Before Andrew Toney came along in 1981, Lloyd Free was the "Boston Strangler." Both were shooting guards, and both killed the Celtics in decisive Game 7s.

But the haunting and probably insensitive nickname, a reference to an actual 1960s Boston serial killer, stuck with Toney because he was a key cog on a team that finally won an NBA title.

Free was a terrific shooter, who came off the bench to score 27 points in a Game 7 win against Boston in 1977. But memories of that season still sting fans, who watched the Sixers take a 2-0 lead against Portland in the NBA Finals before losing the next four. The team launched the "We owe you one" campaign, only to lose two more NBA Finals.

Toney was one of the game's great shooters and had Hall of Fame talent, but injuries to both feet limited him to only five healthy seasons and an 8-year career.

Toney scored 35 points in a late regular-season game in Beantown as a rookie in 1981. He wrestled the "Boston Strangler" nickname from Free later that spring when he torched the Celts for 26 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals and 35 more in Game 2. Both were in Boston.

"Andrew has no fear," Sixers coach Billy Cunningham said after Toney's outburst in Game 1. "He's a guy who will take the shot no matter what the situation is. He's not afraid of being the hero or the goat. And that's what I love about him."

The Sixers infamously blew a 3-1 series lead to Boston that year, and Toney was bottled up for a combined 17 points in Games 6 and 7. Stop Toney, the Celtics learned, and you stop the Sixers.

The Sixers and Celtics met in the conference finals the following year, and Toney had games of 30 and 39 early in the series. When the Celts again came back from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7 back to Boston, Sixers fans understandably expected more disappointment.

But Toney scored 34 points as the Sixers overwhelmed the Celtics, 120-106.

"He just was hitting some shots with two or three guys in his face," Celtics guard Danny Ainge said afterward. "And he was hitting some shots over the big people inside. He just gets that way sometimes. I don't know what we can do differently to stop him, except maybe knock him unconscious."

Two years later, the Celtics went out and acquired defensive specialist Dennis Johnson.

"Am I the answer to Andrew Toney?" Johnson said after being acquired. "I don't know. I don't know if anyone can stop him. I've had some success against him, he's had some success against me. But I'll tell you something, when I'm on the court, he'll feel my presence."

They met once in the playoffs. It was 1985, and the face of the Sixers' franchise was changing from Doctor J to Charles Barkley. The Celtics took out the Sixers in five games, Toney had a 3-for-17 shooting disaster in Game 2, but rebounded to score 26 points in both Games 3 and 4.

The Sixers didn't win the NBA title that year, but they did deliver in 1983. And Andrew Toney has been the "Boston Strangler" ever since.

"He was a deadeye shooter with the demeanor of a hired gun, a grim gamer, in awe of no one," Daily News columnist Elmer Smith wrote in 1989. "He and Maurice Cheeks formed the best backcourt combination to ever play here. While it lasted."

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