Injuries, Questionable Commitment, and the Red-Hot Lakers Spelled Doom for the Boston Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals

The 1985-86 Boston Celtics go down as one of the best teams in NBA history. Led by the legendary Larry Bird, the Celtics had four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup and another coming off the bench. The team racked up 67 regular-season wins en route to their third championship of the decade.

With few changes to the roster for the 1986-87 season, the Celtics were prime for a repeat. Although they collected 59 victory and made a return trip to the NBA Finals, injuries, questionable commitment, and the hungry Lakers put a damper on Boston’s attempt at a fourth championship in the ’80s.

The 1986-87 Boston Celtics looked to build off a championship season

A.C. Green of the Los Angeles Lakers fights for position with Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics during the 1987 NBA Finals at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Bird said he would put that 1985-86 Celtics team against any other. Bill Walton did, too. Walton was a key piece to that team, coming over in an offseason trade from the Los Angeles Clippers in a deal for veteran forward Cedric Maxwell.

Walton had the talent and the experience. A former MVP and NBA champion, he just didn’t have the feet. Walton missed three full seasons of his NBA because of feet problems. When the Celtics acquired him, it was to provide a spark off the bench and spell center Robert Parish and forward Kevin McHale. In his first year in Boston, Walton played 80 games, the most in any season of his 10-year career. He was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.

The Celtics swept the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs but the had a pair of grueling series. They knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons, outlasting them both in seven games. They squared off against the Lakers in the NBA Finals for the third time of the decade.

The Lakers failed to reach the NBA Finals in 86, as the Houston Rockets pulled off the upset. The Celtics made quick work of the Rockets and were looking for a title repeat in ’87.

The Celtics battled through injuries against the hungry Lakers in the 1987 Finals

Related

The Los Angeles Lakers Never Trusted the Boston Celtics During the 1984 NBA Finals: ‘We Didn’t Know Who Was Watching’

The biggest issue for the Celtics in the 1987 postseason was their health. After missing just two games the previous year, Walton appeared in just 10 regular-season games in the 1986-87 season and hobbled his way through the postseason. He wasn’t Boston’s only frontcourt player with foot problems.

McHale missed time during the season with a right foot injury. He played the 1987 NBA Finals with a fractured foot. According to NBA.com, McHale said he believed playing in that series likely shortened his career. It had been reported that the pain was so severe that he used a patio chair as a walker but still played 40 minutes each game.

“Boy, it’s really fun talking feet with Bill,” McHale joked in 1987, according to Sports Illustrated.

Bird also questioned the commitment of some of his teammates after a 141-122 loss in Game 2 that was the second straight loss. His comment was similar to one he made after Game 3 of the 1984 Finals, when he called his team “sissies.”

“If this continues, maybe it’s time to make some changes and get some people who will play hard every night and not just in front of their families,” said Bird after the blowout loss in Game 2, according to Sports Illustrated.

The Lakers were just too much for the Celtics in that game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and James Worthy all had 20-plus points for the Lakers, who were hungrier than ever after getting bounced early in 1986. The Celtics found themselves in an early hole and never could get out of it, losing in six games.

“At the Forum, they had too many water faucets running at one time,” said Celtics assistant Jimmy Rodgers. “We had to shut off at least one of them.”