Larry Bird arrived in Boston in 1980 when the Celtics were staggering after two bad years. Bird immediately produced three consecutive trips to the conference finals, including a 1981 NBA title run. The 1983 Boston Celtics spent the season looking like a title contender, but came up drastically short in the playoffs.
Bird had another vintage season in 1983, averaging 24 points/11 rebounds/6 assists. He was a 1st-team All-Star and 2nd-team All-Defense. Kevin McHale was part of the 2nd-team All-Defense squad and the rising star at power forward averaged 14 points/7 rebounds. McHale shared time with Cedric Maxwell, who contributed 12/5. And “The Chief”, Robert Parish, continued to patrol the middle and averaged 19 points/11 rebounds.
The Celtics were a big team that relied on muscle, but they still had good options at the point guard spot. Danny Ainge was getting his first chance to start and he knocked down 10ppg. Ainge was taking playing time from 34-year-old Tiny Archibald, who came off the bench and still averaged 11 points/6 assists. The Celts filled out their backcourt with reliable help from Quinn Buckner and Gerald Henderson.
Boston’s biggest problem was not what they had or didn’t have though, it was who had arrived in Philadelphia. The 76ers had been the Celtic opponent in all three previous conference finals trips. Philly had won two of those, but also came up short against Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals both times. So the Sixers went shopping and they landed Moses Malone.
The center and future Hall of Famer was at the peak of his greatness and would win a second straight MVP award in 1983. The Celtics came into the season knowing they were chasing the Sixers, and that were still the defending champion Lakers and the pesky Milwaukee Bucks, always lurking in the Eastern Conference, to deal with.
Boston responded by going 13-2 out of the gate and were 21-7 when the calendar hit Christmas. They had a lost a couple games to Philadelphia, but one was in double-overtime and the Celtics also rolled the Sixers 123-95. Boston won two of three games over Milwaukee. The Celtics were squarely in the mix for another title run.
A strong run through January had its peak on Super Bowl Sunday. Sports fans prepared for the Redskins-Dolphins game that was coming up by watching the Celts thump the Lakers 110-95 in Boston Garden. The Celtic record reached 35-10. They were still chasing the 76ers, who were an astonishing 38-6, but were narrowly ahead of the 34-10 Lakers and comfortably ahead of 30-16 Milwaukee.
February is called the Dog Days of the NBA and it was that way for Boston this season. They went 6-5 and Philadelphia pulled away in the Eastern Conference. But the Celtics still went to the old LA Forum and beat the Lakers 113-104. Boston still had the second-best record in the entire league and had a four-game cushion on Milwaukee for homecourt advantage in a potential second-round series.
The Celtics closed the regular season on a good note. They split a couple games with the 76ers in March and finished 56-26. Boston was right behind Los Angeles, who won 58 games. And more important to the playoff picture, the Celtics were five games ahead of the Bucks. There was no question that 65-win Philadelphia was the top-heavy favorite, but Boston was certainly expected to reach another conference finals and to play the 76ers as competitive as anyone else.
First, there was the matter of the mini-series. This was the final year of a postseason format where six teams per conference qualified. The two division winners (Philadelphia and Milwaukee) had byes, while the other four played a best-of-three.
The Celtics drew the 43-win Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta relied on Dan Roundfield and a young Dominque Wilkins for their scoring punch and big Tree Rollins down low for rebounding and defense. The Hawks had nowhere near the depth of talent that Boston could come at you with.
And come right at Atlanta is what Bird did. He dropped 26/15 in the first game, while Parish went for 18/6 and Maxwell contributed a 13/9. Archibald came off the bench and dished eleven assists. The result was a 103-95 win.
The mini-series went south to Atlanta and with Bird struggling to a 4-for-18 shooting night, Boston dug a 13-point hole at the half. Parish delivered a 17/11 performance and the Celtics got back in it, but a 95-93 loss sent the series to a decisive third game.
Game 3 would be memorable, although not for anything to do with the quality of the game. Bird went off for 26/9/9, Maxwell added a 19/8 game, Parish pulled down eleven rebounds and Archibald handed out eight assists. The Celtics won easily, 98-79. What was memorable is that there was a brawl during the game and a sharp photographer got a picture of Ainge biting down on the hand of Rollins. Ainge’s reputation as the player people loved to hate was off and running.
Boston had to put all that behind them and get ready for Milwaukee. Even though the Bucks had gotten the first-round bye, the Celtics would have homecourt advantage. Milwaukee was led by Sidney Moncrief, a 1st-team All-Star at guard and also 1st-team All-Defense. Moncrief got considerable help from Marques Johnson at the small forward spot and had a quality big man in Bob Lanier.
What’s more, the Bucks were hungry. They were the team always on the outside of the Celtics-76ers-Lakers love triangle that ruled the NBA in this era and Milwaukee wanted to belong.
Boston wasn’t ready. In spite of their size, they were outrebounded 56-43 in the opener, only shot 41 percent and lost 116-95. What’s more, Bird wasn’t able to play in Game 2. Even though Ainge knocked down 25 and Scott Wedman added 18, the fact these were the Celtics’ leading scorers, perhaps underscored the problem. Boston lost another home game 95-91 and went to the Midwest with their season on life support.
Bird was back and he responded as you would expect in a must-win situation. Larry hit 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. But Parish and Maxwell had rough nights, the Celtics were again outrebounded and again lost, this time 107-99.
It was all over but the shouting and there was very little of that. Bird had an 18/11/8 line in Game 4, but he was the only player who did anything noteworthy. Boston got hammered on the glass, to the tune of a 49-32 rebound deficit. They only shot 40 percent and a decisive 107-93 loss brought their season to an ignominious end.
The bright side was that if you were going to have a season that came apart like this, 1983 was the one. Philadelphia was as unstoppable as they looked and went 12-1 through the playoffs to take the championship. But the Celtics still went into the offseason knowing there was work to be done.
A coaching change was made—Bill Fitch, architect of the 1981 championship, was moved out and K.C. Jones brought in. And in 1984, there was champagne flowing in Boston yet again.