The Boston Celtics were the winners of four straight Eastern Conference titles. Two of those, 1984 and 1986, ended in NBA championships. But you could see the end starting to come. The road back to the Finals in 1987 had been the hardest journey yet. The Detroit Pistons were coming on strong in the East. The Los Angeles Lakers were still out west. The 1988 Boston Celtics gave it everything they had, but in the end it proved to be the last stand of a dynasty.
Larry Bird was still as good as ever. He might not be winning MVPs, like his run from 1984-86, but he averaged 30 points/9 rebounds/6 assists per game. Kevin McHale averaged 23 points/8 rebounds. Bird and McHale were each 1st-team All-Star forwards in the postseason awards voting.
Robert Parish slipped a bit at the center spot, but “The Chief” was still good for a 14/9 every night. And Danny Ainge stepped up the scoring in the backcourt, knocking down 16ppg to go with his six assists. Dennis Johnson rounded out the backcourt with 13 points and eight assists per game, to go with his stellar defense. Boston scored the third-most points of anyone in the NBA and using efficiency numbers, they were the best offense in the 23-team league.
If NBA basketball could be restricted to five-on-five, Boston would have been in a good shape. But in a league where depth is so important—for the 82-game grind in the regular season, then the two-month playoff run it takes to win a championship—the Celtics were out of their league. And it showed in the defensive numbers, where they ranked 17th in efficiency.
Outside the starting five, no one else averaged 20 minutes per game in playing time. No one else made a notable impact on the stat sheet. And with not only the Pistons, but the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks looking to compete in the East, Boston was in no position to play the “load management” game during the regular season.
The Celtics came out and won their first six games, but then muddled along up to Christmas. The early season saw them lose to the Pistons, Hawks, Bucks, and eventual playoff teams in the Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston also dropped a tough 115-114 game at home to Los Angeles. In short, they weren’t beating anybody any good.
That changed in January and the hopes for continuing the dynasty got new life. Boston crushed Detroit 143-105, the highlight of a month that they closed with a record of 31-12. The Celtics held a narrow lead in the Eastern Conference standings and were four games back of the Lakers.
The surge started to crest a bit in February. A Sunday afternoon Valentine’s Day’s trip to the LA Forum resulted in a 115-106 loss. A visit to Detroit ended with a 106-101 defeat. Boston lost at Milwaukee and then lost at home to the mediocre New Jersey Nets in the early days of March. The Celtics slipped behind the Pistons in the race for homecourt in the East, while the Lakers pulled away for the best overall record in the NBA.
Then Detroit hit a little slump and Boston responded by ripping off 16 wins in 18 games, including a pair of head-to-head victories over the Pistons. The Celtics finished the regular season at 57-25 and cleared the field in the East by three games. They might lack depth. They might be getting long in the tooth. But the road to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference was still going to come through Boston Garden.
The New York Knicks were the first playoff opponent. Rick Pitino was in his first year of NBA coaching and he had a talented core. Patrick Ewing was an emerging star at center. Mark Jackson won Rookie of the Year at the point guard spot. Gerald Wilkins provided offensive punch on the wings.
What the Knicks didn’t have was experience—all the key players were 27 or younger—and the NBA postseason is still a time when veterans take center stage. That’s what McHale and Bird did in Game 1, scoring 29 points each and leading the way to a 112-92 win. The great forwards were at it again in Game 2. Bird shot 12-for-19 from the floor to get 36 points, while McHale added a 24/12 line. The 128-102 win put the Celtics in firm control of the series.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in 1988, so Boston went to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 with a chance to put this to bed. McHale was ready and put up 24/8, but Bird didn’t shoot well and the Celtics lost 109-100. Game 4 was tight for three quarters and Ewing was attacking the boards with a vengeance. Bird responded with 28 while McHale delivered 20/8. And Dennis Johnson was brilliant, with a 19/10/12 triple-double that keyed a series-clinching 102-94 win.
Atlanta had been biding its time the last couple years and the Hawks came into the conference semifinals believing they were set to take out Boston. Dominique Wilkins was one of the great scorers in the game. And the Hawks had a two-guard that would eventually become a very familiar (and friendly) face to Celtics fans—Doc Rivers.
Boston came out blazing. Bird dropped 38 in the opener while Wilkins shot just 10-for-24. The Celts were up fifteen after the first quarter and won 110-101. They were even better in Game 2. Dominique was forced into 8-for-24 shooting. Boston moved the ball around, shot 56 percent and were led by 32 from McHale and 23 from Ainge. The final was 108-97.
It seemed as though everything was moving smoothly toward the anticipated Celtics-Pistons rematch in the conference finals. But when this series went south, Atlanta found their mojo. More specifically, their defense. The Hawks forced the Celts into 39 percent shooting and Boston dropped Game 3 110-92. In Game 4, it was taking care of the basketball that did the Celtics in—a 22-9 turnover differential led to a 118-109 loss.
There was no reason to panic. This series wasn’t supposed to be easy and Boston still held homecourt. They also held an eight-point lead after three quarters in Game 5. But when your bench is outscored 30-7 by the opposing reserve players, it’s going to be a problem. The Celtics collapsed in the fourth quarter of Game 5, giving up 43 points and losing 112-104.
Friday night’s Game 6 in Atlanta now had the attention of the NBA world. Was the Bird-era dynasty going to be brought down sooner than expected? Not if the proud veterans had anything to say about it. Bird and McHale combined for 49 points/21 rebounds. While Rivers was fantastic for the Hawks in dropping 32, Dominique only shot 13-for-30. Even though he got his 35 points, it was too inefficient and the Celtics escaped 102-100.
The previous spring had seen Boston host two Game 7s in the East, against Milwaukee and Detroit. It was time for another one. The first two had been great battles. This Game 7 would produce the most memorable one-on-one confrontation in NBA history.
Dominique and Larry were both on fire and ready to meet the moment. By the fourth quarter, they simply cleared everyone else out of the way and went at each other. Ainge later described it as “a joy to watch”, as though he were a spectator. The other eight players on the floor joined the Garden crowd and the television audience in watching the showdown.
In the end Bird won, like he always did on the parquet floor. He finished with 34 points. While Dominque’s 47 earned him a place in basketball lore, Bird had help—McHale went for 33/13. That was the difference in the 118-116 win.
It was time for the rematch with the Pistons. Detroit ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency. While Isiah Thomas was the clear best player at the point guard spot, it was more a “first-among-equals” greatness, with a long bench behind him. They were perfectly built to stop an offensive team that relied on its starting five.
And the problems showed right away in Game 1. Boston only shot 42 percent. While McHale got 31 points, he was kept off the boards and Bird didn’t shoot well in a 104-96 loss.
Game 2 was now a do-or-die affair, but Bird again couldn’t get his shooting rhythm. The good news is that Parish stepped up with a 26/11 performance. McHale added 24/8. And DJ delivered 22 points while handing out ten assists. The game went two overtimes, but Boston survived 119-115.
Now they needed to get a road win. Bird was again forced into tough shooting in Game 3. McHale delivered 32, but the Celtics were down by thirteen after three quarters and lost 98-94. Boston’s offensive performance was even worse in Game 4—but the veterans brought the defensive effort. They forced Detroit into 33 percent shooting from the floor. The Celtics held the Pistons to ten points in the fourth quarter. And they escaped 79-78.
Boston had homecourt advantage back. But on the other hand, they had been handled convincingly in both losses, while barely escaping in both wins. The same dynamic had played out back in the 1984 NBA Finals against the Lakers. In that year, the Celtics dramatically reversed gears in a home Game 5 to pave the way for their title. Could the same thing happen in 1988?
Nope. Bird continued to be harassed by the long arm of Piston defenders like Dennis Rodman and shot 9-for-25. The Celtics as a team shot 38 percent. They did hit the boards and they got to the free throw line, and that kept the game tight. It went to overtime. But the magic of the parquet floor ran out in a 102-96 loss.
The end now seemed inevitable as the series went back to Detroit for Game 6. And the result was more of the same. Bird shot 4-for-17. McHale’s 33/11 weren’t enough. The Celtics trailed by twelve after three quarters and lost 95-90.
It was the end of an era and even in the moment, everyone knew it. Bird’s back was ailing and he missed most of 1989 with surgery. The Celtics barely snuck into the playoffs. They were a good team in the three years following, but well behind the pace set by the NBA’s elite. The 1988 season—the 57 wins, the epic Game 7 with Atlanta—was the last stand of a proud dynasty.