Kevin McHale Was ‘Disappointed’ the Celtics Didn’t Face the Lakers in the ’86 Finals but Knew the Rockets Had No Chance

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers met in the NBA Finals in 1984 and 1985. They were on a clear path to meet again in 1986. The Celtics ruled the East by winning 67 games. The Lakers took charge out West, collecting 62 victories.

The Celtics won in ’84, rallying to win the series in seven games. The Lakers felt like they let one get away in ’84 but got their revenge the following season, celebrating their championship on Boston’s home court after a Game 6 win.

In 1986, the Rockets stunned the Lakers in the conference finals, while the Celtics cruised through the playoffs. Years later, Celtics forward Kevin McHale admitted he was disappointed he didn’t get to face LA for the championship, even though he knew the Celtics would have no problem against the Rockets.

Kevin McHale and the Boston Celtics cruised through the ’86 playoffs

Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale kisses the championship trophy held by Celtics president Red Auerbach following the team’s victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals at the Boston Garden on June 8, 1986. | John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The Celtics opened the 1986 postseason facing the Chicago Bulls and their second-year star, Michael Jordan. Jordan did all he could for the Bulls, scoring 49 points in Game 1 and coming back with 63 in the second. The Bulls lost both games, but Celtics star Larry Bird famously said God was disguised as Jordan after his Game 2 performance. The Celtics swept the best-of-five series.

The Celtics went 11-1 in the playoffs before they reached the championship round. Boston’s lone loss came in Game 4 of the conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. After taking a 3-0 lead in the series, the Celtics fell 106-94 in Game 4 as Dominique Wilkins scored a game-high 37 points.

“We lost the game in Atlanta, and they were talking some smack,” McHale recalled to NBC Sports Boston. “We were all a little irritated, and we put a third quarter on them in Game 5. Matter of fact, Danny (Ainge) and I watched that — I don’t remember when it was, but Danny was working for the Celtics — and we watched that quarter, and I was like oh my gosh.”

The Celtics broke open a 66-55 halftime lead and turned it into a rout by outscoring the Hawks 36-6 in that third quarter.

“I forgot we had done stuff like that,” McHale said. “I think it was 36-6. It was something ridiculous. We just wiped them off the face of the earth.”

The Celtics then swept the Milwaukee Bucks to return to their third straight NBA Finals.

McHale wanted to play the Lakers even though he knew the Rockets would be no match

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The Celtics expected to face the Lakers for the third straight year. The Rockets had other ideas. Not only did the Rockets upset the Lakers, but they also beat them in five games. Ralph Sampson’s last-second shot off an out-of-bounds play snapped a tie and eliminated the Lakers in Game 5. The shot sent the Rockets to the NBA Finals and set up a rematch of the 1981 championship.

Not many expected the Celtics to face the Rockets. McHale certainly didn’t.

“I was disappointed somewhat that Houston beat the Lakers,” he said. “I really wanted a piece of the Lakers in ’86. Once Houston got there, I never thought for a second that Houston could beat us. I looked at that team and just said there’s just no way.

“I knew the Lakers could do this and this and this, and I thought Houston could do this. They’re not going to hit us player for player or play for play or toughness for toughness. It was an inevitability in my mind that we were just going to win. I would have much rather beaten the Lakers, but Houston was there, so we were going to beat them.”

As they did in ’81, the Celtics took care of business in six games, winning their third title of the decade.

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