Celtics Decade Night: Recapping the 1980s

80s Night Presented by Wellesley Mazda

Monday marks the first of seven Decade Nights that the Boston Celtics will be hosting at TD Garden this season in celebration of theirs and the NBA's 75th anniversary.

Up first is 80s night, which is only fitting since the Celtics will be hosting the same Houston Rockets team that they defeated in both the 1981 and 1986 Finals.

Throughout the game, fans will be taken back in time to relive some of the Celtics’ most memorable moments from the 1980s, many of which we have included in our decade recap below.

The Trade that Would Shape a Dynasty

The Celtics started off the 1980s with a trade that would help shape their next decade of success.

On June 9 – the day before the 1980 Draft – Boston traded the No. 1 and No. 13 overall picks to Golden State in exchange for Robert Parish and the No. 3 overall pick. The following day, the Celtics used their pick to select a young power forward by the name of Kevin McHale, while the Warriors used their picks to select Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown, respectively. McHale and Parish went on to have Hall-of-Fame careers while combining for 16 All-Star appearances. Meanwhile, Carroll and Brown combined for one All-Star appearance.

It’s safe to say that Boston won that trade, as it helped to form arguably the greatest frontcourt trio in NBA history with McHale and Parish joining forces with Larry Bird, who each played a helping hand in leading the Celtics to three championships over the following six years.

An Epic Eastern Conference Finals Comeback

There have been 13 instances of an NBA team coming back from a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series; although, none of them could compare to the heart-palpitating nature of Boston’s rally against the Philadelphia 76ers in 1981.

Boston faced three straight elimination games and each went down to the final possession, winning Games 5 and 6 by two points, and Game 7 by one point.

In the decisive Game 7, Philadelphia found itself in the driver’s seat, up seven points with 4:34 remaining. However, Boston stormed back to tie the game, 89-89, before Larry Bird hit a go-ahead mid-range bank shot to put the C’s ahead by two points with 1:03 left.

The 76ers had plenty of chances to tie the game in the final minute, but only mustered a single free-throw make, allowing Boston to escape with a 91-90 win. It was an unpleasant form of déjà vu for Philly, which had suffered the exact same fate 13 years prior when it coughed up a 3-1 lead to the Celtics during the 1968 Eastern Division Finals.

C’s Big 3 Gets First Title

After knocking off Philadelphia, the Celtics got matched up against a Cinderella Rockets team, which had somehow made it all the way to the Finals despite posting just a 40-42 record in the regular season. Boston, meanwhile, was a goliath of a team that had logged a 62-20 mark.

Houston made the series interesting by splitting the first four games. At that point, star center Moses Malone was so confident in his team that he declared, “Boston ain’t that good,” and that he could pull four random people off the streets of his hometown and still beat the C’s.

In hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have said that.

Boston went on to win Game 5 at TD Garden by a score of 109-80, while riding a 28-point, 15-rebound effort from Cedric Maxwell. The C’s then returned to Houston for Game 6 where it finished off the Rockets, 102-91, for their 14th NBA title. Despite all of the hype surrounding Boston’s Big 3, it was Maxwell who deservedly took home the Finals MVP after averaging 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 56.8 percent from the field.

Henderson Steals the Ball

The 1984 Finals was an epic, seven-game ride, which marked the first championship meeting between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson since the 1979 NCAA title game, which was won by Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans. There were quite a few moments that stood out during that series, starting with Gerald Henderson’s famous steal in Game 2 that helped prevent the Celtics from falling into a 2-0 hole.

The Lakers seemingly had the game in their hands, ahead 113-111 with 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and possession of the ball. However, Henderson literally stole the game away from L.A. when he picked off a James Worthy pass and took it straight to the hole for a game-tying layup. Johnson then inexplicably dribbled out the game clock, sending the match into overtime where the Celtics would prevail 124-121, largely thanks to Scott Wedman’s game-winning jumper with 14 seconds remaining.

That one steal changed the entire course of the series, as the Celtics went from potentially losing the first two games of the series at home, to instead heading to L.A. tied 1-1 with momentum in their favor.

McHale Clotheslines Rambis, Lakers Choke Away Series

Game 5 of the 1984 Finals was famously declared the “Heat Game,” as the temperature inside TD Garden reached as high as 97 degrees in a 121-103 Celtics win. Some may argue, however, that the true “Heat Game” of the series took place two nights prior in what was the most physical match of the storied rivalry.

Following a 137-104 blowout loss in Game 3, Larry Bird called out his teammates out for playing too soft. Those words lit a fire under their bellies for Game 4, as they came out three nights later swinging – literally. The Celtics were trailing 76-70 with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter when Kevin McHale dealt the game-changing blow in the form of a clothesline takedown of Kurt Rambis while the latter was driving to the basket.

The incident cleared both benches and set off a domino effect for what would be a blood-boiling second half. Several altercations occurred in the aftermath, including two separate instances when Larry Bird later went after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper.

Eventually, Boston wore L.A. down. The Lakers had a five-point lead with less than a minute remaining in regulation, but Magic Johnson committed a few key mistakes, including a bad pass that fell into the hands of Robert Parish and turned into points on the other end of the floor. The Lakers also missed several key free-throws down the stretch. After one such miss by James Worthy, Cedric Maxwell walked across the lane with his hands raised to his throat in a choking motion, providing further antagonization.

The Celtics would prevail, 129-124, tying the series at two games apiece, before eventually winning the title in seven.

Five years after his NCAA championship defeat, Bird got his revenge on Johnson, outdueling the Lakers point guard and earning his first of two Finals MVPs while averaging 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game.

Bird Logs Franchise-Record 60 Points vs. Hawks

The 1980s Celtics weren’t just competitive with their opponents; they were competitive with each other. A prime example of such took place in early March of 1985 when Kevin McHale logged a franchise-record 56 points, only to be one-upped by Larry Bird nine days later.

Toward the end of McHale’s 56-point effort against the Pistons on March 3, Bird urged his frontcourt partner to stay on the court until the end of the game because his record might not last long. Sure enough, it took Bird less than two weeks to break it in a March 12 matchup against the Atlanta Hawks.

Bird’s 60 came by way of a 22-of-36 shooting performance from the field, along with a 15-of-16 effort from the free-throw line. The shots he was making were so unbelievable that even Atlanta’s players couldn’t hide their bewilderment, laughing and clapping along from the bench.

Bird’s record would stand alone for 36 years until a 23-year-old Jayson Tatum came along on April 30, 2021 and put up 60 on the San Antonio Spurs.

Celtics Repeat vs. Rockets, Go 50-1 at Home

The 1986 season was one of redemption for the Boston Celtics after losing to the archrival Los Angeles Lakers in the 1985 NBA Finals. And they redeemed themselves by putting forth one of the greatest seasons of all time.

In the peak year of the Bird-McHale-Parish era, Boston posted a 67-15 regular-season record, including an NBA-record 40-1 mark at home.

The Celtics breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs, sweeping Michael Jordan and the Bulls, beating Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks in five, and then sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks with a 15-point average margin of victory.

The C’s went on to face Houston in a rematch of the 1981 Finals, and the Rockets put up somewhat of a fight – most notably when 7-foot-4 forward Ralph Sampson ignited a brawl with 6-foot-1 guard Jerry Sichting, sparking a 111-96 Rockets win in Game 5. However, the C’s got their revenge in Game 6 with a 114-97 win back on their home court, giving them a 10-0 postseason mark at TD Garden to add onto the 40-1 mark they had compiled during the regular season.

Bird, who logged a triple-double in the title-clinching game, claimed his second Finals MVP after posting averages of 23.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists, and 2.7 steals per game.


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