Conference Titles: 4
Division Titles: 6
Regular Season Record: 539-281
Regular Season Win Percentage: 65.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 18
Playoff Record: 74-42
Capturing two titles in the previous three seasons, while also making every Conference Finals since 1972, the Boston Celtics entered the 1976-77 season on an incredibly high note. However, high notes don’t play on forever.
John Havlicek, at age 36, was somehow still averaging 18/5/5. Jo Jo White submitted one of his best seasons with 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a game. Those two venerable Celtics proved to be the only rocks on a team clearly in decline. Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott each missed nearly half the season. The frontcourt of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe didn’t exactly replace the leadership and intelligence of the dearly departed Paul Silas. Add it all up and Boston finished with just 44 wins.
In the playoffs, White provided his final great run for Boston. His 31 PPG dropped the San Antonio Spurs in the 1st Round. In the semi-finals, Boston faced off against old nemesis Philadelphia now led by Julius Erving. Thanks to White’s 40 points in Game 6, Boston forced a Game 7, which they narrowly lost. In due time, the Celtics would engage in numerous battles with Erving’s 76ers. But, in due time.
That series marked the end of Boston’s 1970s squads as any sort of contender. The 1977-78 Celtics won only 32 games in missing the playoffs. The highlight of the season was John Havlicek’s raucous retirement ceremony. With such a crummy team on the court, why not get excited remembering the eight titles Hondo had helped Boston win?
With Havlicek retired, the complete razing of Boston was underway. White was traded midway through the 1978-79 season. Big names with underwhelming game were trotted out: Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight, Dave Bing, Ernie DiGregario, Bob McAdoo, etc. Boston limped to the finish of that season with 29 wins as Cowens became the last player-coach in NBA history.
From this turmoil, Boston – again – was assembling the bits for a new contender. Cedric Maxwell was drafted in 1977 and by his second season averaged 20 and 10 while leading the NBA in FG%. Nate “Tiny” Archibald was acquired cheaply as he recovered from Achilles and foot injuries. And most stealthily, the Celtics exploited a loophole in 1978 to draft Larry Bird.
The loophole? NBA draftees at the time became if they explicitly declared for the draft or automatically four years after their high school class graduated. At least that was Red Auerbach’s argument. Bird was still in college, but due to sitting out a season while transferring schools, he had still reached four years past his HS graduating class.
Boston had to wait until the 1979-80 season to get Bird, but he was worth the wait winning Rookie of the Year.
The lineup of Bird, Cowens, Maxwell, and Archibald stormed to the best record in the NBA with 61 wins. A quick sweep of Houston deceived the Celtics. In the Conference Finals, Dr. J’s 76ers smacked down the Celtics in 5 games. Boston was clearly to be reckoned with once again, but would need a little more seasoning and a little more talent.
The seasoning would naturally come. The talent arrived through one of the great swindles in NBA history. Why write about it when there’s an awesome video breakdown of the silliness…
So, even though Cowens finally retired, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish joining the Celtics fray made them a legitimate title contender for years to come. Indeed, in 1980-81, they again finished with the league’s best record (62-20). However, the Sixers also finished with 62 wins. The showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals produced one of the greatest series ever played.
Game 1 was decided by a single point in favor of Philly. Games 2 and 3 had double-digit victories by each side. Then came the deluge of Maalox moments. Philadelphia won Game 4 and took a 3-1 series lead. Boston won the three next games to amazingly win the series. If you recall, Boston had done the same thing back in 1968 to Philadelphia. For the 1981 edition of this comeback, the final three Boston victories were decided by 5 points total.
The Finals against the 40-win Houston Rockets – who had moved to the Western Conference – proved more difficult than first imagined thanks to the burly Moses Malone. Nonetheless, the Celtics dispatched Houston in six games and claimed their first title since 1976.
In the 1981-82 season, Boston again finished with the league’s best record (63-19) and again faced the 76ers in the Conference Finals. And again the series went seven games. Again in a 3-1 series hole, Boston nearly made up the difference one more time, but the Sixers stopped the rally in a 120-106 Game 7 win in Boston.
The next year, Boston somewhat stumbled to 56 wins and were swept in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. That 1983 season saw the demise of the first incarnation of Bird’s Celtics. Archibald, who had missed half of the 1982 ECF, was just too old and broken down to be effective anymore. Also, coach Bill Fitch with an insanely intense style had worn out his welcome.
With a new coach in KC Jones and some back court help arriving in the form of 2nd-year man Danny Ainge and a trade for Dennis Johnson, Boston looked to regain its championship form in 1984.
New Era, Old Foes
Oh did the Celtics ever regain their mojo.
They finished far and away the best team in the NBA in 1984 with 62 wins. The hated Sixers after winning the title in 1983 finished with just 52 wins and finally seemed no longer a threat to Boston. Indeed, the Celtics made easy work of the Eastern playoffs. Only the heroics of Bernard King, who single-handedly forced Boston into a 7-game semi-final series, gave them any trouble. But King’s personal exploits couldn’t stymie the Celtics’ great team.
Moving on tot he Finals, Boston faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time since 1969. After taking a Game 3 pounding, 137-104, Larry Bird disparaged his team with unflattering remarks. Regrouping and galvanized, they came out in Game 4 in what might be the greatest game ever played.
Famous for Kevin McHale’s clothesline foul of Kurt Rambis, the contest itself stands as a hallmark of pressure-filled playoff basketball. Lakers star Magic Johnson eventually wilted under the pressure as Boston annoyed and intimidated Los Angeles. The Celtics pulled the game out in overtime, 129-125. Eventually going seven games, the Celtics demonstrably handled the Lakers 111-102 in the final game to win another championship thanks to Maxwell’s 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Boston looked to repeat as NBA champs in the 1984-85 season. With a sterling 63 wins they looked even better than the year before. A brief tussle with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals did give Boston a taste of a foe who would be more troublesome in the years to come. The Celtics then had their swansong confrontation with the 76ers in the ECF. The Celtics proved far superior defeating Philly 4-1.
The Finals rematch of Celtics-Lakers and Magic-Bird opened with a dramatic 148-114 victory for the Boston. Scott Wedman came off of Boston’s bench and drilled all 11 of his field goals for 26 points. That great omen proved false for the Celtics. Magic and the Lakers proved more resilient than the previous year and wound up winning the series 4-games-to-2 despite lacking home court advantage.
For the 1985-86 season, Boston decided to shake things up. They traded longtime forward and 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Bill Walton. Walton had hardly played over the previous half-decade due to foot injuries, but his passing skills and post presence would push McHale into the starting lineup while making himself the NBA’s premier 6th Man.
The gambit worked and the ’86 Celtics cruised to the NBA title. During the regular season they finished with 67 wins and probably could have won more if they had the desire to. They won 12 of their 13 playoff games in the Eastern Conference. The only bump in the road proved to be the Houston Rockets in the Finals. Their combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson could contend with Boston’s enormous frontcourt, but the Celtics held a decisive edge at guard and it was there that the balance was fully swung. The Celtics celebrated a 4-2 series victory over the Rockets and their third title in six years.
As this latest Celtics decade came to a close, Boston could fondly look back on a spectacular rebuild from the Hondo-Cowens-White Era to the Bird-McHale-Parish Era. The latest Big 3 had not only delivered three titles, but also routinely garnered the NBA’s best regular season record. Amazingly, Boston was in a position to begin rebuilding before their current era of success was even close to being finished.
In 1984, the Celtics had traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for a future first round pick. Well, the pick was due in 1986 and as (Celtic) luck would have it, the Sonics wound up with the #2 overall pick. Boston took possession of that draft pick. On draft night, June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics looked to solidify their NBA hold for the rest of the 1980s and extend the dynasty into the 1990s with the selection of Len Bias.
C -Robert Parish (1980-’86) – 480 Games
18.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 54.6% FG, 72.3% FT
F – Cedric Maxwell (1977-’85) – 607 Games
13.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 55.9% FG, 78.3% FT
F – Larry Bird (1979-’86) – 561 Games
23.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.6% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 86.9% FT
F – Kevin McHale (1980-’86) – 475 Games
16.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 55.3% FG, 75.2% FT
G – Tiny Archibald (1978-’83) – 363 Games
12.5 PPG, 7.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 46.9% FG, 79.0% FT
G – Dennis Johnson (1983-’86) – 238 Games
14.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 45.2% FG, 84.1% FT
G – Danny Ainge (1981-’86) – 359Games
9.0 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 49.2% FG, 84.7% FT
C – Dave Cowens (1976-’80) – 261 Games
16.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.9% FG, 81.8% FT