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Celtics and 76ers renew the most epic and prolific NBA playoff rivalry ever

The 2018 East semifinal matchup stokes great memories of the Boston/Philly matchups of playoffs past—and may offer a preview of years to come

Maurice Cheeks moves the ball

For the first time in six years and only the third in the past 33 seasons, ancient Eastern rivals Boston and Philadelphia will meet in the NBA playoffs in 2018.

Over the 72-year history of the NBA, Boston’s greatest Eastern playoff foe—with apologies to the nearby Knicks—has been the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Celtic and 76er franchises have met 19 times in the playoffs, Boston and New York have played 15 series, and the Celtics and Lakers have hooked up 12 times, all in the Finals.

Post-season head to head record: Boston 54 wins, Syracuse/Philadelphia 46.

Series record: Boston leads, 12-7. (Celtics 4-3 over Syracuse, Celtics 8-4 over 76ers)

Eastern Finals series record: Boston 8, Syracuse/Philly 6 (in eastern finals games, Boston leads 37-33)

The East’s greatest and most prolific playoff rivalry can be broken down into three main epochs, with the early 1980s and late 1960s eras being the most famous and well-played.

However, the rivals also met seven heated times in nine years from 1953 through 1961, when the 76er franchise was located in Syracuse and was nicknamed the Nationals.

The fierce foes also faced off in three series that went the distance during early playoff rounds in 1977, 2002, and 2012. In particular, the 1977 seven-game series was a classic battle that will be chronicled later in this article.

Boston vs. Philadelphia 76ers (1980-81-82-85, 2-2)

Bird vs. Erving battle headlines titanic rivalry, revitalizes NBA interest

In the first six years of the 1980s, the championship-caliber titans met four times in the playoffs, each time in the conference finals.

All four years Boston had crafted the league’s best regular season record with an impressive average of 62.3 wins a year, with powerhouse Phlly not far behind at 59.8 wins per season.

Those gaudy records were compiled in an era with more competitive balance, in a 23-team league not diluted by seven more expansion teams. The East was also far, far better than the weak West in the 1980s, sort of the opposite of recent years.

Thus with two-thirds of a team’s schedule played within the conference, their already superb records would have been even better with less difficult opposition such as the Bucks, Hawks, Bullets and later Pistons to deal with.

Nothing even remotely compares to the 1980s Boston/Philly rivalry today, not in terms of quality of play, intensity, individual head-to-head matchups and proximity of the teams.

For Philadelphia considers itself the better basketball city, having produced many great players and a rabid fan base from high school through its college teams to the pros dating back to the SPHAs, Warriors and 76ers.

Boston is the league’s most successful franchise ever, and through nearly constant winning cultivated the most knowledgable and sophisticated fan base in the NBA, along with the Knicks.

To get a current idea of the Boston vs. Philadelphia ‘80s enmity, it would be like the Warriors vs. the Cavaliers circa 2015-17—only if they were in the same division, had much more playoff history against one another, were domiciled closely and playing at an even higher level, with All-Stars and Hall of Famers at virtually every position on the floor.

Yet when the rivalry was renewed in 1979-80, the NBA was struggling mightily. Attendance, interest and TV ratings were way down. Many franchises were floating in red ink, and talk of contracting as much as a third of the 22-team league was seriously in the air.

The NBA Finals and conference finals were shown on tape delay by CBS weeknights. The TV-critical month of May was always sweeps ratings month for the networks, and they wouldn’t preempt their regular night-time programming for low-rated, unpopular NBA telecasts.

But rookie Larry Bird sparked a record 32-game improvement in Boston as the Celtics went from 29-53 to the league’s best record at 61-21. As the NBA’s bellwether franchise, the winning tradition of the Celtics resonated with the lagging fan base and brought many back to the league to either root for Boston and their singular rookie or against them.

The Celtics are like Notre Dame in college football, or the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL or the New York Yankees in baseball. Synonymous with winning big, and also having a polarizing effect on fans, when they are a title contender fan interest is always higher.

Thus when Boston and Bird challenged the legendary Dr. J and reinvigorated the league’s biggest non-championship series rivalry from 1980-85, it brought fans and interest back to the flagging NBA and helped keep it afloat for the next generation.

Then the fierce play on the court grew the fan base even higher. Their 1981 Sunday afternoon game seven showdown in the conference finals was the highest-rated NBA game ever for CBS to that time - and it was played in non-prime time.

So even was the Celtic/76er 1980s post-season matchup that each team won 12 times in their 24 intense playoff meetings. Headlining the showdown was the intense head-to-head rivalry between superstar forwards Julius Erving and Larry Bird.

In the 1980 playoffs, Boston’s playoff inexperience showed. Boston lost 4-1 to the 76ers, who had been to the Finals in 1977 and came close in 1978/79.

Despite the late-season addition of legendary free-agent gunner Pete Maravich, Boston was only able to win game 2 when Bird canned nine consecutive shots en route to 31 points to spark a 96-90 victory. Veteran All-Star Celtic center Dave Cowens was hobbled by a foot injury and retired the following pre-season.

In 1981, Boston and Philly tied for the NBA’s best record at 62-20, but the Celtics won the all-important homecourt advantage by beating the Sixers in the last game of the regular season. It turned out to be key as their conference final rematch would literally go down to the final second of game 7 in the Boston Garden.

The 1981 conference finals was arguably the greatest playoff series ever. Down 3-1 after a 99-97 game 4 loss in Philly, it looked like another 4-1 loss for Boston and Bird to the 76ers and Dr. J in the conference finals.

But M.L. Carr canned two foul shots in the final seconds of game 5 to give Boston a 111-109 win as Bird scored 32 points. Yet Gang Green had lost 11 in a row at the Spectrum, where they started off behind 16 at Philly in the first half of game 6. The 76ers and their fans could smell the championship.

However a big second half rally, led by Bird and Cedric Maxwell after Cornbread got into a fight with a 76er fan, ignited Boston to a 100-98 comeback win. Late in the game, Larry’s right wing leaner from 20 feet hit the rim, bounced high into the air and dropped through to provide a clutch late basket.

The fortuitous bounce seemed to portend a change in the Celtic playoff luck vs. the 76ers. But it wasn’t over yet.

Rookie Kevin McHale came up huge with a key block of a driving Andrew Toney shot in the final seconds and also corralled the crucial rebound to preserve the 100-98 victory.

Back at a raucous Boston Garden for game 7, the veteran 76ers appeared headed to victory, as they led 89-82 with five minutes left. But then Boston turned up the defense and did not allow a basket the rest of the way to author one of the greatest clutch defensive stands in the fabled annals of Celtic history.

With the Celtics desperately scrambling and Bird diving all over the floor, Erving made two critical turnovers as the Celtics tied it 89-89.

Bird’s transition pull-up 15-foot banker from the left elbow broke the tie and gave Boston a 91-89 lead in the final minute of the uber-intense battle. It was the last basket of the hard-fought, thrilling series.

After a midcourt steal, Sixer guard Maurice Cheeks was fouled and missed one of two free throws. With one tick left, the 76ers had the ball out of bounds at halfcourt, for one last try down 91-90.

Yet Boston dodged a last-second alley-oop intended for the high-flying Erving when the lob by Bobby Jones hit off the top of the backboard and Maxwell batted the ricochet away to clinch an epic series.

Boston fans stormed the court and surrounded a rarely excited Bird, who had his hands behind his head in an “I can’t believe we won” stance. Boston’s championship tradition, along with the NBA, was back.

For an in-depth recounting of the arguably greatest playoff series ever, check out my 2014 article on this site:

The Celtics went on to beat the Cinderella Houston Rockets 4-2 in the Finals for the first title of the Bird era.

In 1982, Boston appeared headed for a repeat title, the league’s first since the Celtics did it in 1968-69. They put together a 63-19 record, the NBA’s best, for the fourth straight year since Bird came into the league.

For the third year in a row, they would meet their fiercest foe, the 76ers in the conference finals. In game one they blew out the 76ers 121-81, and appeared ready to blow Philly out of the water.

But the Sixers shockingly bounced back to upset the Celtics at Boston 121-113 in game 2 to tie it. Toney scored 30 and low-scoring Caldwell Jones added 22 as the Sixers outscored the Celtics 33-23 in the fourth period to surprise everyone.

Diminutive playmaker Nate Archibald separated his shooting shoulder in game three, and the series was basically lost. Archibald was not Boston’s best player, but he was, along with Bird, its most irreplaceable player.

With Nate sidelined Philly won the next two at home to go up 3-1, but once more Celtic pride rallied. Boston blew out Philly in games five and six to force a seventh game at home after holding the “75ers” (as they were called derisively by some in the Philly media) to just 75 points in a game 6 win at the Spectrum.

A game seven Celtic win at home was a foregone conclusion to many. But this time though, short-handed Boston ran out of gas and lost 120-106. Once defeat was inevitable, Garden fans memorably chanted “Beat LA, Beat LA” to the 76ers as the final seconds ticked off.

It was only the second game 7 loss at home ever by the Celtics, the other being to the Knicks in the 1973 ECF when John Havlicek was hampered by a right shoulder injury.

Spent by their emotional win over the Celtics, the 76ers lost to the Lakers 4-2 in the Finals for the second time in three years.

The Bucks knocked off Boston in 1983, and the Nets upset defending champion Philly in the 1984 first round to prevent more Celtic-76ers animosity and drama. Thus three years passed before the rivals faced off one last time in another hotly-contested conference finals.

In 1985, the Celtics and 76ers faced off one last time in the conference finals. This time Boston was at its peak while the 76ers and Erving were aging and in a bit of a decline, despite the addition of explosive rookie Charles Barkley.

The Celtics won the first three games, but Philly averted an embarrassing sweep with a win at home in game 4. Back in Boston, game 5 was nip and tuck as the emotional Barkley led a late 76er rally.

In the final 10 seconds Boston led 102-100 when the dangerous Toney, aka the Boston Strangler, got the ball in the deep left corner. Bird switched onto him, poked the ball free from the shocked guard’s hands and grabbed it, then passed to Danny Ainge as time expired on the 76ers and the heated rivalry, 4-1.

In his retirement press conference seven years later, Bird noted that the battles with Philadelphia were the most intense of his career, even bigger than the Lakers.

This was probably due in large part to proximity and the fact that the Celtics played the 76ers as many as 13 times a year, but anyone who saw those four 1980s conference finals series can still feel their burning intensity years later.

1977 eastern semifinals: 76ers 4, Celtics 3

Young 76ers on rise take on defending champs in classic 7-game series

In 1977 the Celtics were an aging defending champion facing a rebuilt, young 76er squad ravenously hungry to dethrone their fiercest rival.

Boston was led by All-Stars Dave Cowens and JoJo White, but perennial All-Star swingman John Havlicek was 37. Workhorse power forward Paul Silas had been dealt before the season to Denver, replaced by former UCLA bookend forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe.

On paper, age and talent-wise, it was an upgrade. Yet intangibly and on the floor, it was a steap backward as the Celts missed the heady play of the veteran Silas, who was a great rebounder, solid defender and unselfish, well-liked and respected teammate - unlike his replacements.

Veteran forward Don Nelson had also retired after winning his fifth ring in 1976, leaving a Celtic bench somewhat depleted and inexperienced.

The 76ers, meanwhile, had bought an ABA All-Star forward for the second year in a row to go with All-Star guard Doug Collins, the overall number one pick in the 1973 draft.

Philly picked George McGinnis up from the Indiana Pacers in 1975. Then after the ABA/NBA merger of 1976 forced the cash-poor New York Nets to sell off Julius Erving, the 76ers swooped in and grabbed Dr. J in a cash transaction.

Erving’s arrival sent 1975 All-Star forward Steve Mix, an underrated scorer and rebounder, to a strong bench where he joined Lloyd (pre-World) free, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant (Kobe’s dad), future NBA coach Mike Dunleavy and high school to pro ranks rookie center Darryl Dawkins to form one of the most explosive - and wackiest - benches in the NBA.

They were called “the Bomb Squad” for their ability to score points in a hurry, especially Free and Mix.

The 76ers posted the best record in the East in the balanced 1976-77, initial post-merger NBA season. No team in the league won more than 53 games that season. Ironically, that 53-29 record was achieved by Los Angeles, coached by legend Jerry West in his first season at the helm of the Lakers, but LA was swept by Portland and Bill Walton in the western finals.

Boston had slumped to a 44-38 record to finish second in the Atlantic Division behind the 50-32 76ers. It was Boston’s worst record since Cowens’s Rookie-of-the-Year season in 1970-71, the last time the Celtics had missed the playoffs.

A disenchanted Dave took his infamous leave of absence in 1976-77, missing 32 games over 68 days after admitting his legendary fire had burned low. Cowens spent his unpaid break driving a cab and selling Christmas trees back home in Kentucky.

Boston won its first four games in 1976, but lost the next four before the weary Cowens, after years of max-effort straining deep into the playoffs to make up for his relatively short 6-8.5 center height, took his needed sabbatical.

When the fiery redhead came back in January he helped Boston go 25-17 and make the playoffs, where they swept San Antonio and George Gervin 2-0 in the first round eastern mini-series.

That set up an eastern semifinal showdown with the rival 76ers, whom Boston had not met in the post-season since 1969. By 1973 the Sixers had bottomed out, setting an all-time league mark for futility with an abysmal 9-73 record.

Their rebuild began with the drafting of quicksilver shooting guard Collins in 1973. Mix was grabbed off the scrap heap after being waived out of the ABA, and he rewarded the 76ers by surprisingly making the NBA All-Star team in 1975 after averaging over 15 points and 10 rebounds a game.

A knee injury to Hall of Fame forward Billy Cunningham ended his career prematurely at age 33 in the 1975-76 campaign, prompting the 76ers to go out and get Erving in the off-season. Caldwell Jones, a 7-1 center obtained via the ABA dispersal draft, gave the Sixers a strong shot-blocking and rebounding presence.

Jones had actually been coached as an ABA rookie in 1973-74 with San Diego by none other than the recently-retired Wilt Chamberlain, who predicted bg things for CJ. Jones went on to average 7.9 points and 8.2 rebounds a game over 16 pro seasons.

In game one at the Spectrum in Philly, the Celtics battled back from a 13-point fourth period deficit to tie it 99-99 on a Havlicek jumper. The indefatigible Hondo scored 19 points in what was then his record-setting 166th career playoff game.

Erving missed two clutch foul shots with eight seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 111-111. White then missed a runner with the 76er crowd howling, and Erving blocked the ensuing putback try by Wicks inside.

But White never gave up on the play. He grabbed the loose ball on the left baseline and drained a 15-footer at the buzzer to give the Celts an improbable 113-111 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

Philly roared back to tie it in game two with a 113-101 win despite 31 points by Havlicek. Erving led the Sixers with 30 while Cowens contributed 21 points and 15 caroms.

In game three at the Boston Garden, the Sixers stole homecourt back with a 109-100 upset. Erving paced a balanced attack with 27 points, while Collins scored 25, Free 22 and McGinnis 19.

In his 15th season, Havlicek again topped Boston with 25 points while guard Charlie Scott added 21.

In a near-must win in game four at home, Cowens delivered an epic performance. He nailed all 10 of his first half field goal tries as the Celtics built a 14-point lead.

Yet the 76ers rallied within 116-115 late as Collins fired in 36 points. But little-used Fred Saunders sank a key hook and White canned a layup to give Boston a crucial 124-119 win.

Cowens totaled 37 points, 21 rebounds and four assists in his monster outburst. McGinnis tallied 27 points and Erving 23 in the thriller as Boston tied the rollercoaster series, 2-2.

Back at the Spectrum for the pivotal game five, the explosive 76ers put on a 33-8 spurt en route to an 18-point halftime lead. From there they cruised to a 110-91 victory to reclaim the series lead, 3-2.

Collins led Philly with 23 points, while Erving netted 22 and Mix tallied 20 off the bench. Scott led five Celtics in double figures with 20 markers.

Defending champion Boston had its back to the wall in game six at home. The game was close throughout, with the Celts clinging to an 87-83 lead heading to the fourth period.

White poured in 40 points, including four of Boston’s last six, to stave off the 76ers 113-108 and force a decisive seventh game. Not ready for the scrap heap, Havlicek fired in 25 points and Scott added 20 while Cowens yanked down 19 rebounds.

The 6-6 Collins (whose childhood idol was Havlicek) topped Philly with 32 points while the muscular 6-8 McGinnis contributed 22 markers with 14 rebounds.

It all came down to game seven before a sellout crowd of 18,276 at the Spectrum two days later on Sunday, May 1. Both teams were tight and tired in the defensive-oriented battle after seven grueling games in 14 days.

The 76ers shot just 33 percent from the floor, but Boston was even less accurate, making just 27 of 90 shots for 30 percent. Cowens pulled down a remarkable 27 rebounds out of the 65 Boston caroms, but was held to 11 points.

With the score tied 56-56 midway through the third period, the streaky Free caught fire from outside and sparked the 76ers on a 10-2 run. Philly led 71-63 after three periods and never trailed again.

Free nailed 10 field goals, many of which were his patented high-arching jumpers en route to a game-high 27 points for the Bomb Squad. Weary Boston fought valiantly but couldn’t connect time and again down the stretch from the field.

The 76ers held on for an 83-77 win as the Philly fans streamed onto the court and lifted a jubilant Free onto their shoulders.

White shot just seven of 24 from the field and Havlicek was 4-19 in his 172nd and final playoff game, totaling 13 points. Over the seven games, Boston shot just 42.2 percent from the field, compared to 54.4 percent by the Sixers.

For the series, Collins and Erving each averaged 23.7 ppg for the Sixers. White led five Celts in double figures at 21.1 ppg. Cowens averaged 17.3 points and 16 rebounds a game, while Hondo tallied 19.9 ppg in his last playoff series.

The 76ers went on to the NBA Finals and led Portland 2-0. But then playoff MVP Bill Walton and the TrailBlazers roared back to win four straight and capture the title in the expansion franchise’s first-ever playoff foray.

Boston vs. Philadelphia (1965-69, 4-1)

Russell vs. Wilt, Hondo steals the ball headline rivalry

For four seasons in a row, the two eastern rivals met in the eastern finals every year, with Boston winning three times, twice in seven-game thrillers.

In 1965, Boston nipped the 76ers and their newly-acquired center Wilt Chamberlain 4-3. The Philadelphia native returned to the city of brotherly love to challenge Bill Russell and the Celtic dynasty, which had won seven if eight NBA titles from 1957-64.

After a Dipper dunk in the final seconds of game seven pulled the Sixers within 110-109, Russell threw the ensuing in-bounds pass off a guy wire hanging off the basket, giving Philly the ball and one last chance to pull off the upset.

But John Havlicek’s saving steal off a Hal Greer in-bounds pass in the final seconds of game seven preserved a 110-109 win, inspiring the infamous Johnny Most call of “Havlicek steals the ball.”

In 1966, Boston rolled over the 76ers and Wilt, 4-1, as Sam Jones and Hondo each scored over 25 ppg in the surprisingly lopsided series.

In 1967, the 76ers ended the Boston run of eight straight NBA titles with a 4-1 series win in the eastern finals. Philly fans paraded around the court proclaiming “Boston is dead.” Celtic pride dicated that Boston not forget that insult after nearly a decade of dominance.

But the next year, the Celtics appeared to be dead for real, finishing second to the 76ers by eight games in the season. Again, Philly ran out to a 3-1 series lead. Yet the Celtics staved off defeat in game 5 at Philly by 18, then won by eight at home to force a decisive seventh game on enemy turf.

In a series delayed by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the 76ers played without All-Star sixth man Billy Cunningham, out with a broken arm.

The Celtics stormed back to win a classic game seven at Philly, 100-96. Wilt took only two shots in the second half of the epic loss, scoring just 14 points as he made only six of 14 free throws.

Boston went on to beat the Lakers 4-2 in the Finals, and then the 76ers traded Chamberlain to Los Angeles after the season in a blockbuster deal.

In 1968, the fourth-place Celtics upset the Wilt-less 76ers 4-1 in the east semis. Bosotn took game one 114-100 in Philly as Hondo outscored Cunningham, 35-29. In game two at Boston Bailey Howell led four Celtics with 20 or more points by scoring 29 as they blew out the 76ers, 134-103.

The C’s went up 3-0 over the 76ers as SamJones netted 28 and Hondo 27 to offset 33 by Billy C. Philly staved off a sweep with a 119-116 win at the Garden.

But Boston closed it out 93-90 at the Spectrum in game five to stun Jack Ramsay’s squad, which finished 55-27 and seven games ahead of an aging Boston club in the season.

The Celtics then knocked off their other ancient East rival in the Knicks 4-2 to win the East. In the Finals as an underdog to the Lakers of Wilt, West and Baylor, Boston rallied from an 0-2 hole and won an epic game seven in the LA Forum to send Russell into retirement as a champion for the 11th time in 13 seasons.

Boston vs. Syracuse (1953-61, 4-3)

Nats of Schayes, Cousy’s Celts face off seven times in nine years

A lot of people do not know that the long-defunct Syracuse Nationals were the forerunners of the Philadelphia 76er franchise.

The Nats moved to Philly after the Warriors vacated the city of Brotherly Love for San Francisco in 1962. But while based in upstate New York, Syracuse became one of the longest-running and toughest of Celtic playoff foes.

The Nats had the better of it early on due to the dominance of versatile 6-8 superstar Dolph Schayes. But once Russell and Tom Heinsohn came onto the scene, Boston dominated and won the last three meetings.

In 1953, Boston swept Syracuse 2-0 in the east division semis. Bob Cousy averaged 35 ppg in the series, including 50 in a record-setting clincher. The Cooz netted an NBA playoff record 30 of 32 free throws as Boston outlasted the Nationals 111-105 in FOUR overtimes.

The epic battle was tied 77-77 at the end of regulation after Cousy’s clutch free throw tied it with no time left. The classic marathon featured 106 fouls as 12 players fouled out, and the sharpshooting Celtics made 37 straight free throws at one point.

The never-say-die Cousy again tied it at the end of the third OT on a clutch 25-footer, 99-99. Boston trailed 104-99 in the fourth OT, but outscored the Nats 12-1 over the final minutes to win going away.

Cousy nailed 18 straight pressure free throws in the overtimes to set a then-NBA record for most points in a playoff game, breaking the old mark of 47 set by George Mikan.

As a team, Boston hit on a record 57 of 65 foul shots (88 percent) while Syracuse also shot 65 free throws and converted 51 (79 percent). Legendary Celtic PR man Howie McHugh nearly passed out from excitement, and Cousy called it the “most draining game I ever played in.”

The win marked the first time Boston advanced past the first round of the NBA playoffs, something that would become commonplace in the future. The Knicks would eliminate Boston in the east finals before losing to the Lakers in the Finals.

In 1954, Syracuse beat Boston 2-0 in the eastern finals.

The next year, Syracuse again eliminated the Celtics 3-1 in the eastern finals on their way to the 1955 NBA title. The Nationals were exceptionally balanced on offense as Dolph Schayes led six players in double figures for the series with 19 ppg.

Backcourt aces Sharman and Cousy combined for 39.5 ppg to pace the C’s.

In 1956, Syracuse again edged Boston 2-1 in the eastern semifinals. The Celtics won game one by 17, but the Nationals won the final two contests by three and five, respectively.

Cousy led all players with 26.3 ppg while Schayes topped the Nationals with 20 ppg. Schayes netted 27 in the clincher at Boston to offset 24 by Sharman and 22 from Cousy.

In 1957, the Celtics swept the Nationals 3-0 in the eastern finals en route to their first NBA crown. Game 3 was the only close contest as the Celts eked out an 83-80 win. Marksman Sharman scored 23 points and Schayes led the Nats with 22.

The year 1959 marked perhaps the best of the Celtic/Nationals playoff rivalry as Boston edged Syracuse 4-3 in the eastern finals. Sixth man Frank Ramsey led Boston with 23.6 ppg while Schayes (28.4) and Hall of Famer George Yardley (25.7) topped the Nats.

The Celts won game 7 in the Garden 130-125 as they came back from an eight-point halftime deficit on the strength of a 70-57 second half.

In the decider Ramsey paced seven Celtics in double figures with 28, while Schayes netted 35 and Yardley 32. Boston then swept the Lakers and rookie sensation Elgin Baylor in an anti-climactic Finals, 4-0.

Two years later in 1961, Boston and Syracuse again met in the eastern finals, with the C’s coming out on top 4-1. Russell led Boston with 20.6 ppg while Schayes (23.2) and Dick Barnett (19.4) topped the Nats. Boston captured the last three games of the lopsided series by an average of 19.3 ppg.

Less than two years later Syracuse became the Philadelphia 76ers after the Warriors moved west to the city by the bay, ending one of the great Celtic eastern playoff rivalries of the NBA’s early years.

2002: Boston 3, Philly 2 East 1st round

Rivalry renewed for first time in 17 years with Truth vs. Answer duel

In 2002, the rivals met for the first time since the 1985 eastern finals.

The Celtics edged the 76ers 3-2 in the eastern first round, which was then a best-of-five series. Boston won the first two games at home, but the Sixers knotted it 2-2 after squeaking out an 83-81 victory in game four at home.

In the decisive fifth game, Boston led 77-67 heading to the final period. The Celtics then blew Philly away 43-20 in the fourth quarter to post a 120-87 victory.

Paul Pierce exploded for 46 points in the clincher, hitting 16 of 25 field tries, including an amazing eight of 10 three-point attempts.

”The Truth” averaged 30.2 ppg in the series for the victors, while Employee #8 Antoine Walker added 24.4 ppg. 76er gunner Allen “The Answer” (aka Me, Myself and I-verson) scored 30 ppg for the 76ers, but made just 38 percent of his 118 field goal tries in the five-game series.

The Celtics eventually lost to the Nets in the eastern finals, 4-2.

2012: Boston 4, Philadelphia 3

Defense leads Celts past 76ers, new AI

In 2012 Boston beat Philly 4-3 in a hard-fought, offensively-challenged eastern semifinals. Boston averaged 89.1 ppg in the series, compared to just 85.4 by the 76ers.

The foes traded one-point wins in the first two contests. Boston never trailed in the series, winning games one, three, five and seven.

The 76ers rallied to tie it 1-1, 2-2 and then 3-3 with an 82-75 home victory in game six.

Back at Boston for game seven, the Celtics led 55-52 heading to the final period in a defensive battle. Boston scored 30 points in the fourth quarter to pull out a low-scoring finale reminiscent of the 1977 decider, 85-75.

Kevin Garnett tallied 18 points and ulled down 13 rebounds to lead Boston to victory. Point guard Rajon Rondo posted an 18-10-10 triple-double.

The rugged Celtic defense limited the 76ers, led by 18 points from the other AI (Andre Iguodala), to just 35 percent field goal shooting in the finale.

The eventual champion Miami Heat then eliminated Boston 4-3 in a heated conference finals series. Thus the Celtics fell just a single win short of their third Finals appearance in five years (2008 and 2010 being the other showings vs. the Lakers).

The Boston/Philly 2018 eastern semifinal showdown promises to be an excellent series. The young 76ers are a surprising favorite to win in six with the Celtics hobbled by season-ending injuries to stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward - not to mention a hamstring injury to Jaylen Brown suffered in game seven vs. the Bucks that may also keep him out of the 76er series, or hamper him at the very least.

Yet with both franchises young, talented, well-coached and on the rise, it looks like the traditional foes will be shooting it out in search of eastern supremacy for the foreseeable future in a return to the titanic rivalry of the 1980s and late 1960s.

If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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