Officially, the Larry Bird era in Boston started in 1980, when the Legend arrived from Indiana State for his rookie year. But practically speaking, it was the 1981 Boston Celtics that ushered in this glorious new era for the proud franchise. Specially, six days and three games in the Eastern Conference Finals that paved the way to Bird’s first NBA championship.
Prior to Bird’s arrival, the Celtics had fallen on hard times. After winning the 1976 NBA crown, they had gotten old and went 32-50 and 29-53 in the two years prior to Larry’s arrival. In his rookie year, they immediately went 61-21, for the best record in the league.
But a lack of playoff experience did them in, with a five-game conference finals loss to the more experienced Philadelphia 76ers. But in a league where so often you need to lose before you can win, the Celtics had gone through the growing pains.
They also got a huge influx of talent prior to the 1981 season. Team president Red Auerbach made what is widely considered one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history, when he sent two first-round draft picks—including the #1 overall choice—to Golden State for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. The draft picks were Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown.
It’s safe to say the deal worked out pretty well for the Celtics, but at the time it wasn’t as lopsided as it looks right now. Carroll, the top overall choice, was a dominant shotblocker and scorer at Purdue who had just led his team to a Final Four. There was every reason to consider him the kind of center you build an NBA contender around.
Conversely, there was no reason to assume McHale would be great. If you judge a move based on 1981 knowledge rather than what we know now, it was a pretty reasonable deal for both sides.
Parish stepped into the center spot and averaged 19 points/10 rebounds for the Celts, while McHale came off the bench to get ten a night. Tiny Archibald, the 32-year-old veteran point guard and one of the best floor generals in the game, scored 14 ppg and averaged seven assists. Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, averaged 15/7.
And then there was Bird. Larry poured in 21 ppg, and was fourth in the NBA in rebounding, at 11 per game. He also averaged six assists per game, right behind the great passer Archibald. It added up to a 61-20 record with one game left in the regular season.
Boston trailed Philadelphia by one game and the two rivals would meet head-to-head in the Boston Garden. The Celtics had the tiebreaker, so the winner of this game would be the #1 seed. The Celtics approached it with appropriate playoff intensity and built up a 20-point lead after three quarters, before holding off a Sixer charge to win 98-94.
As many big games remained, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that it was this March 29 game where Boston effectively won the NBA title.
The structure of the NBA at this time was two divisions per conference. The playoff format called for six teams per conference, with the two division winners getting byes, while the other four teams played a best-of-three “mini-series.”
Boston got a brief rest, as did the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks. The NBA’s three best teams were in a stacked Eastern Conference. The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers had slipped to 54-28, with Magic Johnson missing 45 games with a knee injury. It put the champs in the mini-series, where they were upset by the Houston Rockets. By the time the Celtics took the floor for playoff basketball, we already knew there would be a new champion.
The Chicago Bulls were the opponent and had they had a potent offensive center, the 7’2” Artis Gilmore, who averaged 18/10. David Greenwood, a former UCLA star, was a solid forward, averaging 14/8 and the explosive Reggie Theus was on the perimeter, knocking down 19 ppg. The Bulls had weapons, but they were overrun by the Celtics.
Bird led a balanced attack in Game 1, leading all scorers with 23 points and Boston was in control throughout, winning 121-109. The Celtics didn’t let up in Game 2, immediately going up 32-14 after the first quarter. Parish and Archibald each hit for 27 points to key the 106-97 win and hold serve at the Garden.
Interior defense was the story of Game 3 in Chicago, as Gilmore was held to 13 and Boston won 113-107. The Bulls didn’t roll over in Game 4, and the game was tied after three quarters. It was Bird who took over, dropping 35 points and leading the 109-103 clinching win.
Philadelphia had taken care of its mini-series and then won a tough series against Milwaukee to set up a rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers were led by the great small forward Julius Erving. “Dr. J” had edged Bird for the MVP award, with his 25 ppg.
Caldwell Jones manned the middle with 10 rebounds a night, with a lot of help from Darryl Dawkins. Philly had their own veteran point guard who could match Archibald, the great Maurice Cheeks, who dished seven assists per game.
All in all, the 76ers had six double-digit scorers and it included a 23-year-old guard in Andrew Toney who would do such a number on the Celtics in the coming years he would become known as “The Boston Strangler.”
A great series was expected, and Game 1 didn’t disappoint. Bird scored 33 points, but Philadelphia was more balanced and they immediately stole homecourt advantage with a 105-104 win. The Celtics played with the appropriate urgency in Game 2, taking a 19-point lead by halftime and winning 118-99 behind 34 more Bird. The Sixers seemed comfortable with the road split, with only Toney, who had 35, turning in a good game.
It was Philadelphia who came out strong for their must-win spot in Game 3, back at the old Spectrum. The Celtics were in a 16-point hole after three quarters and lost 110-100. The poor play continued through the first half of Game 4, as Boston was staring at a 17-point halftime deficit.
The Celtics came roaring back, cut the lead to three by the beginning of the fourth quarter. Game 4 was a tremendous display of the depth of both teams, as twelve players, six each way, scored between 10-20 points. The Sixers won 107-105.
Boston was looking at another series beating by their rival, and even more frustrating was that they were only a basket away in two different games (Games 1 & 4) from being up 3-1 rather than down 3-1. But the worm was about to turn and in dramatic fashion.
After digging a 10-point hole in Game 5, the Celtics rallied behind the home crowd and Larry Legend. Bird scored 32 and a 111-109 win kept Boston alive.
The expectation was that Philadelphia would close it out at home in Game 6 and when the Celtics fell behind by 13 points after a quarter, it looked like that expectation would be met. But the Boston defense held Dr. J to 16 points while Bird got 25 and Parish went for 21. The Celtics nudged ahead 100-98 and McHale blocked a Toney shot in the waning moments to preserve the win. We were going to Game 7.
That Sunday afternoon in Boston Garden was one of the best NBA games ever played. I still recall being at my grandmother’s house in northern Wisconsin and watching with rapt intensity as an 11-year-old. ESPN columnist and noted Celtics fan Bill Simmons recalled behind at the Garden, roughly the same age and remembering that the officials really took “let them play” to new levels. It was obvious that a player would be charged with assault by one of Boston’s finest before he would be whistled for a foul.
Bird and Dr. J each met the moment with 23 points. Boston led 91-90 and Philly had the ball out of bounds at midcourt with two seconds left. They tried an alley-oop to the basket to win it, but it was broken up. The Celtics were going to the NBA Finals.
Not only was Boston going to the Finals, but it appeared they were going for a glorified coronation, rather than a real battle. Houston, having finished the regular season with a 40-42 record, had followed its upset of Los Angeles, but then knocking off San Antonio and finally beating the Kansas City Kings in a conference finals “battle” between the two worst teams in the Western bracket. Could these Rockets even challenge the Celtics, much less beat them?
They couldn’t if you looked at the records, but a look at the personnel showed something different. Houston was anchored in the middle by Moses Malone, who averaged an astonishing 28/15 and was arguably the best rebounder in NBA history. He already had one MVP award and would win two more.
The Rockets also had a good point guard, in 17ppg scorer Calvin Murphy. Robert Reid averaged a 16/7 and as Bird was about to find out, could play some defense. It was fair to wonder more why it had taken Houston so long to get started, rather than wonder how they had ever reached the NBA Finals.
Game 1 at the Garden was a tough battle, and the Celtics trailed by five going into the fourth quarter. Defense would save them, as they held Malone to 13 points. Even though Reid went for 27, Boston got a 21/18 game from Bird, while Parish added 16 in a 98-95 win.
Malone came back with a vengeance in Game 2, scoring 31 points, while Bird had “only” 19. Houston stole homecourt with a 92-90 win and this was officially a series as it headed to Texas.
The Celtics turned in their best defensive outing of the entire postseason in Game 3. They led this game 41-30 at half, and then got their own offense going to win 94-71. The defensive effort produced a tie for the lowest point total in a Finals game since the shot clock was introduced. While Bird never got going, Maxwell stepped up with 19 points.
Reid continued to make Bird’s life miserable in Game 4 and the Legend unbelievably scored just eight points in both middle games. Maxwell continued to step up with 24, but in this game the Rockets had their offense working. Malone scored 24 and Mike Dunleavy Sr. poured in 28. Boston lost 91-86 and the series was back to being tied.
The series wasn’t the cakewalk everyone expected, but the Celtics at least had homecourt advantage back and they made it count in Game 5. Maxwell was a beast, pouring in 28 points and hauling down 15 rebounds and Boston routed Houston 109-80 to move to the brink of a championship.
Maxwell continued to roll in Game 6, going for 18/10, and Bird grabbed 15 rebounds as the Celtics led by fifteen points after three quarters. The Rockets still had fight left in them, and they closed the gap to three points. Keep in mind, in 1981, we were only three years removed from a road team winning Game 7, so the homecourt for the seventh game, while valuable wasn’t the ironclad insurance it often seems like today.
Bird finally broke loose of Reid’s defensive grip in Game 6. Larry finished with 27 points, and he was at his best at this crunch point. Bird hit a jumper, dished an assist to Maxwell and then hit a dagger trey. The Celtics won 102-91 and were NBA champions.
The city of Boston had seen a lot of basketball excellence over the years, and another new era of greatness was officially ushered in with the championship of 1981.