The 1984 Boston Celtics won an NBA championship that filled in an important line on Larry Bird’s resume. Five years earlier, as a college senior at Indiana State, Bird lost the NCAA final to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Even though Bird won an NBA crown in 1981 it came against a sub-.500 Houston Rockets team.
Meanwhile, Magic won two rings with the Los Angeles Lakers, both times beating an elite opponent in the Philadelphia 76ers. 1984 marked the first time Bird and Magic met in the Finals and Bird finally came out on top.
Bird had his best year in 1984, averaging 24 points/10 rebounds/7 assists and won the first of what would be three straight MVP awards. He got help up from Robert Parish, who averaged 19 points/11 rebounds. Power forward Cedric Maxwell, the MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals, averaged 12/6 and started to see his playing time go to Sixth Man of the Year Kevin McHale, who posted an 18/7 per-game average.
The big change to the lineup came in the backcourt. Boston had been soft defensively at the guard position, and to shore it up they acquired Dennis Johnson from the Phoenix Suns. Johnson had a reputation as one of the best defensive players in the league. He was also a clutch performer, having been MVP of the 1979 NBA Finals for the Seattle Supersonics. Now “D.J” was paired up with Gerald Henderson in the Celtic backcourt.
Boston started the season strong and was 22-7 by Christmas. The downside was losing both games to their primary Eastern Conference rival and the defending NBA champions from Philadelphia.
In late December, the Celts started a 15-1 stretch that lasted into early February and boosted the record to 38-9. They won 10 of 11 to close the regular season. Their 62-20 record was easily the best in the NBA, ten games better than the Sixers and eight games ahead of the Lakers. But the head-to-head possibilities were still troubling—Boston ended up losing four of six to Philadelphia.
The first-round opponent was the Washington Bullets, with a 35-47 record. The Bullets had a good center in Jeff Ruland, who averaged 22 points/12 rebounds, but Boston was clearly a heavy favorite to win what was then a best-of-five series.
Bird did not play well in the opener, going 9-for-21 from the floor, but getting to the free throw line would be a consistent friend of the Celtics throughout the playoffs. If you’re a Boston fan, it’s because their physical style, smart passing and disciplined offense created opposing fouls. If you’re a Celtic-hater, it’s because the refs gave them the calls.
Whatever the reason, it was important throughout and it started in Game 1 against Washington. They shot 26 more free throws than Washington and won the game 91-83. Bird shot better in Game 2, going 10/17 for 23 points, while Henderson knocked down 21 on 10/15 shooting. Boston still had to recover from a slow start to win 88-85.
The series went to the Beltway and the Celtics went soft on the glass, outrebounded 48-39 in Game 3. They rallied from eleven points down after three quarters to force overtime, but ultimately lost 111-108. Parish came back in Game 4, asserted himself down low with 20 points/12 rebounds, and the Celtics took an eleven-point lead at the half and held on to win 99-96.
New York was next and the Knicks had a great forward of their own in Bernard King. He joined Bird as a 1st-team NBA All-Star and King’s 26 ppg was fifth-best in the league. The Knicks also had good big men up front, in Truck Robinson and Bill Cartwright and they had gone 47-35 through the regular season.
The first two games in the Garden made it appear that Boston had its mojo. They were up by twenty points at the half of Game 1 and rolled to a 110-92 win. McHale scored 25. Bird knocked down 23 and showed his passing ability with 12 assists. Parish was good for a 19/12. That game was followed by 116-102 win in Game 2. Bird was red-hot, scoring 37 points as the Celts again got an early lead and never looked back.
Boston’s best two games of the playoffs quickly turned the other direction when the series went to MSG. They shot just 38 percent in Game 3 and even though the free throw advantage was huge—45 attempts to 30 for the Knicks—the Celtics only converted 30/45 and lost 100-92. Game 4 was The Bernard King Show. He drilled 43 points and trumped a balanced Boston lineup that had four players with 20-plus. The Celtics lost 118-113 and we had a series on our hands.
The home fans in the Garden were a welcome salve again, as Boston shot 54 percent in Game 5, led by 21 at the half and rolled to a 121-99 win behind strong games from Bird and McHale. Game 6 at MSG turned into a great battle between Bird and King. Larry nailed 35 points, but Bernard owned his homecourt and finished with 44. A 106-104 loss pushed the Celtics to the brink with a Game 7.
Boston’s defense finally contained King in the seventh game, forcing him into an 8-for-17 shooting performance. Bird was exquisite, with a 39/12/10 triple-double. The Celtics were up ten after a quarter, fifteen by halftime, and just kept extending the lead in the third quarter. The final ended 121-104 and they were in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Back in the first round, shockwaves went through the NBA when the 76ers were upset by the New Jersey Nets. The Nets then lost to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks were a good team, with a 50-32 record and a steady contender through much of the 1980s. They had the two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Sidney Moncrief, who also averaged 21 ppg. They had a talented scorer in Marques Johnson. But they weren’t the 76ers with Dr. J and Moses Malone. This was a bracket break for the Celtics.
The mismatch showed from the outset. Boston held Milwaukee to 42 percent shooting in Game 1 and won 119-96, outscoring the Bucks 35-22 from the free throw line. Bird himself hit 12-for-15 from the charity stripe in scoring 24 points.
Game 2 saw Boston again dominate the first half, leading by 19 at intermission and winning 125-110. They shot 40 free throws and the deadly accuracy was amazing. Bird, Johnson and McHale shot thirty free throws. They made all thirty. Who knows, maybe this is when longtime Celtics lover and future ESPN content creator Bill Simmons (who was almost certainly in attendance as a junior high kid) came up with the name for the 30 For 30 for the documentary series.
Milwaukee came out strong in the first half of Game 3, buoyed by the home crowd, but Boston took over the second half and won 109-100, with Bird getting 28 points and Parish grabbing 16 rebounds. The Bucks averted a sweep in Game 4 when the free throw attempts evened out—in fact, Milwaukee shot more foul shots, 46-39. Boston lost 122-113.
But they closed out the series at home with a strong rebounding effort in Game 5. The Celtics won the rebounding battle 53-36, with Bird getting 13 boards to go with his 21 points. Boston led by thirteen going into the fourth quarter and held on to win 115-108. They were going back to the NBA Finals where an old nemesis, for the franchise and for Bird personally were waiting.
The Lakers won 54 games and Magic Johnson was the leading assist man in the league. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was stellar in the low post, averaging 21/7 throughout the regular season. The Lakers still had small forward Jamaal Wilkes, a silky smooth offensive threat who had been so important to their 1980 and 1982 title runs, and they were breaking in a second-year pro in James Worthy who averaged 15 points per game.
When Bird struggled from the floor in the opener, going 7-for-17, the door was left open and the Lakers blasted through it. Kareem hit 32 points and a 115-109 loss put the Celtics quickly up against the wall. When they trailed Game 2 113-111 with eighteen seconds left and the Lakers had the ball, it looked even worse.
Then Worthy threw a bad inbounds pass, Henderson intercepted it and quickly tied the game. Boston won in overtime 124-121. Bird again had struggled, going 8-for-22 from the floor. But the Celtics had forced 25 turnovers to make up the difference. It was appropriate that a turnover had been the big play in pulling out the win.
The defense took the third quarter of Game 3 off and gave up 47 points in that single quarter alone. They were also crushed on the glass, 63-44. Even though Bird scored 30, Magic handed out 21 assists and the Lakers rolled to a 137-104 win. And in Game 4, Boston was again up against it, trailing by ten at the half.
This series began to turn in the second half of Game 4. The play for which these Finals are remembered came when McHale took down Laker forward Kurt Rambis with a clothesline play on a fast break. It would be a flagrant foul today. In the world of 1984, it was a hard playoff foul.
It seemed to ignite the Celtics, who rebounded better in this game, with a 52-46 rebound advantage. Parish posted a 25/12 line, but it would have been for naught had the Lakers not choked away a five-point lead with less than a minute left. The bad blood between the teams was further exacerbated when Maxwell made the choke sign at Worthy, who missed a key free throw in that final minute.
The game went to overtime where Boston won 129-125. They had been outplayed in four games and probably should have been swept. Instead, they were holding homecourt advantage in a best-of-three.
But Bird was continuing to struggle. While he crashed the boards hard in Game 4, with 21 rebounds, he had shot 9-for-24. He was going to get his points—29 in Game 4—but NBA stars usually get their numbers. Larry had to be more efficient if the Celtics were going to win.
And that’s exactly what he did in Game 5, played in 97 degree temperatures at the Garden and its lack of air conditioning. Bird heated the building up further, going 15-for-20, scoring 34 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. Magic played poorly and a new storyline for these Finals began to emerge in the Celtics’ 121-103 win.
They looked like they might close out the title on the road in Game 6, up four after three quarters and Bird on his way to 28 points/14 rebounds. Johnson struggled from the floor this time though and Kareem stepped up with 30 to save the Lakers. The Celtics faltered badly in the fourth quarter and lost 119-109. It was time for one game in Boston Garden between two old rivals to settle the NBA championship.
Maxwell, in the midst of being phased out for McHale, called back the memories of his excellent Finals from 1981. The man called “Cornbread” scored 24 points. Parish hauled in 16 rebounds as the Celtics dominated the glass, 52-33. Bird had 12 more boards. And that free throw edge—Boston attempted 51 free throws. Los Angeles attempted 28. The result was a 25-point scoring advantage for the Celtics.
They led the game by thirteen going into the fourth quarter and the Garden was ready to party. But the Lakers came roaring back, cut the lead to three with a minute to go and had the ball. Magic brought it up. Cornbread was a hero one more time, tipping the ball away and all but sealing the game for the Celtics. The final was 111-102 and Boston had the championship.
Bird’s strong finish in the final three games got him the Finals MVP. Magic’s poor showing the final three games and his late turnover in Game 7 would leave him open to a long offseason. Larry finally got the upper hand on his rival. And the 1984 Boston Celtics had hung another banner in the old Garden.