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Recounting the only previous Celtics vs. Cavaliers conference finals showdown

In 1976 Dave Cowens, an ex-Olympic backcourt and a hobbled Havlicek led the aging Celtics past the expansion Cavs en route to their 13th title

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics, Game 6 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

With the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers set to tip off in the 2017 NBA semifinals, it seems a good time to recount their memorable and only previous Eastern Conference finals showdown.

The Celtics lead 4-2 overall in playoff series vs. the Cavs, and 18-16 in games played going into this year's matchup. But only one of those six prior series came in the conference finals, back in 1976.

That year 41 NBA post-seasons ago marked the bicentennial celebration in America. Free-spirited Detroit Tiger rookie Mark Fidrych was a sensation with his odd style of talking to the baseball and amazing pitching success. Peter Frampton topped the charts with "Frampton Comes Alive." Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was elected president.

Bruce Jenner won the Olympic decathlon in Montreal. Gymnast Nadia Comaneci of Romania recorded the first of multiple 10.0 scores en route to winning several Olympic golds. Indiana became the last undefeated NCAA men's basketball champion at 32-0 after beating Big 10 foe Michigan 86-68 in the title game.

"Happy Days" was the top-rated TV show, with "MASH" and "Charlie's Angels" not far behind. "Network" and "Taxi Driver" were two of the biggest films of 1976.

And in the NBA, a traditional power had to stave off two playoff upstarts to win another championship.

Boston had won its first NBA title of the post-Russell era in 1974 with an epic 4-3 victory over Milwaukee and then-Buck center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Celtic legend John Havlicek was the Finals MVP but it was undersized center Dave Cowens who out-dueled Abdul-Jabbar in game seven as Boston won 102-87 on the road, outscoring Kareem 28-26.

In 1975, the defending champion Celtics and Washington tied for the league's best record at 60-22. But the Bullets knocked off Boston 4-2 in the conference finals, and it was thought that the Celtic window of championship opportunity had closed.

Because in 1976 Celtic small forwards Havlicek and Don Nelson turned 36 during the playoffs, and power forward Paul Silas was 33. Newcomer Charlie Scott (obtained in a trade for Pual Westphal) was in his late 20s. Scott had teamed with 1968 American Olympic gold medal backcourt mate JoJo White to form a quick, high-scoring guard tandem.

White was almost 30 and perennial All-Star center Cowens 28, yet both seemed older after several seasons of all-out fast break basketball and heavy minutes in a short Celtic rotation under coach Tom Heinsohn.

But the 6-8.5 redhead southpaw, who played every game with reckless abandon, still had one championship run left in his battered body. And Celtic Pride would help the veteran crew add another banner to the Garden rafters.

Cleveland was a younger team on the rise, in just their sixth season as an expansion franchise under future Celtic 1981 championship coach Bill Fitch.

Known for his quick wit and one-liners delivered during the woeful Cavalier early 1970s seasons to offset massive losing, Fitch was in reality a tough as nails ex-drill sergeant who had risen up through the college coaching ranks with stops at North Dakota (where he coached Phil Jackson), Bowling Green and Minnesota.

Through four games of their eastern semis series, Cleveland and Washington were tied 2-2. Most observers expected the veteran Bullets, who went to four NBA Finals in the 1970s and made the playoffs every year from 1969-80, to advance and face Boston in a conference finals rematch.

But in game five Bullet Hall of Fame big man Elvin Hayes missed two free throws with seven seconds left and Washington clinging to a 91-90 lead.

Cavalier sharpshooting forward Bobby "Bingo" Smith airballed a runner from 20 feet. But Jim Cleamons snared the miss and banked in a reverse layup at the buzzer to put Cleveland ahead 3-2 with a 92-91 victory that sent the home fans, hungry for a winner, into a frenzy.

Washington forced game seven with a 102-98 home win as Hayes scored 28, grabbed 13 caroms and blocked eight shots.

Fittingly, game seven of the tense series went down to the very last second. Northeast Ohio native and NBA veteran guard Dick Snyder drove past Wes Unseld and banked home a one-footed, left side runner with just four seconds left to give the Cavs an 87-85 lead.

The underrated Snyder then deflected the ensuing long halfcourt in-bounds pass by Unseld intended for Hayes under the basket. Bullet guard Phil Chenier chased the loose ball down in the right corner, but his desperation 22-foot shot at the buzzer missed to set off a wild celebration as jubilant Cav fans stormed the court.

The surprising 4-3 win and spectacular finish touched off a wild on-court celebration later known as "The Miracle at Richfield." In the first playoff series of Cavalier history, three of the four Cleveland wins in the thrill-soaked battle came by a combined TOTAL of just four points. Four points.

The series was so close that the total points were 642-638 in favor of the Bullets, coached by ex-Celtic defensive ace K.C. Jones. Ironically, Jones would later become Fitch's assistant on the early Larry Bird teams, and eventually replaced Bill as Boston head man in 1983.

In the meantime, Boston got past Buffalo and Bob McAdoo 4-2 in a tough eastern semifinals of their own to also reach the conference finals for a fifth consecutive spring. It was the second time in three years that the Celtics turned back the feisty Braves, coached by Jack Ramsay, over six tight games in the eastern semis.

In both years, Boston went on to win the NBA crown.

The home team won each of the first five contests, but Boston reversed that trend in game six at Buffalo to clinch the hard-fought series.

The 1968 U.S. Olympic backcourt of Scott (31) and White (23) combined for 54 points in the game six clincher as Boston rallied for a 104-100 win that broke the Brave hearts. The board-banging duo of Silas and Cowens also teamed up to corral 34 rebounds.

The wrenching defeat turned out to be the last playoff game for Buffalo, which entered the NBA in 1970 along with fellow expansion team Cleveland. They moved to San Diego in 1978 and were renamed the Clippers before relocating again to Los Angeles in 1984.

Fiery redhead Cowens averaged a whopping 24.5 points, 17.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game in the Buffalo series. White contributed 23.8 ppg over the six games.

Injuries would play a key part in the conference finals outcome, with 14th-year Celtic legend and eastern Ohio native Havlicek slowed by a foot injury. Solid Cav center Jim Chones was also ruled out with a broken bone in his foot suffered in practice before the series.

The 1976 Eastern Conference Finals: Playoff experience and poise prevails

Boston 4, Cleveland 2

The first Boston/Cleveland conference finals meeting was a momentous, tense series between two franchises at opposite ends of the pro basketball spectrum.

The aging 54-28 Celtics were seeking their 13th championship banner while the 1970 expansion Cavs (49-33), once playfully referred to as the "Cadavaliers" because they were so hapless, were in their very first NBA post-season.

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 historic Cavalier win over Washington. Chones had averaged a team-high 15.8 points, nine rebounds a 1.1 blocks per game while not missing a single game in the 1975-76 season up to the Celtic series.

In seven playoff games that post-season vs. Washington (the team he ended his career with in 1981-82), Chones averaged 15 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, along with 0.9 blocks and 0.9 assists a contest. Cav fans still argue that Cleveland would have won the series if Chones had been healthy.

Ironically, Chones was normally such an ironman that he played every game in eight of his first nine pro seasons from 1972-81.

However, a lack of playoff experience - especially compared to Boston - and a 3-1 Celtic record over the Cavs that season suggest otherwise. Plus, Havlicek was also hampered extensively by a foot injury of his own in the playoffs.

Akron, Ohio product Nate Thurmond, the long-time Warriors star center, had been acquired from Chicago early in the 1975-76 season to support Chones. But at nearly 35 and troubled by very gimpy knees, he was not able to play major minutes at a high level consistently, although he gave a gallant effort.

In game one, Boston broke away from a 77-77 tie with a big fourth quarter to post a 111-99 victory. The indomitable Havlicek led the Celtics with 26 points, while blue-collar Silas contributed 21 markers and 11 boards. 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, Cowens and 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 game two away, 94-89. White topped the victors with 24 points, while Havlicek tallied 20, Scott 16 and Cowens 15. Snyder and Bingo Smith paced the Cavs with 16 points each.

Faced with a must-win situation back in suburban Cleveland (actually Richfield) for game three, the Cavs were rallied by an NBA playoff record crowd of 21,564 to a hard-fought, low-scoring 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 Cleamons led the winners with 18 points. White netted 22 and Cowens 19, but a hobbling Hondo was held to nine.

In the fourth game three days later before another record sellout at the two-year old Richfield Coliseum, the Celtics edged within 79-77 early in the fourth period.

But the Cavs won going away, finishing on a 27-10 run to even the series 2-2 with a 106-87 victory.

In the trip back to his home state, the 36-year Havlicek had to sit out most of the fourth game with a worsening foot injury. The proud superstar was held scoreless for one of the few times in his 16-season career.

Sniping Cleveland forward 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 14th-year 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 as the Celts and their home crowd grew more uneasy. They feverishly wanted to avoid a game five home loss and trip to Cleveland for a pressure-packed, potential series-clincher at the raucous Coliseum.

Celtic coach Tom Heinsohn finally inserted Hondo into the game with 5:03 left, bringing the partisan Garden crowd to its feet. The calculated psychological lift, straight out of the playbook of Red Auerbach, helped propel a weary Boston club looking to ward off the young and hungry Cavs to victory.

It also spurred Cowens to sink two huge baskets and a pair of foul shots. His dogged defense on a key late in-bounds sideline pass by Jim Brewer also preserved the victory.

With 11 seconds left, Havlicek splashed two clutch foul shots - his only points of the game - to clinch a 99-94 Boston win.

Cowens led Boston with 26 points while Scott netted 22. White scored 17 and Nelson added 15. Cleamons, one of three Cavalier starters raised in Ohio, topped six Cavs in double figures with 18.

The home team had won all five contests before the classic sixth game back in the Richfield Coliseum, which opened in late October of 1974.

Boston led 22-19 after the first quarter, but another huge crowd helped the Cavs surge to a 46-43 halftime lead. Hondo again sat out in favor of fellow veteran Nelson, who was in his last season.

If a game seven was to be necessary back home, the Celtics wanted Havlicek as healthy as possible.

Cleveland held a precarious 69-67 edge heading to the final stanza, hoping its homecourt magic (5-1 so far in the 1976 playoffs) would again pull them through.

The normally weak-shooting Silas sank an outside one-hander to tie it on the opening possession of the final period, and it remained nip and tuck the rest of the way.

A three-point play inside by Thurmond gave Cleveland an 81-78 edge midway through the final stanza. But White canned a pair of left side perimeter jumpers to give the Celtics an 86-85 lead with 1:45 left.

The Cavs cautiously began the ensuing crucial possession trying to regain the lead in the seesaw contest. But once more Boston poise under pressure prevailed as Cavalier halfcourt offensive execution failed at a most critical point.

Cav forward Campy Russell was looking for sharpshooting guard Austin Carr breaking out from under the basket to the right wing. But Campy telegraphed a long pass from the top of the key to the wing, a bad angle to pass from.

Quick 6-6 guard Charlie Scott possessed a good nose for steals in the passing lanes and was in good denial position for Boston against Carr. The North Carolina star, who broke the ACC color line in 1966, anticipated the play and easily stole the errant pass to the wing.

Scott then sped downcourt and sank a breakaway stuff to give the Celtics a crucial 88-85 lead in an era that pre-dated the three-point shot by four seasons. The steal and easy bucket with just 90 seconds left proved to be the series backbreaker.

White made a driving scoop shot, Cowens added a short hook and the Celtics held on for a 94-87 victory to eliminate the spunky Cavs and advance to their 14th NBA Finals in 20 years.

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

Chones's absence from the biggest series of his career to that point remains a sore point for the Cavaliers and their fans. The aging Thurmond averaged a solid 10.5 points and 10.7 rebounds a game in Jim's place. The good-shooting Chones later won a ring as an unsung power forward for the 1980 Lakers.

But the Cavs, in their first-ever 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 from 1972 through 1976 - 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 intense, defense-oriented series each team surpassed 100 points only once. Boston averaged 93.8 ppg compared to 93.0 for Cleveland, as the Celts posted a 563-558 total points edge over the six tight games.

White led all series scorers with 22.5 ppg, followed by Cowens with 18 points and 15.2 rebounds a game. Silas also contributed 13.3 caroms a game to help Boston to a key four-rebound per game edge. The injured Havlicek scored 10.2 ppg in just 25 minutes per contest.

In a key series stat, Boston outscored Cleveland 131-84 (almost 8 ppg) at the foul line and shot 81.4 percent from the charity stripe - compared to just 66.7 free throw percent accuracy by the Cavs. As Larry Bird has stated many times, foul shooting and rebounding usually decide close games in the NBA playoffs.

Balanced Cleveland had six players average double figures for the series, all between 10.5 and 15.2 ppg. Cleamons topped the Cavs with 15.2 ppg in the series.

Veteran Boston then went on to win the title in another six-game battle over Cinderella Phoenix in the NBA Finals. Led by ex-Celtic Westphal and Rookie of the Year center Alvan Adams, the 42-40 Suns had upset 59-23 defending champion Golden State and Rick Barry 4-3 in the western finals.

Yet spurred on by an epic 128-126 triple overtime game five win over the Suns, a wily Boston club went on to claim banner number 13 behind a clutch nine-point Cowens outburst late in game six.

It proved to be the eighth and final NBA title in the incredible career of Havlicek, which spanned the Russell and Cousy era from 1962 almost all the way to the Bird era, which started in 1979.

"If I had known this Bird kid was coming along, I would have played a few more years," said the ageless Havlicek, the NBA's consummate ironman, who hung up his sneakers for good in 1978.

Three years after the memorable 1976 eastern finals battle vs. Cleveland, team patriarch Red Auerbach was impressed enough to go outside the Celtic family for the first time and offer Fitch the Boston head coaching job - but only after his friend Bob Knight turned down the chance to coach the Celtics and a rookie named Larry Bird, who had transferred from Knight and Indiana in 1974.

Fitch was sitting nearby when Knight declined the Celtic job and expressed his interest. He ended up replacing former Celtic forward Satch Sanders and player-coach Cowens, who combined to guide the Celtics to a 29-53 mark in the first post-Hondo season of 1978-79, on the Garden sidelines in 1979-80.

Behind Bird's incredible rookie season, Fitch led Boston to a league-best 61-21 record, with the 32-game improvement that year setting a record for the greatest single-season turnaround in league history to that time.

The hard-nosed Fitch became such a Bird favorite that when Larry was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1998, his two chosen presenters were former idol and teammate Bill Walton - and Bill Fitch.

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

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