25th Anniversary of the 1981 Championship Team

By Jeff Twiss
Celtics.com
May 12, 2006

October 10, 1980 - The Boston Celtics opened their 1980-81 season at the Boston Garden with a convincing 130-103 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers before a sellout crowd of 15,320. Almost seven months to the day, May 14, 1981 at The Summit in Houston, Texas, the Celtics pulled out a tough 102-91 triumph over the Rockets to complete their seven-month journey to NBA Championship title #14.

It had been five long years since the win over the Phoenix Suns in the classic 1976 Championship, not to mention a series of on and off the court distractions and changes since the Green and White had been on the league's center stage. The team and their fans were ready for another trophy!

1981 Boston Celtics Team Photo.
With Cedric Maxwell already in tow, Red Auerbach remodeled the Celtics in the summer of 1980 by pulling off deals to acquire Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, cornerstones of three Celtics championships in the 1980s along with Larry Bird. NBA Photos

But in winning the 1981 title, the Celtics didn't just snap their collective fingers while everyone else in the NBA said, "OK, fine, it's yours!" This project had to be built.

1979-80: Close...but no cigar

The 1979-80 Celtics had pretty good pieces in place already with Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Chris Ford, Rick Robey, Nate Archibald, M.L. Carr and Dave Cowens, while Pete Maravich, Jeff Judkins, Gerald Henderson and Eric Fernsten rounded out the roster. That team won 61 games and beat the Philadelphia 76ers for the Atlantic Division by two games.

Boston drew a first-round bye for winning the Atlantic Division. The Green and White then swept Houston (4 games to 0) in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, winning each game by a margin of at least 18 points or better to advance to the Division Finals to face their old foe, the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 76ers, meanwhile, swept Washington, 2 games to 0, in the First Round and then manhandled Atlanta (who had won 50 games and finished first in the Central Division nine games ahead of Houston and San Antonio), winning 4 games to 1.

Despite finishing second in the regular season, this was the playoffs and Philadelphia wanted to prove a point. Game 1 in Boston went to the 76ers, 96-93. Staying in Boston for Game 2, the Celtics returned serve, winning 96-90. Then, with a veteran starting five of: Julius Erving, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins, Lionel Hollins and Maurice Cheeks and for kicks add: Bobby Jones, Henry Bibby and Steve Mix off the bench, the Celtics' long-time adversaries from the 'City of Brotherly Love' reeled off three straight to win the series 4 games to 1.

The end result..."wait until next year!"

Putting the Puzzle Together

On June 9, 1980, the pieces would start to come together that hopefully would get the team past the Sixers. The C's traded the first and 13th picks in the 1980 NBA College Draft to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for center Robert Parish and the third choice in the draft. In four seasons with the Warriors, the seven-foot Parish averaged 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. But Head Coach Bill Fitch saw more in his new big man and vowed he would be even better.

"The Boston Celtics select Kevin McHale from the University of Minnesota," proclaimed President and General Manager Red Auerbach announcing the team's top pick to the media and the world on Draft Day. McHale was the second key addition to the team in as many days.

The trifecta of good news was complete on August 18, 1980 when forward Cedric Maxwell, a stalwart forward for the previous three years, re-signed with the team in a multi-year deal.

But with fortunate news can also come unfortunate news. In September, both All-Star guard 'Pistol' Pete Maravich and Dave Cowens, the anchor and the soul of the team for the previous 10 seasons, each announced their retirement from the game.

The 1980-81 Season

In the season opener, the starting guard tandem of Carr and Henderson helped lead the team to a lopsided victory, posting their season highs of 25 and 19 points respectively, in the game.

Six days later on October 16th, Parish looked like the beast of the East Coast and Boston agreed with him as he poured-in 17 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked 3 shots in a 110-103 win over the Bucks in Milwaukee. And, on October 25th, the Celtics easily handled the Bullets in Landover, MD, but the win turned costly as M.L. Carr broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot on a fast break and was lost to the team for over three months. Without Carr, Coach Fitch inserted the guard pair of Ford and Archibald, and that tandem remained as the starters for the remainder of the season.

As the cold winter settled in, Bird heated up. The dynamic 6'9" forward registered 36 points and 21 rebounds in a 117-113 overtime loss to the Sixers at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Julius Erving 'tossed-in' 45 points for the winners. Bird posted another 30-20 effort on December 13 in Chicago, with 35 points and 20 boards (a league-high 18 defensive rebounds) in a 106-95 win. Seven days later, a 21-point, 20-rebound effort led Boston to a 107-102 road win over Cleveland. And in the nationally-televised Christmas Day game with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Bird notched his third 20-rebound game in two weeks, while adding 28 points, in the Celtics' 117-108 victory - their ninth straight win. The team would go on to post 12 consecutive victories until a 121-106 setback on January 2 to the Warriors in Oakland. It was the only game in Bird's 897-game regular season career in which he would be held scoreless.

But wouldn't you just know, when we thought the world had stopped and doom was going to prevail over these Celtics, they proceeded to rip-off 13 straight victories (and 25-1 in their last 26 games) starting with Portland as the appetizer two days after the short-circuit against the Warriors.

The final two-plus months of the season brought more heroics and salutations.

Nate 'Tiny' Archibald.
Tiny Archibald ran the Celtics' offense in '81, and was named MVP of the All-Star Game that year. (NBA Photos)

On February 1, Nate Archibald posted 9 points, 9 assists, 3 steals and 5 rebounds in leading the East All-Stars to a 123-120 win and in the process was named the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game. And six months after he said 'goodbye', Dave Cowens said 'hello' and he was welcomed back to thunderous ovations and a multitude of congratulatory gifts. On February 8, 1981, Cowens' #18 was raised to the Garden rafters.

In the second game of the team's longest road trip of the season (a seven-game Western swing), Bird put on one of his greatest performances against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 11. He was magical, scoring 36 points (16-25 FG, 4-5 FT), hauling down 21 rebounds (16 defensive boards), with 6 assists, 5 steals and 3 blocked shots in 47 minutes. All this coming off a 50-minute, 23-point, 17-rebound, 8-assist, 4-steal effort less than 24 hours earlier in a one-point overtime loss in Seattle.

Celtics March madness came with the beginning of the month. Head Coach Bill Fitch was ejected but his Celtics jolted the 76ers, 114-107, at the Boston Garden. With the win, the Green and White pulled within 1.5 games of the Sixers and tightened the Atlantic Division race. Meanwhile, off the court, on March 12th, Archibald was signed to a multi-year contract and on March 19th, owner Harry T. Mongolian, Jr. announced that Red Auerbach had agreed to a lifetime contract with the ball club.

Parish, in a must-win contest at New York's Madison Square Garden on March 24th, registered 26 points with 7 blocked shots - notably rejecting the Knicks' game-winning attempt with 14 seconds remaining to preserve the Celtics 118-116 victory. Archibald added 24 points, while Bird posted a triple-double (16 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

On the 82nd and final regular season game on March 29, an estimated 18,000 at the Boston Garden and a healthy national television audience witnessed the Celtics capture the regular-season title with a 98-94 victory over the 76ers. Bird and Parish scored 24 points apiece, Ford connected on two three-point attempts (16 points total) and Maxwell clamped-up Julius Erving, who could only tally 19 points. This game also marked the 23rd time that the Celtics had held their opponents under 100 points - and the Celtics won all 23 games! Ironically, both of these fine teams finished the season with 62-20 records, but the Celtics got a bye in the first round of the playoffs on the basis of their superior Atlantic Division record.

The Playoffs

Cedric Maxwell
Now a color analyst for the Celtics radio broadcast, Cedric Maxwell was a dominant force down low for the Celtics in 1981. (NBA Photos)

In the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals round, the Celtics (led by Bird averaging 23.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in 45.0 minutes per game) met the Chicago Bulls (before Michael Jordan) and within seven days (and four games later) they swept the Bulls to advance and meet... the 76ers.

Just as in the previous year, the Celtics came up short in the series opener, losing 105-104 at Boston Garden on April 21. Sixers' rookie Andrew Toney (nicknamed 'The Boston Strangler') made two clutch free throws with two seconds remaining to give the arch-rivals the Game One win. The Celtics had battled back from a 9-point deficit with 2:51 left in the game, outscoring the 76ers 10-1 to knot the game at 101 apiece. Bird was again magnificent, playing all 48 minutes and scoring a game-high 33 points (to go with 10 rebounds). Parish added 17 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.

Playing back-to-back games? No problem for the same two teams but this time it was a different game. Boston broke open a tight affair with 14 straight points in the second quarter to secure the Game Two win. Bird was, well, Bird, tallying 34 points with 16 rebounds and 5 assists in 41 minutes of duty. McHale added 20 points on 10-for-14 shooting in 24 minutes off Coach Fitch's bench. On the other side, Toney, hardly looking like a rookie coming off 76ers Coach Billy Cunningham's bench, scored a game-high 35 points in just 31 minutes, tying his career high for the second time in his last three games against Boston.

Games 3 and 4 moved the series on to Philadelphia. Having lost nine straight games in the Spectrum, the Celtics looked to turn the tables. Unfortunately, the tables got turned on the Celtics, as the 76ers won both games, 110-100 in Game 3 and 107-105 in Game 4.

In Game 3, the Celtics fell behind 21-10 half way through the first quarter and never recovered. Boston shot just 37.8% from the floor and Parish had a night to forget about, making just one of 14 attempts.

Game 4 boiled down to the final few seconds on the clock, as Bobby Jones intercepted Archibald's pass intended for Bird. Similar to Game 3, the Celtics trailed early 65-48 at halftime. But unlike Game 3, the Celtics battled back and assumed the lead once at 84-83 with 10:42 left in the game. However, it was not enough, and Boston found themselves staring at an insurmountable 3 games to 1 deficit heading back to Boston for Game 5.

Would this be the 1979-80 Celtics again, returning to Boston down 3-1 in their series with the 76ers, only to go down without a whimper?

Cedric Maxwell - 1981 NBA Finals MVP.
The championship was sweet for Maxwell, who was named the 1981 NBA Finals MVP. (NBA Photos)

No. This 1980-81 Celtics team was down 109-103 with just 1:51 left but held their foes scoreless to capture this come-from-behind win. Bird's 32 points in 43 minutes paced the Celtics and overshadowed the fact that four Sixers scored 20 or more points.

Game 6 in Philadelphia was another thriller. This contest started well... for the 76ers as they led after the first stanza, 31-18 and at halftime, 51-42. But Boston chipped away and pulled within three, 73-70, after three quarters. The fourth quarter was 'tight' as neither team could lead by more than three points. With 52 seconds left, Boston killer Toney nailed a jump shot to pull the Sixers to within one; he followed that shot with a steal. He drove to the basket hard but McHale made the key play of the contest -- and the series -- by blocking Toney's attempted shot and rebounding the ball in one motion. The Celtics returned to Boston to a large contingent of ecstatic fans waiting at the airport with the series all tied at 3 apiece.

Why change the script for Game 7? It was another close, nail-biting affair that saw Boston trail early (31-26) again, and battle back again, down 53-48 at the half. The Sixers built the lead back to 69-58 until Maxwell and Bird brought the Celtics to within four, 75-71, after three quarters of play. Philadelphia held an 89-82 lead with 5:23 left to play, but the Celtics' Game 5 magic lingered for this game as Boston outscored the Sixers 9-1 over the final five minutes and Bird's bank shot off his own rebound and full-court break were the final points of the game. Only one team in NBA history had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game playoff series, that team was the 1967-68 Celtics and they defeated the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 1981 NBA Finals started in Boston Garden on May 5, 1981. Still high with excitement from their 7-game win over the 76ers and fueled by frenzied Boston fans, the Celtics met the Houston Rockets, who surprised the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in their history. Game 1 was a close battle and it really wasn't until Bird's offensive rebound lay-in with 19 seconds left that provided the game's final points, as a the Rockets Rudy Tomjanovich's three-point attempt bounced off the back rim as the buzzer sounded. The end result: Boston 98, Houston 95. Bird posted 18 points, 21 rebounds, 9 assists and 5 steals, while five teammates also scored in double figures.

Two days later in the same building the end results would be reversed, as Houston captured Game 2, 92-90. It was Bill Willoughby, off the Houston bench, who made a huge baseline jump shot with just over two minutes left in the game to push the Rockets ahead for good. Rockets center Moses Malone led all players with 31 points, while Bird registered 19 points and another 21 rebounds.

The return to Houston for Game 3 was not a good one for the Rockets. Thanks to overpowering defense and poor Rocket shooting (30.4%), the Celtics won going away, 94-71. Six Celtics hit for double figures in scoring, with Maxwell's 19 points (and 10 rebounds) and Ford's 17 points leading the attack. Gerald Henderson (12), Rick Robey (11), Parish (11) and Archibald (10) followed close behind. Bird was held to just 8 points, but he made up for it in other areas by grabbing 13 rebounds, handing out 10 assists and making 5 steals.

1981 NBA Champions - Trophy Presentation.
Number 14 was hung in the Boston Garden rafters after the Celtics knocked off the upstart Rockets in six games, capping the series witha 102-91 win at the Summit in Houston. (NBA Photos)

The Houston fans and the Rockets did not want to fall behind 3 games to 1 heading back to Boston for Game 5, so Rockets Head Coach Del Harris used just six players and a strong third quarter (to take the lead at 75-67) to seal this Game 4 win. Guard Mike Dunleavy (28 points) and Malone (24 points and 22 rebounds) paced the Houston arsenal. Maxwell (24 points and 14 rebounds) and Parish (18 points and 12 rebounds) led Boston.

In Game 5 back in Boston, the Celtics raced out to a 34-19 lead after one quarter (thanks to Cedric Maxwell's 10 points) of play and never looked back. 'Max' finished as the game's high scorer with 28 points on 10-for-13 field goal shooting and 8-for-10 free throw shooting, and he was the game-high rebounder with 15. The Rockets picked a bad time to go cold shooting from the floor, finishing at 35.7%.

On May 14, 1981 at The Summit in Houston, it would be the final game for the 1980-81 Celtics. 107 games since the start of the year in October, Boston would win Game 6, 102-91, and the series 4 games to 2, and Championship Title #14 in the long and proud history of the franchise. Bird returned to the offensive show, scoring 27 points (including a key three-point basket down the stretch) and added 13 rebounds. But it was Cedric Maxwell, who was steady throughout the entire series, who received the Most Valuable Player trophy from NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien.