The Boston Celtics looked on their last legs coming into the 1991 season—actually check that—the Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale & Robert Parish were on their last legs. The trio’s last championship had been in 1986, the last time in the NBA Finals the year after. The ensuing three years had seen a changing-of-the-guard loss in the conference finals to the Detroit Pistons, followed by a pair of first-round exits. There was a coaching change, with Chris Ford taking the reins. But there was really no reason to expect one last glorious stand from the veterans, but that’s exactly what the 1991 Boston Celtics gave.
It was more than just the veterans that made the ’91 Celtics a special team. While Bird’s 19 points/8 rebounds/7 assists per-game average was still the best overall, young Reggie Lewis also knocked down 19 a night. Brian Shaw, a 24-year-old who’d spent the previous year in Italy, returned to the team and gave 14 ppg, while Kevin Gamble scored 16. Lewis, Shaw and Gamble gave a fresh burst of young legs and production to the lineup. Down low, McHale now came off the bench, but still combined with Parish to give a 33/17 nightly average. The lack a quality young player down low was the one Achilles heel of the Celtics in 1991.
Boston came barreling out of the gate, with wins in 15 of their first 18 games, and the record extended to 29-5 on January 11. The first blips on the radar started to show up here though. Losing five of six games in the NBA dog days was understandable. But seeing Bird start to have the back problems that would ultimately end his career was much worse.
The Celtics still kept it together and delivered a seven-game win streak and pushed their record to 47-16 on March 12. Had they managed to go 15-4 down the stretch—not an unreasonable objective for a top NBA team—they might have gotten the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. As it was, the Celtics struggled down the stretch and ultimately lost nine of their final sixteen games.
When all was said and done though, they were still 56-26 and at the #2 seed, were nestled right in between their recent nemesis, the two-time defending champion Pistons, and the heir apparent in Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who’d gone 61-21 and were the top seed.
The dream in Boston was simple—take care of business in the first round, pay back Detroit, then let Michael know his team wasn’t quite here yet. But the first part of that equation would come against the Indiana Pacers and would prove to be much tougher than anyone might have anticipated.
Indiana might have been a 7-seed with a 41-41 record, but since an early season coaching change, the Pacers had become a consistent basketball team under Bob Hill, going 32-25 under the new coach. Indiana had one of the great outside shooters in NBA history with Reggie Miller, quality forwards in Chuck Person and Detlef Schrempf and a decent point guard in Vern Fleming. They weren’t a pushover and they didn’t play like it.
First-round series in the NBA were still best-of-five in 1991, and the Celtics were able to grab a quick win. Lewis led the way with 28 points, while McHale had 25. Even though Bird posted 21 points and 12 rebounds, his 6-of-20 shooting night was inefficient, even as the Celtics won 127-120. Two days later, a Sunday turned sour in Beantown, as Indiana shot a sizzling 58 percent from the floor and took homecourt advantage away with a 130-118 win.
The Celts’ proverbial back was to the wall as they went to Indiana, the state where Bird grew up and against the organization where the Legend would one day win Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, making him the only man in NBA history to win those two awards, along with the MVP.
Boston played its best defense of the series in Game 3, holding Indiana to 41 percent from the floor and completely shutting Person down. McHale’s 22 keyed a balanced attack and a clutch 112-105 win. Person responded with 30 in Game 4 and a close 116-113 win for Indiana, but at least the Celtics had pushed the series back to the Garden for a deciding fifth game.
May 5 would produce another Garden classic, as the teams went back and forth throughout, and when Bird went to the locker room with an injury it looked like another first-round loss might be the sad end to the Big Three’s last stand. But Bird emerged from the locker room and in a game that would go down in the annals of Boston legend, knocked down 32 points and led the way to a 124-121 series clinching win.
As expected, Detroit was up next. Though the Pistons had won “only” 50 games, this was still the same core that had made three straight trips to the Finals, with the last two culminating in champagne. Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas made for an elite backcourt, while Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer handled the rebounding, with an array of quality bench players in Vinnie Johnson, Mark Aguirre and James Edwards. Detroit had the best defense in the NBA and with Bird out for Game 1, that’s exactly what the Pistons displayed Game 1. They made it ugly, with both teams shooting sub-40 percent, and it ended in an 86-75 loss for the Celtics.
Bird returned for Game 2, Lewis scored 23 points, while McHale posted a 15/9, and the Celts evened the series. Then they went to Detroit and in Game 3 played their best game of the playoffs, dominating in all phases and winning 115-83. But with homecourt advantage now in their grasp, Game 3 proved to be literally the Last Hurrah for the Big Three.
Detroit played like a desperate team in Game 4 and dominated the glass en route to a 104-97 win. They took homecourt advantage back in Game 5, as the Pistons shot 50 percent. Boston had not been a good defensive team all year and it came back to bit them on their home floor in the season’s biggest game.
There was still hope for another road win and a possible seventh game in Boston. McHale did everything he could to make that possible, with a monster 34-point night in Game 6. The battle went to overtime, but in the end Laimbeer and Rodman’s rebounding was too much and the Pistons prevailed 117-113 to clinch the series.
Officially, the Big Three era would continue one more year, as Bird didn’t retire until after 1992. McHale played two more seasons. Ironically, Parish, the oldest and least productive of the three in 1991 lasted the longest, going until he was 43 years old and retiring after the 1997 season.
They came together with some young bucks in 1991, won a playoff series and put up a spirited fight against the reigning champs and like warriors, went down fighting. The 1991 Boston Celtics didn’t win a championship or really even come close. But they gave their fans and those across America some last memories of great legends.