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Sixers coach teaches Game 7 history
Down 3-2 to the rival Boston Celtics and with his team’s playoff future hanging in the balance, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins took his players back 30 years in Celtics-Sixers history for a little motivation before Game 6 on Wednesday.
Sure, the heyday of the Philly-Boston rivalry may have come in the 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell battled in the postseason for four straight years before Wilt headed west to L.A. and Russell called it a career.
But the early ’80s also marked a memorable era of Sixers-Celtics hoops, and Collins — a four-time Sixers All-Star himself — wanted to make sure that his players understood where the franchise had been and the ashes they had risen from in order to better appreciate the task at hand.
So Collins had his staff put together a 10-minute documentary — aptly titled “Ghosts of Celtics Past” — so his players could relive the initial devastation, eventual vindication and subsequent euphoria that the 1981 and ’82 playoffs brought to the Sixers and the city of Philadelphia.
“My big thing when I was showing them that was, ‘How bad do we want to get back to Boston for Game 7 when all the odds say you’re not going to win a Game 7?’” Collins said before Philadelphia’s 82-75 Game 6 win Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center. “So I put on the year, the 3-1 in ’81, and they just talked a little bit about what happened in that series.”
What happened was an epic collapse that most Sixers fans would just as soon forget. In the ’81 conference finals, which marked Collins’ last year as a player — he was injured for most of the season and during the series — No. 3 Philly took a 3-1 series lead over the top-ranked Celtics before folding in three straight games, including a fateful Game 7 in Boston. The Sixers bowed out shamefully and awkwardly from the postseason.
“Interestingly … we played them the last regular-season game of the year in there, and Bill Fitch had gotten kicked out of that game,” Collins recalled. “They beat us by one in that game, got the home-court advantage, so they got Game 7 in that building, then Bird hit the runner with one second to go to win the game.”
The next season, the teams met in the conference finals once again. And for the second time in as many years, Philadelphia took a 3-1 series lead, using a 25-point Game 4 victory at home to put themselves one win away from their third NBA Finals appearance in six years.
But history seemed to repeated itself. The Celtics plastered the Sixers 114-85 in Boston in Game 5, behind 26 points from Robert Parish and 20 from Larry Bird. Then, for the second straight season, Boston forced a Game 7, this time riding 17 points from Kevin McHale to an 88-75 Game 6 win at the Spectrum.
“What I wanted to talk to them about ’82 was how after Game 6 — they lost Game 5 … (we) came home, had a 15-point lead, let it get away — and the doom and gloom that was headed to Boston for Game 7, that it was going to happen again,” Collins said.
But in the deciding game in Boston, as fans dressed as ghosts sat behind the Sixers bench, Philadelphia got 34 points from Andrew Toney, 29 from Julius Erving, 19 from Mo Cheeks and 17 from Bobby Jones as they eliminated Bird, Parish, McHale, Danny Ainge and the defending champs.
“These guys are so young, I think me and (Tony) Battie were the only ones born then,” said Sixers big man Elton Brand, who was three years old at the time (Battie was six). “They were like, ‘What’s going on? They have ghosts and sheets behind the bench?’”
The victory famously led the Garden crowd to chant “Beat L.A.” in support of the visiting Sixers in the game’s waning moments. The win was a defining moment for Philadelphia, which was able to exorcise its ghosts — both those in the front row and those from the previous year’s failure — and advance to the Finals.
And while the situation this season isn’t identical — with Boston and Philadelphia trading off wins since Game 1 — the lesson to be learned from 1981 and ’82 is the same.
“In Game 5, we weren’t ourselves in a lot of different ways, and we can be better,” Collins said of Monday’s lackluster 16-point blowout in Boston. “That’s why I showed them a little bit of the video of the Sixers and Celtic rivalry in ’81 and ’82 and going in to win Game 7.
“… The one thing as a coach I think you have to do, especially with a young team, is you have to try to continually make them feel confident and understand that everything is going to be OK if they just keep working. That’s what I’ve really tried to do with this team, and they’ve grown.”
Saturday’s meeting will be the first Game 7 between the teams since that 1982 series, and given the history of the rivalry, the Celtics know better than to count Philly out. And for Philadelphia, there won’t be any excuses for a repeat of 1981. This team is beyond just being happy to be here, and they’ve got their minds set on a first conference finals appearance in more than a decade.
“I’m not going to give them that out,” Collins said. “No, I want more. I want more. We’re going to get greedy, and we want more. … I don’t want to go into it (thinking), ‘No matter what happens, everything’s OK.’ I want to go in with the idea, ‘Let’s see what we can do; let’s see if we can get us a win.’”
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