The 1990 Boston Celtics entered the season in territory the franchise hadn’t experienced since the late 1970s—rebuilding mode. Larry Bird missed almost the entire 1989 season due to the back problems that would ultimately end his career a few years later and the Celtics barely made the playoffs. The 1990 team saw the trajectory move back upward, but it still ended in bitter disappointment.
Bird was as healthy as could be expected at age 33 and he played 75 games. The numbers were still vintage Larry—24 points/10 rebounds/8 assists. The rest of the legendary frontline from the 1980s was also in the fold and productive. Kevin McHale averaged 21 points/8 rebounds, while Robert Parish posted a 16/10 per-game average at age 36.
And there was fresh blood, with young Reggie Lewis averaging 17ppg on the wing. The combination of veteran productivity mixed with an infusion of youth was a potent one. So what held the Celtics back?
The problem was the backcourt. Dennis Johnson was 35-years-old and the one-time defensive stopper was no longer productive. This proved to be his final season. John Bagley was a mediocre veteran at the point.
Consistency was a Celtics hallmark through much of the regular season, with no streaks longer than four games either way. They were 36-26 when they caught fire in the middle of March. They won five in a row, and then won six straight in early April. Boston finished 52-30 and earned the 4-seed in the East.
Not only was Boston hot come playoff time, but they had matched up well against good teams. They won three of five against Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers, who were the 2-seed. The Celtics split four with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who made the conference finals. Boston went 2-2 against the defending champion Detroit Pistons, who would ultimately win another title this spring. And most important, Boston had taken four of five from the New York Knicks, who were the opponent to open the playoffs.
What New York did have was a physical frontline that could match up with Boston. Patrick Ewing averaged 29 points/11 rebounds and provided a shotblocking presence the Celtics couldn’t match. Charles Oakley averaged 15/12. Mark Jackson, the future ABC analyst, was the point guard and dished seven assists per game.
More important than the numbers was the contrast—the Knicks’ key players were all 27-years-old or younger. Would it be Celtic savvy or Knick youth?
The old men who dominated the first two games at Boston Garden. Bird went off for 24 points/18 rebounds/10 assists in the opener, while Parrish and McHale combined for 39/19. The Celtics opened the game up in the third quarter and won 116-105.
Boston went off offensively in Game 2, scoring 40-plus points in three different quarters and putting eight players in double figures. Even with Bird having a bad shooting night, he still handed out 16 assists and the Celtics rolled up a 157-128 win.
In a series that was to be defined by the frontlines, Boston was winning decisively—they had outrebounded New York 85-65 in the first two games combined. And with the first round being a best-of-five affair in 1990, this series looked over.
It turned out that the only that was over was Boston Celtics’ victories for the 1990 season. Ewing arose back in Madison Square Garden. He delivered a 33/19 performance as the Knicks pulled out Game 3, 102-99. Ewing went off for 44 points in a 135-108 rout in Game 4. Bird was getting his numbers, but it wasn’t efficient, as his shooting remained off.
The stage was set for a Sunday afternoon in Boston Garden for a decisive game. It was a venue, time slot and stakes very familiar to Bird and his teammates—in recent years alone, they’d won similar games against Milwaukee (1987 conference semis), Detroit (1988 conference finals) and Atlanta (1988 conference finals). There was no reason to think this day would be different.
But everything ends and despite taking an eight-point lead after the first quarter, the Celtics watched the Knicks slowly chip away at their lead. With the game slipping away, Bird missed a wide-open reverse dunk late in the fourth quarter. It probably wasn’t going to change the outcome, though it was still in doubt at the time. More than anything, it was a powerful symbol of the fall of the dynasty.
There was still some winning ahead for the Celtics with Bird. They had similar seasons in 1991 and 1992 and in both years were able to reach the second round of the playoffs. Larry Legend ultimately finished his career on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. The 1990 Boston Celtics were a transition from an era of championship contention to the respectable twilight of Bird’s career.