1986 NBA Finals: Boston 4, Houston 2
Frontcourt Vaults Celtics to Front of the Pack
Kevin McHale and Robert Parish owned distinctions beyond those of other NBA big men. McHale had the coat-hanger shoulders and those telescoping arms that held the ball beyond a normal 7-footer's reach. And "The Chief" -- well, Parish had the face, that unchanging Rushmore-like expression of dignity.
Long arms are fine, McHale said when asked about them, but by themselves they don't make an inside game. Moves do. And by the time he became a Celtics starter during the 1985 season, he had his moves down pat. He would fake one way; if the defender bit on it, McHale went the other. If the defender didn't take the fake, McHale kept powering up. If a defender got an early start on blocking his fadeaway, McHale would simply step inside and take the easy layup. Many times he drew fouls as the defender attempted to recover.
Parish was never as flashy as McHale, but he was just as efficient at earning the same kind of respect from opponents. When Parish joined the Celtics in 1980-81, Cedric Maxwell took one look at his impassive face and remarked that he looked like Chief Bromden in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"'The Chief' just seemed to stick with me," said Parish.
McHale and Parish had given Boston perhaps the most imposing frontcourt in the league. Teamed with Larry Bird, Maxwell and Scott Wedman in 1984, they could present problems in every area of the game. As a group they were consistent scorers and superior defenders. But Maxwell's knee problems changed this special working combination in 1985. Parish and McHale put in extra minutes, and it became obvious that the team needed more depth.
It was particularly obvious to Bill Walton. The former Portland center had traveled basketball's hard road since he and the Trail Blazers won the 1977 title. Foot injuries and reconstructive operations had virtually taken him out of the game, leaving his career a frustrating chain of stops and starts. His feet didn't feel too bad in 1985, and he got the notion that perhaps he could help the Celtics, a team he had always admired.
As a backup to Parish, Walton figured he could play just enough to give the team quality center play while Parish or McHale rested. Walton contacted Red Auerbach, who consulted Bird, who thought it was a great idea. Shortly thereafter, the Celtics traded Maxwell to the Clippers for Walton.
It was the kind of deal that brought immediate scrutiny. Why would the Celtics want to gamble on Walton when every season brought a recurrence of the injuries? The answer became apparent just a few games into the 1985-86 schedule: Boston had combined the greatest passing center with the greatest passing forward in the game. The result was an exhibition of ball movement and team play, led by Walton and Bird, that left the rest of the NBA in the dust.
They roared out on a winning tear that converted doubters at every stop. "Right now, there's no doubt that Boston is a much better team," Magic Johnson said in February 1986 after the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Forum to extend their record to 41-9. On their way to a club-record 67-15 season, the Celtics would post a winning record against every team in the league.
Few people foresaw this amazing turnaround, including Bird, who had contemplated sitting out the 1986 season because of back pain. But the acquisition of Walton and guard Jerry Sichting from Indiana had convinced him it would be wise to hang around and see how things turned out. His reward was the kind of season that even superstars dream about. He averaged 25.8 points and nearly seven assists, two steals and 10 rebounds. He shot .423 from three-point range and finished first in the league in free-throw percentage. For the second consecutive season, Bird broke the 2,000-point mark. And he finished the year with 10 triple-doubles.
Later, midway through the NBA Finals, he would pick up his third league MVP award. "I just felt there was no one in the league who could stop me if I was playing hard," Bird said in accepting the award. "What makes me tough to guard is that once I'm near the three-point line, I can score from anywhere on the court. It's kind of hard to stop a guy who has unlimited range."
The season took an unexpected turn when the Houston Rockets eliminated the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, four games to one. Los Angeles had reshuffled its lineup, releasing Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes and picking up veteran power forward Maurice Lucas in a trade and rookie A.C. Green through the draft. The Lakers got off to a good start on their way to a 62-20 record, but the chemistry wasn't there in the spring.
The Rockets, on the other hand, played with confidence and enthusiasm. With Bill Fitch as coach, they sported the original "Twin Towers," 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson at forward and 6-foot-11 Hakeem Olajuwon at center. Jim Petersen was the backup power forward, while Robert Reid and Rodney McCray shared time at the other corner. The guards included Mitchell Wiggins, Allen Leavell and Lewis Lloyd.
The Rockets claimed the Midwest Division title with a 51-31 record. They ousted the Sacramento Kings and the Denver Nuggets easily in the playoffs before losing the first game against the Lakers in the Forum, then coming back to sweep four straight.
Their fourth victory against Los Angeles came on a buzzer-beating, turnaround jumper by Sampson in the Forum. Houston had set up the final play with a mere second on the clock. Sampson caught the inbounds pass, whirled and released. The ball hit the rim, bounced high, and fell right to the bottom of the Lakers' hearts.
Boston, meanwhile, scorched the Chicago Bulls in a three-game sweep, the Atlanta Hawks in five and Milwaukee in four straight to cap a searing drive to the championship series. They then had to wait eight days for the Finals to begin on Monday, May 26. The Celtics were highly favored, and for good reason: For the Rockets to win, Sampson had to play well, which didn't always happen. A solid defensive rebounder with a soft shooting touch and excellent mobility and quickness for a big man, the All-Star had been plagued by moments of inconsistency since becoming the top pick in the 1983 draft. He was also prone to foul trouble at times.
In Game 1, both of those plagues returned. He picked up his third foul just five minutes into the first period and spent the rest of the half on the bench, and when he did return in the second half, he missed 12 of his first 13 shots.
Olajuwon, always a fierce competitor, tried to compensate for Sampson's absence with 33 points and 12 rebounds. But McHale and Parish powered around the frontcourt at will, while Bird displayed all-around brilliance with 21 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and four steals. His double-teaming on Olajuwon helped frustrate the Rockets further. The Celtics shot 66 percent from the floor for the game. Ainge and Johnson had a big third quarter, and the whole team rode a wave of confidence to a 112-100 win and privately wondered if they weren't headed for another sweep.
That mentality carried right through Game 2, in which Bird failed to pick up a single foul despite double-teaming Olajuwon throughout much of the game. He did, however, collect 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals and two blocks. He worked McCray over on offense, backing in for an assortment of shots and working the pick-and-roll with Parish. Sampson played better and finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds, but he still seemed intimidated by Boston Garden. The Celtics ran away with the third quarter, 34-19, and won easily, 117-95.
Bird's performance left Olajuwon awestruck. "He's the greatest player I've ever seen," the Houston center said after the game. But he added that once the Rockets got back to Houston for the next three games, he didn't see how the Celtics could beat them in the Summit.
While the series was in Boston, Bird had received his regular-season MVP Award. And once in the Summit, he again rang up big numbers: 25 points, 15 rebounds, 11 assists and four steals. Running their break smoothly, the Celtics seemed in control in the third period of Game 3 with a 76-65 lead. But then Fitch switched Reid to cover Bird, and the Boston forward shot 3-for-12 in the second half.
On offense, Sampson found his comfort zone and powered Houston into the lead in the fourth period. He finished with 24 points and 22 rebounds. In the closing minutes, the Rockets ripped through a 9-0 run and took a 103-102 lead with 67 seconds to go. Boston regained the lead on a Danny Ainge jumper, but Wiggins answered with a tip-in, and then the Houston defense forced Boston into a bad shot. Later Parish stepped on the sideline as Boston was inbounding the ball, and Houston survived, 106-104.
Game 4 was the test. Parish shut down Houston's big men to lead Boston with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Then Bird took over in prime time. With the score tied at 101 and a little over two minutes left, he hit a three-pointer. Then, on a last-minute Boston possession, Walton rammed home an offensive rebound. The Celtics had a 106-103 win and a 3-1 lead in the series.
Game 5 was marred by a fight between Sampson and Sichting. With a little more than three minutes gone in the second period, the Houston forward and Boston guard got tangled up over the ball. They exchanged words, which led to Sampson throwing punches, one of which struck Dennis Johnson in the left eye when he attempted to break things up.
The outburst resulted in Sampson's ejection. But rather than fold, the Rockets found motivation in the incident. They got inspired backup play from Petersen, and Olajuwon put on a grand show with 32 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks. The Rockets won 111-96, and the series stood in Boston's favor at 3-2. Fortunately for the Celtics, it was headed back to Boston Garden, where their combined record for the regular and postseason was 49-1.
As expected, the Beantown crowd was ready for Sampson for Game 6. Every time the Houston forward touched the ball, the Garden regulars booed to their hearts' delight.
Sampson missed his first seven shots before punctuating his frustration with a dunk in the second period. For the day, he would total only eight points. "I just played badly," a dejected Sampson said later when asked if the crowd had affected him.
Bird, meanwhile, was afire, yelling at his teammates and diving for loose balls. He finished the first half with 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to give Boston a 55-38 lead. His teammates knew he wanted the ball. "Just by getting mad and storming around, I got everybody's attention," he said later. "I didn't want this day to slip away from me."
In the third period he buried several three-point shots. That and Boston's swarming defense sent the Rockets down hard. The Celtics led by 30 in the fourth period and went on to claim their 16th championship with a 114-97 thrashing. Bird rang up 29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists and three steals. The player that Fitch had initiated into the league had disassembled his old coach's new team. Nobody appreciated his performance more than Fitch himself. "Once the lights go out and play starts, the crowd has more effect on Larry than anyone I've ever seen," said the Houston coach. "I've never seen him more intense than he was today."
"He is undoubtedly, in my mind at least, the best basketball player playing the game today," Dennis Johnson said afterward.
Despite the praise, Bird played the perfectionist. "I've got some things to work on," he said. "I'm not real comfortable with my moves to the basket. By next fall, I want four or five moves I can go to. If I do that, I think I'll be unstoppable."
As a team, Boston had concluded its most impressive season. Throughout the regular season and the playoffs, the Celtics had run up a 50-1 home-court record. The Bird-led offense usually grabbed the headlines, but it was their defense that had befuddled the Rockets.
"I don't remember the last time I was hounded by a team more than I was today," said Sampson after Game 6. "Every time I touched the ball, there were two and three guys around me. And that went for Hakeem, too."
With their third championship, Bird and his Celtics had evened the ring count with Magic and his Lakers.
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