Larry Bird had been gamely fighting his declining body for four seasons and the 1992 Boston Celtics campaign would be his last run. The Celtics were no longer in the NBA’s upper crust, but they remained a competitive team and made sure Bird’s final season was a good one.
Bird’s back problems limited him to 45 games, but Larry Legend was still awfully good when he could get on the court, averaging 20 points/10 rebounds/7 assists in the ‘92 season. The two other aging components of the great 1980s Big Three were also on hand. Robert Parish and Kevin McHale each averaged 14ppg.
It was the influx of young blood that made this Celtics team vibrant in the early 1990s. Reggie Lewis was a rising star and dropped 21 a night. Kevin Gamble kicked in 14 more as part of a backcourt that was led by point guard Dee Brown, with his 12 points/5 assists per night. The Celtics had good depth, getting contributions from John Bagley at the guard spot, along with Ed Pinckney up front and a young Rick Fox.
The Celtics got off to a nice 17-9 start. They were blown out twice by the defending champion Chicago Bulls, but split with the New York Knicks, who were the primary rival in the Atlantic Division. Boston muddled through January, including an inexusable home loss to the 15-win Minnesota Timberwolves. February got worse, with a 1-6 road trip being the lowlight. When March opened, the Celtics’ record was a pedestrian 31-25 and they were 3 ½ games bak of the Knicks.
Beating out New York was no small thing—the division winner would go on the opposite side of the Eastern Conference draw from Michael Jordan’s Bulls, while the runner-up was heading into the 4-5 spot and straight into a second-round matchup with Chicago. The Atlantic Division was something to fight for and that’s what the Celtics did down the stretch of the 1992 regular season.
They won a thrilling double-overtime decision over Portland, the best team in the Western Conference. Boston beat good teams in Cleveland, Detroit and Golden State. The Celitcs knocked off the Bulls and then put on a defensive show against the Knicks, holding New York to 41% shooting in a 93-89 win on April 8. Boston was still two games out and there were only five to play—but the win gave them a 3-2 edge in the head-to-head series against New York and thus, the tiebreaker if it came to that.
And that’s what it came to. The Celtics concluded their 20-6 rush to end the season with five straight wins. The Knicks lost twice. The bracket wouldn’t be easy—Boston’s 51-31 record was still behind Central Division runner-up Cleveland. But being on the Cavs side of the bracket made dreams of the conference finals considerably more realistic than if they had to go through Chicago.
It also meant a first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers instead of the Detroit Pistons, who were only two years removed from their championship days with The Bad Boys. The Pacers had some talent, notably a long-range shooter named Reggie Miller. They also had Chuck Person and Detlef Schremph, who combined for 36ppg at the forward spots. They wouldn’t be a pushover, but at the same time there was a reason they’d only won 40 games in the regular season and it was that they didn’t play much defense.
Lewis lit up the soft Indiana defense for 36 points in Game 1. It was tied after three quarters, but with aluable help from Kevin Gamble (20/8) and Robert Parish (19/14), the Celtics won it, 124-119.
Depth and experience delivered Boston in Game 2 after they fell behind by twelve in the first half and Lewis and Gamble struggled to shoot a combined 16-for-40. Parish posted a 23/14 line and McHale kicked in with a 15/11 game. And no one was better than Bagley, who poured in 35 points, dished 15 assists and was the toast of the town in the 119-112 overtime win.
First-round play was just best-of-five in 1992, so the close-out opportunity was at hand. McHale was again clutch off the bench, with 15/9. Bagley again kept the offense flowing, dishing 11 assists. The Celts forced Person into a 4-for-14 shooting night. And Lewis was back on his game, dropping 32 and leading the 102-98 win. The games had all been close, but Boston was consistently better when it mattered most.
Cleveland was up next, with a terrific inside-out tandem of Brad Daugherty in the post and Mark Price at guard. These were the best Cavaliers teams prior to the arrival of LeBron James in the 21st century. But for three games, Boston was more than holding their own. After getting blown out in the opener, the Celtics had shot the lights out in Game 2, hit the boards in Game 3 and were in position to control the series when they hosted Game 4 in the Garden.
The one element they’d been lacking in the playoffs was also returning Larry Bird was cleared to play and he would pop in 17 points in the crucial fourth game. McHale added 23, while Lewis was electric with 42. But if this sounds like the buildup to a happy ending, it isn’t. Cleveland had plenty of weapons of their own and in a thrilling game, the Celtics lost 114-112 in overtime.
In an NBA world where homecourt advantage is so paramount, a defeat like this can often seem fatal for the underdog team and in the case of the 1992 Boston Celtics, it was. Home teams took over for the balance of the series. Bird played each game. In the sixth game at the Garden, he played 37 minutes and posted a 16/6/4 line in a 122-91 win. It was a nice performance in what proved to be his final home game. Cleveland went back home on Sunday afternoon and closed out Game 7 easily.
There was still every reason to feel good if you were a Boston Celtics fan. They had enjoyed a good season, advanced in the playoffs and still acquitted themselves well in defeat. Bird got some nice final moments and there was good young talent on hand going forward.
But the dark cloud that seemed to settle on this franchise when first-round pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose following the 1986 NBA draft reared its ugly head again. After the 1993 season, Lewis died of heart failure.
While the on-court ramifications of a tragedy are always the least significant in these matters, they were certainly consequential for the Celtics organization. Over the next nine years, they only made the playoffs twice. They did not win a postseason series until the conference finals run of 2002. And they were never truly relevant again at the highest levels of the NBA until the second edition of the Big Three—Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett—were put together in 2008.