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Recounting the memorable Celtics vs. Cavaliers playoff history

The two franchises at opposite ends of the NBA spectrum historically have nevertheless met in several heated playoff series

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With the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, it seems a good time to recount their memorable previous five post-season encounters.

The Celtics lead 4-1 in series and 18-12 in games played going into the 2015 matchup.

All five prior series were surprisingly close and hard-fought given the fact that original league franchise Boston has won a record 17 NBA titles, while the 1970 expansion Cavaliers have never won a single crown, and have only made it to one Finals (a 2007 sweep at the hands of San Antonio).

1976 Eastern Conference Finals

Boston 4, Cleveland 2

Their first meeting was perhaps the most momentous and memorable between the two franchises. The aging yet 54-28 Atlantic Division champion Celtics were looking for their 13th banner while the seventh-year expansion Cavs (49-33), once playfully referred to as the "Cadavaliers" were in their first playoff foray after taking the Central Division crown. 

Future Celtic 1981 championship coach Bill Fitch served as the Cleveland head coach, building the club from expansion laughingstock to NBA contender in just six seasons.

Cleveland was coming off of a thrilling 4-3 win over perennial 1970's power Washington in the eastern semifinals. Northeast Ohio native and underrated NBA veteran guard Dick Snyder banked in a one-footed runner in the final seconds of game seven to beat the favored Bullets, 87-85.

The surprising win touched off a wild celebration after a classic series that became known as "The Miracle at Richfield."  The series win spawned a record of the same name (the Cavaliers played their home games then in the new Coliseum in the remote town of Richfield, Ohio). In that memorable first playoff series in Cleveland Cavalier hoop history, three of their four wins in the thrill-soaked battle came by a combined total of just four points.

In the meantime, Boston got past Buffalo and Bob McAdoo 4-2 in their tough eastern semis to set up the conference finals. Injuries would play a key part in the outcome, with 14th-year Celtic legend John Havlicek slowed by a foot injury, and solid Cav center Jim Chones out with a broken bone in his foot.

The 6-11 Chones injured his foot in practice on May 4, two days before the Celtic series was to start, putting a damper on the big win over Washington. Chones had averaged a team-high 15.8 points, nine rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while ironically not missing a single game that season - up to the conference finals. 

Long-time star center and Akron product Nate Thurmond had been acquired from Chicago early in the season to support Chones, but at nearly 35 and hampered by very gimpy knees, he was not able to play major minutes well anymore.

In game one, Boston broke away from a 77-77 tie with a big fourth quarter to post a 111-99 victory. Havlicek led the Celtics with 26 points while Snyder and Campy Russell topped the Cavs with 21 points apiece.

In game two at Boston, the Cavs were poised to even the series with an upset as the upstarts led 71-68 heading to the final period. But they couldn't seal the deal on the road as the Celtic big three of Havlicek, Dave Cowens and JoJo White led an 11-0 run which gave the hosts an 81-73 lead.

The Cavs rallied within 83-81, yet Boston reeled off six straight points. Defensive ace Thurmond fouled out midway through the final period to deal size-challenged Cleveland a fatal blow.

Hondo and Cowens then took turns feeding each other for layups to put the game away, 94-89. White topped the victors with 24 points, while Havlicek tallied 20, Charlie Scott 16 and Cowens 15. Snyder and Bingo Smith paced the Cavs with 16 points each.

Back in suburban Cleveland for game three, the Cavs were rallied by an NBA playoff record crowd of 21,564 to a hard-fought 83-78 victory.

Former Notre Dame standout gunner Austin Carr scored 17 points off the Cleveland bench, including a big jumper with 1:01 left that gave the Cavs an insurmountable 80-72 lead.

Lefty guard Jim Cleamons led the winners with 18 points. White netted 22 and Cowens 19, but a hobbling Hondo was held to nine.

In game four three days later before another record sellout, the Celtics edged within 79-77 early in the fourth period before the Cavs finished on a 27-10 run to even the series 2-2 with a 106-87 win.

In the trip back to his home state, the 36-year old east Ohio native Havlicek had to sit out most of the game with a worsening foot injury and was held scoreless.

Sharpshooting forward Bingo Smith canned 13 of 17 from the field to tally a game-high 27 points. White led Boston with 23.

Back in Beantown for game five, things were looking grim for the Celtics with long-time clutch playoff hero Havlicek hurting and very questionable to even play. Hondo sat out the first half as Don Nelson replaced him, and the teams battled to a 42-42 halftime tie.

Boston edged ahead by four going to the final period, but the plucky Cavaliers rallied to seize an 86-85 lead on Campy Russell's patented fadeaway jumper. Meanwhile, Hondo still sat and watched.

Celtic coach Tom Heinsohn finally inserted Havlicek into the game with 5:03 left, bringing the Garden crowd to its feet. The calculated psychological lift helped Boston and spurred Cowens to two huge baskets and a pair of foul shots.

With 11 seconds left, Havlicek splashed two clutch foul shots for his only points of the game to clinch a 99-94 Boston win. Cowens led Boston with 26 points while Scott netted 22, White 17 and Nelson 15. Southpaw Cleamons topped six Cavs in double figures with 18.

The home team had won all five games before game six back in the Richfield Coliseum. Another huge crowd urged the Cavs to a 46-43 halftime lead as Hondo again sat out in favor of fellow veteran Nelson. 

Cleveland held a precarious 69-67 edge heading to the final stanza, hoping its homecourt magic would again pull them through.

Yet the veteran Boston club inched in front 86-85 late in the fourth period. Charlie Scott came up with a huge steal and breakaway layup to give the Celtics an 88-85 lead, and they held on for a 94-87 victory to clinch the tough series.

White led all scorers with 29 points while Cowens tallied 21 and Scott 20. Carr topped the Cavs with 26 points. Boston outscored Cleveland 27-18 in the final period as their playoff experience showed, while Cleveland's lack thereof in crunch time was exposed.

Cavalier fans have long lamented that had Chones played, Cleveland would have won. Maybe so, but it is doubtful, as Havlicek was also slowed. Ironically, Chones was normally such an ironman that he played every game in eight of his first nine pro seasons from 1972-81! Havlicek was similarly durable but for an even longer period, 16 years.

Thus even more reason that Chones's absence from the biggest series of his career to that point remains a sore point for he and the Cavaliers. Big Jim later won a ring as an unsung power forward for the 1980 Lakers.

Furthermore the Cavs, in their first playoffs, just weren't battle-tested enough to beat a veteran team that had won the title in 1974, had been to five straight eastern finals - and was used to playing under the pressure of great expectations that came with being the most tradition-rich club in the NBA.

In the slowdown, defensive series each team surpassed 100 points only once. White led all scorers with 22.5 ppg, followed by Cowens with 18 ppg. In a key stat, Boston outscored Cleveland 131-84 at the foul line and shot 81.4% at the charity stripe compared to just 66.7% by the Cavs.

Boston then went on to win the title in another six-game battle over Cinderella Phoenix, who had upset defending champion Golden State 4-3 in the western finals, to claim banner number 13. 

After the 1976 eastern finals battle, Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach was impressed enough by Fitch to offer him the Celtic job in 1979 after his friend Bob Knight turned down the chance to coach the Celtics - and a rookie named Larry Bird.

1985 East 1st Round

Boston 3, Cleveland 1

The defending champion Celtics rode into the 1985 first round as the number one seed and holder of the league's best record at a lofty 63-19. But trouble was brewing beneath the surface with clutch Cedric Maxwell reduced to spot minutes due to a knee injury, a short bench and elbow and finger injuries on the precious right hand of Larry Bird.

Meanwhile, the Cavs sneaked into the post-season at a mere 36-46 (27 games behind Boston), but they put together a six-game win streak near the end of the season to qualify for the playoffs.

Playing well, loose and with little to lose, Cleveland ended up fighting the champs tooth and nail throughout a very close best- of-five series that saw both teams end up scoring the same amount of total points (449-449).

In the opener, repeat league MVP Larry Bird fired in 40 points while Kevin McHale added 26 points and 12 boards. But only a 39-28 second period lifted Boston to a hard-fought 126-123 win over the Cavs, coached by a young George Karl in the very first of his 26 (and counting) NBA coaching campaigns.

Game two was tight throughout, and the Celtics were barely able to pull off a 108-106 win at home. Despite a sore right elbow, Bird scored 30 points and snared 11 boards to offset 25 by Cav bomber World B. Free.

In Richfield for game three, Bird sat out with the painful elbow and a touch of flu. Former Cavalier and King All-Star Scott Wedman started in Bird's spot and scorched the nets for 30 points on 13 for 20 shooting accuracy.

However, the rest of the Celtics shot just 24-for-67. Free bombed in 32 points to lead the Cavaliers to a 105-98 upset, prompting the deliriously happy crowd to foolishly chant "We want Bird, we want Bird" after the victory. 

It was only the second Cavalier playoff win since game four vs. Boston nine years earlier (and first since 1977 vs. Washington), so perhaps their fans can be excused to some extent for their ill-advised behavior.

But they chose the wrong guy to pick on. In his prime and always one to relish and rise to a challenge, Bird vowed that "they want me, and they will get both barrels" in game four.

And they did. Bird tossed in 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in game four before 20,900 at a raucous Coliseum. Dennis Johnson added 24 points to offset 30 by Free and 23 more by journeyman forward Phil Hubbard, who always played Bird tough. 

Hubbard had been a superstar freshman out of Canton, Ohio for the Michigan 1976 NCAA runner-up team to undefeated Indiana, but a severe knee injury relegated him to mere mortal status after he won Olympic gold that summer.

However, he possessed the heart of a champion and never failed to give Bird his best shot, playing him very physically befoer inevitably coming up short.

Despite Hubbard's tough play, Bird was too much and the Celtics escaped with a 117-115 victory to avoid a decisive fifth game and move on to round two. Larry Legend averaged 34.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game and shot 56.5% from the field in the series.

But the close first round bout, expected to be a laugher against a sub-.500 club, illustrated that injury-plagued Boston was far from clicking on all cylinders. They struggled to beat Detroit 4-2 in round two before picking up steam and eliminating rival Philadelphia 4-1 in the East finals.

After crushing the Lakers 148-114 in game one of their Finals rematch (aka the Memorial Day Masacre), the short-handed Celtics fell in six games to LA, and failed to win back-to-back titles.

1992 Eastern Conference Semis

Cleveland 4, Boston 3

This see-saw series sadly featured the final NBA game of the legendary Larry Bird, one that I attended albeit in the top row of an ear-splittingly loud Richfield Coliseum. 

Due to age and infirmity the third Celtic dynasty was on its last legs and for the first time, the Cavs held the important homecourt advantage over Boston due to more regular season wins (57-51), even though the C's tied for the Atlantic Division title while Cleveland was second to Chicago in the Central.

Nursing a bad back, Bird missed the Boston first round 3-0 sweep over Indiana while the Cavs, led by Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance, dispatched the Nets 3-1.

In the east semifinal series opener at Richfield, Cleveland's big three combined for 66 points as they blew out Boston 101-76. Sharpshooting swingman Kevin Gamble, Larry's replacement led the Celtics with 22 points.

Yet Boston rallied with a 29-22 fourth period in game two to pull out a 104-98 victory at Cleveland. Robert Parish led the Celtics with 27 points while Reggie Lewis scored 26 and sixth man McHale added 18 as Boston shot a sizzling 59 percent from the field (46-of-78).

With Bird sitting out his sixth playoff game in a row, Lewis erupted for 36 points to lead another fourth period rally for a 110-107 win in game three at the ancient Boston Garden. McHale tallied 22 off the pines to negate 27 and 10 assists from the sweet-shooting 5-11 Price.

Boston had a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in game four on a Mother's Day showdown, but fumbled the opportunity and ultimately, lost control of the series in a costly 114-112 overtime defeat.

Lewis fired in a career playoff high 42 points and McHale added 23. Nance scored 32 and Price 26 as a rusty made his post-season debut with just four points and three assists in 17 minutes.

On the final possession of OT, Bird passed to Lewis on the right wing, but despite his hot hand (16-of-28 shooting) Reggie deferred to Bird and passed it back. Larry missed an awkward double-pump layup off glass as time expired to even the series, 2-2.

It was a tribute to how great Bird was in the clutch that a young Lewis, on a career-best night, still passed up the big shot in favor of an injured 35-year old playing for the first time in weeks.

Price crowed after the crushing defeat that Boston would have won had the very rusty Bird not played. The huge road victory convinced the up-and-coming Cavs that they could indeed beat Boston, even if they were aging and injured.

Buoyed with increased confidence by the big OT road win, Cleveland came home and took out Boston 114-98 in game five to grab a 3-2 lead. Daugherty tallied 28 points and Craig Ehlo added 20 for the Cavs. 

Lewis again led Boston with 27 markers, but Parish netted just four. Bird shot 6-10 off the bench and tallied 13 points in 20 minutes.

Back in Boston for what turned out to be the final home game in the storied career of Larry Legend, the Celtics bombed the Cavaliers 122-91.

Bird put on a passing clinic for the ages with 14 assists and at least as many other great feeds that sparked 59 percent Celtic shooting. One no-look, wraparound pick and roll dish to McHale was a feed for the ages.

The Garden crowd, sensing it could be Larry's last stand, roared on every play as the Celtics blew out the young Cavs. We are not dead yet, they seemed to be saying. Celtic announcer Heinsohn exclaimed it was passing 101 as taught by Professor Bird. "And it ain't fiction, baby," he added.

Numerous makeshift roadside signs leading up to the Richfield Coliseum before game seven claimed things like "Larry's last game" and other less savory sayings as the crowd geared up for one of the biggest games in franchise history.

A huge crowd exhorted the home team to a hot start as they built a 35-21 lead after one period. They knew that in a close game, the veteran Celtics would likely find a way to win.

Cleveland built the lead to 65-47 at halftime and braced for the customary Celtic comeback in the clutch. But this time, it never came. The old legs and injuries would not allow for it this one final time.

This time it was Cleveland's turn to shoot 59 percent for the game, and they were in the mid 60's after three quarters. Daugherty led six Cavs in double figures with 28 points as they never let Boston back in the game and cruised to a shocking 122-104 blowout that wasn't as close as the final score might indicate.

Crowded by 6-6 Cav defensive ace Mike Sanders, the injured Bird lacked the mobility to get around his hounding defense. Larry scored 12 points on six of shooting with five boards and four assists in his anticlimactic NBA swansong in 33 minutes.

His one last bit of magic came when he went around the world and his back on a fast break finish. But that was all he had left in his bag of tricks.

The sellout crowd of 20,273 serenaded the Celtics unceremoniously as he went to the bench for the final time and the Cavs clinched a 4-3 series win. 

Cleveland then lost a tough 4-2 series to eventual champion Chicago in the eastern finals. Bird won a gold medal with the original Dream Team a few months later, then retired for good.

2008 Eastern Conference Semis

Boston 4, Cleveland 3

Sixteen years would pass before the teams would renew animosity. Long gone were the old Boston big three, replaced by the new trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And the Cavaliers were led by wunderkind LeBron James, who was drawing (premature) comparisons to Bird as the NBA's best-ever small forward. 

The league's best team at 66-16, heavily-favored Boston struggled to beat eight seed Atlanta 4-3 in the first round while the Cavs eliminated Washington 4-2 to set up the showdown.

The Celtics won an ugly 76-72 defensive battle in game one at the new Garden. Garnett tallied 28 points while James was held to just 12 as the Cavs shot a putrid 31 percent from the floor.

Game two wasn't much better offensively as Boston stymied the ice-cold Clevelanders 89-73. James netted 21 points but sank just six of 24 from the field as the losers made only 36 percent of their field tries. 

The Cavs scored a mere combined 27 points over the middle periods against the staunch Celtic defense. Pierce led a balanced Boston attack with 19 points.

Back home for game three, the Cavalier offense finally awoke in a 108-84 blowout win. James again struggled to shoot well (5-of-16) but Delonte West tallied 21 points.

Game four reverted to a low-scoring 88-77 verdict for the host Cavs as they tied the series 2-2. James again scored 21 points on seven for 20 shooting, but Boston shot just 39 percent in the defeat.

In perhaps the most memorable moment midway through the fourth game, Pierce wrapped up James on a fast break drive and both players tumbled into the stands under the basket, near where LeBron's mother Gloria was seated.

After the hard but clean foul, she jumped up and began yelling at Pierce. LeBron seemed to tell his mom to calm down, let Pierce know that he was ok with the wrap-up, then made the two foul shots.

Back home for game five, Boston ground out a 96-89 victory to regain the series lead, 3-2. Pierce scored 29 and Garnett 26 to offset James, who finally broke out with 35 points.

The Cavs held serve at home in game six, a 74-69 defensive (and offensive) struggle. Garnett scored 25 and James netted 32, albeit on just 9-23 shooting.

Thus the scene was set for game seven in Boston, where the Celtics hoped the homecourt string of six straight wins in the series would become seven.

It did, but only after Boston escaped a 45-point barrage by James that obscured his poor offensive play over the first half of the series.

Pierce matched his avowed rival shot for shot as the savvy veteran tallied 41 points on 13-23 shooting, compared to 14-29 accuracy by LeBron. Clutch shooting by the Truth, who converted 11 of 12 at the foul line, pulled Boston through by a 97-92 count.

Boston went on to win its first title in 22 years over the hated rival Lakers in the championship series 4-2, completing a remarkable turnaround from 15-67 the previous season. 

James averaged 26.7 ppg in the series, but shot a meager 35.5 percent from the field as he connected on just 55 of 155 fielders. He also pulled down just over six boards per game, hardly Bird-like in either regard.

2010 Eastern Conference Semis

Boston 4, Cleveland 2
With just 50 wins in the 2009-10 season, an aging Boston team was given little chance to advance past the second round. But the Celtics may have been sand-bagging and resting for the playoffs as they ambushed the favored 61-21 Cavaliers and James in his Cleveland swansong - at least in his first Cavalier incarnation.

The Cavs held serve at home in game one 101-93 as James scored 35 points. Rajon Rondo, of all people, topped Boston with 27 markers on rare 7-10 shooting and 12-14 foul line accuracy.

In game two at the Q, Boston earned a road split with a 104-86 win. All five starters and sixth man Rasheed Wallace hit double figures. James scored 24 but the Cavs shot just 40 percent from the field.

Back in Boston for game three, Cleveland wrested the homecourt advantage back with a 124-95 blowout. LBJ poured in 38 points and Antawn Jamison added 20 as six Clevelanders hit double figures.

The Celtics evened the series with a 97-87 victory in game four at home. Boston broke open a close game with a 23-15 fourth period to win by 10.

James was held to 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Rondo recorded a monster triple-double with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists as he continued to dominate overmatched Cleveland lead guard Mo Williams.

The series turned once back in Cleveland for game five as the Celtics shocked the hosts, 120-88. Boston outscored the Cavs 100-65 over the final three stanzas to win going away over a demoralized James and company.

Allen led six players in double digits with 25 points. James was held to 15 points on sorry three of 14 shooting as he became thoroughly discouraged and appeared to all but quit on the court. Aged and immobile Shaquille O'Neal led Cleveland with 21 points. 

Boston closed out the series 94-85 back home in game six. LBJ posted a superficially impressive 27-19-10 triple-double, but he made just eight of 21 shots from the floor.

Cleveland canned only 38 percent of its floor attempts against the swarming Celtic defense. Rondo capped perhaps his best playoff series with 21 points and a dozen assists. Garnett tallied 22 points.

A spent James tellingly took his Cavalier jersey off and tossed it aside as he headed to the locker room in dejection after the elimination defeat. After years of speculation over whether he would spurn his hometown Cavs for free agency, his actions and emotionless face told the story. 

All summer long before his much-anticipated and reviled "decision", he never answered a single phone call from the Cav front offie.

Rondo led Boston with 20.7 points, 11.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game in the six-game upset. James scored 26.8 ppg, but shot just 44.7 percent from the floor (Cleveland sank 44.9 as a team) on 51-114 shooting. 

No other Cav scored as many as 14 ppg in the series, while better-balanced Boston placed four men between 13.5 and 20.7 ppg.

Boston went on to knock off defending eastern champ Orlando in the conference finals, then lost a tense 4-3 rematch to the Lakers in their 12th championship series showdown, which Boston leads 9-3. 

A season-ending knee injury to center Kendick Perkins in game six paved the way for Los Angeles to dominate the boards and foul line. The Lakers rallied late to take an epic 83-79 defensive thriller in game seven at Staples Center.

2015 East 1st Round

Cleveland (53-29) vs. Boston (40-42)


To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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