Skip to main content

The Boston Celtics hadn’t yet won a championship in the Larry Bird era. The Philadelphia 76ers made quick work of them in the conference finals the previous year, and the teams squared off again in 1981 for a chance at an NBA Finals berth.

It was a physical series that often grew heated. Bird had a much better supporting cast this time around after the Celtics brought Robert Parish and Kevin McHale on board. Parish had a brutal early part of the series before the Celtics did the unthinkable.

Robert Parish struggled early as the Boston Celtics found themselves down 3-1

Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers shoots over Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics during an NBA basketball game circa 1980 at the Boston.
| Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Just before the 1980 NBA Draft, the Celtics swung a franchise-altering deal with the Golden State Warriors. Boston had the No. 1 pick and packaged it with the 13th overall pick. In return, the Celtics received Parish and the third pick. With that No. 3 selection, they took McHale.

In their first year together, Bird, McHale, and Parish helped guide the Celtics to a 62-win season, tying them with the 76ers. They were clearly the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and it was only fitting they’d meet up again in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston held homecourt advantage, but the 76ers quickly stole it with a 105-104 victory in the series opener. After Boston tied the series, the Celtics dropped the next two games. Parish struggled mightily, especially in Game 3.

The Celtics center made just one of 14 shots from the field and finished with six points as the Sixers won 110-100.

“I wouldn’t say that this was one of my worst games,” said Parish after the game, per Sports Illustrated. “I’d say it was the worst.”

Parish also struggled in Game 4, finishing with 10 points as the Sixers pulled out a 107-105 win to take a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead.

The Celtics battled back in the ‘house of jinxes’

The Celtics faced a daunting task of having to beat the Sixers three straight times. One of those games was to take place in Philadelphia, a place where Boston hadn’t won since Jan. 20, 1979. Including Games 3 and 4, Philly had won 11 straight at home over Boston. Before they could think of winning at The Spectrum, however, they needed to extend the series with a Game 5 win in Boston.

Boston took care of business with a 111-109 victory. Bird led the way with 32 points and 11 rebounds, and it was off to Philadelphia for Game 6. McHale said Red Auerbach, then the GM, challenged McHale and Parish before the crucial Game 6 in Philly, where head coach Bill Fitch referred to the arena as “this house of jinxes.”

“The Sixers had beaten the Celtics the year before I got there in the conference finals,” McHale recalled during a 2020 in-studio interview on NBATV. “I remember Red Auerbach came up to Robert, and he was like, ‘I’ll tell you what guys. This is why I got you and Parish.’ He said last year they kind of beat us up on the boards. They went after us a little bit, and this isn’t going to happen now because I have you two guys here now.

“He said we gotta control the boards and control the paint. He kind of put it on us a little bit, you know, that things have got to change.”

The Celtics did the unthinkable and defeated the Sixers 100-98. Parish had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Boston closed out the series with another nail-biter at home, winning Game 7, 91-90. Five of the seven games in that series were decided by two points or less. The Celtics went on to defeat the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals for the first of their three championships in the decade.


Boston Celtics Championship History Countdown — Top 17 Signature Moments Ranked