After Winning the ’81 NBA Finals, The Boston Celtics Stumbled in the Postseason for 2 Years: ‘It Was Time for Our Coach to Go’

After the Boston Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals, they were unable to return to the championship round for the next two years despite putting up 63 wins in 1982 and 56 in 1983. In ’82, the Philadelphia 76ers ousted them in seven games in the conference finals. In ’83, the Celtics were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the semis.

The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in 1984. Many believe signing veteran guard Dennis Johnson was the key factor in getting Boston back over the hump. However, one former player, M.L. Carr, believed a coaching change played a significant role.

The Boston Celtics couldn’t break through in the postseason in 1982 and 1983

M.L. Carr of the Boston Celtics dribbles the ball up the court against the Washington Bullets during an NBA game circa 1982 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

In 1981, the Celtics had a grueling showdown with the 76ers in the conference finals and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven games. The following year, the teams met again in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this time the Sixers outlasted the Celtics in seven.

In 1983, the Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks in a best-of-three series in the opening round. In the conference semifinals, were embarrassingly ousted by the Bucks in four games.

The Celtics were strong in the frontcourt with a young Larry Bird, a young Kevin McHale, and a veteran center in Robert Parish. Opposing guards gave Boston a problem, especially in the postseason. Philadelphia’s Andrew Toney always gave the Celtics fits, as did Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief.

Before the 1983-84 season, the Celtics traded for Johnson, a veteran, defensive-minded guard who came with the reputation of having an attitude problem. Johnson came to Boston from the Phoenix Suns in a deal involving Rick Robey.

With Johnson aboard, the Celtics won 62 games and earned a trip to the 1984 NBA Finals, where they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. That trip to the Finals was the first of four straight for the Celtics.

M.L. Carr believed the Celtics needed a coaching change after the 1981 championship

While Johnson was certainly a key addition to the Celtics before they went to four straight NBA Finals, Carr believes it’s not a coincidence that when Bill Fitch, who guided the Celtics to the championship in 1981, was let go, the Celtics took off.

“We lost to the Bucks in four (in 1983), but to be honest, any team in the playoffs that year could have beat us in four games,” Carr once told Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation. “To be quite frank, we came to the conclusion, as a team, that it was time for our coach to go. I make no bones about that. 

“Bill Fitch was a very good coach, but he was also very strict, and he couldn’t loosen up the reins after we became more of a veteran team.  He still wanted to control everything, and he wanted to beat you down over everything, and it eventually wore thin with the team.  And I’ll be honest with you — if we were properly motivated, there was no way in the world we would have lost for games to the Milwaukee Bucks that year.”

The Celtics replaced Fitch with K.C. Jones before the 1983-84 season, and Boston won a title in Jones’ first year. Carr believes Fitch was a good coach but wasn’t the right fit for a veteran team.

“Bill Fitch was the perfect coach when the roster was populated with younger, immature guys with very little professional experience,” Carr said. “KC Jones was the perfect coach for a veteran team. He worked us hard, but he treated us like veterans.”