The Celtics–76ers rivalry is a rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. The two teams have the most meetings in the NBA Playoffs, playing each other in 19 series with the Celtics winning 12 of them.1 The Sixers are considered to be the Celtics' second greatest rival to the Los Angeles Lakers.2
Before the Celtics–76ers rivalry, the Celtics were rivals with the Philadelphia Warriors when both teams were in the Eastern Division. The Warriors drafted Wilt Chamberlain in 1959 and shortly thereafter was considered one of the best inside scorers in the NBA. The main storyline of the Celtics-Warriors matchups centered around Chamberlain versus Bill Russell, who was one of the most dominant defensive forces in the NBA at the time. Even when Chamberlain had statistically imposing games, Russell's Celtics beat the Warriors in the Eastern Division Finals in 1960 and 1962 in 6 and 7 respectively. After the 1962 season, the Warriors moved to San Francisco, but the rivalry stayed alive as both teams met in the 1964 NBA Finals. The Celtics won the series in 5, and the rivalry died soon after.
In the 1964 season, the Syracuse Nationals moved and became the Philadelphia 76ers. Shortly after the All-Star break in 1965, the Sixers acquired Chamberlain from the Warriors, which sparked the old rivalry between Boston and Philadelphia. That post season, the Celtics and Sixers met in the Eastern Division Finals with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. The series went the distance, with Game 7 being held at Boston Garden. With 5 seconds left and Boston leading 110-109, Russell tried to inbound the ball when it hit a guy wire that supported the backboard, which resulted in a turnover. However, the Sixers failed to capitalize when Celtics forward John Havlicek deflected the inbound pass to Sam Jones, who ran out the clock. The Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals and defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in 5 for their seventh straight title.
In the 1967 season, the Sixers won a then NBA record 68 games to go along with only 13 losses. The Sixers met the Celtics, who were 60-21, in the Eastern Division Finals. However this time around, the Sixers overpowered Boston, beating them in 5 and advancing to the NBA Finals. They won the NBA Championship by beating the San Francisco Warriors in 6, giving the Sixers and Chamberlain their first title.
The Sixers slumped until acquiring Julius Erving before the 1977 season. They became a contender in the East, and in Erving's first season with the team, the Sixers eliminated the defending champion Boston Celtics in a tough seven-game Eastern semifinals in 1977. Boston slumped for the next two seasons while Philadelphia continued to be a strong team in the NBA, but in 1978, the Celtics drafted Indiana State forward Larry Bird in the hope of reviving their glory years as a franchise. Bird eventually joined the team for the 1980 season and his impact was immediate, as the Celtics improved from a 29-53 record in the 1978-79 season to a league best 61-21 record in 1979-1980, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals that season to face the Sixers. The Sixers beat Boston in 5, but failed to win the title against the Lakers.
The next season, both the Celtics and the Sixers finished with the best record in the NBA at 62-20, but Boston held the tiebreaker in the ranking. In a classic 7-game Eastern Finals, the Celtics beat the 76ers in 1981 4-3, coming all the way back from a 3-1 deficit to win the next 3 games in classic finishes. The Celtics won Games 5 and 6 by 2 points each and the seventh game by 1 point, 91-90, coming back from a 7 point deficit with a few minutes left to win on a Larry Bird banker from the left side with barely a minute left. The Celtics then defeated the Houston Rockets on their way to their first title in 5 years. For the 1981-1982 season, the Celtics again had the best record in the NBA at 63-19, followed by Philadelphia at 58-24, with one of the Sixers' key victories in the regular season being a win in Boston to snap the Celtics' 18-game winning streak. In the 1982 Eastern Finals, Boston attempted to come back from a similar 3-1 predicament and managed to extend the series to seven games, with the seventh game playing in raucous Boston Garden. However, Philadelphia had the last laugh, winning Game 7. In that finale, as Boston fans saw their team losing, they congratulated the Sixers by shouting the now-famous "Beat L.A." chant as the Sixers were about to face the well-rested Lakers.34 Sixers star Darryl Dawkins told a reporter, "Man, when I heard that, my dick got stiff."5 In the end, however, the weary Sixers couldn't keep up, losing to the Lakers in the Finals.
The next season, the Sixers picked up MVP Moses Malone from the Houston Rockets. Malone repeated as the MVP and lead the 76ers to an NBA Championship in a 4-game sweep against the Lakers. With the Bucks sweeping Boston, it made the Sixers' title run much easier. However, it was the last title for Philadelphia until the Phillies won the 2008 World Series.6
The "highlight" of this era of the rivalry was a 1983 exhibition game that featured 3 separate fights- Moses Malone/Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird/Marc Iavaroni, and Gerald Henderson/Sedale Threatt. During Bird/Iavaroni, Bird ripped 76ers coach Billy Cunningham's sportsjacket in half. The fight was reaching a peak when 66-year-old Red Auerbach came down from the stands to restore order. Witnesses report him calling Malone a "big schvatzer." There was also a memorable 1985 choking match between Bird and Erving.
Since 1984, the only times the two teams met in the playoffs were in 1985, 2002, and 2012. Though the 1983-84 season saw the Celtics win the title and the Sixers upset in the first round by the New Jersey Nets, the Sixers had a measure of satisfaction in the regular season by winning 4 of their 6 regular season games versus Boston, the only time the Sixers managed to win the regular season series versus Boston in the Larry Bird era. Charles Barkley joined the Sixers for the 1984-85 season, and the 1985 Eastern Final series was the Sixers' last conference final until 2001. In the 1985 Finals, they lost to Boston in five games after Boston had won the first 3 games, including a third game in Philadelphia where Julius Erving was uncharacteristically booed by the home crowd for his poor play. Game 5 saw Larry Bird pick off Andrew Toney with a few seconds left and Boston up by 2, then dribble up court to preserve the Celtics' close victory, reminiscent of John Havlicek's series-clinching steal in 1965. In 2002, the Celtics, in their first appearance since 1995, won the first round meeting 3–2. That series featured the scoring exploits of Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce.7
The two teams met again in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, which the Celtics won 4-3. The 76ers were an 8 seed and the Celtics were a 4 seed.
Boston sportswriters dubbed Sixers' shooting guard Andrew Toney The Boston Strangler because of his ability to take control of games against the Celtics. He is remembered for scoring 25 points against Boston in the fourth quarter on March 21, 1982, at the Philadelphia Spectrum. It is still the Sixers' team record for most points scored in a quarter. He also scored a team-high 33 points in the classic Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Finals in Boston (the famous "Beat LA!" game), leading the Sixers to the Finals and avoiding a second straight meltdown in the Eastern Finals versus Boston. Andrew Toney's ability to have big scoring games in the playoffs versus the Celtics was one of the reasons for the Celtics in acquiring defensive ace and Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson from the Phoenix Suns prior to the 1983-94 season, and Johnson would go on to have several great seasons with the Celtics, winning two titles with them in 1984 and 1986.
- "NBA: Most frequent playoff matchups". McCubed.net.
- "NBA's Best Rivalries". Sports Illustrated.
- Viser, Matt (June 1, 2008). "Region revs up for an East-West rivalry reborn". Boston Globe. p. A1. Archived from the original on February 4, 2011. "The intensity of the rivalry was encapsulated in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The winners were to face the Lakers, and after it became clear the Celtics were going to lose to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Garden crowd erupted into chants of, 'Beat L.A.!'"
- Kerby, Trey (June 3, 2010). "Everything you could possibly want to know about the NBA Finals". Yahoo! Sports. Archived from the original on February 4, 2011. "But that's not when the chant took off in Boston. It actually started as a chant supporting the Philadelphia 76ers."
- Sheridan, Phil (October 30, 2008). "WORLD CHAMPS!; 28 years later, Phillies again are baseball's best". Philadeplhia Inquirer. p. A1. "After 25 years of drought...Philadelphia has its championship...the Phillies really are World Series champions."
- Lazenby, Roland (2000). "18. NBA Season in Review". The Official NBA Encyclopedia.