The Boston Celtics were riding high in the summer of 1986. They had just won a championship, producing one of the greatest NBA teams of all-time in the process. Thanks to farsighted management by Red Auerbach they had the second overall pick in the draft. They used to get it Len Bias, an immensely talented forward out of Maryland favorably compared to the league’s rising star, Chicago’s Michael Jordan. The future was bright. Two days later, Bias died of a cocaine overdose.
The 1987 Boston Celtics were still a great team. But they were now a great team that relied almost exclusively on their starting five. And even that great unit was starting to show its age. The repeat bid came up short. But even so, the ’87 Celts provided a lot of inspiration to a lot of people along the way.
Larry Bird was coming off three consecutive MVP seasons. The Legend didn’t win the MVP in 1987, but he still averaged 28 points/9 rebounds/8 assists per game and was a 1st-team All-Star at season’s end.
Boston also had the other All-Star forward in Kevin McHale, who averaged 26 points/10 rebounds. Robert Parish, the great center, still anchored the middle. “The Chief” averaged 18/11 and was an All-Defense performer.
The backcourt was Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson. Each could bring the ball up and each could play the two-guard spot if necessary. Ainge and “DJ” combined to average 28 points and 14 assists per game.
Where the Celtics were showing some slippage was defense. In a 23-team NBA, they only ranked ninth in defensive efficiency. Not bad, but not at a championship level and the depth problem surely contributed. But when Boston had the ball, it was a thing of beauty to watch. The ran a slow half-court offense to perfection and finished third in offensive efficiency.
The Celtics lost two of three games in the early going to the Milwaukee Bucks, a key challenger who had been in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before. Boston got a win at emerging Detroit and split a couple games with the Atlanta Hawks, another team that NBA observers had their eye on as a challenger.
The more important rival though, was the one out west. The Los Angeles Lakers had come up short of the Finals in 1986 and were thirsting for redemption. The Lakers came into Boston Garden in December and walked out with a 117-110 win. The Celts reached the Christmas Day checkpoint with a record of 16-9.
January might have seen cold weather in New England, but it was when the Celtics began to heat up. They swept a back-to-back with Jordan’s Bulls. They beat Atlanta by twenty. They rolled to a 17-2 record for the month, giving them a cushion in the East and keeping close on the heels of the Lakers for the best overall record in the league.
A February trip west produced a tough 106-103 loss to LA and a twenty-point loss at Utah. Boston’s visit to Atlanta also ended with an overtime defeat. But they were still 42-15, three games up on Detroit, six up on Atlanta and seven ahead of Milwaukee for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. And Los Angeles, at 44-13, was still in striking distance.
The Celtics were unable to get on a big run though and they settled for splitting games with both the Pistons and Bucks. The Lakers were able to clinch the best overall record without much stress. And when Boston went on the road late in the regular season and lost three straight, their own top seed in the East was in jeopardy.
It wasn’t just the fact that the losses came to Philadelphia, Cleveland and New Jersey, with the Sixers being the only decent team in the bunch. It was that the Hawks closed to within a game of the conference lead. There was one game to play. Against Atlanta. And the Hawks had the tiebreaker.
The Celtics needed to make a stand on that final regular season Sunday in the Garden. Bird did what he does in big games—32 points and 14 assists. McHale and Parish combined for 35 points/25 rebounds. Boston won 118-107. Their final regular season record was 59-23 and they were the #1 seed in the East.
Michael Jordan was only in his third year and the Bulls were a fringe playoff team. For the second straight year, they were the 8-seed in the East and coming to Boston to open the postseason. Jordan had averaged 37ppg during the regular season and no one in green-and-white had forgotten last year, when he dropped 49 and 63 points in the first two games.
What Jordan didn’t have was a lot of help. Even his heroics in ’86 hadn’t prevented a Celtic sweep and Charles Oakley, a tough rebounder and decent scorer, was the only reliable supporting piece. Boston jumped out to a 19-point lead in Game 1. As if to underscore how much more a complete team the Celtics were, Bird only took seven shots. A late Chicago rally made the final score close, but Boston still won 108-104.
Bird came back with a prototypical big game in Game 2, with 29/7/8 line. McHale and Parish attacked the boards and Boston overcame vintage nights from Jordan and Oakley in a 106-96 win. The series concluded back in Chicago. The Celtics defense forced Jordan into 9-for-30 shooting, while Bird was an efficient 11-for-21 from the floor. Boston’s 105-94 win sent them onto the second round.
Now it was time for the playoffs to get serious. Milwaukee was waiting. The Bucks were a 50-win team and had done that while missing their own Hall of Fame guard, Sidney Moncrief for a good chunk of the year. Milwaukee had spent the decade playing second fiddle to either the Celtics or 76ers and felt like their own window was closing.
Furthermore, Boston was not healthy. McHale was playing this entire postseason on a broken foot. Parish and Ainge were both playing through injuries. There was blood in the water and the key rivals in the East—the Bucks, along with the Pistons and Hawks in the other conference semifinal knew it.
None of that seemed to matter in Game 1. Bird dropped 40 points, the Celtics played well defensively and they started the series with a 111-98 win. Even though Boston was outrebounded in Game 2, they shot 57 percent from the floor, with Ainge dropping 30 points on 11-for-14 shooting. DJ was hot, hitting 8-for-13 for 21 points, while handing out ten assists. Larry dropped 30 of his own. This one was tight, but the Celts still came away with a 126-124 win.
Milwaukee had good defensive players. Moncrief was consistently All-Defense in the 1980s. Paul Pressey, the team’s top player in 1987, was one of the league’s best on the defensive side. The Bucks were deep in the backcourt, able to run Ricky Pierce, Craig Hodges and John Lucas in and out against a team with no bench to speak of.
In Game 3, in front of the home crowd, Milwaukee came out and forced 19 turnovers. They forced Bird into a 7-for-16 night from the floor. The Celtics got back on the boards and made up for a lot of that, but it wasn’t quite enough in a 126-121 overtime loss.
The ending of Game 3—McHale fouling out and then going into the stands after an unruly fan got into his face on the bench—further heightened the tension of this series. Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 was a double-overtime classic. A battle that was essentially even in every statistical category saw Bird nail 42 points, McHale get a 34/11 line and the Celtics escape 138-137.
This series was all but over. Boston was going home for Game 5 where they would surely clinch. Only the Bucks didn’t get the memo. Bird had a tough shooting night, Moncreif hit for 33 points and Milwaukee prevented a Garden party with a 129-124 win. When the series went back to Milwaukee, Moncrief again went off, scoring 34 in Game 6. The Celtics came apart in the second half of a 121-111 loss.
Boston was facing a hungry opponent that had the momentum. Parish’s injuries had kept him out of Game 6 and his replacement, Greg Kite, failed to score a point. The Chief would be back for Game 7 on the parquet floor.
Even so, with Bird shooting 9-for-21, the Celtics trailed by eight points with five minutes left. But Moncreif was having a woeful offensive game. Boston got 26/15 from McHale and the wounded Chief came up with 19 rebounds, keying a massive edge on the glass. The Celtics survived with a 119-113 win.
Atlanta couldn’t carry their late regular season surge into the playoffs. Detroit knocked them out in five games. Instead of the one-man Hawk show that was Dominique Wilkins, the Celtics would deal with a deep Pistons team.
Detroit was led by Isiah Thomas at the point. Joe Dumars was a terrific backcourt running mate and Vinnie Johnson a third wheel that could have started most other places. The Pistons had a great scorer at the forward spot in Adrian Dantley. Bill Laimbeer could score from both the post and the perimeter. Rick Mahorn was a physical rebounder, while John Salley and Dennis Rodman were long-armed forces that could defend.
In short, Detroit was tailor-made to play a team that relied on precise offensive execution and lacked quality depth.
Bird had problems with Piston defenders in Game 1, not shooting well. But he made it up for with 16 rebounds and 11 assists, while Parish delivered 31 points. The Celts showed they could play a little D too, forcing the Pistons to shoot 42 percent. A 104-91 Boston win opened the series.
Game 2 was tight into the fourth quarter, but the Celtics were getting to the free throw line. They hit 32/43 free throws compared to 20/32 for Detroit. Bird’s 31/9/12 performance keyed the 110-101 win.
All Boston needed to do was pick up one win on the road and they would be in complete command. But they did not play well either in Game 3 or Game 4. The Celtics trailed the third game by twenty at halftime, turned the ball over 23 times and lost 122-104. In the fourth game, their defense fell apart, allowing 64 percent shooting and giving up 83 points in the second half. The 145-119 embarrassment evened the series.
Now the Pistons had some momentum. They came into the Garden and played well in Game 5. Even with the Celtics again enjoying a huge free throw edge that amounted to a 34-17 advantage in points, Boston was outshot from the floor 52%-46%. Bird was having a vintage night, with 36 points/12 rebounds and eight assists. But when Detroit took the ball out of bounds with five seconds left on the Celtic side of the floor, Boston trailed 107-106.
Thomas threw a lazy inbounds pass. Bird picked it off. Dennis Johnson alertly cut to the basket. Bird, his phenomenal court vision on display, found him. DJ laid it in. Bird’s ninth assist of the night was the most famous of his legendary career. The Celtics had stolen a 108-107 win.
They still had to squeeze out one more win to get back to the Finals, and Boston held a five-point lead after three quarters in Game 6. Bird was still sizzling, with 35 points. But the Pistons were beating the Celtics on the boards and the result was a 113-105 loss. A second straight series would come to an end on a weekend afternoon at old Boston Garden.
Game 7 would prove to be an epic battle worthy of the stakes. Bird was amazing, putting up a 37/9/9 line. Dantley and Vinnie Johnson collided with each other late in the third quarter, a nasty head-butt that temporarily left the Garden silent. Both players ended up okay. So did the Celtics. They escaped 117-114. For the fourth straight year, they were going to the NBA Finals.
Their old friends, the Lakers, were waiting. Magic Johnson was coming off an MVP season. James Worthy at small forward and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the middle rounded out their Big Three. Byron Scott and A.C. Green filled out a starting lineup that could compete with Boston’s starting five. While the Celtics had no depth, LA had two of the league’s best reserves—Michael Cooper in the backcourt and Mychal Thompson up front.
On top of all this, the Lakers were healthy and the Celtics were the walking wounded, with Bird and DJ the only contributors not playing through some type of significant injury that puts you on injured reserve during the regular season. Boston’s proud veteran run had been inspiring to watch and enough in the East, but it would it be enough against another group of vets, no less proud themselves?
For the first two games in the old LA Forum, the answer was no. Los Angeles simply blew Boston out of the gym. The Celtics were in big holes by halftime of each game and lost 126-113 and 141-122. They came back east licking wounds and looking for answers. They found some in Game 3 and it started with a 48-32 advantage on the glass. Boston got momentum going in the second quarter and won 109-103.
Now it was time for Game 4. The NBA Finals were played using a 2-3-2 homecourt format from 1985-2013. If the Celtics could get another win here, they would be playing the pivotal fifth game on their home floor.
McHale was ready, with 25 points and 13 rebounds. DJ dished 14 assists. But Bird was struggling. He would end the night shooting 7-for-19. Boston trailed 104-103 late. Then Bird showed that a Legend is never really down. He hit a corner three and the Garden erupted. The Celtics needed just one defensive stand.
Jabbar drew a foul and went to the line. He made the first free throw, but missed the second. In the chase for the rebound, the ball went out of bounds off Boston. Los Angeles had another chance.
Magic got the ball, drove to the lane and did a little “baby skyhook”, called such after the sweeping skyhook that Kareem was renowned for. Magic’s hook went down. Bird got one last desperation shot that almost went in, but glanced off the back of the rim. Boston’s bid to make this a series came up just short, 107-106.
Celtic Pride and homecourt was enough for Game 5, with all five starters scoring between 21-25 points in a 123-108 win that extended the series. And with DJ dropping 33 points in Game 6, the Celtics led by five at halftime back in the Forum. But Bird was only shot 6-for-16, and the Lakers unleashed a devastating third-quarter run that blew the game open. The final was 106-93. The Celts were champs no more.
Given the age of Boston’s lineup and how hard this playoff run had been, it would have come as no surprise to anyone that this group of Celtics would never return to the NBA Finals. The franchise didn’t make it back until the 2008 title run. The end of an era was drawing near, but the sheer heart and determination of the 1987 Boston Celtics continues to live on in basketball lore.