By Lawrence Dembro
For you young guys who didn’t see or barely remember that series, here’s an account from a guy who watched every game.
(Mostly on late night television from whatever UHF channel it was in Providence that played the delayed broadcast starting at 1030 at night or so for the weeknight games.)
The Celtics came into the finals after having to fight back from a 3-1 deficit in the typically grueling Eastern Conference Finals against Dr. J’s 76ers. They took losses in games 2 and 4 to the surprisingly competitive Rockets (40-42 regular season), led by Moses Malone, bringing the series back to Boston knotted at 2-2.
Game 5, on May 12, was the turning point — a 109-80 blowout that to my eyes pretty much finished off the Rockets. Boston closed the series out two nights later in Houston.
The star of the game was Cedric Maxwell — 28 points, 15 rebounds, and a couple of blocks, one on a confused Malone who was held relatively in check that night (20 points) by the tag-team of Robert Parrish and rookie Kevin McHale.
(McHale played about the same minutes in that series as Jaylen Brown does in these playoffs or Reggie Lewis did in 87-88. Different eras, but the “Celtic rooke thing” stays the same.)
You can check out Maxwell’s game 5 highlights here:
There’s a decent overview of the series and season at NBA.com.
(You gotta love the introductory comment in the above, which notes that in 1981, “it had been 5 long years” since the last Celtics title. Yah, that’s what it was like.)
There’s a kind of sadness about that banner for me, having to do with Maxwell’s selection as MVP of the series. It’s pretty well described in a piece the LA Times ran when Max (as he later asked to be called — didn’t like “Cornbread” any more) went to the LA Clippers.
Make no mistake, Bird was the leader of that team, its season MVP — and, by the same token, the MVP of that series was definitely Max.
But there were a lot of Celtics fans whose affection for Bird, and recognition of his outstanding performance in the deciding game 6, led them to be disappointed that Max got the award. And that’s what made it so bittersweet for Maxwell.
Obviously, Celtic-for-life Max got over it eventually, and then some, but I remember feeling badly at the time and there more than a few fans who grumbled about it.
I always liked him, and his acerbic, Charles-Barkley-esque willingness to speak out. He gave good quote, as in….
— On Boston guard Danny Ainge, a Mormon: “Danny’s a guy you’d want your daughter to marry. But not my daughter, because I don’t want all those grandkids.”
— On last a publicized on-court fight between Bird and Philadelphia’s Julius Erving, which cleared the benches: “I was like a young Martin Luther King out there–nonviolent.”
And of course:
— On being traded from Boston to the Clippers: “The first thing I’m going to do is get rid of all those green tennis shoes. I don’t want to see anything green that isn’t money.”
— On being playing in you-know-who’s shadow: “Larry Bird played with me.”
One also can’t help looking back with wonder at the fact that, for the series, the Celtics made a total of three (yes, 3) three-point shots. As did the Rockets. Back then, the 3-point shot was considered sort of a novelty… bad basketball. Teams just didn’t even think about taking a lot of them.
Oh, to have my own a Tardis for a day. First stop: head back to 1979 with some advanced stats — really, just “2 x .500 < 3 x .400" -- and present them to Celtics management at the time.
Boston had the best 3-point shooter in the game at the time, and was soon to acquire Danny Ainge. One has to believe if someone had “done the math” with him and Larry Bird and Red at the time…. who knows?
Lawrence Dembro was a Celtics fan before you were born.
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