Season Recaps - 1980s
1980-81: Parish, McHale Join Celtics Front Line
The prelude to the 1980-81 season brought big changes for the franchise. The Celtics owned the No. 1 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft, which they sent with the No. 13 pick to the Golden State Warriors for Robert Parish and the No. 3 selection. Boston then used the No. 3 pick to select Kevin McHale. Later, in training camp, Dave Cowens stunned the club by announcing his retirement.
Even without Cowens, however, the Celtics had all the pieces in place: Bird, Maxwell, and Parish up front; Ford and Archibald at the guard positions; and a deep bench that included McHale, Gerald Henderson, Rick Robey, and M. L. Carr. Boston and Philadelphia battled all season for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and the Celtics' win over the 76ers on the final day gave them the title with a 62-20 record.
The two teams faced off in the Eastern Conference Finals. Behind Julius Erving, Philadelphia took the lead after four games, but Boston evened the series with back-to-back two-point wins in Games 5 and 6. Bird nailed a jump shot late in Game 7 to give the Celtics a 91-90 victory and a trip to the Finals.
Boston faced an upstart Houston squad in the Finals. The Rockets, who had finished the regular season with a 40-42 record, had somehow emerged victorious from the Western Conference. Behind center Moses Malone, Houston put up a surprisingly tough fight, but the Celtics came away with yet another championship banner.
Read more: Championship #14 Comes to Boston
1982-84: Celtics Stumble; Regroup
By Boston's standards, the next two seasons were disappointing. The Celtics won 63 games during the 1981-82 season, but they lost the chance to repeat as champions when they were eliminated by the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The next year saw them slip to second place in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia and then stumble out of the playoffs at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, who swept the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The team's playoff failures and growing dissension among the players cost Bill Fitch his coaching job. Red Auerbach brought in K. C. Jones to stabilize the club for the 1983-84 season. Jones left the frontcourt of Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, and Robert Parish intact, but he remade the backcourt, bringing over Dennis Johnson from Phoenix and moving Gerald Henderson into the starting lineup. Kevin McHale provided instant offense off the bench.
The Celtics won 62 games during the regular season. Bird won the first of three consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, and McHale won the first of two straight NBA Sixth Man Awards. With the first-round bye privilege eliminated from the playoffs, Boston downed Washington, New York, and Milwaukee to earn the right to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals.
Los Angeles rolled into the Finals with an 11-3 postseason record and beat Boston handily in Game 1. A last-second steal and layup by Gerald Henderson put the Celtics into overtime in the next contest, and they came away with a 124-121 victory. After a drubbing in Game 3, Boston eked out yet another overtime win in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece. The teams then traded wins in Games 5 and 6. The Celtics had never lost a seventh game in the NBA Finals, and Los Angeles was unable to break the string. Boston triumphed in Game 7, 111-102.
1984-85: Lakers Finally End Celtics Hex
K. C. Jones did some tinkering with his powerful team during the offseason, sending Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics and installing Danny Ainge in the starting lineup. Bird continued to get better, raising his scoring average to 28.7 points and winning a second straight MVP Award. McHale contributed 19.8 points per game and won the Sixth Man Award, also for the second consecutive year. The entire 1984-85 regular season seemed to be a prelude to a rematch of the previous year's Finals, as Boston powered its way to 63 wins and Los Angeles notched 62 victories. Neither team was challenged in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The Boston-Los Angeles matchup in the NBA Finals marked the ninth time that the two teams had squared off in the championship round. In each of the eight previous encounters the Celtics had come away winners. After a 148-114 victory in Game 1-a contest tagged "the Memorial Day Massacre"-Boston looked like a sure bet to chalk up a ninth triumph. But Los Angeles fought back behind the awesome play of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and took four of the next five games to finally wrest the crown away from the Celtics.
1985-86: Bird Soars To Third MVP Award; Celtics Sail To NBA Title
If there was any doubt that Larry Bird deserved to be ranked among the greatest players in basketball history, he dispelled it with a masterful 1985-86 season. Bird did everything that year, finishing fourth in the league in points (25.8 ppg), seventh in rebounds (9.8 rpg), and ninth in steals (2.02 per game). He led the league in free throw percentage (.896) and finished fourth in three-point field goal percentage (.423). He also led his team in assists with 6.8 per game. Bird's stellar numbers earned him a third consecutive MVP Award. Only two other players had claimed Most Valuable Player honors three years running: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Bird wasn't the only Boston player to have a good year. Kevin McHale averaged 21.3 points, and the Celtics got a good performance out of Bill Walton, newly acquired from the Clippers, who resurrected an injury-plagued career by appearing in 80 games and contributing 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Walton earned the NBA Sixth Man Award at season's end. Boston rode roughshod over the league, then lost only one game in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Los Angeles had been stunned by Houston in the Western Conference Finals, so the Celtics found themselves facing the Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals. Despite Houston's "Twin Towers," Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, Boston took the series in six games. It was the club's 16th NBA title.
1986-88: A Season Of Sorrow And Celebration
Boston owned the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft and took forward Len Bias, a promising young player from Maryland. Two days later Bias died from a cocaine overdose. The selection of Bias had been designed to rejuvenate an aging Celtics lineup. Injuries to key bench players forced Coach K. C. Jones to rely almost exclusively on his starters in 1986-87. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the wear and tear was beginning to take its toll.
Larry Bird, however, provided one of the greatest moments in playoff history in the conference finals against Detroit. The Pistons had a one-point lead and possession of the ball with five seconds left in the pivotal Game 5 at Boston Garden. Bird stole an inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas and fed Dennis Johnson for a layup and a shocking victory. Detroit won Game 6, but the Celtics prevailed in Game 7, 117-114, to advance.
After surviving their duel with the Pistons, Boston faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals for the third time in four seasons. The Lakers' "Showtime" offense was firing on all cylinders, however, and Los Angeles took the series in six games.
The Celtics team that took the floor for the 1987-88 season was not a youthful squad. Only Danny Ainge was younger than 30; Robert Parish was already 34, and Dennis Johnson was 33. Age didn't seem to slow the team much during the regular season, however. Larry Bird just missed breaking the 30-point barrier by scoring 29.9 points per game. Kevin McHale kicked in 22.6 points per game, and Johnson handed out 7.8 assists per contest. Boston's 57-25 record gave the team a 19-game margin of victory over Washington and New York in the Atlantic Division, but the Celtics were no match for a strong young Detroit Pistons team in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they bowed out after a hard-fought six-game series.
1988-92: Boston Struggles Without Flightless Bird
A period of decline had set in, and Coach K. C. Jones gave way to Jimmy Rodgers before the 1988-89 campaign. The Celtics' slim hopes of a good season slipped away when, after only six games, Bird opted for surgery to remove painful bone spurs from his feet. The Celtics had averaged 61 wins a season in his nine years with the team; they fell to 42 victories without their star and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Detroit. The one bright spot for Boston was the emergence of second-year forward Reggie Lewis. In his rookie year he had averaged just 4.5 points in 8.3 minutes per game, but in his second season Lewis filled in admirably for the missing Bird, scoring 18.5 points per contest.
Bird was back and healthy for the 1989-90 season, but the Celtics lost guard Brian Shaw, who left the team to play in Italy. At age 36 Robert Parish continued to perform at a high level, averaging 15.7 points and 10.1 rebounds. The club showed a 10-game improvement over the previous season, finishing second to Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division with a 52-30 record. Facing the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, Boston jumped out to a two-games-to-none lead after running up 157 points in Game 2. But the Celtics couldn't keep up with New York and Patrick Ewing, and the Knicks eliminated them with three straight victories.
Chris Ford took over the coaching reins prior to the 1990-91 season. He installed a running offense that was triggered by the return of Shaw, who, together with Reggie Lewis, gave the Celtics a pair of athletic young speedsters in the backcourt. The team had rookie guard Dee Brown coming off the bench as well. Boston zoomed out to a 29-5 record but struggled through the second half of the season when Larry Bird developed back problems. The slump carried over into the playoffs, in which Indiana and Chuck Person took Boston to the limit in the first round. The Celtics advanced, but they fell to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Ford somehow coaxed a first-place finish out of his 1991-92 team. It was an improbable feat, as Bird, Brown, and Kevin McHale all missed a considerable number of games because of injuries. Lewis emerged as the team's leader, averaging 20.8 points and driving the Celtics to 15 wins in the season's final 16 games. Boston and New York finished with identical 51-31 records, but the Celtics owned the tie-breaking advantage and claimed the division title.
The Celtics swept the Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the postseason but were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals. Bird managed to play in only four playoff games.