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Recounting the Greatest Playoff Series Ever, the Spine-tingling 1981 Eastern Finals vs. the Arch-Rival 76ers

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Five thrilling contests in the seven-game epic literally went down to the final seconds, capped by the exciting finale

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The 1981 Eastern Conference Finals series is the best playoff series I have ever seen, and is very arguably the greatest post-season series in NBA history.


Two fierce, traditional rivals battled tooth and nail at high intensity and quality over seven thrilling contests, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.


With the upstart 40-42 Rockets awaiting the survivor in the championship series, the Celtic/76er epic conference final was actually the true Finals.


Three of the seven battles were decided by a mere two points. The seventh and first games were decided by ONE point each. Only games two and three did not go down to the very last play.


The series featured several memorable matchups, great moments and dramatic finishes, as well as two historic rival franchises.


The NBA's two best forwards in Larry Bird and Julius Erving squared off head to head in a classic showdown of the young gun trying unseat the veteran gunslinger. The league's best defensive forward in Bobby Jones also tried to contain Bird.


First-year Celtic center Robert Parish and rookie Kevin McHale squared off inside against Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. Speedy playmakers Nate Archibald and Maurice Cheeks dueled to the finish.


Underrated Cedric Maxwell used a game six fight with a fan to ignite a series-saving Celtic rally. Veteran Celtic big guard defenders Chris Ford and M.L. Carr tried to slow down rookie Sixer sniper Andrew Toney. Head coaches Bill Fitch and former 76er superstar Billy Cunningham, aided by assistant Chuck Daly, matched wits.


Due in part to proximity, the number of times they met and history, the intensity level of the Boston vs. Philadelphia playoff rivalry in the 1980's was probably higher than any other in that glorious decade for hoops - bigger even than Celtics/Lakers and Boston/Detroit.


The rival clubs squared off four times between 1980 and 1985, each time in the Eastern Conference Finals, with each team winning two series while splitting 24 games. The games were physical but well-played and not dirty, unlike the animosity the Bad Boy Pistons engendered with overly rough tactics in the late 1980's.


In the Celtic/76er rivalry, underneath all the intensity, was great but grudging respect. There was nothing but disdain and dislike for the disrespectful Pistons, countered by hate borne of Iago-like "Green-is" envy on Detroit's part.


After Boston eliminated an aging 76er club in the 1985 conference final, Bird correctly foresaw the end of their playoff rivalry, and he summed it up. "It's never easy against Philadelphia...but there is nobody I'd rather beat," he said.


Leading up to its 1981 climax, the two eastern rivals already shared a storied playoff history, even going back to the 1950's when the 76er franchise was based in Syracuse as the Nationals of Dolph Schayes. In 1965, Boston edged Philadelphia in game seven of the eastern finals when Havlicek made his famous steal in the closing seconds to preserve a 110-109 victory.


In 1967, the 76ers ended the unmatched eight-year Boston title run and won it all. A year later at Philadelphia, the Celtics completed a rally from 1-3 down to knock off the defending champion Sixers, 100-96. Philly was playing without injured sixth man extraordinaire Billy Cunningham, who later served as the highly successful 76er head coach from November 1977 through May 1985.


In 1977, Philly beat visiting Boston in an 83-77 seventh game slugfest to win a heated eastern semifinal series, dethroning the aging champion Celtics in the process.


Three years later, the rivalry was renewed in Bird's rookie year with new cast members, but the Sixers won 4-1 over the less-experienced Celtics in the ECF.


In 1981, Boston sought revenge and to repeat 1968 by rallying from 1-3 down to beat the Sixers in the ECF - only this time the Celts got to play the decisive game at home. Up to that time, only three teams had ever come from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series.


The following are recaps of each game in the thrill-soaked 1981 Celtic/76er series, clearly the best of their four conference final matchups in the decade, not to mention probably the best series ever, at least in my lifetime.


Game 1: Philadelphia 105, Boston 104

The teams split their six regular season meetings as each club went 3-0 at home. Boston lost an overtime game and another three-point battle at the Spectrum, then was blown out in their third visit to Philly. The Celtics took three close home regular season wins over the Sixers by a combined total of 14 points.


Yet the Celtics clinched the division title and home court advantage after edging Philly 98-94 in a heated regular season finale at the Garden.


"Boston Strangler" Toney tossed in 35 points while Bird and Parish each netted 24. Two late blocked shots by McHale on high-flying Erving drives helped the Celtics hold on for the hard-fought win.


Both teams finished 62-20, tied for the best record in the NBA, but Boston won the tiebreaker to get the home court.


Eager to avenge their 1980 playoff humbling at the hands of the 76ers, Boston jumped ahead 32-24 after one period in game one, but the Sixers came right back with a big second period to grab a 55-54 edge at intermission.


Boston inched back in front 79-77 after three periods. Yet the 76ers picked up where they left off the previous spring when they eliminated the Celtics in Boston Garden with a game five win as the Sixers held on by a point.


It was the silent assassin, as his 76er teammates called Toney, who sank Boston this time by hitting two clutch foul shots with just two seconds left to give Philly a 105-104 victory.


Mediocre foul shooting on its part also burned Boston. Although the Celtics were generally considered the better outside shooting team, especially from long distance, the 76ers actually shot 76.8 percent from the line compared to 75.2 for Boston over the season.


In game one both teams attempted 30 free throws, yet while Philly hit on 24 of 30 (80 percent), the Celtics connected on just 18 of 30 (67 percent). Boston sank 43 field goals to 40 by the visitors, but the free throw misses were costly.


Parish made just one of four at the line while McHale and Ford combined to can just two of six. Only Bird (5-5) made every free throw he took as he poured in a game-high 33 points.


Toney led Philadelphia with 26 points while Erving scored 25 and Bobby Jones netted 17. Dr. J, a 79 percent foul shooter, canned all nine of his charity stripers while Toney hit on nine of 10.


Game 2: Boston 118, Philadelphia 99

After having gone 6-0 vs. the 76ers at home in Bird's first two regular seasons, Boston had somehow found itself on the short end in three of its four playoff games vs. Philly at the Garden over the same time span.


Determined to reverse that ominous trend, the Celtics roared to a 66-47 halftime bulge in game two. They kept that 19-point margin for their only blowout win of the series to even it up, 1-1.


Bird again was on fire with 34 points to run his total to 67 over the first two contests. Toney, a matchup nightmare for Boston, led all scorers with 35. But no other Sixer tallied more than 12.


McHale scored 20 off the bench to support Bird. Archibald tallied 19, Parish 17 and Maxwell added 14 for better-balanced Boston.


This time, the Celtics converted 18 of 20 foul shots (90 percent) as Archibald nailed all nine of his free tries.


Game 3: Philadelphia 110, Philadelphia 100

The series shifted to the Spectrum on Friday, April 24, where Boston had lost nine in a row.


Again amazingly, both teams shot the same number of free throws (42) as Boston hit on 32 and Philly sank 34.


Erving led five 76ers between 15 and 22 points with 22 markers. Bird also scored 22 points, Archibald contributed 21 and McHale added 15. But Parish netted just six points.


Philly rolled to a 62-47 halftime advantage and led by 16 heading to the final period. A sellout crowd urged the Sixers and their lethal transition game on to a 10-point win.


It would be the last game of the series that did not go down to the final second.


Game 4: Philadelphia 107, Boston 105

For the second straight year, Philly won a two-point fourth game  at home to build a 3-1 series lead.


This time, the Sixers shot 20 more free throws (39-19) and outscored Boston 29-13 at the foul line to offset a seven-basket advantage by the Celtics.


Philadelphia again rolled to a big lead at intermission, this time building a 65-48 cushion. Boston got back in it with a 31-17 third period outburst.


The Celtics had a chance to tie in the final seconds. But instead of calling a timeout, Archibald elected to push the ball upcourt and tried to hit a streaking Bird with a 50-foot pass near the basket.


But 76er defensive ace Bobby Jones sprinted back and intercepted the pass before it could reach a leaping Bird just before the buzzer to preserve the winning margin.


Both teams were remarkably balanced. Dr. J led six 76ers in double figures with 20 points. Bobby Jones netted 18, Toney scored 17, Dawkins muscled in 14, Caldwell Jones scored 13 and Lionel Hollins added 11.


Maxwell also topped a balanced Boston effort with 20 markers. Bird and Archibald each scored 18, while Ford contributed 16. Parish was held to 10 while Carr added 10 and Rick Robey scored nine off the bench.


Game 5: Boston 111, Philaelphia 109

For the second year in a row, Boston trailed Philly 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals heading back to the Garden for a must win.


It appeared the 76ers might be delivering the kill shot on the road again as they led 59-49 at the half. A determined Celtic squad came back to cut the deficit to 85-84 heading to the final period.


Where the Celtics faltered the previous spring, this time greater playoff experience and determination carried them through under pressure.


With the score tied 109-109, Bird knocked the ball loose and chased the rolling sphere up the left sideline. When he tried a pull-up jumper, it appeared he was fouled, but no call was made.


Carr came up with the rebound and drew a foul. He calmly canned two foul shots to stave off another ignominious 4-1 elimination.


For the third time in five games, each team shot the same number of free throws (39). Philly hit on 35 and Boston 33. Bird tallied 32 points on 11 baskets and perfect 10-10 foul shooting.


Archibald scored a series-high 23 points while Maxwell added 16. McHale contributed a dozen off the pines, Ford netted 11 and the struggling Parish was held to 10 again.


Hollins, like his fellow southpaw guard Nate the Skate, scored a series-best 23 to pace the Sixers. Erving and Dawkins each tallied 21, Toney hit for 20 and Bobby Jones added 17.



Game 6: Boston 100, Philadelphia 98

The 76ers were favored heading back home, where they had now beaten Boston 11 times in a row. A Bird-led Boston team had never beaten Philly at the Spectrum. The task seemed daunting, especially in front of a hostile crowd eager for Celtic blood.


A pretty give and go ended up with Bird banking in a slick left-handed reverse layin for a 6-2 Celtic edge. But once again at home where their running game seemed even more effective, Philly answered by racing to a big lead.


A pair of monster dunks by Dawkins, a two-handed fast break jam by Bobby Jones and an improbable tip-in that bounced in off the top of the backboard by Caldwell Jones at the buzzer put Philly on top 31-18 after one quarter as the pro-Sixer crowd roared.


A flying fast break finger roll by Erving extended the lead to 43-30, but Boston inched within 47-40. Bobby Jones then followed his own baseline miss with a flying stuff. Yet Boston managed to stay down just 51-44 at the half after trailing by as many as 17 points.


A three-point stickback by Bird, and a 17-footer from Larry kept Boston in striking distance. However, perhaps the biggest turning point in the contest came when Maxwell got into a shoving match under the basket with a 76er fan. Cornbread was shoved out of bounds by Dawkins and banged into a spectator who was walking to his seat behind the basket.


The fan threw what looked like a cigar at Maxwell, then said something apparently inciteful to him. Maxwell had started to return to the court when he became enraged, turned and ran at the fan before throwing a body block into him as he jumped into the stands.


The brawl spilled over into the seats, and the melee in front of the Celtic bench seemed to energize the visitors, who forgot they were not supposed to win at the hostile Spectrum.


A Bird 21-foot jumper from the left wing and a Larry layup cut the deficit to 59-54 as number 33 started to heat up along with the intensity. A long pass by the Legend set up Gerald Henderson for a layin, and then Parish and Dawkins got into a brief scuffle as the ferocity level reached a fever pitch.


Another long shot by Bird cut the margin to 68-65. Larry then tripped over the fallen Maxwell and Erving while going for an easy putback, with no call forthcoming.


The hustling Bird, showing off the underrated athleticism he possessed before back injuries set in, was everywhere. He rebounded a Sixer miss and fed Maxwell for a fast break layin, then Larry blocked a shot.


But a Toney pull-up shot made it 73-72 in favor of the Sixers heading to the final stanza. Philly stretched the lead to six before McHale converted a pretty three-point jump hook on a step-through move to slice the deficit to 80-77.


Archibald missed a lane runner, but Bird was in the right place as usual and tipped the rebound to himself amid a crowd under the hoop. He gathered the ball on the third bounce and laid it back in while tripping over three fallen players. His three-point play tied it, 80-80.


The 76ers stole the ball and threw ahead to Bobby Jones, who drove in full speed and soared over Bird while crashing into him as he threw down a thunderous dunk. A blocking foul was called and the spectacular three-point play with 8:14 left put the hosts ahead 83-80.


"Bobby Jones is the baddest white dude I ever played with," said Dawkins, alluding in large part to Bobby's tremendous speed and leaping ability.


A fan threw a drink with ice onto the basket and floor after the call, stopping play for a few moments. McHale used his long arms to wash the back of the backboard clean with a mop, defusing a bit of tension.


Bird then swished a top of the key jumper over a flailing Bobby Jones to give him 23 points and provide Boston their first lead since the opening minutes at 84-83. Larry then rejected Erving from behind on a layup attempt.


Yet a fast break finger roll off the right baseline by Dr. J over Parish, who was saddled with five fouls, tied it up with 3:45 to go. Parish then took a post entry pass from Bird and nailed a left baseline jumper.


Boston edged in front on a pretty driving reverse layup by Bird past Dawkins, and then Larry Legend sank perhaps the biggest basket of the game in the final moments.


Bird head-faked Hollins into a fly-by, then leaned into a right wing 18-footer over Bobby Jones, yet it appeared just short. But perhaps because he had moved forward into the shot so much on the release, the ball bounced high into the air and off the top of the glass before settling into the basket for a 98-95 edge with 1:01 left to play.
Toney drained a jumper from the circle seconds later to cut the deficit to 98-97.


With 25 seconds left, the Celtics were hanging onto a precarious 99-97 lead as Parish had fouled out with 21 points. But then the rookie McHale saved the day.


Fellow rookie Toney drove the left side of the lane past the double team of Archibald and Carr, and shot a patented pull-up jumper that looked good.


But McHale slid over in anticipation of the shot, leaped high and straight to avoid body contact, and swatted the shot off the backboard. To complete the great game-saving defensive play, Kevin grabbed the critical rebound as well with 12 seconds to go and calmly out-letted the ball, despite a 76er double team, to Archibald.


Boston ran precious time off the clock with quick passing before Maxwell was finally fouled with three seconds left, and he split a pair to make it 100-97. When Dr. J was intentionally grabbed by Archibald before he could get off a potential tying three-pointer, he missed the first foul shot to doom Philly.


After Erving sank the second foul shot, Boston called timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. They were able to run out the clock on a pass from Maxwell into the corner to Archibald, who swished a three-point hook shot from the right corner just after the buzzer.


Yet the Celtics didn't care that the trifecta did not count. They ran off the floor led by the celebrating Ford, Maxwell and McHale before a stunned Spectrum crowd, having broken the streak and the Philly curse.


Bird scored 25 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the torrid battle, while Archibald tallied 19 points and Maxwell added 17. Dawkins topped Philly with 24 points. Erving was held to 16 and Bobby Jones scored 13 as only three 76ers hit double digits.


The game was played at an incredible rate of intensity, but game seven would be pitched at even higher rate from the opening tip to the dramatic finish.


Game 7: Boston 91, Philadelphia 90

The stage was thus set for another seventh game showdown between the rival Celtics and 76ers on Sunday, May 3. It turned out to be a fiercely-fought classic featuring almost unheard-of ferocity.


"Whoever has the most guts and the most determination is going to win the game," said Bird. "(The road win in game six) really shocked them and tore them apart."
"It's one of the bets rivalries in sports," offered McHale.


"No two teams in professional sports want each other's sports like these two teams; this is definitely the ultimate," noted Erving.


"We probably got more respect for the 76ers than any team in the league, period," added Carr.


Thus the handshakes before the opening tip were grim, but a slight delay in the start gave Dawkins and Bird a chance to make small talk and smile nervously as they lined up side-by-side along the center circle.


Standing a slender 6-9 in his second season, Bird was dwarfed by Dawkins and his imposing, Shaq-like physique (DD ironically hailed from Orlando, Shaq's first NBA team).


What unfolded is one of the greatest playoff games in NBA history. The pace was hard and fast from the start as both teams preferred a running game, especially the 76ers, whose halfcourt offense was not as good as Boston.


Bird netted the first basket of the game on a short stickback off the glass. Philly's first seven points came on three foul shots and two Dawkins baskets. Bird blocked a Cheeks shot, then came down with an offensive rebound and dished nicely as he fell out of bounds to Maxwell for a layup.


Philly edged in front 27-19 before Bird's fourth basket on a baseline jumper. Yet Bobby Jones answered with a well-contested baseline shot of his own over tough Bird defense.


Caldwell Jones buried a hook shot over Robey but Maxwell put a Bird miss back in from close range.


Larry missed an 18-footer with five seconds left in the first period, but Robey pulled down the offensive board. His left-handed stickback rimmed out, but Maxwell tipped it in just before time expired to bring Boston within five points, 31-26.


Offensive rebounding, a clear indicator of desire, positioning and hustle, was keeping the Celtics close.


Dawkins waylaid Robey with a left elbow to the face as DD went in for a layup, negating an easy basket to open the second stanza. Maxwell scored his 12th point on a short shot.


Bobby Jones, the most ambidextrous forward in the NBA besides Bird, finished a pretty southpaw layup on a fast break. Caldwell Jones then scored to build the lead to seven. Not to be outdone Bird tossed in a gorgeous seven-foot left-handed hook in the lane.


Jumpers by Bobby Jones and Toney put Philly ahead by nine. Parish nailed his patented left baseline turnaround jumper. 76er reserve Steve Mix scored but Parish swished another 12-footer as Bird rested briefly.


McHale missed a jumper, Erving rebounded and led the break before hitting Toney for a 14-foot swisher. A quick release jumper by Toney off the right baseline over Carr gave Philly its biggest lead of 11 points.


Erving then sank a fine finger roll in the lane over McHale. The next time he drove in for a finger roll, however, the rookie from Minnesota partially blocked it and Parish scored at the other end to cut the deficit to nine.


Gerald Henderson canned a pull-up right baseline shot in transition. Bird then came up with a steal and passed ahead to a breaking Ford. His layup was blocked from behind by Erving, but goaltending was called.


Dr. J answered with a driving left side banker high over a leaping McHale. Henderson, not known for perimeter shooting, hit again from outside. But Erving rattled in another 15-footer.


Two Bird foul shots were followed by a line-drive hook by Caldwell Jones. Two Parish free throws cut the 76er lead to 53-48, and third string center Eric Fernsten came in to commit a foul Boston had to give. The seldom-used sub then came up with a steal off a Hollins lo passb as the second period expired.


Even though Philly had shot 63 percent from the field to just 40 by Boston in the first half, an 11-5 Celtic offensive rebound advantage plus 10 Sixer turnovers were helping keep the hosts in the game.


Only having a five-point lead despite out-shooting the opposition had to be an ominous sign for the 76ers, who had been unable to knock out the Celtics when they had them on the ropes with double-figure leads in the previous two games.


Especially since Boston had owned a five ppg average edge in the third quarters of the series to that point.


A right corner triple by Bird brought the fans to life as Boston edged within 53-52 early in the second half. Another offensive rebound basket, this time by Parish, kept the Celtics only a point behind.


Parish was called for a questionable goaltend on an Erving drive, followed by a Dr. J block of a Bird drive into the lane. The Sixers crept in front 63-56 behind a shot-blocking defense and power inside game.


A technical on Robey and a rare three-point play putback by the 6-1 Cheeks off an Erving transition miss extended Philly's lead to a 67-56. However, Boston responded with a 10-2 spurt.


Ford swished a right baseline 16-footer. Robey made a fine lefty hook off a Bird feed. Archibald canned two foul shots and Maxwell netted a fine putback.


Max then took a good pass from Bird and tallied a high-arching fast break layup over Erving. Robey drew the fourth foul on Dawkins but Toney buried a 20-footer over Tiny from the left wing.


The action continued to crescendo as the teams traded haymakers.


Bird converted two charity stripers as Erving went to the bench with his fourth foul. Mix, in for the Doctor, sank a field goal. Bird swished a right wing 17-footer with 46 seconds left in the period. Robey then split a pair at the line.


Philly clung to a 75-71 edge heading to the frantic fourth period, but Parish nailed a left side shot to open the final quarter.


The Chief then tied it 75-all on an offensive rebound layin with 11:15 left to play. It was the first time the game had been tied since 13-13.


Bird rebounded a 76er miss and fed Archibald, who gave Boston the lead on a set shot from the circle. Larry then dove to make a steal and Carr swished a 22-footer just before the shot clock expired to send the crowd into a frenzy.


A right side bank shot by Erving rolled around the rim and in to stop the 8-0 Celtic flurry. A driving shot by Dr. J bounced in to tie it at 79-all. Parish subbed out with five fouls and McHale split two free throws.


Kevin rejected a Cheeks drive cleanly (the photo of the block graced the cover of the May 15, 1981 issue of Sports Illustrated) but was called for a foul. The 76er playmaker canned both shots to put Philly back in front 81-80 with 8:30 to go.


Maxwell drew a fifth foul on Dawkins but missed both shots, and Bobby Jones drained a jumper from the circle for a three-point 76er lead.


After Bird missed a short shot when he seemingly could not decide whether to bank it or shoot in in straight, Erving slammed in a transition dunk. Dr. J, pouring it on, then swished a pull-up 17-footer over Carr to build the Sixer cushion to 87-80.


Archibald drilled two free throws to stop the 12-1 Philly run midway through the decisive final stanza. But Erving rebounded his own miss and converted a pretty reverse layin for an 89-82 Sixer margin with under six minutes left to play.


When Archibald and McHale then missed relatively easy open shots, the situation looked grim as Bird and Parish rested on the sideline for the final push.


But then Boston turned up the defense, led by Bird, who was literally all over the floor. He was not going to let the Celtics lose to the 76ers again without leaving everything he had on the parquet court.


Maxwell converted one foul shot after missing his fourth straight to pull Boston within six, while Larry and Chief came back in for the final stretch drive with 4:30 remaining.


Bird immediately picked off an Erving pass and fed Archibald for a drive that he missed while being fouled. Nate canned both free tosses to creep within 89-85.


Larry again intercepted a pass, this time by Bobby Jones off a drive into the lane when he could have shot instead. A rested Parish drilled his patented high-release turnaround jumper off a Bird feed, causing Cunningham to call timeout as he helplessly saw his lead dwindle to a single basket.


Parish rejected a Dawkins finger roll when Darryl foolishly broguht the ball to him and tried to finesse a right-handed flip shot past the Chief on the left side of the rim. The Celtics sprinted out on a break, but a tying layin by Bird was negated when a stumbling Maxwell was called for traveling on his pass to Larry.


After another Sixer turnover, Bird spun past Erving and made a determined drive down the right baseline. As he rose up to throw down a dunk, Caldwell Jones came over block his stuff and hammered him hard on the head instead.


Larry's shooting hand hit the rim hard as the ball shot past the iron wildly, and he shook it off before stepping to the foul line for some of the most crucial free throws of his life.


Bird tied it 89-89 by sinking two free throws at the 2:51 juncture. He then stymied Erving on a drive down the right baseline. After a Sixer offensive rebound, Larry blocked an inside shot by Erving.


Hollins grabbed the loose ball yet Bird, getting up after diving to the parquet, recovered quickly and forced him to miss a 14-footer.


Bodies collided going for the board, but Larry cleverly poked it away from the crowd and ran it down just before it went out of bounds to conclude his extraordinary defensive possession. It was an extraordinary defensive possession by Bird, who was a much better defender than given credit for.


Parish shot an airball off the left baseline, but two panicked Sixers bobbled the rebound out of bounds with 1:39 to go. Given another chance to take the lead, Boston let it slip away when Archibald left a 21-footer short and the rebound caromed out of bounds to Philly.


At the other end Maxwell backed way off Erving, begging him to shoot from 20 feet, but the Doctor fed inside to Dawkins instead. Turning into a double team, Dawkins missed badly on a short left side leaner amid the heavy traffic.


Who else but Bird emerged from a weakside fray with the crucial rebound. He ripped it away from Caldwell Jones and pushed the ball upcourt hard down the left side with a right-handed dribble.


Seizing the moment, Larry pulled up just past the left elbow and banked in a 14-footer over Hollins to cap a 9-0 flurry that put Boston ahead 91-89 with 1:03 to go.


The Garden crowd went wild. Ford leaped and waved his towel on the bench. Bird received congratulatory handshake and high fives as the Sixers called timeout, but the game was far from over.


Even Bird, who rarely banked outside shots, could not explain later why he instinctively used the glass on the critical shot.


Boston then double-teamed Erving on the right wing, and Dr. J threw a careless crosscourt pass that Carr alertly stole with under 50 ticks to go.


But the Celtics got careless with the ball near midcourt while running clock. Hollins cleverly poked the ball away from behind against Henderson and it went right to Cheeks with 33 seconds left, and the speedster raced in for a potential tying basket on a three-on-two break.


Cheeks crashed into Henderson and went sprawling off the court with a hard fall. A blocking foul was called, and a groggy Cheeks, already suffering from a migraine, laid on the floor a while gathering himself.


When he went to the line, he shot quickly and left the first foul shot short. He recovered to make the second free toss and cut the deficit to 91-90 with 29 seconds to play.


Archibald ran the shot clock down all the way before passing to Carr, who missed a long left corner jumper. Parish had a hand on a clinching rebound but lost it as Caldwell Jones grabbed his arm.


Bobby Jones chased down the defensive rebound 80 feet from the basket and smartly called timeout with just a single second left in the series to give the 76ers one final chance.


After leading for most of the last three games, including double-digit advantages each time, they had lost every time. Yet the Sixers still had one final chance to reverse all the late- game negative momentum.


With the ball advanced to halfcourt, Cunningham drew up an alley-oop lob play for Erving. But Bobby Jones was being harrassed severely by Bird on the left sideline near halfcourt as he tried desperately to in-bound the ball.


Larry's leaping, hands-extended defense forced Jones to throw the difficult 50-foot pass too high. Erving was open briefly, but the pass sailed off the top middle of the backboard, too high for even the Doctor to soar and reach, and took an unpredictable bounce back toward the Boston bench.


Instead of grabbing the loose ball, Maxwell batted it toward the backcourt as time expired and fans began to spill onto the ancient court. Bird put both hands behind his head, then jumped up and down near the top of key in disbelief that the Celtics had won a third straight barnburner - and the series over their fierce foe.


Hundreds of jubilant fans rushed the court and many surrounded Bird in sheer joy, releasing all the pent-up emotions from the intense rollercoaster series.


"Larry Bird is the eye of the hurricane known as the Boston Celtics, who spotted the 76ers a 3-1 lead before doing to Philly what they did in '68," exclaimed CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton.


Over the final 5:43, the 76ers had missed six shots and committed five turnovers against the frantic Celtic defense.
"Tremendous emotion...a great series with great players, you couldn't possibly ask for more from basketball," said CBS analyst and former NBA player/coach Kevin Loughery amid the bedlam.


"We played our best defense in the fourth quarter, we ran our plays real well...we got the breaks," said Bird later. "Every time we looked up in the series it seemed like we were up one point and they had the ball (for the last possession).


"Those were probably the best games I ever played in in my life," continued Bird. "Every one was just full of excitement...all the adrenaline and emotion. As far us coming back all the time, a lot of it was just luck," he added humbly.


But Boston held Philly to a mere 15 points in the fourth period, including a single point in the last six minutes, showing that defense and timely shooting had more to do with the improbable rally than good fortune.


Fittingly, rivals Bird and Erving each scored 23 points. Maxwell added 19, Parish tallied 16 and Archibald 13. Dawkins supported Dr. J with 16 points, Bobby Jones scored 13 while Cheeks and Caldwell Jones each added a dozen.


This game, Boston enjoyed a 20 free throw attempt advantage (35-15) as they outscored Philly 22-12 at the charity stripe.


Bird led all players by averaging 26.7 ppg in the incredibly heated series. He canned 42 of 47 foul shots (89.4 percent) and sank 72 baskets, 17 more than anyone else in the series.


Erving topped the Sixers with 19.9 ppg, while Toney tallied 19.1. But in the final three games, the Boston defense limited Toney to just 37 total points (12.3 ppg). The Celtics outscored the Sixers 175-171 at the foul line, and canned 279 baskets to 273 by Philadelphia.


Each team sank just one three-pointer over the entire series, by Bird and Toney.


The level of intensity in the series had to be seen to be believed, especially the seventh game. Boston averaged 104.1 ppg to 102.6 by the Sixers.


Remarkably, five of the seven games went down to the final possession. Not surprisingly, the Celtics were emotionally spent when the Finals began just two days later against Cinderella Houston.


After struggling to a 2-2 start in three close games against the slowdown style of the Rockets, Boston took control and won their 14th banner going away, 4-2. But unquestionably, the real championship series was the remarkable 4-3 conference final win over Philadelphia.


"Larry just would not let us lose," recalled Parish of the epic 76er series. "It was because of his leadership that we were able to win."


Not to mention his clutch shooting, prodigious scoring, rebounding, defense, hustle and passing.


In the end, to cap off the greatest series ever, Bird and Boston got the final basket and the last laugh to avenge the playoff loss that ended his splendid rookie season the previous spring.


His hustle and clutch bank shot propelled the Celtics onto the Finals and the first championship of his career at any level.


To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.