The last two times the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers met in the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs -- in 1981 and '82 -- one team came back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series at three games apiece. Unfortunately for the 76ers -- who Wednesday night in Game 5 will be trying to avoid elimination -- both times they were the team that stumbled.
"I told our players that if we get the next one, which we have the ability to do, that we're talking a seven-game series," said Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham.
The Celtics have a different perspective. "No one was ever down 0-3 before (as the Sixers were before last Sunday's 115-104 Game 4 win)," said forward Larry Bird. "Plus, those other times, the team that was down was playing the next game on their home court, not going on the road."
That could be the most formidable problem for Philly. The Celtics have won all seven of their 1985 playoff games in Boston Garden, 10 straight over the last two seasons and 19 of 20 dating to 1983. "We haven't lost a playoff game at home in a long time," Bird said.
The fact that no other team has advanced to the league finals after being down 0-3 doesn't faze the 76ers. "This team has had its back to the wall many times," said Cunningham, who pointed out that last season his team was on the brink of being swept by New Jersey in a best-of-five first-round series but came back to win twice and force a deciding game.
Perhaps optimism didn't allow the coach to note that the 76ers lost that final game, or perhaps Cunningham would be happy simply to get to a deciding game in this series. To do so, Philadelphia has to run with the basketball -- at least that's what the Los Angeles Lakers' assistant coach, Dave Wohl, thinks.
"I don't understand why they haven't done it more, when that's been the key to any success that they've had in the series," said Wohl, who has scouted the last two games for the Lakers. "Boston is the best team in the league at what they do, pound the ball inside and run the occasional fast break. I don't think that we can even beat them at that. But Philly seems to fall into that sort of game."
Once placed in that half-court situation, Philadelphia often has been at the mercy of the Boston front line. Center Robert Parish, outscored two to one by Moses Malone in the regular season series between the teams, has outscored and outrebounded Malone in the first four games. And even with Charles Barkley's career-high 20 rebounds Sunday, the 76ers had only a two-rebound advantage over Boston at the end of Game 4.
The 76ers also have fallen into a running battle of words with the Celtics, a category in which the defending champions have no peers. A pair of volleys from Philadelphia before Game 3, a comment by Barkley that the team would be on vacation within a week without a win and a comment by Julius Erving that the 76ers were "four or five points better than Boston on any court" already have been thrown back in their faces.
Today there were reports in both Boston newspapers that had Barkley responding to Cedric Maxwell's comment that the Celtics would perform a "mercy killing" Wednesday by saying, "Him trying to play defense on somebody is mercy. He can't move." To which Philadelphia's Malone added, "That's bench talk. That's why he ain't playing."
Bird has been and will be playing for Boston despite a sore index finger on his shooting hand that might have contributed to a four-for-15 performance in Game 4. In appraising his team's chances, he said: "All we've got to do is rebound a little better and try to run a little more."