The 1993 Boston Celtics represented the start of a new era in franchise history, that of post-Larry Bird. The Legend had retired following the 1992 season. There was a good core of young talent that comprised a solid playoff team for the Celtics in ‘93 and there was reason for hope in Boston. But by the end of the season, hope had turned into tragedy.
Reggie Lewis was the new face of the franchise and had already become the team’s best player. In 1993, Lewis averaged 21ppg. He got support from Kevin Gamble and Dee Brown in the backcourt, each double-digit scorers and Brown a good playmaker. Sherman Douglas, another solid floor leader got time at the point.
Xavier McDaniel played in the power forward spot and was good for 14 points/6 rebounds. The Celtics got contributions off the bench from Ed Pinckeny and Ala Abdelnaby, who combined for over ten rebounds a night.
And then there were the old reliables. Kevin McHale, now 35-years-old, averaged 11/5. Robert Parish was even better. “The Chief”, at age 39, averaged 13 points/9 rebounds.
All told, it made for a good young lineup that had needed veteran help and a clear rising star in Lewis. No one was putting the Celtics in the category with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the two-time defending champ and who would win a third by season’s end. But Boston was good.
They weren’t good early in the season though, dropping eight of their first ten. A home win over the Bulls in early December was a nice pick-me-up, and the Celtics clawed their way back near .500 by Christmas. They were still hovering there at 22-21 when January ended.
Boston opened the month of February with four straight wins, then lost three, then won another four. They might be streaky, but they were at least starting to get separation from the .500 mark. And they got hot in March as the playoffs draw near. The Celts beat a solid playoff team in San Antonio by forty points. They knocked off competitive Cleveland and took care of business against mediocre Detroit.
Then the C’s went west, swept a four-game trip, came back home and won four more. They ended the season on a down note, with five straight losses, but even here the schedule offered a good explanation—four of the games were against the Knicks, Suns and Bulls, the three teams who were clearly the league’s elite in 1993. Boston finished 48-34, good enough for the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Charlotte Hornets (the organizational precursor to the current New Orleans franchise) were the opponent and the Hornets had some big-time talent in the post. Larry Johnson was one of the best young power forwards in the game, averaging 22/11. Alonzo Mourning was a top center, good for 21/10.
The low post tandem was the heart of the Hornets, but the backcourt was deep too. Kendall Gill was a solid guard that scored 15 a night and had good intangibles. Little Muggsy Bogues dished nine assists per game. Dell Curry (father of Steph) averaged 15 points/4 rebounds/3 assists, while Johnny Newman chipped in 12ppg.
If you just looked at the individual talent, you’d wonder how the Hornets finished narrowly behind the Celtics in the standings rather than running with the big boys. The answer was defense—Charlotte was a poor 19th in the league in defensive efficiency. This series was anyone’s to take.
Boston took advantage of the Charlotte defense in the opener, shooting 55% and winning 112-101. One of the noteworthy things about this game, at least when looked at with a modern eye, is that neither team hit a single three-pointer. It’s safe to see that Dell Curry in particular hasn’t seen a game like that in quite a while.
But there was another noteworthy thing about this game, one immediately noticeable and with ominous undertones. Lewis collapsed on the floor and had to be admitted to New England Baptist Hospital with heart abnormalities. There was a pall over the series and the Celtics were without their best player.
There was still good basketball played while Lewis recuperated. Parish had a big night in Game 2, going for 19/16 and leading a commanding Boston edge on the glass. But the Celts only shot 39 percent and the game went to overtime. Offensive basketball was particularly ugly in the extra session. Over the course of two overtimes, the teams combined for just 15 points. The Celtics lost 99-98.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in 1993, so Boston needed to get a road win to extend their season. It certainly didn’t come in Game 3, the most mismatched game of the series. The Hornets shot 61 percent, blew the game open by halftime and won 119-89.
With everything on the line in Game 4, the Celtics looked ready to melt down. They turned it over 17 times, including six by Douglas. The trio of Mourning, Johnson and Gill combined for 71 points and Boston was in an 18-point hole going into the fourth quarter.
But the Celtics didn’t quit and it was the old veterans leading the way. Parish delivered 24 points/9 rebounds, while McHale added 18/6. So did McDaniel. Boston made a run in the fourth quarter, but came up just short. The 104-103 loss ended the season.
It also ended the career of McHale, who announced his retirement. The new era of Boston basketball was moving forward and Lewis sought to rehab and get himself ready for a new season.
But tragedy intervened. That summer, while working out, Lewis collapsed again. This time it was fatal. It was the second death to hit the franchise in less than a decade, including Len Bias’ death after he was drafted second overall by Boston in 1986. And unlike the Bias case, which was driven by a drug overdose, Lewis’ death was pure tragedy.
The Celtics would not recover. The franchise did not make the playoffs or post a winning season until their 2002 run to the Eastern Conference finals. The new era that dawned in 1993 was over almost as soon as it had begun.