The end was near. Larry Bird felt it and so could the rest of the Boston Celtics. A new decade had begun, leaving three NBA championships in the rear-view mirror. The Celtics grew old together, and it became evident when the New York Knicks bounced them out of the playoffs in the first round in 1990.
Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were eliminated from the postseason in the first round for the second straight year
Frustration set in for Boston as the Knicks sent the Celtics packing before reaching the second round. It happened during the 1989 playoffs as well when the Detroit Pistons swept Boston.
The aging Celtics, playing under Jimmy Rodgers, were made up of starters Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and a young Reggie Lewis. There wasn’t much else. Of the four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, McHale was the youngest of the group at 33.
The Celtics faced the Knicks in the best-of-five series and simply ran out of gas in Game 5 at the Boston Garden. The Knicks outscored the Celtics 71-60 in the second half to pull out a 121-114 win.
Those starters weren’t the problem. Bird finished with 31 points and nine rebounds in 46 minutes. Parish had 22 points, Johnson 21. Every starter had at least 17 points. The bench was a disaster. No reserve had a field goal in the game. The bench combined for four points, all free throws. Every Celtics starter played at least 40 minutes, except Johnson, who logged 39.
Larry Bird: ‘This is the lowest I’ve felt since I’ve been here’
Although Bird matched Patrick Ewing with a game-high 31 points, he struggled down the stretch. In the final 12 minutes, Bird went 1-for-6 from the floor. He missed a reverse dunk with 4:17 that would’ve brought the Celtics within a basket.
Bird took things pretty hard after the loss.
“I made some real bonehead plays down the stretch,’ said Bird, according to United Press International. “I’m as shocked as everyone else. This is the lowest I’ve felt since I’ve been here.”
The future of the Celtics wasn’t looking too bright, which likely added to Bird’s unhappiness. Lewis was the only young star on the team. Brian Shaw, Boston’s first-round pick in 1988, signed a two-year deal to play in Italy in 1989. Len Bias, the team’s first-round pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, died of an overdose days after he was selected with the second overall pick.
Bird had no problem with Jimmy Rodgers, who couldn’t get the Celtics past Round 1 in his two years
The lack of a bench was clearly the biggest problem for the Celtics. Old starters were forced to play big minutes and it just caught up with them. Jimmy Rodgers, who had been an assistant with the Celtics since Bird’s rookie year, took over the head coaching duties for the 1988-89 season.
Boston went 42-40 that season and got swept by the Pistons. In the 1989-90 season, Boston improved by 10 wins, finishing with a 52-30 mark, but suffered a first-round exit.
There were some midseason reports that Bird was unhappy with his role, but he brushed that aside after being eliminated by the Knicks.
“Our relationship’s good,” Bird said. “Some press started it all. I respect the man. I respect all the coaches I ever had. Of course, I don’t agree with everything, I agree with 95 percent of it.”
Reporters asked Bird if he expected a coaching change next year.
“Jimmy Rodgers will be here long after Larry Bird’s gone,” he said. “Other players will come in here and win championships and they’ll forget about me.”
Bird was gone two years later, but he certainly hasn’t been forgotten.