Kevin McHale, Cedric Maxwell Recall the Bigger the Game, the Different the Vibe for the 1980s Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have returned to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fourth time in six years. During that stretch, they haven’t reached the NBA Finals. They just haven’t been able to get over the hump. Maybe this is the year Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can find a way to make their way into the championship round.

The Celtics of the 1980s made the NBA Finals a common destination. After winning a championship in 1981, the Celtics returned to play for a title four straight years from 1984 to 1987. Former Celtics teammates Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell spoke about those years when McHale made an appearance last year on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast.

The two talked about their mentality as the stakes got higher. Maxwell and McHale both said there was a “different vibe,” especially when it came to Game 7.

Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell won two titles together with the Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics head coach K.C. Jones gestures as he talks with players Kevin McHale, left, and Danny Ainge during Game 5 of the third round of the 1988 NBA playoffs between the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons at the Boston Garden on June 1, 1988.
| Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

McHale may have been spoiled from the beginning of his professional basketball career. Selected by the Celtics with the third overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft, he won a title in his first year with the team. McHale and Robert Parish made their Celtics debuts the same season, as Parish came over in a deal with the Golden State Warriors.

The two paired with Larry Bird, who won claimed Rookie of the Year honors the previous season, and Maxwell, who averaged a double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds) during the 1978-79 season. The four made up the best frontcourt in the NBA.

In their first year together, the Celtics knocked off the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals. Maxwell was the star of the series, earning NBA Finals MVP.

After going two seasons without getting past the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics battled the Lakers for the ’84 championship. In an intense meeting between the two heated rivals, the Lakers outplayed the Celtics, but Boston outlasted LA in seven games.

The series featured an iconic steal from Gerald Henderson that salvaged a Game 2 victory for Boston after losing the opener at home. It’s also remembered for McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in Game 4, a momentum-turner that swung in Boston’s favor and allowed the Celtics to even the series at two games apiece.

The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals the next three seasons, defeating the Rockets again in 1986. Maxwell, however, had been traded to the LA Clippers before the season in exchange for Bill Walton.

Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell talked about the different vibe of a Game 7

Maxwell and McHale reminisced about their days with the Celtics, particularly their playoff moments. Maxwell said it was hard to describe what it was like prepping for a winner-take-all Game 7.

“I don’t think anybody can realize what it’s like to play a seventh game when you know that somebody’s going to be crying and somebody’s going to be laughing,” he said to McHale on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast when looking back at Game 7 in 1984. “Just the intensity in our locker room that particular day was massive.

“We walked in — and we all joked and we all laughed, that was pretty much our locker room, a comedy of errors — but that day it was a different vibe about that particular game because it was a seventh game.”

McHale agreed.

“What’s funny about that team, Max, what happened in the fourth quarter of that game, a tight game, we’d come to the bench, it was quiet,” McHale said. “We had a different vibe in tight games. It was funny because we all got quiet. We were all yapping and crazy, but at that time, we all got really quiet. We all just looked at what we had to do. Let’s go execute it. There was a really quiet confidence about that group.

“I remember as a rookie, when the game got tight, we looked around. M.L. (Carr) has the game face on. Max got the game face on. Robert, Larry, everybody’s got the game face on. Game 7, we all had our game faces on. “

McHale said it was after that ’84 title that he felt the Celtics ‘really accomplished something’

In 1981, the Celtics were the clear favorites over Moses Malone and the Rockets. At one point, Bird even claimed that first title in ’81 was “too easy.” McHale spoke along those same lines when he said he felt he accomplished something as a member of the Celtics when they beat the Lakers in ’84.

“(Game 7) had gotten a little more physical in our favor,” McHale recalled. “I got a little more rough and rugged. It wasn’t just a track meet, thank God.

“You had it going, but I don’t think we shot a great percentage. We just kept going and getting the ball and battling. I remember after we won that thing, feeling like we really accomplished something. If you had said after Game 3, were we going to win that series, the Vegas odds were like zero.

“You talk about that quiet confidence. That’s what I always liked about that team. Every once in a while when I was coaching, you’d get a team like that. You’d get the right five group of guys, and you’d come down for two minutes and they were all locked in. They weren’t going to make mistakes.”

Maybe the 2022 Celtics can take a page out of the book from those Celtics of the ’80s.

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