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How to blow a 3-1 series lead

Twice, the Sixers have led the Celtics, 3-1, in the playoffs and lost the series.

76ers head coach Bill Cunningham (left) reacts as the Boston Celtics rally in the fourth quarter in Boston, May 4, 1981. Joining Cunningham are, from left, Lionel Hollins, Bobby Jones, Ollie Johnson, and Caldwell Jones. The Celtics defeated the 76ers, 91-90, to win the Eastern Conference Championship. (AP Photo)
76ers head coach Bill Cunningham (left) reacts as the Boston Celtics rally in the fourth quarter in Boston, May 4, 1981. Joining Cunningham are, from left, Lionel Hollins, Bobby Jones, Ollie Johnson, and Caldwell Jones. The Celtics defeated the 76ers, 91-90, to win the Eastern Conference Championship. (AP Photo)Read more

12th in a series of 13

LOSING IN the playoffs is never a pleasant experience. Losing a series in which you led three games to one is harrowing. But losing a 3-1 lead to the Boston Celtics is unforgiving, unacceptable and downright unholy.

And to do it twice is unimaginable.

The first four times a team blew a 3-1 NBA series lead, the 76ers accounted for two of those, both coming against the Celtics.

Can you imagine the Eagles being up by four touchdowns in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys and losing the game? And then doing it again?

Kinda like that unimaginable.

In 1968, the 76ers were the defending NBA champions. They had won 62 games and had beaten the Knicks in six games to reach the Eastern Division finals.

But injuries and a historical occurrence caught up to the Sixers and the Celtics went on to win another championship.

In 1981, the consensus was that the Eastern Conference finals between the two old rivals were actually the NBA Finals. The Sixers led the series, 3-1, heading back to the Spectrum but couldn't put the Beantowners away. The Celtics rallied to win the series, then disposed of the Houston Rockets, 40-42 in the regular season, in the Finals.

In '68, the Celtics were led by 34-year-old player-coach Bill Russell and almost-35-year-old Sam Jones. The dynasty appeared to be on its last legs and the Sixers were looking to put the men in green out of their misery.

But a day before the series was to begin in Philadelphia, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Neither team wanted to play that first game. The Celtics had a team vote and, with riots in other parts of the country in mind, decided to play, feeling that a postponement on short notice could be a safety issue.

After talking to Russell, who didn't want to play either, Sixers star Wilt Chamberlain agreed that postponing the game so late could be dangerous. But after Chamberlain found out that the Celtics held a team vote and the Sixers didn't, he was upset. And so were the Sixers' other African-American players, especially Chet Walker and Wali Jones. So Chamberlain closed the locker room door and had a players-only vote. Walker, who was too depressed to vote, abstained and Chamberlain and Jones were the only players to vote against playing.

They played the game. There were 1,000 empty seats but those who were in attendance gave the teams a standing ovation for showing up. However, the Celtics won, 127-118.

Sixers coach Alex Hannum, who died in 2002, blamed himself for the defeat. He felt if he'd have called a meeting like Celtics coach Red Auerbach and allowed his team to collect itself, the Sixers would have won Game 1 and possibly swept the series.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Game 2 was delayed 3 days while the nation was in mourning, and Chamberlain and Russell traveled to Atlanta for King's funeral.

When the series resumed, the Sixers won the next three games, but injuries began to catch up with them. In the previous series against the Knicks, Billy Cunningham had broken his wrist in three places when he collided with rookie Phil Jackson. Luke Jackson was hobbled by a torn hamstring, which he injured against the Knicks and further aggravated against the Celtics. Jones had a bum knee and Chamberlain was playing with a bruised toe, a pulled calf muscle and shin splints.

The Celtics, down, 3-1, and heading back to Philly, were determined not to go down without a fight. Jones pumped in 37 points and the Celtics were still alive with a 122-104 rout. Back on the parquet floor, Boston evened the series, 114-106, despite Hal Greer's 40 points.

No team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit, and it seemed unlikely it would happen this time with the series back at the Spectrum. But the Sixers, and not the old Celtics, were the ones who ran out of gas. With Chamberlain taking just one shot in the second half - and missing it - the Sixers fell, 100-96.

The Celtics were on their way to regaining the crown the Sixers had taken from them the previous season.

In 1981, the Sixers were coming off an exhausting, seven-game war with the Milwaukee Bucks. Looking back, the signs of fatigue were there.

In Game 1 at Boston, they led 100-91 with 4:13 left but needed 11 fourth-quarter points from Andrew Toney, including two free throws with a second left, to win.

In Game 2, the Celtics blew the Sixers out, 118-99, prompting Cunningham, now the team's coach, to say, "We didn't play tired basketball. We played bad basketball. They just beat us, they beat us in all phases of the game."

Back at the Spectrum, the Sixers scored 62 points in the first half and cruised to 110-100 win in Game 3. But in Game 4, the Titanic began to spring a leak. Up 65-48 at the half, the Sixers needed a tremendous steal by Bobby Jones to secure a 107-105 win and a 3-1 lead.

"I sat on the bench one year [1968] with a broken wrist and watched us go up on Boston 3-1 with the home-court advantage only to end up emptying my bag instead of going to LA for the second world championship," Cunningham said.

"So I've been through it and I'll try to relate that to the team."

With Maurice Cheeks limited to just 10 minutes because of a severe sinus headache, the Sixers committed four turnovers and missed two shots in the final 90 seconds of Game 5 and lost, 111-109.

The Sixers jumped out to a big lead in Game 6, ahead by 17 in the second quarter, but couldn't put the Celtics away. Again, a headache limited Cheeks, this time to 20 minutes before he fouled out. A spirited fourth quarter, which saw nine lead changes and three ties, didn't end in the Sixers' favor as the series headed back to Boston after a 100-98 defeat. It was Boston's first win in Philadelphia in 12 tries.

The Sixers never had beaten Boston in the Garden in a Game 7. But they were up by 11 in the third quarter and by 89-82 with 5:23 left to play. And then it all unraveled. They went without a basket in their last 10 possessions (six missed shots and four turnovers) and lost, 91-90.

"We beat ourselves more than they won it," Bobby Jones lamented after the Sixers dropped their third straight by a total of five points.

Now, one can see how the Sixers lost. But watching it back then, there was no thought of fatigue, no thought of injuries and no thought that the Sixers would lose. In the end, it was a terrible, frustrating loss to the Celtics, one that still festers.

"One thing in pro basketball," said M.L. Carr, the Celtics' towel-waving, obnoxious cheerleader, "you should never count the Celtics out. That's the way it always was, that's the way it always will be."

Damn you, M.L. Carr, and the horse you rode in on.