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Fran Blinebury

Larry Bird
Larry Bird had 29 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in the Game 6 clincher against the Rockets.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

High hoops IQ characterized Celtics' title run in '86

Posted Aug 29 2011 6:59PM

It was an abundance of talent and collection of competitive drive that made the 1986 Celtics contenders from the opening tip in the first game of the season. But it was the gray matter inside all those skulls that puts them at the head of any classroom of former NBA champions.

The Celtics couldn't just outplay you; they could also outsmart you, on every night, on every possession, on almost every play.

Led by the Hall of Fame front line of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, they played a thinking man's game, the equivalent of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking in shorts and sneakers.

Toss in Bill Walton, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Rick Carlisle, Jerry Sichting, Scott Wedman and Sam Vincent and the Celtics' so-called "basketball I.Q." could probably have qualified them for their own chapter of Mensa.

"We had a lot of guys on that team who really knew the game and understood what it took and what it meant to play it the right way," said McHale. "I kinda took it for granted, thinking that was the way everybody played, because I had been around guys with the Celtics where everyone understood that.

"I probably realized for the first time that it wasn't that way everywhere when Danny Ainge told me that other people couldn't totally change their game plans during a timeout and then go right out onto the floor and execute it. It was after Danny got traded to Sacramento and he said that if that team didn't work on something in practice for three days, there was no way they could do it in a game. We could devise a whole new scheme in a timeout and then just go do it. I guess everybody on that Celtics team just had a good basketball mind."

It was a season after the Celtics had surrendered their NBA crown to the rival L.A. Lakers and they were determined to get back to the top of the mountain. To a team that was already rife with All-Star talent, Boston added Walton, the former All-Star center who had struggled with foot problems after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 championship.

Finally healthy for the first time in nearly a decade, the basketball savant in Walton was able to find an instant kinship in a Celtics locker room that might as well have been a graduate school program in higher hoopsmanship.

That Boston roster included five future Hall of Famers -- Bird, McHale, Parish, Johnson and Walton -- and four players who would be voted among the 50 Greatest of All-Time -- Bird, McHale, Parish and Walton. But what might be most impressive -- and likely unprecedented -- and most representative of the way they analyzed the game is the number of them -- six -- that went on to eventually become head coaches in the NBA -- Bird, McHale, Johnson, Ainge, Carlisle and Vincent.

"Everyone constantly thought basketball," remembered Walton, who contented himself with becoming a polysyllabic purveyor of pearls of wisdom in the media. "Everyone always played a mental game. Even though we were a team that physically had the tools necessary to be at highest level of the game, it was the mental edge that allowed that team to be so special."

The Celtics zoomed out of the starting gate and wasted no time establishing themselves as the team to beat, on the way to a franchise-record 67 wins. It was a season when Bird was at the peak of his powers, winning the third of his three straight MVP awards, averaging 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists. It was a wondrous comeback by the long-suffering Walton, who came off the bench to earn honors as Sixth Man of the Year. It was all of the Celtics combining their abilities and their smarts to virtually turn the league into a season-long how-to-do-it lesson.

When the Celtics lost 121-103 to Portland on Dec. 6, it was noted as only a hiccup on their run through the schedule. But four months later that game became notable as the only time all season that the Celtics lost on the fabled parquet floor of the Boston Garden. Their 40-1 (.976) record is the closest any team has ever come to perfection at home and that achievement continued when they cruised to a 10-0 mark at home all through the playoffs.

From start to finish, the Celtics were like a basketball symphony -- creative, harmonious and capable of filling a hall with the greatness of big accomplishments and little details always being done right.

"You would see it in the way that guys constantly watched each other, in the locker room, on the practice floor, even when we were just sitting down and stretching," the late Johnson once recalled. "There was a feeling that every guy on that team was always trying to learn the next thing that would give him edge in the next game."

The Celtics began the playoffs against No. 8 seed Chicago and though the Bulls went down in a 3-0 sweep, everyone got a peek into the future when a young visitor scored an eye-popping 63 points in Game 2 double-overtime classic at Boston. It was the performance that prompted Bird to say he was "God disguised as Michael Jordan."

Bird & Co. moved on to take care of another individual star, whipping Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks 4-1 in the second round and then were devastatingly effective in smashing Milwaukee 4-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics had expected to have their third consecutive showdown with Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA Finals after the teams had split their meetings the previous two years. But when the Lakers were upset by the Houston Rockets, the Celtics found themselves suddenly in an unexpected matchup.

It was veterans against the rising and powerful young duo of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, who had their sights set on breaking into the elite class. But in the classroom, these Celtics were always the teachers. For all of the athleticism, speed and raw talent the Rockets possessed, Boston always had an answer.

Game 5 is the one most remembered for the brawl that erupted when the 7-foot-4 Sampson took the bait from a goading Sichting and threw punches at the 6-foot-1 guard. The Rockets went on to win the game and narrow the series to 3-2. It was one more instance of a Celtic (Sichting) using his smarts. The brawl inspired the Celtics and ignited Bird to even greater heights. Bird ripped off 29 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in the Game 6 clincher as the Celtics completed a stunning 50-1 home record and won the franchise's 16th championship.

They were a team noteworthy for their character and competiveness, remarkable for their toughness and enjoyable for their sheer love of playing together. But it was always their knowledge of the game that set the '86 Celtics apart.

"When you knew how to play the game with those guys the way it was meant to be played," Walton once recalled, "you could hear the music."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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