The History of The Sixers vs. Celtics Rivalry
It’s a rivalry that has spanned decades between the two East Coast teams. Philadelphia’s own 76ers have played many contentious games with the Boston Celtics during the Eastern Conference playoffs over the years. But it was particularly in the 1980s when forwards Julius Erving(aka Dr. J) and Larry Birdwould go head to head in matches that shaped their careers and each of their teams.
Dr. J vs. Larry Bird
Although Larry Bird had a longer and much more famous (or infamous, depending on your opinion) rivalry with Magic Johnson, the competition between the Sixers star and the essential Celtics player went down in history during the early 80s. These matches even inspired a video game based on their plays, called Julius Erving-Larry Bird One-on-One.
Both players made crucial, and often last-minute, plays for their teams. Bird played alongside three hall-of-famers on the Celtics, whereas Erving, who was a few years older, played off the classic Philly image of the beloved underdogs. Bird was known for watching opponents closely and having an uncanny ability to predict their moves accurately. This was an indispensable tool for the Celtics, as Bird could lead the charge no matter which way the game was going. Dr. J was known for his well-rounded ball skills that strengthened his teammates’ plays. He would steadfastly guard the opposition while seemingly effortlessly sending the ball to his teammates. In addition to his defensive tactics and abilities, Dr. J is one of the greatest dunkers of all time.
The 80s Playoffs
In 1980, the Celtics were making a serious comeback with 61 wins in the regular season – especially when you compare that to their 29 wins in 1979. While playing the Sixers in Boston, Philly scored the critical final two points to beat the Celtics 99-97. Even with their home court advantage, Boston couldn’t outdo Philly in 1980.
The 1981 playoffs, however, were a different story. At Boston Garden, both teams were fumbling and unable to take full control of the game’s direction. Erving was the only player who was managing to score consistently, making 10 of the team’s 15 points in the fourth quarter. Bird broke the tie in the last minute of the game, with a final score of 91-90 and won the series 4-3. Throughout the season, the two teams were dead even: both teams won 62 games and ended their regular season matchup 3-3. One integral play ended the even rankings and put the Celtics above the Sixers.
In 1982, the two teams met again for the playoffs. The outcome was looking like the 1981 series that broke diehard Sixers fans’ hearts and left them cringing into the next season. But, the underdogs of this match were able to turn it around. Shooting guard Andrew Toney, who had already earned the nickname “Boston Strangler”, annihilated the scoreboard with Dr. J following closely behind. Leaving the previous year behind them, they took the win with a landslide 120-106 victory. This was only the second time the Celtics were defeated on their own court in a Game 7.
By 1985, a new era was dawning for the two teams. Andrew Toney was leading the Sixers along with Maurice Cheeks and Moses Malone. New player Charles Barkley was already rising to Sixers stardom. Larry Bird was leading the Celtics and was the league’s MVP for the second year in a row. But, the teams did not face each other in the playoffs, and hit pause on their rivalry for almost 20 years.
Fast Forward to 2018…
The Celtics saw more success with making it to the Eastern Conference finals in the 80s. Team shifts in the Sixers contributed to a lapse in conference matches for the Philly squad. It took a turn of a century for them to face each other in the ECF again. In 2002, they played each other in the first round, and played against each other in the semi-finals in 2012.
Needless to say, the anticipation surrounding the 2018 finals is intense. All eyes are on the two teams for games to pick up on legendary matches that made basketball history more than 30 years ago. Game 1 on April 30 saw trash talking from Boston fans, and defensive plays that, as Sixers players admitted, were disappointing considering their usual defensive track record. Their defeat of the Miami heat in the first round and a long break may have made the team a little rusty, and the Celtics offense was able to pinpoint weaknesses in the Sixers’ interior defense. The Celtics beat the Sixers 117-101.
So now it’s one match down, possibly six more to go. Will the Sixers be able to make a comeback in the upcoming rounds? Will they be able to strengthen their weaknesses already exploited by the Celtics? We’ll give you the breakdown of their Celtics playoff matches after game 4 on Monday May 7.
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