The Box Score is a series in which we select one impressive box score, do all sorts of historical research, watch the game if we can find it, and write about it. It has a complementary podcast called – you got it – The Box Score Show.
It’s hard to fathom just how close the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics were in the 1980-81 season.
Longtime rivals, the 76ers and Celtics had squared off in 14 postseason series prior to 1981, counting the Philadelphia franchise’s time as the Syracuse Nationals. In the 1960s, with Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer on the Philly side and Bill Russell and John Havlicek leading the Celtics, the teams met in four consecutive Eastern Division Finals, with the winner of each series going on to win the title.
In the ’80-81 season, it culminated with Dick Stockton and Kevin Loughery signing on for CBS with Stockton essentially yelling over the crowd, “And good afternoon, and welcome to bedlam in Boston Garden. Standing ovation as the Celtics are about to be introduced. They have come from behind in dramatic fashion in the last two games to force this deciding game, and keep in mind, only three teams in the history of the league have come from a 3-1 deficit to win.”
There were down years for both franchises in the 1970s, but the arrival of Julius Erving in Philadelphia in 1976 and Larry Bird in Boston three years after vaulted both teams back to elite levels. Between 1979-80 and ’84-85, the Celtics had an NBA-best .746 winning percentage in the regular season, with the 76ers just behind them at .720. Only one other team was over .700 in that stretch – the Los Angeles Lakers at .701. From 1980 through 1988, those were the only three teams to win championships.
The first Erving-Bird playoff showdown occurred in the spring of 1980, Bird’s rookie season. It was the Eastern Conference finals – yet another matchup between the teams with a berth in the Finals at stake. With Erving putting in 25.0 points per game to Bird’s 22.2, Philadelphia scored a surprisingly easy 4-1 series victory. The 76ers would fall in the championship series to the Lakers and the league’s other prize rookie, Magic Johnson.
With the Celtics adding two more future Hall of Famers to the frontcourt in Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, and Philadelphia drafting sharpshooter Andrew Toney to the backcourt, both teams looked to be well-stocked for the ’80-81 campaign. It was the 76ers who started the season in especially impressive fashion, winning 33 of their first 37 games to take a five-game lead over the Celtics through games of December 26. But in both the regular season and in the playoffs, fast starts by Philadelphia would not be enough against Boston.
After a slow start, the Celtics unfurled a spectacular 25-1 stretch in December and January to move percentage points ahead of the 76ers. While both teams were assured of making the postseason, winning the Atlantic Division would be critical. In 1981, NBA division winners received a first-round playoff bye, while the other postseason qualifiers started the playoffs with undesirable best-of-three miniseries. And of course, the division winner would have homecourt advantage should the teams meet in the postseason.
Down the stretch, the gap between Philadelphia and Boston was razor-thin. In the last two weeks of the regular season, the division lead changed hands four times, with neither team pulling ahead by more than one game. The 76ers and Celtics would square off on the final Sunday in Boston – a showdown for the division crown. Philadelphia came in with an irrelevant one-game lead; the Celtics had the tiebreak advantage, so the winner would take the division. And in this game, it was Boston taking control early and holding off a late Philadelphia charge to win, 98-94.
The teams had finished tied in overall record (62-20) and had split six head-to-head meetings – four of them decided by four points or fewer. The Celtics won the division thanks to a superior divisional record, 19-5 to the 76ers’ 15-9. For good measure, the teams also had identical conference records at 42-16.
The significance of Boston’s winning the division can’t be overstated. When the team reconvened 23 days later for their Eastern Conference finals matchup, the Celtics had played only four playoff games (sweeping the Chicago Bulls), while the 76ers had played nine, eking out a one-point Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Bucks following a 2-0 miniseries sweep of the Indiana Pacers. They had one day of rest before beginning the series in Boston, while the Celtics came in following an eight-day hiatus.
One important undertone in the East finals was the assumption by almost all observers that the winner of the series was a lock to win the championship. The Western Conference’s top four seeds – including the defending champion Lakers – were eliminated by the second round, and the West finals matched two teams with sub-.500 regular-season records in the Houston Rockets and Kansas City Kings. Philadelphia-Boston was the de facto championship series.
The rested Celtics had the upper hand early in Game 1, leading by eight after the first quarter. But Philadelphia battled back, riding a 44-16 advantage in bench points. Toney scored a team-high 26 points in 31 minutes in a reserve role, and his two late free throws gave Philadelphia a one-point victory. In the ’80-81 regular season, the Celtics had gone 30-1 in home games which they led after three quarters, and in the postseason between ’80 and ’86, they went 43-3 at venerable Boston Garden when leading through 36 minutes. In Game 1, Philadelphia erased a two-point deficit through three quarters to pull out the 105-104 victory. Bird matched his number with 33 points, the most he would ever score in a home playoff defeat.
Games 2 and 3 were relatively drama-free, both of them double-digit victories for the home teams. Boston led by 19 at halftime in Game 2 and won by that same margin; Philadelphia turned a 15-point halftime margin in Game 3 into a 10-point victory. The 76ers had a 2-1 series edge, with one eye-popping number: Philadelphia’s bench had outscored Boston’s, 147-78 – a difference of 23.0 points per game.
It was another fast start for Philadelphia in Game 4, as the 76ers built a 17-point halftime advantage, holding Bird without a field goal until the late stages of the second quarter. But by the end of the third quarter, the lead was down to three, setting up a taut fourth quarter. The Celtics briefly took a one-point lead before the 76ers reeled off eight straight points to regain control, only to see a Boston seven-point run even the score. In the final seven and a half minutes, the 76ers held Bird without a point and never trailed but could not extended their lead beyond four points. Bobby Jones, who put the clamps on Bird in the late stages, made a leaping steal of a pass on the Celtics’ last possession to preserve a 107-105 victory for the 76ers in front of a raucous Spectrum crowd.
In Bird’s two seasons as a Celtic to that point, the team had suffered only two losing streaks as long as three games – one against the 76ers in the previous year’s East finals, and another in January-February 1981 that included a loss in Philly. A Game 5 loss would be another such streak, and a second straight year that the 76ers had won the Eastern Conference title in Boston Garden.
In Game 5, it was another first half controlled by the 76ers. A 37-point second quarter – the top figure for either team in any quarter in the series – gave the visitors a 59-49 advantage at the break. The third quarter saw Boston surge back to take a five-point lead, but an 8-0 Philadelphia run helped the 76ers to a one-point lead through three. Philadelphia’s advantage grew to 109-103 and when Bird turned the ball over with just over 100 seconds to play, the Celtics were in dire straits. But with Hall of Fame point guard Maurice Cheeks out of the game with severe headaches, the 76ers ran off a series of poor possessions down the stretch. A Tiny Archibald three-point play and a Bird drive closed the gap to a single point, and on the ensuing Celtics possession, M.L. Carr rebounded a Bird miss and was fouled with 20 seconds remaining.
For the seven-game series, Carr averaged all of 5.6 points per game. He played only 10 minutes in Game 5 and did not have a rebound until Bird’s missed runner fell into his hands. It wouldn’t be his last rebound. Carr made both free throws and grabbed Jones’ miss on Philadelphia’s next possession. He made one more free throw to set the final score at Boston 111, Philadelphia 109. An 8-0 spurt by Boston to end the game, in less than 90 seconds. And in a game in which Boston’s bench was again dominated – this time by a 44-19 margin – it was a Celtic reserve who accounted for the decisive points.
Entering Game 6 in Philadelphia, Bird had set foot on the Spectrum floor wearing Celtic Green 10 times, combining regular season and playoffs – and had lost all 10 games. In Bird’s entire 13-season career, it was the longest road losing streak suffered by Boston against any single opponent.
The early returns suggested the streak would continue. This time it was a dominant first quarter for 76ers, good for a 31-18 lead. That expanded to 17 points early in the second period, as Boston managed only 20 points in the game’s first 15 minutes. Bird made just one of his first eight shots – but was 9-for-14 over the rest of the game and finished with 16 rebounds. Over the course of the ’81 playoff, Bird averaged 14.0 boards per game, easily the highest figure in any postseason in his career.
The third quarter featured an ugly incident in which Boston’s Cedric Maxwell tangled with fans under the Philadelphia basket after being shoved into the crowd by the 76ers’ Darryl Dawkins. The game was whistled very tightly the rest of the way, and the Celtics were big winners at the free-throw line, going 32-for-41 to Philadelphia’s 22-for-27. It was Philly by three through three quarters, and leads entering the fourth quarter were a prescription for disaster in the series.
The nail-biting last 10 minutes saw the lead change hands nine times, with neither team pulling ahead by more than three points. Archibald’s free throws with just over two minutes remaining put Boston ahead for good, and a critical Bird jumper hit the rim and near the top of the backboard before dropping. Boston 100, Philadelphia 98 – and for the third time in the series, the team leading after three quarters ended up losing. It would not be the last.
Including Houston’s win over Kansas City in the now-completed West finals, NBA teams with 3-1 leads in best-of-seven series had won 65 of those 68 series heading into Game 7 in Boston on Sunday, May 3, 1981. Conversely, road teams in Games 7’s were 10-37 in NBA history – including the 76ers’ 0-5 mark. Undeterred, Philadelphia took its customary early lead. After six lead changes, Philly took control behind an up-tempo offense and Dawkins’ 10 first-quarter points. The 76ers led by 11 midway through the second quarter and by five at halftime. For just the fourth time in league history, a team led at halftime in six games in the same playoff series. But it wasn’t a comfortable lead. Philly had shot 63% in the first half compared to Boston’s 40. The 76ers were turning the ball over, and the Celtics were dominating the offensive glass.
The lead hovered around seven points for much of the third quarter and stood at four through the end of the period. Entering Game 5, Philadelphia had a 41-1 record in the 1980-81 campaign, regular season and playoffs combined, when leading after three quarters. But after blown leads in Games 5 and 6, this lead hardly felt secure.
With Erving on the bench, Boston scored the first six points of the quarter to take a two-point lead. The run extended to 8-0 – but Philadelphia answered with a 12-1 spurt to reclaim the lead. When Erving followed up his own miss with a layup with just under 5:30 to play, the 76ers held an 89-82 lead. It would be their last field goal. With 2:51 remaining, Bird tied the game with two free throws, his first points in the quarter. Only three more points would be scored.
With just over a minute remaining, Bird grabbed a defensive rebound, sped up court and pulled up from the left wing. His banked-in jumper gave Boston a 91-89 lead. With 29 ticks showing on the Boston Garden clock, Cheeks was fouled and made only one of two free throws. Boston’s last possession took the clock down to one second, and a last-ditch pass by Bobby Jones went errant – turning the tables from Game 4. The final was Boston 91, Philadelphia 90, and the Boston Garden faithful stormed to court.
The game’s energy and environment were nearly unmatchable, but it wasn’t the prettiest Game 7. The Celtics shot 38.2%, though that’s not terribly uncommon for winning teams in such scenarios. Bird and Erving tied for an underwhelming game-high 23 points, which also hasn’t been uncommon in the history of Game 7s. However, all Game 7s but one since 2013 have had a scorer surpass that mark. The exception was San Antonio-Denver in 2019. The 1981 NBA Eastern Conference finals remains the only series in league history in which as many as five games were decided by one or two points. The last three games marked the first time in postseason history that one team, within a single series, won three consecutive games despite trailing at the end of the third quarter. And the total of four games in a series won by teams that trailed entering the fourth quarter has been matched by only two other series all-time.
In somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the Celtics went on to beat Houston in six games, Bird earning his first of three championships. One year later, it was yet another Philly-Boston East finals, and while the games in the 1982 series weren’t nearly as dramatic, the series followed the same script through six games, as the 76ers dropped Games 5 and 6 after leading, 3-1. This time, Game 7 in Boston brought redemption for Philadelphia: a decisive, 120-106 victory over the defending champs.
The games in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals were scintillating, and the play-by-play was handled expertly by CBS’ Stockton. This spring, after more than half a century behind the microphone, Stockton announced his retirement from the industry.
This was the fourth time a team had come back from a 3-1 deficit, but with the NBA another 40 years into its history and an expanded playoff format, it’s now happened 13 times. The Denver Nuggets did it twice in 2020. Only four of those teams have gone on to win the title with the Celtics occupying two of those spots.
Design by Matt Sisneros. Animations by Paul Connors. Research support from Evan Boyd.