A new era arrived in Boston in 1980 with the arrival of Larry Bird and the championship run of 1981 gave Larry Legend quick validation. The 1982 Boston Celtics were an outstanding team that was poised to repeat—right down to vanquishing a rival in the exact same manner as ’81—before coming up just short.
The ’82 Celtics played at a brisk pace, the eighth-fastest in what was then a 23-team league. Bird averaged 23 points/11 rebounds/6 assists, was a 1st-team All-Star and a second-team All-Defensive player. Robert Parish was a 2nd-team All-Star, behind only league MVP Moses Malone at the center position in the NBA. Parish averaged 20 points/11 rebounds.
Tiny Archibald, the 33-year-old veteran point guard, ably ran the show, averaging eight assists per game and kicking in 13 points. Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell averaged 15/6, although the hero of the 1981 NBA Finals was seeing his minutes cut into by a rising star named Kevin McHale, who averaged 14/7. The Celtics were top five in efficiency in both offense and defense as they sought to win another championship.
The early part of the season was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the 20-6 record on Christmas was nothing to sneer at. But Eastern Conference rivals in Philadelphia and Milwaukee showed they could match up. The Celtics split two games with both the 76ers and Bucks and lost an NBA Finals rematch against the Houston Rockets at home.
January was highlighted by an exciting 98-96 home win over the 76ers and by the end of the month, Boston had nudged to a 32-11 record and a narrow lead for the top seed in the East. The Sixers were 30-14 and the Bucks were 29-14. Out west, the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson were 31-12.
The two marquee Celtics-Lakers games took place in February and the result was a split—although not in the way you would expect, with the road team winning both games. The Bucks briefly took the spot in the East by a half-game, although Boston took it back with a 106-102 home win to close out the month. Going into March, the Celts were 40-15, with the Sixers and Bucks in hot pursuit, a half-game back. The Lakers were 41-17.
Fittingly, the month of March was when the franchise with the Irish nickname would get separation on the rest of the league. Already on a three-game winning streak when the month began, the Celtics ripped off fifteen straight wins. By the time they dropped a home game to Philly on March 28, the race for homecourt advantage was blown wide open. Boston finished the regular season at 63-19, clearing the field by five games.
The NBA’s playoff format prior to 1984 was six teams per conference, with two division winners getting a first-round bye. The Celtics not only got one of the byes, but they were able to get opposite the Bucks and 76ers in the bracket. So while Philly and Milwaukee went at it in one conference semifinals, Boston was able to draw the 43-win Washington Bullets.
The Bullets had the size to match up with the Celtic frontline. The quartet of Greg Ballard, Rick Mahorn, Spencer Haywood and Jeff Ruland gave them big players who could both score and rebound. But the lack of a backcourt meant that Washington would have a harder time playing at the faster pace that Boston would prefer. It also meant that the Bullets were only 20th in the league in offensive efficiency.
Game 1 was tight for a half, with Bird shooting poorly. But with M.L. Carr capitalizing on that shaky Bullet backcourt for 21 points, the Celtics pulled away to a 109-91 win. It looked like an easy series might be at hand.
But Washington bounced back and their big men got on the boards in Game 2, winning the rebounding battle 47-36. Point guard Fred Johnson stepped up and knocked down 26. Even though Bird went for 26/10 and McHale added 20 points of his own it wasn’t quite enough, and the Celts dropped a 103-102 decision. Homecourt advantage had shifted.
Just as quickly, it shifted back. The Celts jumped out to an early ten-point lead on the road in Game 3. Parish went for 25/13 and the defense held the Bullets to 35 percent shooting. The result was a 92-83 win that put Boston back in control of the series.
Bird had his third poor shooting game of the series in Game 4, while Haywood and Ballard had big games for Washington. But Parish came through again, with 28/15, Maxwell delivered a 20/13 and McHale knocked down 25 points while grabbing seven rebounds. The Celts pulled out a 103-99 win in overtime and the series was all but over.
That didn’t mean closing at home in Game 5 was easy. Boston blew a thirteen-point lead in the fourth quarter and had to go two overtimes, with Ruland having a big night. But Larry was back on his game, with a 26/8/7 line. Archibald dished 11 assists. Cornbread was good for 26 points. And nobody could stop The Chief. Parish went off for 33 points and 13 rebounds to deliver the 131-126 series-clinching win.
The 76ers got by the Bucks in six and it set up a third consecutive Philadelphia-Boston matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers came in with their usual cast of suspects. Julius Erving, “Dr.J”, joined Bird as a 1st-team All-Star.
Maurice Cheeks was to Philly what Archibald was to Boston, that smart quarterback on the floor. Bobby Jones was one of the league’s best defenders. Lionel Hollins and Daryl Dawkins provided more quality at the forward position. Andrew Toney, the shooting guard, was called “The Boston Strangler” for his ability elevate his game in this rivalry. When the Celtics and 76ers played in this era, it was an epic battle of talent.
Game 1 was anything but epic though. It was all Boston. The Celts were up 17 by the half. Bird had a triple-double of 24/15/10. Parish and McHale combined for 40 points/25 rebounds and keyed a massive 67-50 edge on the boards. If everyone in Boston started looking ahead to the Finals after the 121-81 massacre, they couldn’t be blamed.
The Celtics led Game 2 by a bucket going into the fourth quarter, with Bird, Parish and Archibald all playing well. But the 76ers were desperate and it showed. Toney poured in 30 points, three more players added 20-plus and Philly got control with a 121-113 win.
Boston then trailed Game 3 by ten points in the fourth quarter, with Bird shooting just 6-for-16 from the floor. A 51-35 rebounding edge helped the Celts come back, but it wasn’t quite enough in a 99-97 loss. Game 4 was simply ugly. Boston did not play defense, was killed on the boards and were crushed 119-94 on the scoreboard. They were in a 3-1 series hole and looked like a dead team walking.
No one in Philadelphia was getting ahead of themselves. One year earlier, this exact same scenario presented itself. Boston responded by winning three straight to take the series and ultimately win the championship. But surely that couldn’t happen again, could it?
Bird responded with his best performance of the postseason in Game 5, a 20/20/8 line, with Parish added a 26/10 and Maxwell ripped down 12 boards. A 114-85 rout kept the Celtics alive and gave them some momentum.
Game 6 back in Philly was ugly. Bird and Parish each shot the ball poorly, combining to go 12-for-36. But this time, the Celts played defense and the Sixers only shot 35 percent themselves. And Boston was the team rebounding the missed shots, to the tune of a 59-40 edge. Even though they trailed by a bucket after three quarters, the Celtics pulled away late to an 88-75 win.
Hell was breaking loose in Philadelphia. The reports were circulating that head coach Billy Cunningham was going to be fired if he blew another 3-1 series lead to the Celtics. The city of Boston was on fire, ready to host Game 7.
The decisive game was tight for a half. Boston again won the rebounding battle. But the problems Bird and Parish had shooting the ball weren’t going away and this time Philly would shoot 50 percent from the floor. Dr. J answered the bell with 29 points. Toney solidified his reputation in Boston by knocking down 34. The 76ers opened the game up in the third quarter and cruised home to a 120-106 win. The bid for a repeat title was over.
Magic Johnson and the Lakers were awaiting the winner in the NBA Finals and the final moments of the game are still remembered for the way Boston fans rose to their feet to give their archrival a deserved tip of the cap. The chants “Beat LA! Beat LA!” reverberated through the old Garden. The Celtics hadn’t completed another championship drive. But the players showed their fortitude, the fans showed their class and their own way, the 1982 Boston Celtics made moments to remember.