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Houston Rockets center Moses Malone insisted the Boston Celtics weren’t good. Cedric Maxwell proved he was. While much of Boston’s hype revolved around second-year forward Larry Bird, Maxwell stepped up when needed most. Maxwell was named MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals as he and the rest of the Celtics showed Malone just how good they really were.

Cedric Maxwell came up huge for the Boston Celtics in the 1981 Finals

Cedric Maxwell of the Boston Celtics leaps to defend the shot of Steve Mix of the Philadelphia 76ers during an NBA game circa 1980 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

The Boston Celtics were on a mission to start the decade. After Bird won Rookie of the Year, the Celtics did their best to put some talent around him.

Red Auerbach put together one of the biggest trades in team history to make it happen. Boston held the No. 1 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft. The Celtics sent it, along with the No. 13 selection, to the Golden State Warriors. In return, the Celtics received veteran center Robert Parish and the third pick. With the No. 3 pick, Boston selected Kevin McHale.

With Bird, Maxwell, Parish, and McHale, the Celtics had a frontcourt matched by none. While Bird, McHale, and Parish are considered Boston’s Big Three, Maxwell was the big one in the ’81 Finals.

The Celtics were the better team but found themselves tied 2-2 entering Game 5. That’s when Malone opened his mouth.

“Boston ain’t that good,” he said before the game, per Sports Illustrated. “I could get four guys off the street from back home in Petersburg (Va.) and beat them.” 

The Celtics took note. Maxwell did his own talking, but was much quieter. His talk was directed at teammate Gerald Henderson.

“I’m going to have a great game tonight,” Maxwell told Henderson. “I know it. Larry (Bird) is having trouble with his shot. I’m going to do it on offense tonight.”

Sure enough, Maxwell poured in a game-high 28 points and pulled down 15 points to lead the Celtics to a convincing 109-80 victory.

Maxwell and Malone did plenty of talking in the series

Beating the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals gave the Celtics all the confidence in the world heading into the championship round. Even after Maxwell had a miserable performance in Game 2 against the Rockets that had coach Bill Fitch chewing him out, Maxwell knew what he was capable of. He responded by leading Boston in scoring the next three games.

“It wasn’t Fitch’s chewing me out that turned me around,” Maxwell said, per Sports Illustrated. “It was myself. I had a big head after the Philly series, we all did, no matter what anybody says. We figured we had the championship won.”

In that pivotal Game 5, Malone not only did his talking before the game, but he and Max had conversations during it.

“Moses and I had a dialogue going the whole game,” said Maxwell. “He would say, ‘You’re not going to score anymore,’ or other, more explicit words than that, and I kept saying I would, in other, more explicit words than that.”

Malone doubled down on the Celtics not being good after the Game 5 loss.

“I still say it,” said Malone. “They’re just so-so. I’ll tell you, the Celtics won’t be drinking champagne after Game 6. They’ll be drinking Gatorade, to get their strength back.”

The Celtics laughed off the Malone talk and closed out the series with a 102-91 victory.


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