The #86Celtics: God falls in the Garden


The #86Celtics: God falls in the Garden

Growing up in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael Jordan’s 63-point night at the Boston Garden was taught and talked about like an #86Celtics archetype. After all, those Celtics were the consummate team, and Game 2 of their first-round series against the Bulls -- a 135-131 double overtime win -- was the shiniest example. For young basketball players, it was Exhibit A for the power of teamwork, like “Hey kids, so you see No. 23 out there for the Bulls? You see him running down the court, scoring at will? He looks pretty cool, but guess what? He lost this game. That’s because while he was out there doing everything by himself, the five guys in green did it together. Remember that: Five always beats one. Nothing beats TEAM.”

There was obviously more nuance to the story, but nothing that my pre-teen brain could comprehend. Instead, for a number of years I lived with the misconception that if the #86Celtics represented the right way to play basketball, then Jordan represented the wrong way. That if the Celtics were “team”, then Jordan -- given the arc of the story -- was “anti-team.” Of course I can sit here today and tell you that’s garbage. Even in real time, most mature basketball fans realized that Jordan’s performance was nothing less than a clear indication that basketball would never be the same. “The hoop world knows that every other player and every other team is on borrowed time,” Bob Ryan wrote that next morning in the Boston Globe. “The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks, Rockets and every other 1986 title aspirant had better seize whatever opportunity they can -- Now! -- because we are clearly at the dawn of the Age of Jordan.”

But Ryan’s magical words can’t change that wasted time when my snotty little self thought otherwise of His Airness. I’m still embarrassed for myself and anyone around my age that fell into that trap. So to make amends I’m using this week’s #86Celtics space to tell you (or just remind you) that if not for Michael Jordan’s legendary competitive spirit and spot on convictions about the “right way” to play basketball, that Bulls/Celtics series never would have happened, and the legacy of the #86Celtics wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is today.

For a little background, Jordan was only 23 years old the night he dropped 63 on the Celtics. That’s the same age that Anthony Davis is right now. Also, thanks to injury, Jordan entered the 1986 playoffs with only 100 regular-season games under his belt. By comparison Marcus Smart played his 118th career game on Wednesday against the Raptors. So, Jordan was young, and Jordan was inexperienced, but under that shiny exterior lived the same ruthless, cut throat ass-kicker that would spend the next dozen years changing basketball forever.

Jordan ran away with Rookie of the Year honors that previous season, averaging 28.2 points per game (still the fifth-best rookie average in NBA history). With his help, the Bulls improved from 27 to 38 wins, made the playoffs for the first time in four years and only the second time in eight years. That offseason Chicago drafted a young beast named Charles Oakley with the ninth overall pick. They also traded for 33-year-old future Hall of Famer George Gervin. No one confused the Bulls with contenders heading into that 1985-86 campaign, but they were getting better, and that was obvious right off the bat. In Game 1, Jordan scored 29 in an overtime win over the Cavs. In Game 2, Jordan scored 33 in a win over young Isaiah’s Pistons.

In Game 3 against the Warriors, Jordan broke his foot.

Straight up broke it.

The Bulls held on to win that game but then lost 17 of their next 22. Between January 14 and February 17, as Jordan rehabbed in Chapel Hill, Chicago lost 15 of 17 games -- and at this point two distinct camps formed within the organization. First there was young Jordan, who looked at the standings and saw his team, despite a horrible record, somehow only a few games out of the eighth seed. Then there was owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause, who looked at the standings and saw their team, horrible record and all, only a few games “ahead” of the Knicks in the race for the NBA’s worst record.

For some reason (probably just the state of media coverage) there’s a sense in basketball circles that tanking is a new fangled NBA phenomenon, but it’s not. In 1986 there were two players, North Carolina center Brad Daugherty and Maryland swingman Len Bias, labeled with a can’t-miss tag and the Bulls’ front office wanted one of them. They figured why risk the future rushing Jordan back from a foot injury when they can sit him and potentially earn another young superstar for their trouble?

But Jordan wasn’t having it. After weeks of unsuccessfully begging the Bulls to let him back on the court (as David Halberstram details in his book “Playing for Keeps”), Jordan demanded a conference call with Reinsdorf, Krause, head coach Stan Albeck and three different doctors, where he once again insisted he was healthy enough to play. By the end, the team agreed to let Jordan return (they really had no choice), but only on an extremely conservative minute restriction, which Jordan agreed to (he really had no choice). On March 14, after a 64-game absence, with the 24-43 Bulls sitting two games back of the eighth-seeded Cavs, and 3 1/2 ahead of the NBA-worst Knicks, Jordan returned.

And it didn’t go well.

He came off the bench to play 13-16 minutes a night over his first five games, and the Bulls lost all five. It was just awkward. Jordan was never out there long enough to find rhythm, and despite the fact that he felt great, management wouldn’t budge on the minute restriction. On April 1, Jordan scored 28 points in 26 minutes against the Bucks, but the Bulls blew an eight-point lead in the last five minutes to fall to 2-7 since Michael’s return. And that was the last straw.

Jordan went off.

"I've been jerked around big time," he told reporters.

For one second, just remember that Jordan was only 23 years old here. He was a year older than Marcus Smart. He was a year younger than Jared Sullinger. Can you imagine if a young player - or any player -- spoke out like this in today’s media landscape?

“All the other coaches can see I'm not tentative and that I'm as aggressive as ever,” he said. “You would think that the Bulls' front office would see that.”

Honestly, what would we do? How would we survive? At what point would the Hot Takes burn out the sun?

“Krause avoids me,” Jordan continued. “He knows what I'm going to talk about. He walks right by me.”





“If they really wanted to make the playoffs, I'd be in there when they have a chance to win a game,” Jordan said. “It's not a medical decision anymore. It's all business.”

Anyway, *something* clicked after Jordan’s outburst. The minutes restriction magically disappeared. From there the Bulls won three straight, and four of their next five games, with Jordan playing 28-plus minutes and scoring 26-plus points a night. The last win came in the second to last game of the season against Washington, and that combined with a Celtics win over Cleveland clinched the eighth seed for Chicago.

It took every ounce of mental, physical and emotional will in Jordan’s 23-year-old body — but the Bulls were back in the playoffs.

Up next: A first-round date with the #86Celtics.

* * * * *

Even today, if you ask someone who’s old enough to name one game from the Celtics run to the 1986 NBA title, there’s a decent chance they’ll fall back on Game 2 of the first round against Chicago -- the night that one of the best teams in NBA history overcame the greatest individual playoff performance in NBA history.

Part of that is because, aside from the Jordan game, there was very little drama or fanfare along the playoff path to Banner 16. The Celtics only lost one game on the Eastern Conference side of the bracket. By the time they reached the Finals, everyone was so shocked not to see the Lakers there that that series turned a little anti-climactic. In a weird sense, the 1986 Houston Rockets were the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals. They were faceless foes in the shadow of something much bigger. And with that said it’s fair to wonder how differently we might remember the #86Celtics if not for the night God fell at the Garden.

What would we latch onto if they’d swept the nameless Cavs in the first round before dispatching the forgettable Hawks, Bucks and Rockets?

How would we know they were truly great had they never been tested by true greatness?

Well, thanks to Michael Jordan, his legendary talent, psychotic competitive streak and refusal to play basketball any way but the “right way”, those questions don’t need answers. 

Horford helps Celtics get back on track

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Horford helps Celtics get back on track

Aggressive Al Horford was on the floor Friday night for the Boston Celtics, a good sign for a Celtics team that has been battered by injuries. 

As the oldest member of the team, the 31-year-old’s leadership has to become more example-driven as well as existing in the spoken word.

CELTICS TALK PODCAST  - Smart's importance to C's, dissecting the East

Horford was on point for most of Friday’s 92-83 win over Orlando, a game that was far more lopsided in Boston’s favor than the final score might indicate.

The 6-foot-10 forward/center had a near double-double with 15 points and nine rebounds. 

What was more telling was that Horford took a team-high 18 shots from the field, as clear a sign as you will find that Horford’s mindset on Friday was to attack Orlando’s defense early and often. 

And while it’s true that the Magic are one of the worst teams in the NBA, that doesn’t diminish the way Horford executed the plays called by head coach Brad Stevens as Horford played the role of primary scorer more often than usual, instead of being a major facilitator.

Having missed Boston’s previous two games, Horford was admittedly concerned if the lay-off might affect his conditioning. 

“Wind-wise I felt good,” Horford told reporters after Friday night’s win. “A little rusty on offense. But defensively I felt great. I felt our team came out with energy; just a good win.” 

A win that became a lot easier to get with Aggressive Al on the floor. 

 Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds in Boston’s 92-83 win over Orlando.



Terry Rozier: He continues to provide the Celtics with really solid guard play, with all-star guard Kyrie Irving (left knee soreness) missing. Rozier had a game high-tying 17 points along with seven rebounds and five assists. 

Greg Monroe: The third quarter was when Monroe really began to take over the game. He finished with 17 points, 10 of which came in the third. 

Shelvin Mack: Not a lot to cheer about for Mack and the Magic who once again struggled in so many phases of the game. But Mack still managed to score 16 points. 



Al Horford: Having missed the two previous games, Horford was back in full force on Friday. He had 15 points on 6-for-18 shooting to go with nine rebounds

Boston rebounding: The Celtics control of the glass began from the outset and never really eased up. For the game, Boston grabbed 55 rebounds compared to just 40 by Orlando. 



Fourth-quarter Celtics: The only real blemish on an otherwise impressive performance by Boston, was the team’s overall play in the fourth quarter. Boston was outscored 31-17 and turned the ball over 10 times in the quarter. 


Celtics snap skid with dominant win over Magic, 92-83

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Celtics snap skid with dominant win over Magic, 92-83

The Orlando Magic are one of the few teams already eliminated from playoff contention. 

And on Friday, it didn’t take long to see why.

CELTICS TALK PODCAST - Smart's importance, dissecting the Eastern Conference

The Boston Celtics didn’t waste any time taking control of the game and never letting up as they cruised to a 92-83 win.

Terry Rozier and Greg Monroe led the Celtics with 17 points each and Shelvin Mack had 16 points and seven rebounds for Orlando.  

With the win, the Celtics (47-22) snapped a two-game losing skid and improved their record since returning from the All-Star break to 7-3. 

Getting back on a winning track was just part of Boston’s motivation heading into Friday night’s game. 

With several key players out with injuries, the Celtics’ depth was once again on display from the opening tip to the final horn. 

In the first half, reserve guard Shane Larkin led the team in scoring with 10 points. 

And in the third quarter, backup center Greg Monroe was too much for the Magic to handle around the basket.

In the third, Monroe scored 10 of his 17 points off Boston’s bench. 

This was a game that the Celtics showed few signs of the kind of let-up we have seen them display against bad teams from time to time. 

But Orlando opened the fourth quarter with a 9-2 run that cut Boston’s lead down to 77-61 with 9:18 to play. 

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens had seen enough and called a time-out. 

Orlando was able to chip away a little more at Boston’s lead which peaked at 24 points but was down to single digits in the fourth which provided a glimmer of hope that maybe just maybe, the Magic could get back in the game.

But when it mattered, Boston made the plays in the game’s closing moments to secure the victory. 

For the Celtics, the goal on Friday night was two-fold: find a way to win and come away healthy. 

Boston found success on both fronts, a refreshing change the Celtics hope to do more of going forward. 

Marcus Smart underwent surgery on his right thumb earlier in the day, which is expected to keep him sidelined for 6-8 weeks which would put his return to the floor at the earliest, sometime near the end of the first round of the playoffs or early into the second. 

Daniel Theis underwent season-ending surgery recently for a meniscus tear in his left knee.

And Boston played without Kyrie Irving (left knee soreness), but he might back in the lineup for Sunday’s game against New Orleans.

Al Horford returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games due to an illness, and he didn’t disappoint in finishing with a near double-double of 15 point and nine rebounds.