Sixers-Celtics: An Epic Rivalry Renewed

May 3, 2018

Sixers-Celtics. Philly-Boston. Roll those syllables off your tongue a few times, and try not to smile. For the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers boast the longest post-season rivalry in NBA history. Nineteen times these iconic franchises have waged “basketball battle”, as the late great Johnny Most used to say from high above courtside, and they are at it again for the 20thinstallment.

Boston will try to go up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series Thursday night at TD Garden after opening the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a 117-101 rout on Monday. The Celtics have won 54 of the 100 post-season games and 12 of the 19 post-season series since it all started in 1953, when the Sixers franchise called Syracuse home and was known as the Nationals. The NBA was much smaller in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which meant teams played each other frequently, giving rise to intense rivalries like the Celtics and Sixers and the Celtics and Knicks. 

The playoffs were often passion plays, not mere basketball games, with heroes we loved and villains we despised.

Current fans should remember the most recent Celtics-Sixers encounters. Boston won the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals in seven games behind the Second Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Celtics won the 2002 first-round matchup in five games. 

Middle-aged hoop fans revel in telling stories of the epic struggles in the 1980s. Four times in six seasons the Celtics and 76ers played for the Eastern Conference title. Philly took the 1980 series in five games.  That was Larry Bird’s rookie campaign. In 1981 Boston mounted an unforgettable rally from a 3-1 deficit and won Game 7 before a raucous crowd in Boston Garden. That was Kevin McHale’s rookie season. The Sixers avoided another collapse in 1982 and prevailed in seven games, the finale a 120-106 rout in Boston Garden. In the waning moments Celtics fans showed their respect for the second team to beat Boston in a Game 7 on the parquet by chanting “Beat LA!” In 1985, the Celtics, nearing the peak of the original Big Three, beat the aging and injured Sixers in five games.

That era starred Bird, McHale and Robert Parish, the original Big Three, plus Cedric Maxwell, Tiny Archibald, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and Chris Ford for the Celtics and Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Charles Barkley and Andrew Toney for the Sixers. So bitter was the rivalry that in the 1981 playoffs Maxwell charged into the stands at the Spectrum and went after a heckler.

Senior citizens in Celtics Nation will insist that nothing in basketball matches the Celtics-Sixers rivalry of the 1960s. Not even the 12 Celtics-Lakers matchups over the decades. Six times from 1961 to 1969 the Celtics and 76ers met in the playoffs, the first five in the Eastern Conference Finals. The greatest single play in the Celtics long and storied history occurred in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals.  Five seconds remaining. Celtics 110, Sixers 109. A capacity crowd of 13,909 ready to storm the court at Boston Garden. Bill Russell attempts to put the ball in play, but his inbounds pass hits the wire supporting the backboard. Philly ball. After a timeout, Hal Greer passes out deep to Chet Walker and  “Havlicek steals it  . . . over to Sam Jones . . . Havlicek stole the ball . . . It’s all over . . . It’s all over!” Most screamed, a call that became an instant classic.

Boston won five of those six showdowns, two in seven games. The only loss occurred in 1967, when Philadelphia won in five games and beat the San Francisco Warriors for its first title. 

Those were the Celtics of Hall of Famers Russell, Jones, Havlicek, K.C. Jones, and Tom Heinsohn, and stellar role players Tom Sanders, Don Nelson and Larry Siegfried. And the 76ers of Hall of Famers Chamberlain, Greer, Walker and Billy Cunningham plus Lucious Jackson and Wali Jones. No wonder their rivalry was epic.

If anybody remembers the long-gone early days – Syracuse versus Boston – please contact me.  The Nationals and Celtics met every post-season from 1953 to 1957 and again in 1959. They also played in 1961, two years before Syracuse moved to Philadelphia, filling the void left when the Philadelphia Warriors moved to San Francisco. Boston won the first series, Syracuse the next three. The Celtics won in 1957 en route to their first NBA championship and again in 1959, when they won their second title.

Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Easy Ed McCauley, Bill Sharman and Frank Ramsey starred for those Celtics. Dolph Schayes, a Hall of Famer, and Paul Seymour led the Nationals.

Celtics and Sixers. With young stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, plus Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, for the Celtics and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for the Sixers, could this rivalry experience a renaissance? Here’s hoping.