1985 Boston Celtics: A Repeat Drive Comes Up Just Short

Larry Bird had already led the Celtics to a pair of NBA championships, winning in 1981 and 1984. The 1985 Boston Celtics made a strong bid at a repeat title and looked poised to do it, when everything came undone at the hands of their archrival.


Bird was at the peak of his powers in the mid-1980s. In ’85, he averaged 29 points/11 rebounds/7 assists per game and won the second of three consecutive MVP awards. Robert Parish held down the middle and averaged 18 points/11 rebounds.

The power forward spot had outstanding depth. Kevin McHale averaged 20/9 and he wasn’t even the regular starter—51 starts at the position went to Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, the MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals and a key performer in the previous June’s triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers. Maxwell averaged 11/4 in 1985, his final season in Boston.

Dennis Johnson led the backcourt with 16 points/4 rebounds/7 assists. A top defender, “D.J”, was second-team All-Defense and keyed  the fifth-best defense in the league. His running mate was Danny Ainge, whose stat line averages were 13/4/5. Ainge and Johnson ran an offense that was moderately paced and ranked second in the league in efficiency.

Boston came roaring out of the gate to start the repeat drive, winning 15 of the first 16 games. They were 23-5 on Christmas Day. They split a couple games with the Philadelphia 76ers, the principal rival in the Eastern Conference in the first half of the 1980s. Not far behind was the Milwaukee Bucks and the Celts dropped a 107-105 game to the Bucks in December at home.

January opened with a seven-game win streak that was capped on a winter Wednesday night at the old Boston Garden. The Celtics struck the first blow in their biggest rivalry, that with the Lakers, with a 104-102 win. Boston split two more games with Philadelphia before the month was out and went into February with a record of 37-9.

A return visit to Los Angeles came on Sunday afternoon in February and resulted in a 117-111 loss. The Celtics still closed out the month at 47-12 and had a five-game cushion on the Lakers for homecourt advantage in a potential Finals rematch. More urgent was that the 76ers were nipping at Celtic heels in the East, only a game back in the race for the top seed.  

March was when Boston put the homecourt advantage issue to bed. A ten-game winning streak included a win over Milwaukee, who would settle into the 3-spot. And the win streak concluded with a 112-108 home win over the Sixers. By month’s end, the Celtics were 59-15 and comfortably clear of the field. They closed out the regular season at 63-19.

The playoff journey started with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coached by George Karl, the Cavs were led by Lloyd B. Free, a guard known for his prolific scoring, his unhesitancy in shooting the basketball and for changing his first name to World. The Cavs also had a quality power forward in Roy Hinson. And their point guard, John Bagley, was known to the Celtic fan base after his success at Boston College.

Boston had trouble containing Hinson in Game 1, but Free shot 8-for-21. Meanwhile Bird dropped 40 and the Celtics kept getting to the line—they converted 35/39 on free throws, while the Cavs were just 17/27. It was the difference as the Celts survived 126-123.

Game 2 was another tough battle. Cleveland’s bench drastically outproduced their Boston counterparts. It took a 30/11/7 night from Bird, augmented by 18/11 from Parish to get the 108-106 win and hold serve at home.

The first round was only a best-of-five affair in 1985, so Boston took the floor in Game 3 with a chance to clinch. But Bird wasn’t in the lineup tonight. Even though Scott Wedman dropped in 30, Cleveland got big nights from Free, Hinson and Bagley. A 105-98 Cavalier win extended the series.

Free came out firing in Game 4 in front of the home crowd and got his 30 points. But it came at the price of 11-for-27 from the floor. Meanwhile, Bird got 34 and shot 11-for-17. Larry also added 14 points and 7 assists. The difference between the stars was the difference in the game. Boston clinched the series with a harrowing 117-115 win.

There was reason to be concerned over the Celtics’ play in the first round. Against a drastically inferior opponent, they had won three nail-biters. The 46-win Detroit Pistons were up next.

The Pistons were not yet the team they would become just two years down the line when they emerged as the prime challenger to Boston in the East. But they did have Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson, three players that would be key parts of that challenge. The ’85 Pistons were rounded out by Kelly Tripucka and Dan Roundfield at the forward spots, both good scorers.

Even though Bird didn’t shoot well in Game 1, the Celtics came out attacking the glass. They outrebounded Detroit 59-33 and delivered the type of dominating performance that was missing in the Cleveland series. The final was 133-99.

The Pistons played a good offensive game in Game 2, with Isiah, Tripucka and Roundfield all getting 20-plus. But Bird was back on his game, hitting 42 points. Ainge knocked down 25, McHale put up a 20/10 line and Boston again held serve at the Garden with a 121-114 win.

It was time to go to Detroit, and a Game 3 on the road was again a problem. The Celtics turned it over 23 times, Bird didn’t shoot well and a 125-117 loss allowed the Pistons to stay in the series. Boston had a chance to put a stranglehold on the series in Game 4, taking an eleven-point lead into the fourth quarter. But with Bird again not shooting well, the lead disappeared and the game was lost 102-99.

Game 5 was now a big one back in the Garden. Boston would get to the free throw line 39 times in this game compared to 28 for Detroit. Whatever the cause for that disparity was, the more notable stat was that the Celtics made an astonishing 37 of those 39 free throws (both misses came from Ainge). The 37-22 scoring differential at the charity stripe was the difference in a 130-123 win.

Back on the road for Game 6, Bird again couldn’t find his shooting rhythm. But DJ could, delivering an efficient stat line of 22/6/5. Parish went for 24 and pulled down 13 rebounds. Wedman came off the bench and popped in 17. The 123-113 win sent Boston on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the fourth time in six years, it was to be a Celtics-Sixers battle in the conference finals. Philadelphia had great players in Moses Malone at center, Julius Erving—the legendary “Dr. J”–at forward and Maurice Cheeks at point guard. They had a shooting guard in Andrew Toney whose mastery of the Celtics was so thorough that he was known as “The Boston Strangler.” And there was a 21-year-old rookie named Charles Barkley coming off the bench.

Philly had won 58 games during the regular season and were coming off an impressive sweep of Milwaukee in the conference semifinals. With Boston not looking dominant in the first two rounds, there was every reason to consider this series up for grabs.

The Celtic defense came out tough in Game 1 and forced Dr. J into a miserable 5-for-18 shooting night. McHale went for 28. Parish delivered a 26/13 performance, while Bird’s line read 23/9/7. A game that was tight after three quarters ended with a 108-97 Boston win.

The Celts again played their best down the stretch in Game 2. This time they trailed by six at the half. Bird and Parish combined to shoot just 12-for-34. But Parish also had 16 rebounds and blocked four shots. And McHale was a force, going for 22 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. The interior dominance led Boston to a 106-98 win.

Time for another Game 3 road opportunity and a chance to show some killer instinct. This time, Boston didn’t take their foot off the gas. Bird knocked down 26. Parish hit the boards for fourteen rebounds. McHale, with that long wingspan, blocked five more shots.

Most notably, the defense forced Dr. J into a 1-for-10 shooting night and just five points. It was easily Erving’s worst performance in the 24 conference finals games these rivals played in the 1980s, and the 105-94 Celtic win all but sealed a return trip to the NBA Finals.

There was still the matter of making it official. Boston came out flat in Game 4, fell behind by fifteen after a quarter and lost 115-104. They came back home to have another Garden Party. Even though Bird had an off-night, DJ hit for 23, Parish added 20/11 and McHale cleaned up 14 rebounds. The 102-100 win secured the Eastern Conference title.

The Lakers were waiting in the Finals for the rematch fans across the country wanted to see. Los Angeles had won 62 games. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were still the heart of this team and a rising 23-year-old star in James Worthy was waiting for a breakout moment on a stage of this magnitude.

Boston Garden was the venue for Game 1 on Memorial Day afternoon. And everything went Boston’s way. They shot 61 percent. Everyone got their numbers, with Wedman’s 11-for-11 shooting off the bench really grabbing eyebrows. They outrebounded the Lakers 48-35. It was a blowout by halftime and ended 148-114. The national media effectively crowned the Celts as repeat champions and began writing Laker obituaries.

That should have been the first warning sign for the Celtics. You can’t push proud athletes into a corner and not expect them to come off the mat fighting. That’s what the Lakers did in Game 2. Boston was outrebounded 49-37 by a smaller team. Jabbar, age 37, was scoring, rebounding and blocking shots. The Celtics lost 109-102. Homecourt advantage had been surrendered.

1985 was the first year the NBA used a 2-3-2 format for homecourt in the Finals, a practice they would continue through 2013. Boston had to hunker down for a week out west to play the middle three games.

Game 3 was awful. While McHale went for 31/10, Bird and DJ couldn’t find the basket and the Celts were outshot, 54% to 43%. A 136-111 rout raised legitimate questions if the series could even get back the Garden.

But as was said just three paragraphs ago—you can’t push proud athletes into a corner and not expect them to come off the mat fighting. Bird went for 26 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4. McHale continued his outstanding postseason run with 28/12. Dennis Johnson scored 27 and dished out twelve assists. DJ capped off the game with a buzzer-beater to secure the 107-105 win.

They dropped Game 5, 120-111, as Kareem, Magic and Worthy combined for 95 points and the Lakers shot 57 percent. But Boston had survived the trip west. The championship would come down to whether they could defend the Garden. There was good reason for the Celtics to be confident.

But this wasn’t going to be their year. Boston only shot 39 percent in Game 6. Bird scored 28 points and had 10 rebounds, but it took 12-for-29 shooting for him to get those numbers. Ainge and DJ had awful shooting games, a combined 6-for-31. Parish struggled and McHale couldn’t make an impact. A 111-100 loss left the Celtics in the uncomfortable position of watching the Lakers celebrate on the parquet floor.

It was a tough ending, especially after the high of the Game 1 blowout win. But it wouldn’t be a long stretch in the wilderness. Bird and the Celtics would be back with their best team ever in 1986 and used the motivational fuel from this loss to drive them to their third championship of the decade.