Danny Ainge Pinpoints When the Beginning of the End of the 1980s Boston Celtics Dynasty Actually Started
The Boston Celtics ended the 1970s with a pair of ugly seasons before quickly turning things around in the new decade. After going 32-50 and 29-53, the Celtics turned to a young rookie named Larry Bird to turn things around in the 1979-80 season.
Bird won Rookie of the Year and guided the Celtics to a 61-win season in his first year in the NBA. The following year, the Celtics officially began their ’80s dynasty by winning the first of their three championships of the decade. From 1984 to 1987, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals, winning in ’84 and ’86. While the Celtics’ Eastern Conference reign ended at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in 1988, former Boston guard Danny Ainge said the downfall began before that.
The Boston Celtics played in five NBA Finals in the 1980s
Larry Bird more than lived up to the hype as a rookie during the 1979-80 season. He took a 29-win team and turned it into one that won an NBA-best 61 games. Despite having the league’s best record, the Celtics lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals.
The following season, the Celtics swung a deal with the Golden State Warriors that shaped the dynasty. Boston held the top pick in the 1980 NBA Draft and sent it along with the No. 13 pick to the Warriors. In return, Boston received veteran center Robert Parish and the third overall pick. At No. 3, the Celtics selected Kevin McHale.
In their first year together, Bird, McHale, and Parish won a championship, defeating the Houston Rockets in six games in the 1981 NBA Finals. The Celtics failed to reach the championship round the next two seasons but then pulled off another trade that brought back veteran guard Dennis Johnson before the 1983-84 season. With Johnson in town, the Celtics went to the Finals four straight years from ’84 to ’87.
During that stretch, Bird stole the show. He won three straight MVPs and finished third in 1987. Boston’s 1985-86 team goes down as one of the best ever in NBA history. The Celtics had four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup and another one in veteran center Bill Walton coming off the bench.
That Celtics team won 67 games and only lost once at home, playoffs included. Several members of that team have said they’d put that team up against anyone.
Ainge said the downfall of the Celtics dynasty came during the 1986-87 season
While the Celtics hit their peak during the 1985-86 season, the downfall of the dynasty was right around the corner, at least according to Ainge.
While the Celtics reached the Finals for the fourth straight time in 1987, Ainge believes it was during that 1986-87 season when he believed the end was near.
“In ’86 we were — and I still think this — in my unbiased opinion, we were the best team that era. In (’86-’87 season), McHale broke his foot, and he was never the same,” Ainge said on the Knuckleheads Podcast. “He was still a very good player for a little stretch, but he was never the same.
“In ’87, we lost to the Lakers in the Finals, but we weren’t healthy. We weren’t even close to healthy. Everybody had something wrong with him in that series. (The end of the dynasty) felt a little bit then because that’s when the injuries started happening. Yeah, I thought that was the end.”
Maybe the biggest injury was to Walton, who was limited to 10 regular-season games. Walton played in 80 games the previous season and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
The Celtics lost to the Lakers in six games in the ’87 Finals before the Pistons ended Boston’s Eastern Conference reign in 1988.