There’s something missing from this rendition of what -- before Bird and Magic -- was the most intense rivalry in basketball.
As we look ahead to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Celtics and Sixers, one question comes to mind: Where’s the hate?
Maybe it’s the ultimate class and respect between the two coaches. Doc Rivers and Doug Collins have praised each other during this series, tipping their hats to the moves each team has made. They handed out "rally hankies" in Philadelphia that read, "The classic rivalry continues … Celtics vs. 76ers 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals." But does it really? They'll be great souvenirs for my two daughters, but "classic" might be a real stretch.
“They fight us hard. They’re an incredibly strong-willed team. They’re not going away easy,” Paul Pierce said after the Sixers beat the Celtics, 82-75, in Game 6 Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
Maybe it’s that all of the proven superstars in this series are on one team. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo are all bigger names than Philly’s biggest and only one -- Andre Iguodala.
And maybe it’s just that these two teams are battling it out for the chance to be routinely dispatched by the Heat in the Eastern finals.
The Celtics and Sixers, at one point in time, were the Hatfields and McCoys. They were geographically close and represented the passion of East Coast basketball.
There will be no one in the building Saturday night who remembers this more than Tommy Heinsohn.
“I know Tommy hates the Sixers,” Rivers said with a laugh, while not joking before this seven-game series began. “On the [team charter] plane, he talks about how he wants to beat them more than any other team.”
There’s good reason for that.
Heinsohn would often get heckled unmercifully by the Philadelphia faithful, and one obnoxious courtside fan in particular during the days of the old Philadelphia Civic Center, the place the Sixers called home before the Spectrum.
In the press, Heinsohn would always hear how great Wilt Chamberlain was, and how he was a better and more dominant all-around player than Bill Russell. Yet all Russell, Heinsohn and the Celtics did was win championships, with the lone exception of 1967, when the Sixers were utterly unstoppable in winning the NBA title. Eleven titles in 13 years for the C's while Philly won exactly one.
The Sixers had some great teams but the Celtics always found a way to be better.
Fast forward to 1980. A rookie out of Indiana State led the Celtics to a 61-21 record and the Atlantic Division crown. But after sweeping the Rockets in the first round, Larry Bird and the Celtics were disposed of by the 76ers in five games, losing twice on the parquet to Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, Maurice Cheeks and company.
The next season featured one of the great comebacks and one of the biggest chokes in playoff history.
The Sixers were on the verge of eliminating the Celtics again as Philly went up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals. The Sixers lost in Boston, blowing a six-point lead in the final 90 seconds. Then, in a game shown on tape delay across the East Coast at 11:30 on Friday night, the Celtics, with the help of Cedric Maxwell and Bird, erased a 17-point Sixers lead to a win in Philadelphia. Game 7 was on a Sunday at the Garden. Philly let a fourth-quarter lead slip away and lost 91-90, a game that to this day sticks in the craw of every Sixers fan.
I remember every vivid detail watching the game on TV in Cincinnati on May 3, 1981. I remember how the Sixers jumped out to a 31-26 lead after one and led 53-48 at half. I remember how the Sixers were leading 75-71 going into the fourth quarter. I remember how the Sixers led by seven with 4:34 left. I remember Bird’s midrange bank shot with 63 seconds left. I recall Maurice Cheeks getting fouled hard and making only one of his two free throws, making it 91-90, Boston, with 29 seconds left.
And I remember how Bird took over in the fourth, finishing with 23 points as the Celtics took command late.
I remember Bobby Jones inbounding the ball with one tick left on the clock from center court with crazy fans huddled around him waiting to rush the court. He desperately looked for Erving only to have the ball go off the top of the backboard and then off Maxwell's hand as time ran out on Philly’s dreams.
The Celtics would beat Moses Malone and the Rockets in six games in the finals, a series during which every single Sixers fan who watched felt sick. That’s because they knew full well that if they had gotten past the Celtics, they would be raising the trophy, not Red (and his cigar), Bill Fitch, Bird and Max.
That disastrous two-week stretch rekindled a famous promise made by the Sixers to their faithful after they blew a 2-0 lead in the 1977 NBA finals -- “We owe you one.”
In 1982, a remarkable repeat appeared to be taking place. The Sixers led the Celtics, 3-1, again in the Eastern finals. And again, the Sixers lost Game 5 in Boston and Game 6 in Philadelphia. The excruciating pain in Philadelphia was recurring.
“I was doing the game on Philadelphia radio at the time and was sitting courtside. I remember the Celtics brought out all the ‘Garden Ghosts’ and a lot of them were behind the Celtics bench,” current Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “It was pretty intimidating.”
But a funny thing happened. These Sixers, led by an up-and-coming shooting sensation by the name of Andrew Toney, didn’t fold. “The Boston Strangler” led the Sixers to a 120-106 win in Game 7. Still, the Sixers lost to the Lakers in six games in the NBA finals.
After finally winning the title in ’83, the Sixers spit the bit in the ’84 playoffs in five shocking games to the Nets.
That fall would mark the last great “rivalry” moment in the series between these two great franchises. The Sixers came into the Garden on Nov. 9, 1984, with a perfect 5-0 record. The Celtics were 4-0.
Larry Bird and Dr. J were two of the biggest stars. But the Garden parquet wasn't big enough for both on this night.
Bird was owning the Doctor that night. Clearly frustrated, Erving came down the court and locked arms with Bird to slow him down with 1:36 left in the third quarter. Erving got Bird in a chokehold (famously captured by photographers) and he landed a punch right in his face while Moses Malone and Charles Barkley held Bird. The benches cleared. The Celtics won the game, 130-119, and would go on to win the Atlantic. The two teams again met in the Eastern finals, but this was no contest as the Celtics dispatched of the Sixers in five routine games.
The Sixers and Celtics did meet in the first round in 2002, when the Sixers were defending Eastern Conference champs. It was a best-of-five, with each team holding court heading into the decisive Game 5 in Boston. That was the day Paul Pierce scored 43 points and the Celtics outscored the Sixers, 43-20, in the fourth quarter en route to a 120-87 laugher.
Which brings us to this year.
There has yet to be a true defining moment. Yes, the first two games were decided by single point -- two games Philly led late, although they only managed to win one. There was the Game 3 throttling by the Celtics in Philadelphia. There was the C's second-half meltdown in Game 4. Brandon Bass rescued the listless Celtics with an 18-point third quarter in Game 5 as part of a 27-point night.
And there was KG calling Philadelphia fans “fair-weathered” and Philadelphia columnist John Mitchell retaliating by throwing Joel Ward and Bill Russell in Boston’s face.
Allen Iverson returned as the beloved son before Game 6 and the Sixers responded with an inspired effort. The Celtics? Well, they played like they knew they had Game 7 back in Boston.
That alone could be reason for worry.
In the glory days of this legendary rivalry, Heinsohn, Russell, Bird, Max and obviously Red wouldn’t tolerate that.
Maybe that’s what’s missing.
Maybe it’s time to send Tommy into the locker room and remind everyone just how much he hates Philadelphia.