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The Big Three always seems to get much of the credit for the success of the Boston Celtics during the 1980s — and rightfully so. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish dominated on the court and in the headlines en route to three championships in the decade. While the trio got most of the press, forward Cedric Maxwell stayed out of the spotlight until, of course, it was crunch time.

Cedric Maxwell was the unsung hero of the ’80s for the Boston Celtics

Cedric Maxwell of the Boston Celtics in action against the Washington Bullets during an NBA game circa 1981 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Before Bird, there was Maxwell. Selected by the Celtics in the first round of the 1977 NBA Draft, Maxwell put up some big numbers early in his Boston career.

In his second year in the NBA, Maxwell, a 6-foot-8 forward out of UNC Charlotte, averaged 19.0 points and 9.9 rebounds. He also led the NBA in field-goal percentage, shooting 58.4% from the floor. The next year, Maxwell took a back seat to Bird, a hyped-up rookie from Indiana State.

Bird lived up to his billing, winning Rookie of the Year honors. He put up 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in his first year. During that 1979-80 season, Boston went from a 29-win team to collecting 61 victories. The Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in five games.

The following year, Red Auerbach swung a trade with the Golden State Warriors, bringing in Parish and McHale to form the Big Three. In their first season together, they went to the NBA Finals and won the first of three championships that decade, defeating the Houston Rockets. With the trio getting much of the credit, it was Maxwell who was named the MVP of the Finals.

The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in 1984, facing the rival Los Angeles Lakers. While LA dominated the early part of the series, the Celtics managed to head back to Boston for Game 5 with the series tied at two games a piece.

After splitting the next two games, the Celtics headed home for a deciding Game 7. Before the game, Maxwell told his teammates to get on his back, and he delivered. He led the team with 24 points in a 111-102 victory.

Maxwell made a name for himself in the 1981 NBA Finals


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Maxwell was up and down in the ’81 Finals against the Rockets but had more ups than downs. Game 2 was a personal clunker as he had six points and four rebounds. Head coach Bill Fitch let Maxwell have it after the game.

“I really chewed Max good,” Fitch said in May 1981, per Sports Illustrated. “He didn’t even want to practice the next day.”

“I never want to practice,” said Maxwell. “It wasn’t Fitch’s chewing me out that turned me around. 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 Game 5, Maxwell turned up his game several notches. He finished with 28 points and 15 rebounds while facing one of the best rebounders in Moses Malone.

“Max gave himself away tonight,” said Fitch after Game 5. “He has had some good games and some stinkers, but this was a truly great one. He’s not going to be able to make excuses anymore.”

Maxwell won the series MVP, collecting six votes to Bird’s one. The result surprised Fitch.

“I was surprised,” said Fitch. “I assumed it would be Bird.”

Even with Bird, McHale, and Parish shining, Maxwell found a way to shine the brightest when the moment was the biggest.

“Being named MVP was a great vindication for me, a great boost to my ego,” Maxwell said.

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