The Boston Celtics looked all but dead in the 1981 NBA playoffs. After a 62-win regular season and #1 overall seed, the Celtics were trailing 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers had beaten the Celts in this same round in five games in 1980 and it looked like 1981 was set to be more of the same, especially when Philly grabbed a nine-point lead at halftime of Game 5.
But Larry Bird dropped in 32 points, and the Celtics pulled out a 111-109 win. Playing Game 6 on the road, Boston fell behind by 17 points before rallying to win 100-98. Now it was down to one game for the Finals and it would be at the old Boston Garden.
Bird, along with league MVP Julius Erving, each had 23 points. Boston led 91-90 and the Sixers had the ball at midcourt and two seconds to try and win it. An alley-oop attempt got to the rim, but didn’t quite work and Boston’s comeback was complete.
The Celtics, 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers dominated this phase of NBA history, from 1980 (when Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league) to 1986 when the 76ers faded and gave the Celts and Lakers a couple years to trade off being champions.
But it was a rough year for the Lakers, as Magic Johnson missed 45 games with a knee injury and wasn’t the same when he came back. The first round of the NBA playoffs was then best-of-three, with the top two teams getting byes. The Lakers had to play “the mini-series.” They were upset by the 40-42 Houston Rockets.
Houston did have Moses Malone, a past and future MVP and one of the great rebounders of all time at the center position. They had decent complementary scorers in Calvin Murphy and Robert Reid. These Rockets went to upset the two-seed San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series when Murphy dropped in 42 points to lead the way in the finale.
More chaos went down as the 5-seed Kansas City Kings beat the conference favorite Phoenix Suns in another seven-game series. The West bracket was gutted in a way you never see happen in the NBA. The Western Conference finals of the 1981 NBA playoffs would be settled by its worst two teams.
Malone was too much for Kansas City, and Houston moved on to face Boston in the 1981 NBA Finals. But this was asking too much. Bird was joined by Robert Parish and Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell up front, Kevin McHale off the bench and Tiny Archibald in the backcourt.
Houston competed and managed to split the first four games. But Bird, hungry for his first ring was not going to be denied. The Celtics took Game 5 on their home floor and then went down south to clinch the championship in Game 6. The Rockets’ magic had run out, but the Bird Era had just begun. In fact, you can say it truly began in the six days that encompassed their three-game run to knock off Philadelphia.