Champions: The Bird Dynasty Begins with Philadelphia Freedom

With the Celtics battling the Knicks trying to come back from a 3-0 deficit, this would be a good point to commemorate the legendary Celtic comeback of 1981 in which they reversed a 3-1 deficit against the 76ers to win the Conference Finals in a classic series that often overshadows the victory in the finals that followed.

After winning the NBA crown in 1976, the Celtics faced a steep decline and appeared to be replaced by a new eastern dynasty in the Dr. J. led Philadelphia 76ers who won the Atlantic Division in 1977 and 1978 and would reach the NBA finals in 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983 (winning only in their last attempt).

The Celtics’ spiral was quickly reversed primarily due to the genius of Red Auerbach who through skillful trades quickly assembled the essential elements of the next Celtic dynasty.

TEMPORARY DECLINE

YEAR RECORD POSITION PLAYOFFS
1976 54-28 Atlantic 1st 12-6
NBA CHAMPS
1977 44-38 Atlantic 2nd 5-4
Lost in Conf Semifinals to Philadelphia (4-3)
1978 32-50 Atlantic 3rd
1979 29-53 Atlantic 5th
1980 61-21 Atlantic 1st 5-4
Lost in Conf Finals to Philadelphia (4-1)

By 1979, Dave Cowans, Jo Jo White and Kevin Stacom were the only remnants of the Championship Team. In three years, the Celtics fell from NBA Champs to the second worst team in the NBA.

But a mere two years later, the Celtics had in place the nucleus of their next dynasty that would

  • win 8 of the next 9 Atlantic Division titles
  • reach the Conference Finals 8 out of the next 9 times;
  • reach the NBA finals 5 times and win 3

In Bird’s first year, they stormed ahead of rival Philadelphia to win the Atlantic Division only to lose to the Sixers in the playoffs once again.

MAGIC RED

The Celtics rapid resurgence owes itself entirely to the machinations of its general manager – Red Auerbach.

  • 1978:  (1) The biggest move was in drafting Larry Bird with the 6th pick in the 1978 draft when he was between his junior and senior year at Indiana State. This gave the Celtics the rights to Bird until the next draft.
    (2) At this time, the Celtics and the Buffalo Braves swapped owners as part of a multi-player trade in which the Celtics gained Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Bob McAdoo. Auerbach traded McAdoo to the Pistons for M.L. Carr and a first round draft pick which would become the #1 pick for 1980.
  • 1979:  Auerbach traded the number #1 and #13 pick to Golden State for Robert Parrish and the #3 which he used to draft Kevin McHale and solidify the front line of the Celtics dynasty.
  • The Celtics picked up Cedric (“Cornbread”) Maxwell in the 1977 draft.

BIRD ERA BEGINS

In Bird’s first year, they stormed ahead of rival Philadelphia to win the Atlantic Division only to lose to the Sixers in the playoffs once again

From NBA.com

Throughout the regular season the Celtics battled neck-and-neck with the Philadelphia 76ers, who boasted a deep and talented roster headed by Julius Erving. Their race came down to the final day of the season at Boston Garden, and the Celtics posted a 98-94 victory behind Bird’s 24 points. The clubs finished with identical 62-20 records and were 3-3 in head-to-head matchups, but Boston won the Atlantic Division by virtue of a better record against conference foes. That would prove to be important, because it gave the Celtics the home-court advantage in a potential playoff seventh game.

And that was what came to be. Philadelphia raced to a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Boston refused to die. The Celtics erased double-digit second-half deficits to win Game 5 at home 111-109 and Game 6 in Philadelphia 100-98, and the series went back to Boston for a seventh game. Again Philadelphia broke in front, this time leading by as many as 11 points in the second half and by 89-83 with 4:34 to play. And again Boston came back, scoring six points in a row and then nailing down the victory with an 18-foot bank shot by Bird for a 91-90 decision.

The Series – epic comeback and all – is considered one of the best playoff series of all-time.

In the finals they faced the Houston Rockets , a team which had barely made the playoffs but with Moses Malone was able to stun the defending champion Lakers.  From Hoopedia:

The 1981 NBA Finals started in Boston Garden on May 5, 1981. Still high with excitement from their 7-game win over the 76ers and fueled by frenzied Boston fans, the Celtics met the Houston Rockets, who surprised the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in their history. Game 1 was a close battle and it really wasn’t until Bird’s offensive rebound lay-in with 19 seconds left that provided the game’s final points, as a the Rockets Rudy Tomjanovich’s three-point attempt bounced off the back rim as the buzzer sounded. The end result: Boston 98, Houston 95. Bird posted 18 points, 21 rebounds, 9 assists and 5 steals, while five teammates also scored in double figures.

. . .On May 14, 1981 at The Summit in Houston, it would be the final game for the 1980-81 Celtics. 107 games since the start of the year in October, Boston would win Game 6, 102-91, and the series 4 games to 2, and Championship Title #14 in the long and proud history of the franchise. Bird returned to the offensive show, scoring 27 points (including a key three-point basket down the stretch) and added 13 rebounds. But it was Cedric Maxwell, who was steady throughout the entire series, who received the Most Valuable Player trophy from NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien.

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Rk Player Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
1 Larry Bird 24 82 82 39.5 8.8 18.3 .478 0.2 0.9 .270 3.5 4.0 .863 2.3 8.6 10.9 5.5 2.0 0.8 3.5 2.9 21.2
2 Robert Parish 27 82 78 28.0 7.7 14.2 .545 0.0 0.0 .000 3.4 4.8 .710 3.0 6.5 9.5 1.8 1.0 2.6 2.3 3.8 18.9
3 Cedric Maxwell 25 81 81 33.7 5.4 9.3 .588 0.0 0.0 .000 4.3 5.6 .782 2.7 3.7 6.5 2.7 1.0 0.8 2.2 3.2 15.2
4 Tiny Archibald 32 80 72 35.3 4.8 9.6 .499 0.0 0.1 .000 4.3 5.2 .816 0.5 1.8 2.2 7.7 0.9 0.2 3.3 2.5 13.8
5 Kevin McHale 23 82 1 20.1 4.3 8.1 .533 0.0 0.0 .000 1.3 1.9 .679 1.9 2.5 4.4 0.7 0.3 1.8 1.3 3.2 10.0
6 Rick Robey 25 82 4 19.1 3.6 6.7 .545 0.0 0.0 .000 1.8 3.1 .574 1.6 3.1 4.8 1.5 0.5 0.2 1.7 2.5 9.0
7 Chris Ford 32 82 75 33.2 3.8 8.6 .444 0.4 1.3 .330 0.8 1.1 .736 0.9 1.1 2.0 3.6 1.2 0.3 1.5 2.6 8.9
8 Gerald Henderson 25 82 10 19.6 3.2 7.1 .451 0.0 0.2 .063 1.4 1.9 .720 0.5 1.1 1.6 2.6 1.0 0.1 2.0 2.2 7.8
9 M.L. Carr 30 41 7 16.0 2.4 5.3 .449 0.0 0.3 .071 1.3 1.6 .791 0.6 1.4 2.0 1.4 0.7 0.4 1.1 1.8 6.0
10 Terry Duerod 24 32 0 3.6 0.9 2.3 .411 0.2 0.3 .600 0.4 0.4 .929 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.0 0.3 0.3 2.5
11 Eric Fernsten 27 45 0 6.2 0.8 1.8 .481 0.0 0.0 0.4 0.7 .667 0.6 0.7 1.4 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.4 0.6 2.1
12 Wayne Kreklow 24 25 0 4.0 0.4 1.9 .234 0.0 0.2 .250 0.3 0.4 .700 0.1 0.4 0.5 0.4 0.1 0.0 0.4 0.8 1.2
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/29/2013.
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/29/2013.
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