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The 1981 Eastern Conference Finals: the greatest playoff series ever

Down 3-1 to the 76ers, Boston rallied to win each contest in the final seconds.

Larry Bird Celebrating Victory

The 1981 Eastern Conference Finals series between fierce foes Boston and Philadelphia is arguably the greatest post-season series in NBA history, especially among non-Finals series. Certainly, it was as good or better than any series in the last 40 years, as it had everything: two great championship-caliber rivals, a seven-game thriller where five of the games went down to the very end, all-time great players squaring off head-to-head, unreal overall intensity and high drama. The final three games of this titanic battle of evenly-matched 62-20 rivals were decided by a COMBINED total of FIVE points - and each contest went down to literally the last second.

Due in part to proximity and divisional competition, 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 evenly, 12-12.

Each team featured three Hall of Famers in their starting lineups, with All-Stars coming off the bench too like 76er rookie Andrew Toney - and a future Hall of Famer in Celtic sub Kevin McHale, another first-year phenom.

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 Celtics-76ers rivalry, underneath all the intensity, was begrudging but profound respect between the players if not the fans. Philadelphia prides itself on its basketball history and hates Boston for its greater NBA success.

After Boston eliminated an aging 76ers club 4-1 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.

The rivals split the regular season series 3-3, and Boston finished two wins ahead of the 76ers in the standings with the league’s best record at 61-21. Bird was named First Team All-NBA as he led Boston to a 32-game improvement, the greatest in league history at the time, as a precocious rookie.

But in the Eastern Conference Finals the 76ers clipped the newly rebuilt Boston to put an end to Bird’s amazing Rookie-of-the-Year season, 4-1. Only a hobbled Cowens, in his last Celtic season at age 32, had a significant playoff past, and this allowed the 76ers to down the less-experienced Gang Green in a disappointing five-game ECF.

But Bird and Boston would be back with a vengeance the next season.

In 1981, the foes each finished atop the league with identical records at 62-20, but the Celtics earned home court advantage and the top seed by beating the 76ers in a regular season finale thriller.

That 98-94 win - punctuated by a pair of amazing McHale blocks of Erving drives - turned out to be a huge key in Boston winning the series and crown. The victory also forced the 76ers to a lower seed which meant they had to face a dangerous 60-22 Milwaukee team in the Eastern semis.

Boston and Philly each battled through the 1981 early rounds to a much-anticipated conference final rematch. Boston swept a Bulls team coached by Jerry Sloan 4-0, while the Sixers outlasted the talented Bucks, coached by Don Nelson, 4-3.

Once again vs. the Celtics, the 76ers jumped to a 3-1 series lead and looked to close out Boston 4-1 in a fifth game at the Garden. Up to that time, only three teams had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series (including Boston over Philly 13 years earlier). But this time, a year older and more determined, Bird and the Celtics would not go down.

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

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jim Cummins/NBAE/Getty Images

Three of the seven battles in the series 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 NBA’s two best forwards in Larry Legend and Doctor J squared off head-to-head in a classic showdown of the young gun trying to unseat the veteran incumbent. The league’s best defensive forward Bobby Jones (a recent Hall of Fame selection) also tried to contain Bird.

First-year Celtic center Robert Parish and rookie McHale battled inside against Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. Speedy playmakers Nate Archibald and Maurice Cheeks dueled to the finish, although Cheeks was hampered by severe sinus headaches the last three games.

Underrated Cedric Maxwell used a Game 6 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 Sixer sniper Toney.

Head coaches Bill Fitch and former 76er superstar Billy Cunningham, aided by assistant and future Pistons head man Chuck Daly, matched wits.

For the second straight time in the playoffs Philadelphia earned its 3-1 lead by splitting the first two games, then sweeping two home at the Spectrum. A chintzy foul call in the final seconds of Game 1 gave the sharpshooting Toney two free throws as the Sixers pulled out a thrilling 105-104 win. Boston got even as Bird poured in 34 points and snared 16 rebounds to win Game 2, 118-99. McHale added 20 points off the bench to help offset 35 from fellow rookie Toney, aka the Boston Strangler.

But when the series shifted to Philly, the 76ers won game three 110-100. In the critical fourth game, Boston rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit but still lost 107-105. Bobby Jones stole a last-ditch long pass near the basket from Archibald intended for Bird as time expired to give Philly a commanding series lead.

In Bird’s rookie season, the 76ers had closed out Boston 4-1 by taking Game 5 in the Garden. A year later, a more determined and experienced Celtic team (and a maniacally hustling Bird) would just not let that happen.

Although both teams battled fiercely, it seemed like Boston wanted it just a little more. They were not going to be denied two years in a row by the rival 76ers, especially in the Garden. And Bird was not going to miss his chance to win a title and even his NBA rivalry at one title each after watching his arch-nemesis Earvin Johnson win it all as a rookie in 1980. Having also lost to his foe in the 1979 NCAA finals, Bird was extra hungry to win his first championship at any level, and it showed in his play.

However, in Game 5 of 1981 it looked like a bad remake of the previous spring to Celtic fans. Boston trailed 59-49 at intermission and was still behind by 10 points with six minutes left. But then they rallied to tie it. In the final moments, Bird was knocked to the floor on his follow through after picking up a loose ball and shooting a left side jumper. M.L. Carr rebounded, was fouled and hit the two winning free throws.

But then it was back to Philly and the Spectrum, where Boston had lost 11 straight games. More drama led to a late two-point Celtic win, setting up the historic seventh game on a Sunday afternoon in Boston Garden.

The following are recaps of each of the last three games in the thrilling 1981 Celtic/76er series, clearly the best of their four conference final matchups in the decade - not to mention probably the best series since the Bird era began.

Game 5: Boston 111, Philadelphia 109

For the second year in a row, Boston faced elimination at the hands of the Sixers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Garden. It appeared the 76ers might deliver the kill shot on the road again as they led by 10 at the half. Yet determined Celtic squad came back to cut the deficit to 85-84 heading to the final period.

The 76ers edged back in front by six with 1:28 remaining before Boston put on its last-ditch rally. 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 from the 76ers and chased the rolling ball up the left sideline into the front court. When he tried a pull-up jumper off glass, it appeared he was fouled by Jones on the follow through, but no call was made. The shot was almost a harbinger of the bank shot from the same side he would take at the end of Game 7.

1981 NBA Playoffs: Philadelphia 76ers Vs Boston Celtics At Boston Garden Photo by Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Yet as Bird fell to the floor, M.L. Carr came up with a clutch rebound and drew a foul. He calmly canned two foul shots to keep Boston alive and 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 of its charity stripers and Boston converted 33. Bird tallied 32 points on 11 baskets and perfect 10-10 foul shooting.

Archibald snapped out of a slump to score a series-high 23 points while Maxwell added 16. McHale contributed a dozen markers off the pines, Ford netted 11 and the struggling Parish was held to 10.

Lionel Hollins, like his fellow southpaw guard Archibald, scored his series-high of 23 to pace the Sixers. Erving and Dawkins each tallied 21, Toney hit for 20 and Bobby Jones added 17.

Ironically, Hollins was a starting guard on the Bill Walton-led Portland team that defeated the 76ers 4-2 in the 1977 FInals.

Game 6: Boston 100, Philadelphia 98

The 76ers were the favorite as they headed back home, where they had beaten Boston 11 times in a row. In the first two seasons of Bird era, Boston had never beaten Philly at the Spectrum. The task seemed daunting, especially in front of a hostile crowd eager for Celtic blood, just like in 1967 and 1977.

A pretty give-and-go ended up with Bird banking in a slick left-handed reverse lay-in 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 and a two-handed fast break jam by Bobby Jones ignited Philly and its rabid crowd. Then 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 within 51-44 at the half after trailing by as many as 17 points, a good sign for the Celtics.

A three-point stick back 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.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jim Cummins/NBAE via Getty Images

Cornbread was shoved out of bounds by Dawkins and banged into a male spectator who was simply 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 at the comment. The 6’9 Maxwell turned and ran at the middle-aged, portly and shorter fan. Max jumped into the stands and threw a body block into the heckler.

The brawl spilled over into the seats, with players from both teams in the crowd trying to break it up. The melee in front of the Celtic bench seemed to energize the visitors, who forgot in their collective anger that they were not supposed to win at the hostile Spectrum.

Number 33 in green started to heat up along with the raised intensity. Bird canned a 21-foot jumper from the left wing, followed by a Larry layup that cut the deficit to 59-54. A long pass by the Legend set up Gerald Henderson for a lay-in, 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 foul call forthcoming.

The hustling Bird, showing off the underrated athleticism he possessed before back injuries set in, was everywhere on the court. He rebounded a Sixer miss and fed Maxwell for a fast break lay-in, 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 with great hands 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 then 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 monster dunk. A blocking foul was called, and Jones completed the spectacular three-point play with 8:14 left to put the hosts ahead 83-80.

Bobby Jones dunk over Bird

”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. Jones had won the North Carolina state high jump title over future Tar Heel teammate and NBA foe Bob McAdoo.

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. The shot provided Boston with 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 defensive whiff, then leaned forward for a right wing 18-footer over Bobby Jones. Yet the shot appeared just short. But perhaps because he had moved his momentum into the shot so much on the release, the ball bounced high into the air and just below the top of the glass before settling softly into the basket for a 98-95 edge with 1:01 left to play.

It was the sort of fortuitous bounce that makes a team think they are going to win. 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 after Parish had fouled out with 21 points. But then long-armed rookie McHale saved the day with an incredible defensive effort.

Fellow rookie Toney drove the left side of the lane past the double team of Archibald and Carr, and shot his patented pull-up short jumper. But McHale slid over in anticipation of the shot, leaped high and straight up to avoid body contact, then swatted the ball off the backboard. And then to complete the great game-saving defensive play, Kevin grabbed the critical rebound as well with 12 seconds to go. He calmly outlet 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.

Dr. J was intentionally grabbed by Archibald before he could get off a potential tying three-pointer, and he missed the first foul shot to doom Philly. After Erving sank the second foul shot, Boston called timeout to advance the ball to half court. 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 as Ford, Maxwell and McHale celebrated before a stunned Spectrum crowd, having broken the streak and the Philly curse.

Bird scored 25 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the fierce 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 torrid intensity, but Game 7 two days later in Boston 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 intensity.

”Whoever has the most guts and the most determination is going to win the game,” said Bird, prophetically, beforehand. “(The road win in Game Six) really shocked them and tore them apart.”

”It’s one of the best rivalries in sports,” offered McHale.

”No two teams in professional sports want each other’s throats 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.

Milwaukee Bucks Vs. Boston Celtics At Boston Garden Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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 half court offense was not as good as that of Boston.

Bird netted the first basket of the game on a short stick back 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 stick back 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.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

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 lob pass as the second period expired.

Even though Philly had shot 63 percent from the field while Boston hit on just 40 percent in the first half, an 11-5 Celtic offensive rebound advantage - plus 10 Sixer turnovers helped keep the hosts in the game. Only having a five-point lead despite out-shooting the opposition had to be another 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.

In fact, the 76ers led in six of the seven games in the series at halftime, usually by a big margin. Only in Game 2 which Boston won by 19 did the Celtics lead at the half in the series.

Evening it up, 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. Bird returned the favor when Erving drove in from the left side in transition and Larry blocked his right-handed layup, leading to a fast break for Boston and a key four-point swing.

But the Sixers crept in front 63-56 behind their shot-blocking defense and power inside game.

The referees showed no favoritism was at play when they whistled an arguing Bird for a technical in the third quarter of Game 7 at the Garden. With Parish sidelined with four fouls, Robey came in and did a solid job on Darrly Dawkins, drawing a second offensive foul on the undisciplined big man.

A rare three-point play putback by the 6’1 Cheeks off an Erving transition miss extended Philly’s lead to 67-56. However, Boston responded with a 10-2 spurt to get back in contention.

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 to spark the run. 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 a crescendo as the teams traded haymakers. CBS analyst Kevin Loughery, a long-time standout NBA guard and coach not easily impressed, marveled at the game’s furious intensity. Loughery admitted that the two-minute stretch late in the third period was the most intense he had seen in a long time.

Bird converted two charity stripers as Erving went to the bench with his fourth foul. Southpaw Steve 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 at 75 on an offensive rebound lay-in with 11:15 left to play. It was the first time the game had been tied since 13-13. Like Rocky Balboa, Boston just kept coming, despite (or perhaps in part because of) being behind most of the time. Apollo Creed’s manager wanted no part of a rematch with Rocky in the 1979 film Rocky II, telling Creed that he had hit the man with everything he had - “yet the man just kept coming.”

Life imitated art as that description aptly fit Bird and Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals.

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 finger roll by Dr. J bounced around and spun in to tie it at 79-all. Parish subbed out with five fouls and McHale split two free throws.

As Cheeks drove the left side and tried to scoop a right-handed layup past the long-armed McHale, Kevin soared high and straight in the air to reject Mo’s drive cleanly (the photo of the block graced the cover of the May 15, 1981 issue of Sports Illustrated).

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

But McHale was called for a foul. As Loughery pointed out, the 6’1 Cheeks wisely jumped into McHale to create contact and draw the foul on the rookie. The speedy 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 it 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 lay-in for an 89-82 Sixer margin with under six minutes left to play.

No one would suspect that it would be the last 76er basket of the game, series, and season.

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.

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 an anguished Cunningham to call timeout as he saw their lead dwindle to a single basket.

Parish rejected a Dawkins finger roll when Darryl foolishly brought the ball to him on the left side of the rim and tried to finesse a right-handed flip shot past the Chief. He was not fooled.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics

The Celtics sprinted out on a break, but a tying lay-in 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 hard dunk, Caldwell Jones came over to 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 career.

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 court, recovered quickly and forced him to miss a 14-footer with a lunging effort.

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 an extraordinary defensive possession. Bird has almost single-handedly stopped the long possession, showing he was a much better defender than given credit for.

Parish shot an air ball off the left baseline, but two panicked Sixers bobbled the rebound out of bounds with 1:39 to go. The pressure was getting to the 76ers, who appeared to be freezing up as The Garden crowd roared constantly.

Given another chance to take the lead, Boston let it slip away when Archibald left a 21-footer short. This time 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 heavy traffic.

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

It seemed a lot like the final seconds of Game 5.

Seizing the moment, Larry pulled up just past the left elbow and banked in a 14-footer over Hollins. His rare banker capped an uber-clutch 9-0 flurry that put Boston ahead 91-89 with 1:03 to go in Game 7.

The Garden crowd went wild. Ford leaped and waved his towel on the bench. Bird received congratulatory handshakes 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 mid-range pull-up shot, a lost art today.

Boston then double-teamed Erving on the right wing, and Dr. J threw a careless cross court pass that Carr alertly stole with under 50 ticks to go. But the Celtics inexplicably got careless with the ball near mid court while trying to run clock. Hollins cleverly poked the ball away from behind against Henderson, and it went right to Cheeks with 33 seconds left. The Sixer speedster raced in for a potential tying basket on a three-on-two fast 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 bad headache, laid on the floor a while to gather himself.

When he went to the line, Cheeks 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 briefly got his hand on a clinching rebound but lost it as Caldwell Jones grabbed his arm. Yet the refs were not going to call a foul in that situation.

Bobby Jones chased down the defensive rebound 80 feet from the basket and smartly called timeout. Just ONE single second remained on the clock and the series, to give the 76ers one final chance.

After leading for most of the last three games, including double-digit advantages each time, the snakebitten Sixers had lost every time. Yet they still had one final chance to reverse all the late-game negative momentum and advance to the Finals, where they would be huge favorites over the Rockets.

With the ball advanced to half court, Cunningham drew up an alley-oop lob play for Erving. But Bobby Jones was being harassed severely by Bird on the left sideline near half court 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. The ball took an unpredictable bounce back toward the Boston bench as Erving looked on helplessly.

Instead of grabbing the loose ball, Maxwell batted it toward the back court as time expired and jubilant fans began to spill onto the ancient court.

A rarely emotional 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 fiercest 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 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 field goals than anyone else in the series.

Erving topped the Sixers with 19.9 ppg, while Toney averaged 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 in the series.

Each team sank just ONE three-pointer over the entire series, by Bird and Toney. Amazing how differently the game was played then in just the second year the three-pointer was in the NBA rulebook.

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 rugged 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 years later in the NBA TV special celebrating Bird’s 50th birthday regarding 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 wizardry.

Ultimately, to cap off the greatest series ever, Bird and Boston got the final basket and the last laugh to avenge the playoff loss to the rival 76ers that had bitterly ended his splendid rookie season the previous spring.

Fittingly, his clutch bank shot propelled the Celtics on to the Finals - and the first championship of his career at any level.

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

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