A popular debate among basketball fans has to do with the greatest NBA team of all time. From the Showtime Lakers and Michael Jordan‘s Bulls to the Golden State Warriors of recent years, everybody has an opinion about the best rosters ever. Another strong candidate: the Larry Bird-led Celtics teams of the 1980s.
In a conversation with former teammate Kevin McHale, Bird recently voiced his own opinion about which of those Boston teams was the best. His answer? The 1985-86 Celtics. Let’s take a closer look at this squad, as well the reasons Bird gave for their all-time greatness.
Larry Bird’s best team: the 1985-86 Celtics
The Celtics entered the 1985-86 season with a chip on their shoulder, having lost the previous NBA finals to their bitter rivals, the Lakers. That Celtics team won 67 games during the regular season. They were especially dominant at home, putting up a 40-1 record there. This record stood as the most home wins by any team until the 2016 San Antonio Spurs.
The 1985-86 Celtics roster was packed with high-caliber players; many later entered the Hall of Fame, including Bird, McHale, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish, and Bill Walton. Most of the team had been together for several years, with key additions being the big man Walton, as well as the scrappy reserve guard Jerry Sichting.
After breezing through the regular season, the Celtics didn’t lose a step in the playoffs. They swept the Chicago Bulls in the first round, beat the Atlanta Hawks in five games, then swept the Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference Finals. This sent the Celtics to the finals, where they knocked off the Houston Rockets in a 4-2 series.
The Celtics piled up 82 combined wins in that championship season — a record until the Bulls won 87 combined games in 1995-96. Consequently, that Bulls’ record was broken by the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who notoriously failed to capture the title after a historically dominant season.
Bird’s thoughts on the 1985-86 Celtics
Bird didn’t hesitate for a second when McHale asked him which Celtics teams had been the best. “86, no question, with Bill,” was his immediate reply, referring to Walton. Bird then praised Walton for the difference he made. He also specifically mentioned Sichting as having made a big difference for the team.
When it came to that Celtics team’s on-court performance, Bird focused on their ability to execute at a high level. The squad knew how to trust one another and play together. It makes sense; that Celtics team knew how to pass the ball like few other teams since. Everybody seemed to innately know how to get the ball in the “right spots to make plays,” as Bird put it.
From Bird’s comments, it also sounded like the team bonded in a deep way. He mentioned how nice it was to get a win on the road, then getting on the bus and talking about the game together.
The greatest of all time?
During his conversation with McHale, the question of the greatest team ever didn’t come up. However, Bird has certainly been asked his opinion on the topic before. In 2015, he demurred when asked if that squad was the greatest ever, saying instead that it was the best he ever played on.
Bird’s long-time teammate and current general manager of the Celtics Danny Ainge had a more direct answer to the question during a radio appearance. Ainge stated flatly that the 1985-86 Celtics team was the greatest of all time. Needless to say, the debate will rage on.
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