The NBA Corner: A Rivalry Renewed
Last night, the Boston Celtics held off the Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers completed their stunning upset of the injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls, sending both teams to the second round to face one another.
It’s like the early ‘80s all over again.
There was a time when Philly vs. Boston was one of the most contentious rivalries in sports. From 1980 – 1985, the Sixers and Celtics met in the Eastern Conference Finals four times, with each team winning twice. While the Los Angeles Lakers dominated out west, winning the conference eight times in ten years from 1980 – 1989, the east was far more competitive and, more often than not, the road to the NBA Finals ran through either the Spectrum or Boston Garden. Things sometimes got heated.
Although a surprise semifinal matchup for the right to play the vaunted Miami Heat is not the same as meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals four times in six years, fans in both Boston and Philly know how much the rivalry meant to each franchise, as well as to the league itself. Those pre-Michael Jordan years were the foundation for what Jordan elevated in his career, a fact that he acknowledges himself.
While the Sixers only won the chip once during that decade – 1983’s Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ run with Moses Malone – they played in the Finals three times in the ‘80s. Interestingly enough, the year that they won they didn’t play the C’s for the right to meet the Lakers. Instead, they had to beat Alice Cooper’s favorite team, the Milwaukee Bucks, who had knocked Boston out in the semifinals.
On the other hand, Larry Bird and company were a dynasty during the ‘80s, winning three titles and making a total of five trips to the Finals. In retrospect, it seems like the Celtics and the Lakers played each other in the Finals every year, but they actually only met three times. Boston and Philly played more often in the playoffs and while the C’s won more titles overall, they were only 2 – 2 versus the Sixers in those series because of one man: Andrew Toney. One of the most overlooked players of the era, Toney decimated the Celtics, so much so that they gave him one of the greatest nicknames in sports history: The Boston Strangler.
In the late ‘80s, after the death of Len Bias altered Boston’s future, Bird’s body began to break down and Charles Barkley never had enough talent around him to make a serious title run with the Sixers. Detroit and, ultimately, Chicago, would seize control of the conference from the Sixers and Celtics. Since then, the two teams have not been in real competition with one another. Eleven years ago, when Allen Iverson was dragging the Sixers to the Finals, Boston missed the playoffs. Conversely, when the Celtics won the title in 2008, the Sixers were bounced in the first round. Two years later, when Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce were a game away from winning a second ring in three years, Philly didn’t even qualify for the playoffs.The days of Kevin McHale’s awkwardly effective post game, Andrew Toney’s heroics, and Dr. J and Larry Bird choking each other were long gone.
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and a variety of other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.