When a franchise has had as much success as the Celtics have over the years, it can be easy for the history books to gloss over those teams that didn’t win the championship. But for those who believe the true value of sports lies not necessarily in winning championships, but in playing to the maximum of one’s ability, it’s often teams that came up just short that provide the most inspirational examples. And in the great lore of the Boston Celtics, no team exemplified what competition is about more than the 1987 edition, in particular two epic playoff series that pushed them back to the Finals.
Boston concluded the 1986 season on a high, winning its 16th NBA title in decisive fashion. A combination of good planning and good luck had led to them acquiring the second pick in that year’s draft. They used the pick on Maryland’s Len Bias, a stud forward from Maryland considered a lock for virtual stardom. Two days after the draft, Bias died of cocaine abuse. Without attempting to trivialize the tragedy by comparing human life to injuries in basketball, it was part of a string of bad luck to befall the ’87 Celts.
It wasn’t as though Boston didn’t play very good basketball throughout the season. They won 59 games and earned the top seed in the East. But Los Angeles won 65, behind Magic Johnson’s MVP season and had the best record overall and a cakewalk through the Western Conference, in which they would not have to play anyone seeded higher than 5th. In the meantime, the Celtics would face a gauntlet rarely seen in this era of the NBA, which was top-heavy with only three or four teams capable of going the distance.
After Boston coasted through Michael Jordan’s still-developing Chicago Bulls in the first round, the Milwaukee Bucks awaited in the conference semi-finals. The Bucks were one of the more successful teams in the NBA throughout the 1980s and even though they were seeded fourth, they were deep, had won 50 games and from growing up just west of Milwaukee, I can tell you the city believed they could win this series and make it to the Finals.
The Celtics were entering this decisive point of the season beat up. Bill Walton, whose play backing up Robert Parish had been so vital to the ’86 title run, had been injured most of the year. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were both battling serious foot injuries, and it would be almost painful to watch them suit up each game as the postseason progressed and wondering how they could move and pivot without excruciating pain. Danny Ainge was also fighting nagging injuries. The bench was weak, so there was little help for the injured and Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson, the two healthy starters had more of a burden placed on them.
Milwaukee had a finesse-oriented team that Boston was often able to pound up front, but with McHale and Parish hurting, that was going to be called into question. In the backcourt, Bucks were five-deep in quality guards. Ricky Pierce was a top point guard and scored 20 a night. Paul Pressey had initiated the “point forward” position and led the team in assists from the three-spot and was renowned as a top defender. Craig Hodges hit the three-ball, while veteran John Lucas gave offensive spark off the bench. And though his best days were behind him, Sidney Moncreif was as tough as anybody.
Boston took advantage of homecourt and won the first two games. Milwaukee took Game 3, a battle marked by a Milwaukee fan getting in McHale’s face behind the bench and the Celtic forward grabbing him by the shirt collar and drawing a fine. The Celts appeared to wrap the series up in Game 4 when they won a wild 138-137 battle, but the feisty Bucks went back to the Garden and took Game 5. I was in attendance for Game 6 in Milwaukee, as a raucous crowd willed the Bucks to a 121-111 win and set up a decisive seventh game. On a Sunday afternoon in Boston, the Bucks held an eight-point lead with five minutes to go. But the Celtics dug deep and found a way to pull out a 119-113 win.
The reward for winning this series was a date with the emerging Detroit Pistons in the conference finals. It had been expected that the Atlanta Hawks, with explosive forward Dominique Wilkins, would have been the opponent here. The Hawks had outlasted the Pistons and Bucks to win the Central Division (there were only two divisions per conference), but a pair of one-point losses doomed them to postseason defeat against Detroit.
It was Boston’s bad fortune to pair up against another team who could exploit their weaknesses, depth being foremost among them. The Pistons were even deeper than the Bucks, with nine players getting 15-plus minutes and they were balanced throughout. We could consider them a finesse team but they were more physical than Milwaukee. Bill Laimbeer was a double-digit rebounder. Rick Mahorn was tough and physical. John Salley had a long wingspan and Dennis Rodman was starting to come into his own as a rebounder. Adrian Dantley knocked down 20 a game from the three-spot. And we haven’t even gotten to the backcourt, where Isaiah Thomas led the way, while Vinnie Johnson scored 15 a game and was nicknamed the “Microwave” because he could heat up so quickly. Joe Dumars, later to become team president was an effective ballhandler and scorer opposite Thomas.
Boston again made good use of homecourt and grabbed the first two games. Detroit did what Milwaukee couldn’t though and that’s defend their home floor, taking Games 3 & 4, the latter a 145-119 pounding. Bad blood was rising in this series as well. Laimbeer had a reputation throughout the league as a cheapshot artist and Parish lost his temper and threw a punch at the back of Laimbeer’s head. And Game 5 would be one for the ESPN Classic highlight reels. The Pistons led 107-106 in the closing seconds and were taking the ball inbounds underneath the Boston basket. Bird intercepted the inbounds pass and snapped a quick pass to Johnson who scored the gamewinner. It was the play that saved the season. Detroit won Game 6 and we were again back to a seventh game in the Garden on a Sunday afternoon. In another game where the visitors seemed so often to have the upset in their grasp, the veteran Celts made play after play down the stretch and preserved a 117-114 win.
Experience and heart were enough to push Boston into the Finals, but it takes the good fortune of being healthy to beat the Lakers, and the Celts dropped the championship round in six games. But that an aging and injured team could fight its way through consecutive seven-game wars against a deeper opponents who were desperately hungry is an achievement that deserves its place in the history books.
In the interests of full disclosure, I was rooting passionately for the Bucks back in those days when I was a junior in high school. More disturbing though is that I got so wrapped up in the battle that I loathed Bird and the Celtics and I had the audacity to root for the Lakers in the Finals. This troubled my late father to no end, who kept insisting that the ’87 Celts were a team of “indomitable spirit” as he put it, the wounded warriors, battling forward. Deep down I knew that was true and while it would be three more years before I officially became a Celtics fan, I would never again succumb to such base ignorance, pulling for Boston the following year in their futile effort to hold off Detroit’s rise in the East.
It would be Bird who gave the mantra for this team. When asked if he could continue playing the 42-45 minutes a game he was giving every night in the absence of depth, he simply told the reporter that when he was a kid he used to play basketball for two hours. “This is what I do for fun”, Larry Legend informed the reporter. They were more than fun. They were inspiring. And they helped one troubled teenager in Wisconsin get his life (or at least his NBA rooting preferences) turned around.