Throughout the playoffs the Boston Celtics found themselves between a rock and a hard place—in this instance, Cedric Maxwell finds himself between Bill Willoughby and Robert Reid of the Houston Rockets. But down 3-1 to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics made one of the most amazing comebacks in NBA history. They came from six points behind with less than two minutes to play in Game 5 and won 111-109. They were behind by 17 in the second period of the sixth game at Philadelphia's Spectrum, where they had lost 11 in a row, then rallied to win 100-98. In Game 7, Boston trailed by seven with 5:23 to play, but when the buzzer sounded in Boston Garden, the Celtics were on top, 91-90. The NBA finals couldn't help but be anticlimactic, but they were also surprising. After four games the upstart Rockets were tied with the Celtics. But then Larry Bird and series MVP Maxwell took charge, and Boston won the last two games handily to earn its 14th championship banner.
If only he'd scored two more points against Boston, the good Doctor, Julius Erving, could have had the whole world in his hands to dunk. Dr. J, shown passing over his shoulder against Milwaukee (top, opposite page) and laying one up under Marques Johnson (bottom left), had a magnificent season, averaging 24.6 points a game to lead the 76ers to a 62-20 regular-season record and victories over Indiana and Milwaukee in the playoffs, and was named MVP for 1980-81. Toward the end of the seventh game with Boston, Erving went up for a layup and was stuffed by Bird. Moments later Bird got a rebound and went the length of the court to bank in the winning basket. "I wanted the ball in my hands for that last shot," he said, "...not in anybody else's hand in the world."
Of course, Bird did have some help. Robert Parish (rejecting a jumper by Chicago's Ricky Sobers, right), teamed with Kevin McHale in the pivot. Guard Gerald Henderson (chasing a loose ball, bottom right) anchored Boston's strong bench. Maxwell was an inspired partner of Bird in the forecourt, and Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford were splendid in the backcourt.
Darryl Dawkins of the 76ers duels Bob Lanier of the Bucks somewhere in the ozone, while Philadelphia's Steve Mix risks life and limb against the Mavericks, and the warriors' world B. (once Lloyd) Free goes eyeball-to-goggles with Los Angeles' towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
February 10, 1982
Chicago had one of the league's better backcourt combinations, courtesy of Nevada-Las Vegas. Reggie Theus (right) defies the law of gravity; Ricky Sobers (below) defies the Knickerbockers.
CHAMPERS FOR THE CHAMPS
In the first game of the final series between Houston and Boston, Bird made what Celtic General Manager Red Auerbach called "the greatest play I've ever seen." Bird followed his own missed 18-footer from the right wing, grabbed the rebound as it came off the rim, shifted the ball from right hand to left in midair and flipped it in as he went sprawling out of bounds. The Rockets should have collapsed in awe after that, but they made Boston claw for a 98-95 victory, and then beat the Celtics 92-90 in Game 2. Houston looked awful in the third game, losing 94-71, but turned right around and won Game 4 by a 91-86 score.
Boston took Houston apart in the final two games, 109-80 and 102-91, and the Rockets might very well have asked: "Was it something we said?" Actually, it was something Center Moses Malone said before Game 5. "Boston ain't that good," said Moses. "I could get four guys off the street from back home in Petersburg [Va.] and beat them." Then Maxwell made Malone eat his words with 28 points and 15 rebounds. In the sixth game Bird scored 27 points, seven of them in the final four minutes, to stifle a Rocket comeback. As in Game 1, one deadly Bird shot told the story: a 24-foot, three-point swish from the left corner that sealed the victory. At the trophy presentation, Bird made yet another nice play, stealing Auerbach's traditional victory cigar.
If nothing else, the Rockets proved they belonged, despite having the worst record of the 12 teams that made the playoffs. They beat, in succession, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Kansas City, which had eliminated Portland and Phoenix. In the East's first round, the 76ers and the Bulls made swift work of the Pacers and Knicks, respectively. In the conference semis, Boston downed Chicago in four straight, while Philadelphia battled with Milwaukee before winning the seventh game by one point. The scoring title went to Adrian Dantley, who averaged 30.7 points a game for Utah. Malone, second in scoring, led all rebounders with 14.8 a game. A foot below him, teammate Calvin Murphy set a record with 78 consecutive free throws.