I Watched Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals

The Celtics and Sixers fight to the finish.


One of the oldest and best rivalries in the NBA is between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. Hailing from the same division, these two teams have tangled often throughout NBA history, and they’ve both featured some of the game’s best. In the 1960s, it was Russell and Wilt going to battle against one another for these two teams. The rivalry cooled a bit in the 1970s, but it sprung back to life to kick off the 1980s. The Celtics had fallen on tough times, but with the addition of Larry Bird, they were back in the Playoff mix. In Bird’s rookie season, the Celtics faced the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals, falling 4-1. The following season, both teams finished 62-20, and once again found themselves pitted against each other in the Conference Finals.

Once again, the Celtics were facing the prospect of a five game defeat. Down 3-1 in Game 5, they pulled off a 111-109 victory to stay alive at the Boston Garden. Game 6 was down at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, and once again, the Celtics eked out a two point victory, forcing a Game 7 back up in Boston. It doesn’t get much better than a Game 7, especially when it’s in a legendary place like the Boston Garden, and especially when it features two bitter rivals, so let’s not waste any more time here (aside from the time we’re already wasting by watching a 36 year old basketball game).

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to bedlam in Boston Garden!” – Dick Stockton

Stockton will be our play-by-play announcer today, and he’s joined by former player, and coach, Kevin Loughery. Stockton reminds us of the Celtics close victories, and notes that only three teams had ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit at that point. Loughery isn’t ready to give this game to the Celtics just because they’re at home, as he says the Sixers are more than capable of pulling this one out on the road. In fact, they won Game 1 in Boston Garden, and now, they’re looking to finish off the series with another win in hostile territory. With that in mind, let’s check the starting lineups. For the visiting Philadelphia 76ers..

F – Julius Erving (24.6 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists)
F – Caldwell Jones (7.2 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 assists)
C – Darryl Dawkins (14 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists)
G – Lionel Hollins (9.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists)
G – Maurice Cheeks (9.4 points, 3 rebounds, 6.9 assists)

Dick Stockton informs us that Maurice Cheeks has been combating headaches, so that’s something to keep an eye on here in Game 7. And now, the starters for the Boston Celtics…

F – Cedric Maxwell (15.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists)
F – Larry Bird (21.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists)
C – Robert Parish (18.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists)
G – Tiny Archibald (13.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 7.7 assists)
G – Chris Ford (8.9 points, 2 rebounds, 3.6 assists)

Seems that Tiny Archibald is dealing with some ankle issues, so we’ll have a matchup of potentially limited starting point guards.

First Quarter

The game got off to a grimy start, with both teams coming out with some heightened defensive intensity. Every missed shot would bring at least two players from each team crashing the boards, and on several occasions, someone would find themselves knocked to the floor. The refs are letting them play, however, and the sense of urgency is palpable. The Sixers were able to break through the Celtics defense for a stretch, getting some easy hoops at the rim and opening up a 31-22 lead. Boston’s offensive rebounding kept them close, and they scored the last couple baskets of the quarter. As a Celtics fan here in 2017, seeing all of this great rebounding from my favorite team is nearly enough to bring tears to my eyes. It’s been a great, rugged start to the game. Hopefully the intensity only increases as we continue on. Dick Stockton promises, “It’s just the start, my friends, of what should be a thriller!”

Other first quarter highlights

– Celtics legend John Havlicek and his lovely wife Beth are watching the game from the stands.

– Early in the game, Boston’s Tiny Archibald got tied up, hit the floor, somehow stayed in control of the ball, got it away from two Philadelphia defenders, was able to stand back up without traveling, then calmly knocked down a jumper as the two defenders backed off.

– Cedric Maxwell had ten points in the quarter, matched by Philly’s Darryl Dawkins to lead their teams in scoring.

– Dick Stockton keeps calling Maxwell “Cornbread Maxwell”. Cornbread was his nickname, but he’s also not the biggest fan of it, so we’re going to stick with Cedric here on The Bonus, or possibly “Max”.

– One of those three previous teams to come back from a 3-1 series deficit was the 1968 Celtics against the Sixers. Philadelphia coach Billy Cunningham was a player for the Sixers back then, but he was unable to help them in that series due to an injury. Here, he’s hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.

End of first quarter: Sixers 31, Celtics 26


Second Quarter

The quarter begins with Dick Stockton telling us that the Sixers have owned the second quarter throughout the series, outscoring the Celtics by 20 overall. For awhile, it did look like it’d be more of the same, with the Sixers extending their lead up to 47-36. However, the Celtics were able to turn up their defense, and chip away. Because of this, we’ve still got a five point game here at halftime.

Other second quarter highlights

– Spotted in the stands were NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.

– To give you an idea of how great these teams are, here’s some players that are coming off the bench for these two squads: Kevin McHale, Andrew Toney, Gerald Henderson and Bobby Jones.

Halftime: Sixers 53, Celtics 48


Before the third quarter starts, we’re shown some first half statistics. I’m surprised to see that the Sixers are shooting 63%. It’s seemed like the Celtics defense has been much better than that. Boston meanwhile is shooting just 40%, which is more in tune with the way this game has felt. Keeping the Celtics close has been their offensive rebounding. They’ve hauled in 11 offensive boards compared to the Sixers five. They’ve also forced ten Philly turnovers, while giving the ball up only five times themselves. They’ve played hard, but if Boston’s going to win, they’re going to need to take it even further. They can’t keep just hanging around while Philadelphia shoots over 60%.

Larry Bird has 12 points for the Celtics so far, but Julius Erving is right with him with 11 for the Sixers. Caldwell Jones, usually known for his defense, leads Philly with 12 points, and Cedric Maxwell matched Bird’s 12 to lead Boston in the first half.

Third Quarter

According to Dick Stockton, the Celtics have owned the third quarter throughout the series, outscoring the Sixers by 30 points. They could use another strong third quarter here. Instead, it was the Sixers pulling away to extend their lead up to 69-58. As they’ve done all game, the Celtics responded, whittling Philadelphia’s lead back down. The physical play only increased, with many the player crashing to the floor or careening into the stands. The refs are letting both teams get away with their physical behavior, and nobody’s flopping. If someone’s on the floor, you can be sure it’s the result of a hard play. They definitely don’t let them play like this anymore. Often, people note that the stars of yesteryear would have a hard time keeping up in today’s game, but I contend that a lot of today’s stars would have a hard time handling the rough play of previous eras.

Other third quarter highlights

– Larry Bird hit a three early in the quarter, and according to Dick Stockton, it was the first three for Boston…of the entire Playoffs. In fact, neither team seems interested with long range shots, opting instead to battle their way into the paint, looking for shots near the rim, or to draw contact for a foul as they barrel towards the hoop. Obviously, this is a major difference to today’s approach.

– There was a minor skirmish at the end of the quarter. As a Bobby Jones shot missed at the buzzer, Boston’s Rick Robey seemed to hit Philadelphia’s Steve Mix in the head as they both went for the rebound. Mix squared off with Robey, and was immediately yanked away by the ref. Robey noticed this, and went after him, with both teams rushing to the scene. No punches were thrown, and everyone ended up sauntering back to their benches. Despite all of the physical play, this is the first hint of an altercation all game. In fact, both teams seem to have a lot of respect for one another as worthy opponents.

– How much is color commentator Kevin Loughery enjoying this basketball game? So much that he proclaimed that it’s the most he’s enjoyed a game that he hasn’t been personally involved in.

End of third quarter: Sixers 75, Celtics 71


As the fourth quarter gets underway, let’s take a look at who’s in foul trouble. Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins each have four fouls for the Sixers, while Robert Parish has committed four for the Celtics. All three of those players are important to their teams. Hopefully they can keep themselves on the floor as we head down the stretch of this excellent ball game.

Fourth Quarter

The Celtics finally break through the Philadelphia lead to start off the final quarter, scoring the first six points. Robert Parish tied the game at 75 after grabbing an offensive rebound and putting the ball through the hoop. Tiny Archibald brought the ball down the court on the following possession and hit a jumper, giving the Celtics their first lead of the second half. Dick Stockton doesn’t bother telling us how much time is left on the clock, so…

Early fourth quarter: Celtics 77, Sixers 75

As the game continues down the stretch, the Sixers have recovered from their rough start to the quarter to retake the lead. A Bobby Jones jumper sends us into a time out, but once again, Dick Stockton is no help on how much time is left in the game, but luckily, one of the scoreboards can be seen in the background.

8:01 remaining: Sixers 83, Celtics 80

Taking another look at who’s in foul trouble, Robert Parish and Darryl Dawkins are now up to five fouls apiece and not in the game as we come back from the time out. Julius Erving still has four fouls for the Sixers.

The Celtics are having a tough time putting the ball in the basket, and players are continuing to hit the floor. After Larry Bird missed a shot at close range, he and another Celtic hit the floor, leading to a fastbreak for the Sixers, punctuated by a Julius Erving dunk. Erving followed that up by hitting a jumper, prompting the Celtics to use their 20 second time out to try and stop the momentum.

6:18 remaining: Sixers 87, Celtics 80

This is the best series I’ve seen in many, many years.” – Kevin Loughery.

Once again, just as it seems the Sixers are pulling away, the Celtics get themselves right back in it. Down 89-82, free throws from Cedric Maxwell and Tiny Archibald cut the Sixers lead to 89-85. While Boston’s defense keeps the Sixers off the board, Robert Parish gets the Celtics even closer with a turnaround jumper.

3:41 remaining: Sixers 89, Celtics 87

Both teams have really dug in defensively. The Celtics have forced several Sixers turnovers, but they haven’t been able to capitalize themselves. Robert Parish and Darryl Dawkins, despite being one foul away from fouling out, continue to jostle for position with one another, while the refs seem content to let both teams settle this one on their own. The only points since the last time out have come courtesy of a couple of Larry Bird free throws, as the defense of both teams has been swallowing everything else up.

1:39 remaining: Sixers 89, Celtics 89

The Sixers have a chance to break the tie. Julius Erving is open just inside the three point line along the baseline, but he sends the ball inside to Darryl Dawkins, who is immediately double teamed. He powers his way towards the hoop, but his shot is misses. Larry Bird grabs the rebound, takes it down the court himself, pulls up for a midrange jumper, and banks it home! The Sixers call a time out, having scored just two points since midway through the quarter. Meanwhile, Boston’s scored eight straight points to retake the lead.

1:03 remaining: Celtics 91, Sixers 89

Seems as though Tiny Archibald somehow got injured on the previous play. He remains on the bench as play resumes, leaving the Celtics without their starting point guard as we enter the final minute of regulation. The Sixers can’t take advantage however, as a Julius Erving pass is picked off by ML Carr with 47 seconds on the clock. On the other end of the court, Lionel Hollins pokes the ball away from Gerald Henderson. Maurice Cheeks scoops it up, barrels down the court at full speed and goes up for a layup, plowing over Gerald Henderson and drawing a foul as he’s sent flying into the stands beyond the baseline. With 29 seconds on the clock, Cheeks is slow to get up as his concerned team trainer kneels by him on the floor behind the hoop. Cheeks finally gets up and heads to the free throw line.

The first free throw hits the front of the rim and bounces to the floor. He’s good on the second one, however, and the Celtics take the ball hanging on to a 91-90 lead. They take as much time off the clock as they can, and swing the ball over to ML Carr along the baseline. His jumper is no good, but Robert Parish gets a hand on it. He can’t control it, however, and Bobby Jones grabs it, takes a dribble, and calls time out with a mere second left on the clock!

0:01 remaining: Celtics 91, Sixers 90

During the time out, we get to listen into the Sixers huddle. Here’s what coach Billy Cunningham has to say…

Okay, now Bobby, I want you to pay attention. I want Doc here, Bobby here, no, let’s have, uhh, yeah, Bobby, you’re the man. Okay, I have Lionel here. I have…Andrew here. Andrew, what I’m looking for is the lob. Look for the lob, and Andrew stepping back for the ball. Doc, I want Darryl setting a screen like this, right there, come from here, to this spot. Doc, come hard as you can, and try and force them to go top. Look for the lob, Bobby. Look for the lob right here. Okay? Now, Andrew, go set a screen. Andrew, set a screen for Lionel. No! Lionel, you set the screen for Andrew, okay? And Doc, right here. Okay, now, I have a 20, Bobby. Now, Darryl, after that, if we don’t have it, you gotta step out.

After all that, Bobby Jones will inbound the ball from midcourt. His lobs the inbound pass towards the hoop, and it hits the rim! It goes sailing away as the clock expires! Larry Bird starts hopping up and down by the foul line, his hands on top of his head. Fans quickly flood the court, and the Celtics hold on to advance to the 1981 NBA Finals.

Tremendous emotion! A great series with great players! You couldn’t possibly ask more from basketball! Now Houston’s waiting for Boston, that’ll also be a great series!” – Kevin Loughery.

Final Score: Celtics 91, Sixers 90


Larry Bird led the Celtics with 23 points, and what turned out to be the game winning shot, his first signature moment in a career full of them. Julius Erving matched Bird with 23 points, but the Sixers couldn’t put the game away down the stretch, and the Celtics snuck through for a dramatic victory, capping off an incredible comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. Their last three victories to close out the series came by a combined five points.

This has to be one of the most physical games I’ve ever watched. If they tried to play like this today, everyone would have fouled out by halftime. It was exactly what a Game 7 should be. The Celtics would go on to win the championship against the Houston Rockets for their first title of the Bird era. The next season, these two teams would find each other in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight season, and we might just have to pay that series a visit someday as well.

Author: tomeagher

Watching too much basketball.

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