That the Boston Celtics must now go on to play something called pro basketball's championship series almost seems criminal. After all, you don't ask a marathon runner to take an extra five miles for good measure. But that's exactly what Boston's battle with Houston will amount to in the eyes of basketball fans, who just witnessed the Celtics survive a "War of the Worlds" seven-game series with Philadelphia that surely rates as one of the best in history.
Even on paper it had the makings of a classic, pitting, as it did, the two best teams in the National Basketball Association, a fact borne out by their identical best-in-the-league regular season records of 62-20. That mark included a split of six head-to-head confrontations. Throw in the fact that both Boston and Philadelphia are crammed with zealous fans, many bred on the titanic Celtic-76er, Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain playoff struggles of the 1960 s, and something special was almost guranteed to happen.
It did. Five of the seven games were decided by a basket or less, with Sunday's windup ending fittingly with a single point wedged between the NBA's fiercest rivals: Boston 91, Philadelphia 90. For the 76ers, it was an excruciating finale --Boston off the hook. There really was no consolation in the fact that after 13 games (regular season contests included) a mere point separated the winner from the loser.
That one point has propelled Boston into a best-of-seven championship series that everyone expects to be a Celtics' coronation party. Boston's players, no doubt, would just as soon forego what many consider the formality of playing Houston, a team which arrived in the post-season with a losing record.
CBS certainly hasn't put much faith in the championship series as high entertainment. The network will tape tonight's opening game in Boston, then show it later in the evening rather than disrupt regular programming. Such a decision would be unthinkable if the event were the World Series, but NBA basketball obviously doesn't have an audience consistently large enough to merit regualr prime-time coverage.
The Celtic-76er Eastern Conference final was worthy of preempting last Friday night's regularly scheduled fare. The same is not anticipated of the Houston-Boston series, which could be a terrible anticlimax to the just completed "real NBA championship."
The Rockets, however, could enliven the proceedings with a stronger-than-expected showing. For despite a poor regular season, they have obviously jelled during pro basketball's protracted playoffs. Having never come this far before, they have nothing to lose in playing a team that already has a league-leading 13 championship banners hanging in the Boston Garden.
Besides that, Houston polished off the Kansas City Kings in the Western Conference finals nearly a week ago. Not only are the Rockets well rested, they've had an opportunity to scout Boston on TV.
Boston, on the other hand, hardly gets a chance to catch its breath after an incredibly physical series, which was as emotionally draining as any in recent memory.
After the Celtics erased a 17-point deficit in Game 6 to send the series back to Boston with a 100-98 victory, Celtic guard M. L. Carr called the preceding 48 minutes "the most intense game I've ever, ever played in. If the seventh game is just a continuation of what happend in the sixth game, the fans will get their money's worth."
Game 7 was certainly worth the price of admission and then some, with Boston's 27th consecutive sell-out crowd reaching ever-higher decibel levels during the last frantic minutes. Consistent with the pattern established earlier in the series, the Celtics had to dig their way out of a hole a shovelful at a time.
In this case, they whittled away Philadelphia's 11-point lead only to let the 76ers, juiced up by Julius Erving, rebuild a seven-point margin late in the game. Whatever momentum Philadelphia had, though, quickly evaporated as the Celtics reached within themselves for an inspired defensive effort, limiting the 76ers to a Maurice Cheeks free throw during the last five minutes.
Such efforts had been the key to Boston's success all season long (they are 25-0 in games in which their opponents have scored fewer than 100 points).
Cedric Maxwell was certainly instrumental throughout the series in keeping Erving from exploding offensively. "This team needed a defensive forward and Max has become that man," said Coach Bill Fitch.
The whole team played as though it were a throwback to the days of Russel, Bob Cousy, K. C. Jones, and John Havlicek. The club played with something called "Celtic pride," once made famous by the old Celtic dynasty and still lingering in such players as Larry Bird, Nate Archibald, Robert Parish, and Chris Ford.
Bird is the real valedictorian of this Celtic class, and in many ways reminds fans of Havlicek with his constant running, reckless drives to the basket, and ability to come up with the big play in the clutch. To no one's surprise, it was Bird who ultimately scored the winning basket in Game 7 with a 15-foot banked jump shot with 1:07 left.
When the horn sounded he had logged more time scrambling for loose balls and squeezed between crashing bodies jumping for rebounds than anyone else. In only his sophomore year, he had become the spirit of the new, old-breed Celtics, quite probably the next league champions.