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Preseason NBA basketball in the 1980s was a far cry from what it is today. Although the games still didn’t count in the standings, the players went at it hard, and the league hyped up the games. In the mid-80s, the NBA scheduled preseason games between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers to hype up the rivalry.

In the early 80s, the Celtics were often matched up with the Eastern Conference rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers. Those preseason matchups were often heated. Some were costly. Just ask Larry Bird and Red Auerbach.

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have always been bitter rivals

Larry Bird winds up to throw a punch at Marc Iavaroni during a preseason game in 1983. | Getty Images.

Many believe the Lakers have always been the bitter rivals of the Celtics, but that wasn’t the case in the early 80s. The Celtics and Sixers were typically the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and they had their share of battles, particularly in the postseason.

In the 1979-80 season, Celtics rookie Larry Bird guided the Celtics to an NBA-best 61-win season. The win total was 32 higher than Boston’s previous season. The Sixers finished two games behind them at 59-23. Only the Lakers had more wins out West than the Sixers, finishing 60-22.

As expected, the Celtics and Sixers battled it out in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Philadelphia finishing off Boston in five games. The following season, the two teams tied for the NBA lead with 62 victories. While they battled it out again in in the conference finals, the Kansas City Kings and Houston Rockets, two teams with losing records, played for the Western Conference title.

The Sixers appeared to be well on their way to another appearance in the championship round, holding a 3-1 series lead. The Celtics stormed back to win in seven games in an intense series that had five games decided by two points or less.

Boston went on to defeat the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals. It was the first of their three championships of the decade.

Auerbach said his $2,500 loss in the preseason game was worth it

In 1983 the Celtics and Sixers met in a preseason game at the Boston Garden. It had all the makings of a playoff game, as punches were thrown and players were ejected four minutes after the opening tap.

Philadelphia’s Marc Iavaroni and Bird were tossed for fighting. Gerald Henderson was later ejected for throwing a punch at Sixers guard Sedale Threatt. Auerbach even found himself in the middle of it as when he stormed the court and challenged Sixers center Moses Malone.

“Hit me, you big SOB,” Auerbach said to Malone, according to United Press International. “Go ahead. I’m not big. Hit me you SOB.” After the game, Auerbach explained why he got involved.

“First, they knock (Cedric) Maxwell down, and then that other guy (Iavaroni) is doing a job on Bird and all that kind of stuff is going on,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. I just got mad.”

Auerbach’s antics cost him $2,500, a hefty sum of cash then. Bird was fined $2,000. Iavaroni lost $1,000, and Henderson was $500 lighter in the wallet. Despite the significant fine, Auerbach said he had to do what he did.

“I still feel that it had to be done,” he said two days after the fight, per UPI. “Things were getting so much out of control and I had to do something.”

The Celtics and Sixers renew their rivalry Monday when they square off in the conference semifinals in Boston on Monday. Expect some heated moments in the series, but any fines will much steeper than Bird’s and Auerbach’s.


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