Larry Bird had won his second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award the previous season, but the Celtics’ loss to the Lakers in The 1985 Finals weighed heavily on his mind. In much the same way that Magic Johnson had been driven during the 1984-85 season by the Lakers’ failure in the 1984 Finals, Bird set out to find a way to lead the Celtics back to the top in 1985-86.
Aside from Bird’s quest, some other notable events happened in 1985-86. Before the season, the Kansas City Kings relocated to Sacramento, where they finished 37-45 in their first season there.
Spurs guard Alvin Robertson, who led the league in steals and played in the 1986 All-Star Game, won the inaugural Most Improved Player Award and was also named Defensive Player of the Year.
The NBA Draft used the lottery format for the first time, which the New York Knicks won the right to draft Patrick Ewing out of Georgetown University. Ewing would go on to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award as part of a rookie class that included future Hall of Famers Karl Malone, Joe Dumars and Chris Mullin.
And at All-Star Weekend in Dallas, 5-foot-7 rookie Spud Webb won the Slam Dunk title, beating his teammate, Dominique Wilkins, while Bird won the inaugural 3-Point Shooutout.
This season, though, was all about Bird. He finished in the NBA’s top 10 in five categories: scoring (25.8 ppg), rebounding (9.8 rpg), steals (2.0), free throw percentage (.896) and 3-point field goal percentage (.423) and led the way as the Celtics put together one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history.
The Celtics had made an important addition with the acquisition of Bill Walton, who came from the Los Angeles Clippers in a trade for Cedric Maxwell. Walton, plagued by injuries for years, shocked NBA observers by playing a career-high 80 games as a valuable backup to Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. His comeback season also netted him the league’s Sixth Man Award in the process.
The contributions of Walton and fellow reserves Scott Wedman and Jerry Sichting alleviated some of the burden from the Celtics’ starters, and propelled Boston to a franchise-best 67-15 record, including an astounding 40-1 home record.
In the postseason, Boston faced Chicago in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Though the Celtics swept the Bulls, the NBA got a sign of things to come as Michael Jordan, who missed most of the regular season with a broken foot, set an NBA playoff scoring record with 63 points in Game 2. The Celtics would lose only one more playoff game in dispatching Atlanta and Milwaukee on their way to the NBA Finals.
The Lakers had won 62 games, but were shocked in the Western Conference finals in five games by the Rockets as Houston earned its second Finals appearance. Under former Boston pilot Bill Fitch, Houston employed a Twin Towers look with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon playing together.
Houston had won the Midwest and won two playoff series, but when the Lakers took Game 1 in the West finals, NBA fans got ready for another Boston-L.A. Finals showdown. But the Rockets surprised everyone by taking the next four straight games to advance to The Finals.
With Olajuwon and Sampson, the Rockets had brought a new wrinkle to the NBA. In the days of George Mikan, and later, with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond and Wiilis Reed, success in the league had been measured by how good your best big man was. Houston decided to take that formula a step further with their two uncommonly agile big players.
But the Celtics, unlike most teams, had the answers with Parish, Walton and McHale, complemented by double-teams from Bird and Dennis Johnson. Although the Celtics received much praise for their unselfish, crisp-passing offense, it was their defense that brought down Houston.
Playing at the top of his game, Bird averaged 24.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists as Boston took its 16th title in six games.
“I don’t remember the last time I was hounded by a team more than I was today,” Sampson said after Game 6. “Every time I touched the ball, there were two and three guys around me. And that went for Hakeem, too.”
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated Chicago (3-0)
Milwaukee defeated New Jersey (3-0)
Philadelphia defeated Washington (3-2)
Atlanta defeated Detroit (3-1)
Western Conference first round
Los Angeles Lakers defeated San Antonio (3-0)
Houston defeated Sacramento (3-0)
Denver defeated Portland (3-1)
Dallas defeated Utah (3-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated Atlanta (4-1)
Milwaukee defeated Philadelphia (4-3)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Dallas (4-2)
Houston defeated Denver (4-2)
Eastern Conference finals
Boston defeated Milwaukee (4-0)
Western Conference finals
Houston defeated Los Angeles Lakers (4-1)
Boston defeated Houston (4-2)
Points — Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks (30.3)
Assists — Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (12.6)
Rebounds — Bill Laimbeer, Detroit Pistons (13.1)
Steals — Alvin Robertson, San Antonio Spurs (3.7)
Blocks — Manute Bol, Washington Bullets (5.0)
FG % — Steve Johnson, San Antonio Spurs (63.2)
FT % — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics (89.6)
3PT % — Craig Hodges, Milwaukee Bucks (45.1)
Most Valuable Player — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
Rookie of the Year — Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks
Defensive Player of the Year — Alvin Robertson, San Antonio Spurs
Most Improved Player — Alvin Robertson, San Antonio Spurs
Sixth Man of the Year — Bill Walton, Boston Celtics
Coach of the Year — Mike Fratello, Atlanta Hawks
All-Star Game MVP — Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons
Finals MVP — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics