s sixth-man extraordinaire, Kevin McHale. Barkley threw a nice pass on a fast break for a layup, then hit a couple of fadeaway 15-footers over McHale.
However, it wasn’t Barkley’s time yet. This was still Bird’s prime. He scored 17 points in the first quarter, often abusing Erving and Bird’s personal nemesis, Marc Iavaroni. As Bird reached 29 points at halftime, the 76ers were visibly frustrated and started getting more physical. Erving had only two points in the first half.
The officials, Dick Bavetta and Jack Madden, were wildly inconsistent. The Boston Garden crowd was so animated that they sarcastically cheered when Boston’s Dennis Johnson accidentally landed on Madden after a strong drive to the basket. Madden, however, seriously injured his knee. That left Bavetta to fend for himself in a physical game between fierce combatants. (The NBA didn’t start using three-man officiating crews until 1988-’89).
As expected, the action got even more chippy, especially under the basket as a winded Bavetta struggled down the court. Bird, meanwhile, stayed white hot and pushed the Celtics to a 24-point lead in the third quarter. He had 42 points as the third quarter wound down.
Erving, who had only six points at that point, had no answers for Bird. Athletes might know that their bodies are starting to betray them, and they realize can’t do the amazing things they once instinctively did. But that fierce competitiveness doesn’t fade away. No prideful star likes to get embarrassed, which is what Bird was doing to “J.”
So when the stars got tangled up with under two minutes left in the third quarter, Erving tossed Bird to the floor. Bird wasn’t going to lay down to one of league’s beloved players, and got up in Erving’s face. Malone and Barkley teamed up to hold back Bird’s arms, and Erving started throwing jabs at the defenseless Celtics star. That started a free-for-all with Boston’s M.L. Carr taking down Malone to free up Bird, who got some good shots in at Erving.
After the dust settled, Erving and Bird were tossed. Heinsohn and Gorman were livid while watching the replays. Erving was no longer “J” but “Julius Erving.” As in “I thought Julius Erving would show more class than that.”
The way he was shooting, Bird might have hit for 60 that game. Instead, the 76ers got back to within seven points before some big shots by Danny Ainge and two key steals by Johnson keyed the Celtics’ 130-119 victory. Barkley had 29 points, signaling a new era for the 76ers.
The teams split their six regular-season meetings that season, after the 76ers had won four of six the previous season. Philadelphia would have no fight in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Boston cleaning up in five games.
The Celtics were then firmly established as the top dogs in the conference. Erving would last two more seasons, with decreased minutes and scoring, as Bird was entrenched on the all-NBA first team. Philadelphia’s time was over, frustrating for the old guard and a fight they couldn’t win.