Rich Levine

The end of a dynasty . . . and what a way to go

The end of a dynasty . . . and what a way to go

This journey through time with the #86Celtics started back in January, when Red Auerbach used his magic conch shell to assemble a legendary starting five and their Hall of Fame sixth man. From there it moved on to investigate the truth behind the most ruthless trash-talking story you’ve ever heard. We saw the #86Celtics fight through their two most frustrating regular-season losses. We reorganized the mangled chronology of Larry Bird’s three-point contest three-peat, we analyzed Bird’s hilarious career as a TV pitchman and compared the Celtics of then to NBA players of now.

After that we watched the #86Celtics pass the ball like few teams before or since. We talked with Tommy Heinsohn about the only Celtics team to finish with a better record than the ’86 squad. We saw Boston overcome Michael Jordan’s greatness in round one of the playoffs. We saw them reach new heights against Atlanta in round two. Finally, in last week’s edition, the Celtics swept the Bucks in the Conference Finals while the Lakers choked out West. That left Boston vs. Houston for all the Tostitos, and what happened next will SHOCK you --

Damn it.

Click bait only works for headlines.

Anyway the Celtics beat the Rockets handily in six games for their 16th championship. Kevin McHale averaged 25.8 points to lead all scorers but Bird won the Finals MVP in a landslide. He averaged 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists for the series. He was two rebounds and three assists shy of averaging a triple double. Bird was the greatest basketball player in the world and topped it off with a Game 6 showing that many (including Bird) consider the best performance of his career.

“The Houston Rockets were like an unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going three miles over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses,” Bob Ryan wrote after the Game 6 clincher. “The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The court stenographer’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was -- guess what? -- Bird.”

“That was the only game I thought I was totally prepared for,” Bird later said. “As far as focus was concerned, none better. Never. I should have quit right there.”

Here’s a great video (inspired by Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and edited by Colin Stanton) about that Game 6. Watch it now or later, but definitely watch. It’s five minutes and encapsulates the total Bird experience. If nothing else, click ahead to the 2:35 mark and watch him win a jump ball against Hakeem Olajuwon. That’s focus, will and determination. It’s borderline witchcraft.

The last scene is particularly great as well. It begins with Bird drenched in booze and sweat in the postgame locker room, standing next to 68-year-old Red Auerbach. They’re both holding the Larry O’Brien trophy while Danny Ainge jokes in the background and Kevin McHale stands to the side taking long swigs from a can of Miller Lite.

Brent Musburger is in front holding a comically oversized CBS microphone, and he has an important question for Larry:

“So is Larry Bird satisfied now at this point in his career?”

* * *

As you can probably guess from the arc of the story, this is the last dispatch in our #86Celtics series. Hopefully you enjoyed reading these things. Hopefully they were a refreshing break from the anger and negativity that dominates most of today’s sports coverage. And with that, hopefully you’ll stick around for three final thoughts.

1. Throughout history there have been many great quotes about history, but one of the best comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

There are few ways to interpret that but for these purposes I take it to mean that basically everything we accomplish in our time is in large part a product of the people who came before us. Today, whether personally or professionally, we stand on the shoulders of generations of hard work and ingenuity. Our goal should be to raise the bar for tomorrow. As it relates to the #86Celtics, this concept came up during my conversation with Tommy Heinsohn. I had asked him about the city’s obsession with the Celtics teams of the ’80s, and how even today the mere mention of Larry Bird and the #86Celtics leaves fans all googly eyed.

“Listen, I’m not taking anything away from Larry Bird,” Heinsohn said. “I loved watching Larry Bird. But Boston was ready for Larry Bird. Back when we came up in the 1940s and ’50s, they were barely playing basketball in the high schools in Boston. My teams didn’t have any built-in fan base. We were touring through Vermont and Maine and New Hampshire, playing like 20 preseason games a year to build up interest, and then we won all those championships.”

After Heinsohn coached the Celtics to the 1976 NBA title, the count was 13 championships in 20 years, but things unraveled pretty quickly from there. John Havlicek was older. Dave Cowens was burnt out and took a leave of absence. The Celtics only won 44 games in 1977 and lost in the second round to Philly. That next season they fired Heinsohn after an 11-23 start, finished 32-50 and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. That next season they fired Satch Sanders after a 2-12 start, replaced him with him player-coach Dave Cowens and finished 29-53. This was the first time the Celtics posted consecutive losing seasons in the 27 years Red Auerbach was associated with the team. The 32- and 29-game win totals were the two worst of Auerbach’s tenure as well.

“It was total futility,” Heinsohn said. “Then all of a sudden Larry showed up and there was a rebirth. He brought an instant renewal of that ‘We’re gonna win a championship’ attitude and the built in fan base was already there, ready to explode.”

For the record Tommy wasn’t slightly annoyed or the least bit bitter when he said this. It’s just the truth. So after three months of drooling over the legacy and impact of Bird and the #86Celtics, let’s take a quick second and recognize that nothing would be the same without the legacy and impact of the great Celtics players and teams that came before them.

2. No one knew it at the time, but while the 1986 title marked the culmination of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, it was also the end of an era.

Sure, there was another trip to the Finals. Bird had to two more truly great, peak seasons in him. McHale had one. In the bigger picture Boston won at least 50 games in five of the next six seasons — but it was never the same. It was never as good. Take a look at a screen shot from that Musburger interview and it’s crazy to think that this was the last time Bird ever held a new championship trophy. It was the last time McHale drank a postgame beer while standing on top of the world. It was the last championship of Red Auerbach’s lifetime.

Looking back at the whole roster, Robert Parish was the only member of the #86Celtics to win another title as a player, and he did it as a 43-year-old bench warmer for 1997 Bulls. Danny Ainge is the only other guy (after 1987) to even play in another Finals. To take it a step further, Parish, Ainge (2008 Celtics) and Rick Carlisle (2011 Mavericks) are the only #86Celtics to experience the thrill of another NBA title in any capacity.

This is all a reminder of just how rare seasons like 1986 are, how lucky these players were to be a part of it, and how lucky Boston was to witness it. At the same time you can probably argue that the Celtics were pretty unlucky. After all, nine days after this championship celebration, Boston drafted Len Bias. Less than 48 hours later, Bias overdosed on cocaine. Did that cost the Celtics another championship or two? Was Bias the Big 3’s Kawhi Leonard? Would Red have otherwise passed away without lighting one more championship cigar? No one really knows, but that’s the point. We never know. All that exists in any moment is that moment, which is why it’s comforting to know that when asked after his last NBA title: “So is Larry Bird satisfied now at this point in his career?”

Larry Bird answered: “As of right now, I am.”

3. And that’s that. This was your last dose of nostalgia until June 15, when CSNNE premieres a full-length documentary (“The ’86 Celtics”) featuring exclusive interviews with the players who played on the team, the writers who covered the team, and -- making his American television debut -- hologram Red Auerbach!

OK there’s no hologram Red Auerbach. But honestly, this movie will be great. It will be the perfect way to pass the time between the Celtics/Warriors NBA Finals and the night Danny Ainge decides whether to take Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the No. 1 overall pick. On a personal level, I already love the documentary because it provided the opportunity to run with this #86Celtics series and re-live one of the most important seasons in Boston sports history. It was a lot fun. And if you’ve been along for the ride, regardless of age or prior familiarity with the team, here’s hoping you feel the same way.

'86 Celts missed a sweeping opportunity against Lakers

'86 Celts missed a sweeping opportunity against Lakers

It’s fitting that this week’s #86Celtics story is about a disappointing performance by the Lakers. Then again, it would’ve been fitting at any point this season. Or last season. Or the season before that.

But recent Lakers’ disappointment is different from what they experienced 30 years ago. Back in 1986, the Lakers were the defending champs. They won 62 games in the regular season, which was five fewer than Boston, but the Lakers and Celtics still won the West and East by 11 and 10 games, respectively, and entered the playoffs on a collision course.

In round one, the Celtics swept the Bulls while the Lakers swept the Spurs. In round two, the Celtics knocked off the Hawks in five games while the Lakers took care of the Mavs in six. Next it was on to the Conference Finals, where the Celtics drew the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers had a date with the Houston Rockets, and Larry and Magic were four respective wins from their third straight NBA Finals showdown.

* * * 

“I'm not sure that Boston isn't on another planet from us mere mortal teams. I wish everyone realized how hard it is to score inside against them.”

That was head coach Don Nelson immediately after the #86Celtics destroyed his Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, and destroyed is the operative word. The Celts won Game 1 by 32 points. They won Game 2 by 11. Game 3 was the closest of the series — only a four-point Celtics win — and then Boston wrapped things up with a 13-point victory in the clincher. Larry Bird finished with 30 points in Game 4 and made a then-career-high five three pointers.

“I think I was unconscious,” he said after the game.

So the Celtics were headed to the Finals, where it was always assumed they’d find a rematch with L.A. But in real time, that’s not how things were playing out. Despite the fact that the Lakers beat the Rockets four of five times in the regular season, and despite the fact that they handily beat Houston at the Forum in Game 1, Los Angeles had fallen behind 3-1 in the series. The Lakers had no answer for Houston’s Twin Towers (Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon). Two nights after the Celtics eliminated the Bucks, the Lakers headed home for Game 5, hoping to extend their season. But in the end, Houston just kicked their ass. And I mean that literally. With five minutes left and the Lakers up 103-99, Olajuwon and Lakers forward/future GM Mitch Kupchak dropped the gloves for a brawl that ended with Kupchak on his knees and The Dream dragged down into a pile on the Lakers bench.

Olajuwon and Kupchak were ejected but, despite the uneven trade off, the Rockets climbed back to the tie the game and had a chance to win it with one second left.

Cue one of the most ridiculous buzzer beaters in NBA history.

Sampson’s game-winner robbed the league of a dream Finals match-up. It robbed the Celtics (now playing their best basketball of the season) a chance to feast on the purple and gold. And even all these years later, there’s an unfulfilling vibe surrounding would what become the Celtics' 16th championship season. Or maybe unfulfilled is too strong, but at the very least there’s a sense the title would have been more fulfilling had they steamrolled the Lakers. I mean, it’s not a disservice to the 2004 Red Sox to say that it’s cooler that they went through the Yankees en route to the World Series championship, right?

Right. But even though fate didn’t come through on the complete fairy tale ending, the #86Celtics still had their way with the Lakers.

* * * 

There’s nothing entirely scientific regarding what I’m about to say, but one of the rarest things you’ll see on any given night in the NBA is for one team to win all four quarters of the same game. For instance, on Tuesday night there were 11 games on the NBA schedule. Seven were decided by 13-plus points. Still, the Cavs (in a 29-point blowout) were the only team to win all four quarters. For more examples, the 2016 Warriors have swept all four quarters in only 6 of their 69 wins. Remember the 2013-14 Celtics? Of course you do. That was Brad Stevens’ first year in Boston and that team was horrible. They finished 25-57. But for all the suffering, they lost all four quarters only four times all year.

The four-quarter-sweep is so rare because, first of all, NBA players are pretty good. Even the worst teams are stacked with so many relentlessly talented athletes that at some point, even if it’s one 12-minute window, one team usually gets the best of the other. Not to mention, in order to win all four quarters a team has to win the first three. If they win the first three they’ll probably start the fourth with a decent lead. And if they start the fourth with a decent lead, there’s a decent chance the game devolves into garbage time  -- and then all bets are off. In that sense, teams so rarely win all four quarters because they don’t have to, but when it does happen it’s indicative of a systematically dominant performance.

It’s a victory delivered with purpose.

* * *

The #86Celtics swept all four quarters seven times during that historic regular season. Again, that’s one more than the 2016 Warriors have so far. The 1996 Bulls did it seven times, too. So that seems like the standard range for the best teams in NBA history.

One of the Celtics sweeps came on a Wednesday night at the Garden. January 22, 1986. This was the Boston’s first crack at the Lakers after losing in the 1985 Finals, so there was all sorts of resentment and animosity on top of what had already built up over the previous half-decade. Bill Walton was playing his first Celtics/Lakers game but he didn’t need any warm up. For one, he was always fired up to play against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Also, as you remember, Walton tried to join the Lakers that summer, but L.A. didn’t want him. They claimed he was done. So Walton came out with something to prove that night, and it’s fair to say that he did. He finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and SEVEN blocks in 16 minutes.

Now read that line again with the assurance that there are no typos.

Bill Walton scored 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked SEVEN shots in 16 minutes against the Lakers. He was an absolute beast. I mean look at this. Look at the power:

Look at the emotion:

Meanwhile, Larry Bird was Larry Bird. He finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals. It wasn’t his best game of the season, statistically or otherwise, but as someone who’s spent the last three months watching old #86Celtics footage, I’m telling you there was something different about the way Bird carried himself against the Lakers. Not that he didn’t always play hard, but it just looked like he was playing harder -- and I think this little clip does it justice. Watch how high he tries to jump on the jump ball. Watch him knock Magic out of bounds on that loose ball. Watch how hard he turns the corner and drives to the hoop. Watch his reaction after delivering a perfect pass to Kevin McHale.

Anyway, the Celtics were in control from the start against the Lakers. They won the first quarter, 31-25. They won the second quarter, 26-24, to take an eight-point halftime lead. They extended that lead to 13 during a 31-26 third quarter, and then snuck by 22-20 in the fourth. Boston won 105-90, and did it with a clean four-quarter-sweep.

Fast-forward to February 16. The teams were ready for their rematch in L.A., but neither was at its best. The Celtics were short Kevin McHale, who was sitting with a sore Achilles. The Lakers did have Magic Johnson, but he was struggling through a knee injury. Meanwhile, Robert Parish was in foul trouble from pretty much the opening whistle and only played 23 minutes.

The Celtics used an 8-0 first quarter run to take an early 18-12 lead. The Lakers chipped away and took the lead with on Byron Scott jumper with 30 seconds, but then Dennis Johnson hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to give Boston a 30-29 lead after one.

The Celtics built that lead to seven in the second quarter before the Lakers fought back to tie the score at 48 with 3:19 left. That’s just about the time Scott and Jerry Sichting got into it.

Shortly after that, Greg Kite landed a hard foul on Mike McGee and was accosted by Michael Cooper and James Worthy.

Finally, Bird tipped in a Walton miss at the halftime buzzer to give the Celtics a 58-55 lead. It also gave them a 28-26 win in the second quarter. (Bird was unbelievable, by the way. He came into game averaging 36 points over his last three and fresh off back-to-back triple doubles. With McHale out and Parish mostly on the bench, Bird led the Celtics with 22 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists.)

The Celtics came out firing in the third and built the lead to 12. Once again the Lakers crawled back but David Thirdkill completed a three-point play with less than a minute left to give the Boston an 86-80 lead heading into the fourth.

The Celtics won that third quarter 28-25, and in case you haven’t picked up on theme here, let me point out that the Celtics and Lakers have now played seven quarters of basketball in the 1986 regular season and the Celtics won all seven. Let me also point out that the Celtics dominated the Lakers in that fourth quarter at the Forum. Parish played most of it with five fouls and with him back in alongside Bill Walton, L.A. couldn’t find a rhythm. Of course this is the NBA, so the Lakers did go on a little run. They actually cut the lead to four with 3:59 left, but that’s when the Celtics defense stepped it up, and the Lakers went scoreless for three-plus minutes.

With 14 seconds left, Dennis Johnson hit a pair of foul shots to give Boston a 105-96 lead and clinch the season sweep. The foul shots also gave the Celtics a 19-16 advantage on the fourth quarter score, which would take that sweep to another astronomically cool level. But then . . .

19-19.

Damn it, Michael Cooper.

So the Celtics didn’t sweep all eight quarters of the regular season against the Lakers, but here are two parting thoughts.

1) We already knew this wasn’t a fairy tale.

2) Reality wasn’t so bad.

The #86Celtics: Simply Perfect

The #86Celtics: Simply Perfect

Last time on #86Celtics we talked about Michael Jordan’s 63-point effort at the Garden, and that was fun but at the same time everyone knows about Jordan’s 63-point effort at the Garden. That performance will live on forever and never slip through the cracks of history.

On the other hand, there’s the third quarter of Game 5 of the 1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals between Atlanta and Boston.

Now if you don’t know or remember what happened in that quarter, you’re not alone. Those 12 minutes have largely been forgotten over time. Personally, I have no recollection. I asked a lot of people who know a lot about the Celtics and they didn’t remember either. Maybe they just weren’t old enough but regardless that’s too bad because what the Celtics did to the Hawks on May 6, 1986 is every bit as unbelievable as what Jordan did to the Celtics a few weeks earlier. In fact you can quite easily argue that the third quarter of Game 5 of the 1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals was the most one-sided quarter in NBA playoff history. So in honor of the 16th championship banner that the #86Celtics raised to the rafters, here’s 16-point breakdown of the quarter that led Hawks coach Mike Fratello to say: “All I could do is call timeouts. The league doesn't let you make trades during games.”

1. Two days earlier, down 3-0 in the series, the Hawks beat the Celtics 106-94 in Atlanta. The 12-point loss was Boston’s worst in five months and their second worst of the season. For the second straight game, Bill Walton sat out with a strained left knee ligament. Only one Celtics starter shot better than 36 percent, and Larry Bird shot a team-worst 5-19 (.263) from the field.

Dominique Wilkins led Atlanta with 37 points but the difference was rookie Spud Webb, who put up 22 points, 12 assists and six rebounds in only 24 minutes off the bench.

“It was against the Celtics,” Webb repeated after the game. “There is something about beating the Celtics, and being part of it was something special, very special.”

2. Bird was clearly pissed off after his Game 4 effort and took the court in Game 5 — back in Boston — ready to yank out Atlanta’s heart and methodically devour it in front of their children. He hit his first three shots and scored 15 points in the opening quarter. By halftime he had 24. In all the Celtics dropped 66 points in that first half and took the locker room with an 11-point lead — and only 24 quality minutes standing between them and the Conference Finals.

3. Bird rattled out a mid-range jumper on the first possession of the third quarter. Atlanta got the rebound, current Clippers coach Doc Rivers pushed it up and found current Wizards coach Randy Wittman for an open baseline jumper. Wittman connected to cut the lead to nine points with 11:33 left — and now pay attention because this is where it gets good.

4. The Hawks made only one more field goal the rest of the quarter.

5. No, seriously. Atlanta finished 2-19 from the field and two of three from the foul line. They were outscored 36-6. The six points set a record for the fewest in any postseason quarter in NBA history.

That record was broken by Isaiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace and the 1999 Trailblazers, who put up five points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in Utah, but believe me the ’86 Hawks would’ve begged for the mercy Portland received.

6. The funny thing is that while the Celtics defense dominated the Hawks for the entire period, Boston’s offense actually needed a little time to warm up. Six minutes in, the score was 76-58, which meant the teams had only scored 10 and three points, respectively. “It’s been a strange third quarter,” said 38-year-old Celtics play-by-play man Mike Gorman. “Neither team’s been able to get on track.”

7. For reference, to say that Mike Gorman was 38 years old is to say that he was the same age as Brian Scalabrine is now.

But obviously much better looking.

8. Almost immediately after Gorman’s observation, Danny Ainge picked off a really bad pass from Doc Rivers, and we should point out that Doc threw a bunch of really bad passes in this game. The Hawks had eight turnovers in the quarter and the 24-year-old Rivers was at the root of at least five. He looked like Tony shaving points in Blue Chips. He looked like Austin Rivers playing against the #86Celtics. Honestly, there’s no way that Rajon Rondo has ever seen the footage from this game because otherwise he would’ve listened to Doc even less than he already did.

Doc: “Damn it, Rajon. You can’t force the pass in that situation!”

Rondo: “Man, I saw that third quarter against the Celtics. Don’t tell me $%@#.”

9. Ainge’s steal resulted in an easy basket for Robert Parish and a 78-59 lead. On the ensuing possession, after a 20-second timeout, Dominique scored at the rim with 5:31 left in the quarter.

The Hawks wouldn’t score again.

10. On the next Boston possession, Atlanta was hit with an illegal defense and Bird hit the foul shot. After a McHale missed jumper, another Hawks turnover found its way to Bird, who hit a streaking McHale for an emphatic dunk on Kevin Willis’ head. On the next Hawks’ possession, another turnover led to an easy lay-in for Robert Parish. On the next Hawks possession, Parish mercilessly blocked young Jonny Koncak’s shot; Ainge picked it up and threw an outlet to McHale who was clotheslined by Doc Rivers at the rim.

These days Doc probably would’ve been tossed, but in this game it was just a regular foul. Regardless the Hawks were clearly unhinged. McHale hit both foul shots and it was 85-61. A 7-0 run for Boston.

11. Next time down, McHale swatted a Johnny Davis jump shot for the Celtics fourth block of the quarter. Now they were just completely dominating on both ends like you’ve never seen. The Hawks couldn’t get a decent shot. They could barely see the rim. Meanwhile the Celtics did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted: Cutting at impossible angles and weaving perfect passes and somehow turning half court inbound plays into fast break offense.

“I didn't realize they scored so few points in the third period,” Bird (who finished with 36 points) said afterwards. “But I can see why. Every time they shot, we either blocked the shot, rebounded or stole the ball. Once we did that, we just ran and kept running.”

12. Ainge hit two free throws. Rivers got called for an offensive foul. Bird worked Cliff Levingston for a little lefty scoop shot. The Hawks missed two attempts at the rim which resulted in a rebound for Dennis Johnson, an outlet pass to Bird, an entry pass to Robert Parish and then a beautiful dish to McHale — who aggressively threw it down with two hands right on Tree Rollins’ brain.

McHale and Rollins got tangled up under the hoop and you could see McHale say something as he jogged back down. Tree was clearly beyond frustrated. The score was 91-61. A 13-0 run for Boston.

13. On the next Hawks possession, Ainge steals the ball from Levingston, flips it ahead to DJ, who finds Bird posted up under the hoop for a little lefty reverse. As the ball goes in, a trailing Tree Rollins gives McHale a little forearm shiver to the back. McHale pushes back. Rollins loses his mind and tries to fire the inbounds pass at McHale’s head. Naturally he misses, the ball goes right to Danny Ainge who calmly steps up and drains a three pointer. The crowd erupts. The Celtics are now up 35, on an 18-0 run.

14. “The Hawks are totally confused!” said SportsChannel commentator Rick Weitzman (Tommy was on national assignment). “They just don’t know what’s going on out here.”

“They really don’t,” Gorman said. “I’ve never seen a team fall apart like this. I really haven’t.”

Ainge hit two foul shots with 1:12 left, after which Johnny Davis missed another jump on the Hawks end, after which Bird grabbed the rebound, fired it up to Ainge, who took a few dribbles and connected with a sprinting McHale, who threw down another monstrous fast break dunk. The Celtics are now up 39, on a 22-0 run.

15. “Beat LA! Beat LA!”

That’s the Garden crowd, knowing that the Hawks were dead in the water; knowing that these #86Celtics would destroy whichever team they faced in the conference finals; just not knowing that the Lakers would choke out West against Houston.

Davis missed another jumper as the buzzer sounded, but just for fun Kevin Willis decided to throw McHale to floor. He got called for a foul and McHale went to the line by himself, drained both free throws and put the cap on a 24-0 run, a 41-point lead, and the most dominant quarter in NBA playoff history.

16) And now that you’ve read about it. Kick back and watch: