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The Boston Celtics won three championships in the 1980s. With each one, things got tougher.

Larry Bird said the first title was too easy. He said things didn’t get tough until they faced the Los Angeles Lakers. They faced LA in the NBA Finals in 1984, 1985, and 1987, and it became more difficult each year as they got older and injuries mounted.

Kevin McHale played with a broken foot, and Bill Walton hardly played in ’87. Injuries took their toll, but the Celtics still owned the Eastern Conference.

The Boston Celtics dominated in the 1980s

Mark Alarie of the Washington Bullets dribbles past Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics during an NBA basketball game circa 1989 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

A draft pick and a trade set the stage for the Celtics in the 1980s. The draft pick actually happened in 1978 when Boston selected Bird, a junior at Indiana State, with the sixth overall pick. Bird elected to play his senior year of college, so the Celtics didn’t get him until the 1979-80 season.

Bird was named Rookie of the Year, and then Red Auerbach pulled off one of the biggest trades in franchise history. Boston had the top pick in the 1980 NBA Draft and sent it, along with the No. 13 pick, to the Golden State Warriors. In return, the Celtics got center Robert Parish and the third pick in the draft. With that third pick, they selected McHale.

McHale and Parish joined Bird to form arguably the best frontcourt in NBA history. In their first year together, they won their first title of the decade, defeating the Houston Rockets in six games.

From 1984 to 1987, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals. They outlasted the Lakers in seven games in ’84 but lost the rematch the following season. In 1986, the Rockets upset the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, and the Celtics took care of business by beating Houston in six games. In 1987, the Lakers beat the Celtics in six.

The Celtics were worn down in the late ’80s


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After the Celtics won their third championship of the decade in 1986, they were favored to repeat in ’87. Age and injuries then began to take over. Bird was 30, Parish was 33, and Dennis Johnson was 32.

Walton and Scott Wedman, both significant contributors to Boston’s bench in 1986, were 34. The reserves were a key factor in the Celtics winning that ’86 title. In ’87, injuries took over as Wedman and Walton combined to play 16 games in the regular season. The Celtics also endured the death of Len Bias, their first-round draft pick (No. 2 overall) in 1986. Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days after the draft.

Still, the Celtics went 59-23 and won the Eastern Conference, earning their fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

“I think if we don’t have all the injuries and Lenny Bias doesn’t die — you’re just adding another quality player to an already-great team — I think if we all stayed healthy, we would’ve rolled off a couple (more championships),” McHale said, per NBC Sports.

“We made it to the Finals with broken feet, Bill not playing. We won on just grit alone, and we were beat up, but our minds weren’t beat up. Our bodies may have been, but we beat teams on grit alone. We maintained our mental toughness, our ‘hey, we’re going to get this done.’

“Playing against anybody besides the Lakers, we probably could’ve pulled it off. All I know is if you could’ve kept the same vibe with that team and added Lenny Bias, it would’ve been phenomenal.”