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Several Boston Celtics players have said once they got past the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals, they knew the championship was theirs. They didn’t have to face the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, or the Phoenix Suns — the three teams with 50 or more wins. The Western Conference Finals featured a pair of teams — the Kansas City Kings and Houston Rockets — that didn’t have winning records.

Former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell admitted the Celtics didn’t play their best in the series. He said they played down to the level of competition against the “ragtag” Rockets.

Cedric Maxwell was named MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals against the ‘ragtag’ Rockets

Maxwell said Boston’s championship was beating the 76ers in the conference finals. He knew there was another step to take, but he didn’t feel the hype like he did against Philly.

“The 1981 Finals weren’t an artistic beauty,” Maxwell wrote in his book If These Walls Could Talk. “We definitely played down to the level of competition. Sure, this was for the championship, but it was definitely a letdown after our high of the Sixers series.”

The Rockets did have a dominant player in Moses Malone, a center who won the MVP in 1979.

“That (Malone) was able to take a ragtag group to the Finals was really impressive,” Maxwell wrote. “They’d do trick plays, like guys throwing it off the backboard and letting Malone put back the rebound. That’s cute, but did they ever think they were really going to beat us that way?”

The Rockets shocked the Celtics in Boston in Game 2 as Malone went for 31 points and 15 rebounds in a 92-90 victory.

“Suffice to say, the Rockets had awoken the bear,” Maxwell wrote. “We crushed them 94-71 in Game 3. It was over by halftime.”

Although Houston tied the series with a Game 4 win, the Celtics convincingly won Games 5 and 6, and Maxwell was named MVP of the series, averaging 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds.

Maxwell wasn’t alone in thinking the Celtics would cruise past the Rockets


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While Maxwell was overconfident heading into the series with the Rockets, he wasn’t alone.

“We knew we were going to win,” Celtics veteran M.L. Carr told Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation.  “We’d gone through such an incredible battle with the Sixers that there wasn’t a doubt in the world. 

“Beating the Rockets was a foregone conclusion. We knew there was no way we’d come up short. Talent-wise, we felt we were the superior team, and we had such a will to win after losing to the Sixers the year before and then coming back to beat them to reach the Finals. We knew we were going to take care of business.”

Before Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals against the Lakers, Bird addressed how a championship against LA would rank against that 1981 title.

“The first is always sweet, but I think this will mean more than when we beat Houston (in the 1981 Finals) because we are underdogs against the ‘unbeatable’ Lakers,” Bird said sarcastically about Lakers, per United Press International. “I didn’t appreciate it the first time. It was too easy. This will be a lot different.”