The 1980 Boston Celtics were the team the franchise’s great fan base had been waiting for. The team, the NBA’s standard-bearer from 1957-76 when they won fourteen championships, had gone through two miserable years, at 32-50 and 29-53. But in the 1978 NBA draft, team president Red Auerbach made the far-sighted decision to draft Larry Bird, who still had a year left at Indiana State and then wait for him. Bird’s rookie year in 1980 made it plain he was well worth it.
Bird came out and averaged 21 points/10 rebounds/5 assists per game, en route to winning Rookie Of The Year honors. He was the youngest in a rotation that offered a good blend of experience and youth.
The vets included point guard Tiny Archibald, whose eight assists per game were second-best in the league. Dave Cowens averaged 14 points/8 rebounds per game and was 2nd-team All-Defense. Chris Ford, a future Celtics coach, came off the bench to average 11, as did M.L. Carr.
Bird was joined by another talented young forward who had made his name by leading an unknown college team to the Final Four. Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell carried UNC-Charlotte in 1977 and was quickly becoming a solid player in the pros. He averaged 17 points/9 rebounds in 1980. Rick Robey, a key part of Kentucky’s 1978 NCAA champs, chipped in scoring and rebounding off the bench.
It was quickly apparent that a new day was dawning in Boston basketball, as the Celtics rolled to a 10-2 start and twice steamrolled the Washington Bullets, the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs. Washington would sink to being a mediocre playoff team, while the Philadelphia 76ers became Boston’s principal obstacle in the East.
The Celtics dropped a 95-94 game in Philly. The two teams played twice in a five-day span just prior to Christmas, with the home team winning comfortably both teams.
In late January, Boston got on its second seven-game win streak of the year, and a month later started a nine-game winning streak that was capped with a 111-92 win over Philadelphia in the Garden. The Celtics soared to 53-15 and ended the season as division champs at 61-21. They lost a meaningless 116-110 game in Philly, concluding a season series where the home team won each game.
If the home teams kept holding serve, that would suit Boston just fine. The tone was set in the NBA for a seven-year period in which Bird’s Celtics, Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers would rule the world. Boston’s record was the best in 1980, with Los Angeles winning 60 games and Philadelphia clocking in with 59 as the playoffs began.
The NBA of 1980 was split into two divisions per conference. Each division winner got a bye into the conference semifinals while eight other teams played a best-of-three “mini-series.” 1980 was also the last year that Houston and San Antonio would be in the East, getting swapped for Milwaukee and Chicago, indicating that someone in the league office must have looked at a map of the United States for the first time in 1980.
That’s relevant here, because the Celtics took their time off and awaited the winner of the Rockets-Spurs mini-series. It was Houston who advanced. They were built around their great center, Moses Malone. He averaged 26 points/15 rebounds and was second only to the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among league centers. Malone was surrounded by 20ppg scorer Calvin Murphy and a guard in Robert Reid whose length and quickness made him a good defensive matchup for Bird.
Boston countered the top-heavy Houston lineup with balance. Malone and Murphy combined for 50 points in the opener, but the Celtics had seven players score in double-figures. In Game 2, it was six Boston players in double figures. Ford’s 19 led the way to 119-101 win in Game 1. Bird’s 14 were the team-high in a 95-75 win that saw the Celtics hold serve in the Garden.
The Celts brought their defense on the road with them and held Murphy to six points in Game 3, one which they steadily controlled and ended up winning 100-81. In Game 4, we got the first taste of Bird’s killer instinct in the postseason. He dropped 34 points, with Cornbread kicking in 27 and Carr knocking down 23. The Celtics pulled away in the third quarter and closed out the sweep, 138-121.
Philadelphia had dispatched Atlanta in the other Eastern semi, so the first Bird-Dr. J showdown in the playoffs was at hand for a trip to the NBA Finals. Erving’s 27ppg were fourth-best in the NBA. Caldwell Jones, with 12 rebounds per game, was top five at cleaning the glass. Bobby Jones was a 1st-team All-Defense selection. Mo Cheeks was a veteran point guard to match up with Archibald. Two future head coaches, Lionel Hollins and Doug Collins, were each double-digit scorers.
The talent matchup between these teams was outstanding, but the 76ers had something the Celtics couldn’t match—playoff experience. The Sixers reached the NBA Finals in 1977 and had lost a tough conference finals to the Bullets. This group of Boston players had too many players who needed their hearts broken first, something that seems a prerequisite in the NBA more than most sports. And that’s what happened in these Eastern Conference Finals.
Bird’s 27 points in Game 1 couldn’t save his team from a tough 96-93 loss. He immediately came back with 31 to lead a 96-90 win in Game 2. But the Celtics had still lost homecourt advantage and Game 2 was their final win of the year. Philadelphia won Game 3 99-97 and then was able to win more comfortably the next two games, finally coming up with an answer for Bird in the Game 5 finale, holding him to 12 points.
It was a disappointing ending, but there was no doubt about one thing—basketball was back in Boston and one year later, the Celtics would get past the 76ers and bring the NBA championship home to the Garden.