The Boston Celtics, who had added rookie Larry Bird the year before, completed their makeover with one spectacular trade engineered by Red Auerbach, their general manager. Owning the first pick in the 1980 NBA Draft as a result of an earlier trade with Detroit, Auerbach had his eyes on a long-armed scorer and shotblocker from Minnesota, Kevin McHale. But he figured he could still get his man even if he traded down a bit in the draft, so he swung a deal with the Golden State Warriors, giving up the top overall pick along with the 13th choice, which Boston also owned.
In return the Celtics obtained the third overall pick in the draft plus 7-1 center Robert Parish, a four-year veteran who had averaged over 17 ppg and 10 rpg for the Warriors in each of the last two seasons. On draft day, Golden State selected center Joe Barry Carroll (to replace Parish) and Utah took guard Darrell Griffith, so Auerbach was able to get the man he wanted all along, McHale, in the No. 3 slot -- and by trading down, he also had acquired the team's starting center for the next decade and more.
When long-time center Dave Cowens announced his retirement during training camp, Parish moved right into the starting pivot role for Boston on a front line that now included the 6-9 Bird and 6-8 Cedric Maxwell as the starting forwards and the 6-11 McHale coming off the bench. The Celtics, a short and undermanned team up front for several seasons, had gotten bigger overnight and now boasted one of the strongest frontcourts in basketball history. In the backcourt, Coach Bill Fitch, who had built Cleveland and Houston into playoff contenders before coming to Boston in 1979, used a rotation that included veteran playmaker Nate "Tiny" Archibald, versatile Chris Ford and young Gerald Henderson, who could fill in at either guard spot. Also on the bench were M.L. Carr and Rick Robey, two capable veterans.
Throughout the regular season the Celtics battled neck-and-neck with the Philadelphia 76ers, who boasted a deep and talented roster headed by Julius Erving. Their race came down to the final day of the season at Boston Garden, and the Celtics posted a 98-94 victory behind Bird's 24 points. The clubs finished with identical 62-20 records and were 3-3 in head-to-head matchups, but Boston won the Atlantic Division by virtue of a better record against conference foes. That would prove to be important, because it gave the Celtics the home-court advantage in a potential playoff seventh game.
And that was what came to be. Philadelphia raced to a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Boston refused to die. The Celtics erased double-digit second-half deficits to win Game 5 at home 111-109 and Game 6 in Philadelphia 100-98, and the series went back to Boston for a seventh game. Again Philadelphia broke in front, this time leading by as many as 11 points in the second half and by 89-83 with 4:34 to play. And again Boston came back, scoring six points in a row and then nailing down the victory with an 18-foot bank shot by Bird for a 91-90 decision.
Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets, despite going just 40-42 in the regular season, ousted the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, then beat San Antonio in seven games and Kansas City in five to gain a berth in the NBA Finals. The Celtics were expected to dominate the Rockets, but they could do no better than split the first four games. At that point, Rockets center Moses Malone made the mistake of adding fuel to the fire by claiming that he could pick up four guys off the street of his hometown of Petersburg, Va. and beat the Celtics. Boston didn't take kindly to those words, and despite Bird being blanketed by Houston defensive ace Robert Reid, the Celtics came out and pounded Houston 109-80 in Game 5. The series was effectively over, although it didn't officially come to an end until two nights later in Houston, when the Celtics captured Game 6 102-91.