The 1986 Boston Celtics: Bird’s Best Championship Team

The years of 1984-87 were the high point of the Larry Bird era in Boston, with four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships. And no team in that stretch was better than the 1986 Boston Celtics.

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Boston was coming off a bitter pill, a Finals loss on the Garden floor to the Los Angeles Lakers, denying the Celtics a chance to repeat. Boston came back with its core Big Three of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The backcourt was Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson.

Bird won his third straight MVP award, averaging 26 ppg—fourth in the league, along with 10 rebounds and 7 assists. McHale was a 1st-team All-Defense player and averaged 21/8 to go along with it. Parish averaged 16/10 to complete the imposing front line.

Johnson averaged 16ppg, but his biggest value was his skill as a lockdown defender in the backcourt. Ainge chipped in 11ppg and he and Johnson combined for 11 assists a game.

The five starters averaged over 30 minutes per game and as championship teams go, this one wasn’t particularly deep. But there was one big exception. Bill Walton, the one-time star of the Portland Trailblazers who had seen his career derailed by foot injuries, was brought on board to spell Parish off the bench. Walton hit the boards consistently and won Sixth Man of the Year for his efforts.

A team that would eventually get in the forefront of the discussion as one of the greatest of all time didn’t get off the most auspicious of beginnings—an overtime loss to the New Jersey Nets on opening night. The Celtics responded by ripping off a 17-1 stretch, before playing a bit sluggish going into Christmas, losing road games in Philadelphia and New York. The Boston record was 21-7, while Los Angeles was setting the pace at 24-3.

The Celtics came out after Christmas and ripped off another 17-1 stretch and this one included a 110-95 win over the Lakers in the Garden. The Boston size played a big role, with a 61-50 rebound advantage, keyed by Bird, Parish and Walton.

In February, Boston went west for seven games and though they only went 4-3, one of those wins was a big one at old Los Angeles Forum. The Celtics entered their final regular season meeting with the Lakers at 40-9, while L.A. was 39-12. Homecourt advantage was very much in play. Boston, with D.J. leading the defense, locked up Magic Johnson and held him to six points in 38 minutes while Bird put up a 22/18/7 line in a 105-99 win.

The Celtics came back home at 42-11 and put on a finishing kick that included 22 wins in one 23-game stretch. They finished 67-15, five games ahead of the Lakers, ten games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks, their closest competition in the East and thirteen games ahead of traditional rival Philadelphia. Boston was the team to beat entering the playoffs and everyone was anticipating a third straight Bird-Magic battle in the NBA Finals.

Boston opened the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls. They were 30-52, a sign that either a league needs more good teams or to reduce the size of the postseason. But they did have some good young talent in Orlando Woolridge, Quintin Daley and Charles Oakley.

And they had a second-year guard named Michael Jordan who averaged 23ppg during the season and turned out to be pretty good. It was a testament to Jordan’s emerging greatness that he stole the show from the best team in basketball even without winning a game.

Jordan’s Bulls grabbed an eight-point lead after the first quarter of Game 1. The Celtics took over the second half through controlling the boards, but Jordan poured in 49 points in the 123-104 Boston win.

Game 2 was even more dramatic. Boston against owned the glass, 59-44. Jordan almost single-handedly wiped it out. He shot 22-for-41 from the floor and scored 63 points. The Celtics got a number of contributions to overcome it—Bird went for 36/12, McHale 27/15 and Walton grabbed 15 rebounds in a hair-rising 135-131 overtime win.

The Celtic defense finally figured out Jordan in the third game back in Chicago. They kept him off the ball, limiting MJ to 18 shots. McHale scored 31 and Boston won 122-104. It was a much harder three-game sweep than anyone would have anticipated.

Anotehr electric young star awaited in the second round. Dominique Wilkins averaged 30ppg and won the scoring title. His Atlanta Hawks had a lot more depth than Chicago did. Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins and Cliff Levingston were a talented frontcourt. The guards were two men who would eventually become NBA head coaches. One was Randy Wittman. The other was someone who would play his own key role in a future Boston championship—Doc Rivers.

The Hawks’ talent had them circled as a possible roadblock for the Celtics in the Eastern Conference. It didn’t work out that way. The Boston defense forced Wilkins into 4-for-15 shooting in Game 1 and 7-for-22 in Game 2. The Celtics blew open Game 1 early with a balanced attack and won 103-91. They controlled Game 2 throughout, with Bird lighting up the Garden for 36 points on 15-for-23 shooting in a 119-108 win.

Wilkins turned it around on his home floor and scored 38 in Game 3. Bird countered with a 28/9/12 line and McHale’s 25 points down low were the difference as the Celtics survived 111-107. They finally lost a playoff game in Game 4, with Bird shooting 5-for-19 in a 106-94 loss. But Game 5 back in Boston produced an incredible third quarter. The Celtics outscored the Hawks 36-6 and blew the game wide open, coasting to a 132-99 win. They were halfway home.

Milwaukee was the last hurdle on the way to the Finals. The Bucks had a terrific defensive guard in Sidney Moncreif, who also averaged 20ppg and was a 2nd-team All-Star. Small forward Paul Pressey caused problems of his own as a defender, and Terry Cummings could score and rebound at the other forward spot. But the Bucks were woefully lacking in height, at least in comparison to the Celtics.

Boston came out blazing with a 29-12 first quarter in Game 1, pounding Milwaukee on the boards 56-40 and getting 26 points from Bird. The 128-96 win set the tone for the series. The second game saw all five Celtic starters get 20-plus points while Moncreif was forced into 1-for-8 shooting in a 122-111 win.

Milwaukee was feisty back at home and led Game 3 by five after three quarters. McHale and Parish were having their way inside though, combining for 57 points and 23 rebounds. Moncreif had another poor shooting night, 9-for-21 and Boston broke them down in a 111-107 win to effectively end the series. The ending was made official in Game 4 when Bird dropped 30 points, including five three-pointers—a lot for that era’s offenses. Boston trailed by three after three quarters, but with Bird leading the way, dominated the fourth quarter in a 111-98 win.

Elsewhere in the conference finals, something funny was happening—the Lakers were coming apart at the seams. After winning the series opener over the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles was systematically dismantled as Houston won the next four. It would be a surprise opponent for Boston—the same organization they had defeated in the 1981 NBA Finals, but with a different cast.

The Rockets had the two of the most talented young big men in basketball. Ralph Sampson averaged 19 points/11 rebounds. Hakeem Olajuwon (his name was spelled “Akeem” at the time and will be referred to as such the rest of this article) averaged 24/11, was in the top five in both rebounding and blocked shots and made 2nd-team All-NBA. Ralph and Akeem had been the first overall draft choices in both 1983 and 1984 and this “Twin Towers” lineup was said to be the new wave of the NBA future.

Houston also had good guards, in veteran John Lucas and young Lewis Lloyd. Although their cocaine problems a year later would derail this team’s bright future, they were each 16ppg scorers in 1986, with Lucas excelling as a distributor. Robert Reid was a reliable veteran presence in the backcourt and with his height, he could create problems for small forwards—like Bird, with whom he would now be matched up.

Bird was ready to go in Game 1 and posted a 21/8/13 line, while Dennis Johnson was similarly strong, going 19/11/8. Akeem couldn’t be handled, putting up a 33/12, but McHale was winning his battle with Ralph at the power forward spot. McHale scored 21, while Sampson shot 1-for-13. The Celtics pulled away in the third quarter to a 112-100 win.

Another strong third quarter was the difference in Game 2. Bird drilled 31 points, adding eight rebounds and seven assists and McHale continued his low post mastery with 25 points, as Boston held serve at home with a 117-95 win.

The series heated up in Houston. Game 3 went down to the wire. McHale was great, with 28 points, but the other parts of the Big Three had problems. Bird got his 25, but on 10-for-26 shooting, thanks to Reid’s distracting defense. Parish was awful, going 3-for-15 and Houston stole a 106-104 win to keep the series alive.

Game 4 was the biggest test Boston had faced in the postseason thus far. The NBA Finals were then played under the 2-3-2 format, meaning a loss here meant a road Game 5 with the series tied. All hands were on deck and Bird, Johnson, McHale and Parish all went for 20-plus. In a fabulous basketball game, Sampson responded for 25, but Akeem had a tough 8-for-21 shooting night.

The ultimate difference came when Bird hit a three-pointer with a little over two minutes left and then McHale forced three turnovers down the stretch. The Celtics survived 106-103 and with Games 6 & 7 at home had some serious cushion to work with.

They played like it in Game 5. This game is remembered for a fight that broke out between the 7’4’ Sampson and the little Celtic guard Jerry Sichting. Sampson would be vilified in Boston and throughout the country for throwing a punch at Sichting, who gave up 15 inches.

It seemed to me though that Sichting was the designated “pest”, trying to egg on Sampson, as the proto-type little guy who first picks a fight and then uses his size to engender sympathy. For the record, I am a Celtics fan, though in 1986 I had not yet seen the light and was still rooting for the Rockets. So I’m not sure how that biases me, but it’s what I believe is true. Maybe the fact that I was always the low-key bigger kid growing up is the bigger source of bias.

In any event, Sampson and Sichting were both ejected, a huge win for the Celtics and what I believe was the ultimate purpose. But Houston came out fired up, while Boston looked ready to go clinch at home. The Rockets rolled 111-96 behind 32 from Akeem.

A Sunday afternoon crowd showed up at the Garden thirsting for blood, both a championship and the blood of Sampson, who was booed every time he touched the ball and was visibly rattled. It was no contest. Bird went for 29/11/12, McHale for 29/10 and the 114-97 win sealed Boston’s 16th NBA championship and capped off one of the best teams ever.

It turned out the memories of 1986 had to last for a while. Injuries and a very good Laker team were too much to overcome in 1987. The Detroit Pistons were coming by 1988 and Jordan’s Bulls ascended thereafter. The Celtics couldn’t overcome retirements and the tragic death of #2 overall draft pick Len Bias in the spring of ’86. But the memories of the 1986 Boston Celtics were sweet ones indeed for the people of Beantown.