Larry Bird’s Absence Gave a Cocky World B. Free False Hope in the 1985 NBA Playoffs

The 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers had no reason to be cocky. They lost the first nine games of the season and started 2-19. Led by shooting guard World B. Free, the Cavs righted the ship and sneaked into the playoffs with a 36-46 record, earning a first-round matchup with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.

A sore elbow forced Bird to miss Game 3 of the best-of-five series, and the Cavaliers capitalized, giving a cocky Free false hope. After the Cleveland guard did some talking, Bird returned for Game 4, sending Free and the Cavs packing for the season.

Larry Bird was sidelined for Game 3 of the 1985 playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers

Boston Celtics head coach Chris Ford, left, and player Larry Bird duck as they exit the tunnel after Game 6 of the East Conference semi-finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Garden on May 15, 1992. | Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Celtics were supposed to make quick work of the Cavaliers in the first round of the 1985 NBA Playoffs. Although the top-seeded Celtics won the series 3-1, it was far from easy.

Bird took charge in the opener, scoring 40 points, but the Celtics found themselves in a struggle, outlasting the visitors 126-123. The same held true in Game 2 when Bird led the way with 30 points in a hard-fought 108-106 Boston win.

Despite the two losses, the Cavaliers went into Game 3 with newfound confidence. They hung tough with the reigning champions despite poor shooting from Free, who went 9-for 22 in Game 2. He went 8-for 21 in the opener.

Things got even better for Cleveland when it was announced that Bird would miss the game after suffering effects from bone chips in his elbow.

In Game 3, Free made 13 of 23 shots ad led all scorers with 32 points as the Cavaliers earned a 105-98 victory.

“I said to the players after the game, ‘Be proud about tonight,’” Cavs coach George Karl said after the game, per Fox Sports. “Don’t let Larry Bird not playing take away from what we did. That team probably wins 55 (regular-season) games without Larry Bird, instead of 63 with him.”

Larry Bird’s absence gave a cocky World B. Free false hope

After the Game 3 win, Free did quite a bit of talking.

“With Larry Bird out roosting, the rest of the Boston players were all cooped up as well,” said Free, according to United Press International. “Make that a chicken coop.

“Just wait until Thursday night (Game 4). If we get another crowd like this, we’ll shake and bake.”

Free wasn’t the only cocky one in Cleveland. The crowd chanted, “We want Bird” as Game 3 wound down, according to Fox Sports. Before Game 4, Bird smirked and said, “They want me, they got me.”

Karl joked that he expected to see Bird put on a uniform at halftime of Game 3.

“I almost expected Bird to show up at halftime,” he said. “Got to believe in us Thursday, whether Bird’s here or not.”

“I guess it’ll be safe to say that Larry’ll be back Thursday,” said Boston coach K.C. Jones. “But even without him, we came close. We nearly got ’em in the third and fourth quarters. But we shot poorly (43% to Cleveland’s 51), and that helped do us in.”

Bird showed up in Game 4 and helped send Free and the Cavs home for good

Bird returned for Game 4, hoping to close out the surprisingly close series. The Cavs held a 66-63 halftime lead, and the game came down to the wire.

Sure enough, Bird came through for the Celtics.

Bird hit seven of eight free throws in the final quarter and was 12-for-14 in the game. Two of those free throws came with 23 seconds left, Bird pointing at the Cleveland fans after sinking the second one that put the Celtics up 117-115.

The Cavs missed two final shots and then had a third blocked by Dennis Johnson that preserved the Boston victory. While the Celtics won the series 3-1, the final combined score in the series was 449-449, much closer than expected.

Although Boston knocked off the Cavs and then defeated the Detroit Pistons and the Philadelphia 76ers to reach the NBA Finals, the Celtics fell to the Lakers in six games in the championship round.

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