Things don’t look as bleak for the Boston Celtics as they did back in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, although they’re getting there. Back then, Boston trailed 3-1 in the series and needed a miracle to advance to the NBA Finals. Behind the efforts of Larry Bird, they got one.
This year, things were quite different for Boston. The Celtics entered as the clear favorite in the ECF against the Miami Heat. They held a 3-2 series lead with a potential series-clinching Game 6 in their own backyard. Boston was a nine-point favorite to close out the series but failed. Now it’s up to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to pull a Larry Bird and get things done.
Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics came up big when it counted most in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals
The big difference between Bird’s Celtics and today’s team isn’t just the talent level, although that plays a big part. Where the two teams differ is in the clutch. The stars of the ’81 team — Bird, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, and even a young Kevin McHale — were clutch. Tatum and Brown aren’t there. There’s too much inconsistency, and they haven’t shown they can make that leap out of the conference finals.
That was evident in Friday night’s Game 6 against the Heat when the heavily-favored Celtics played lackluster ball for three quarters before turning things up a notch in the fourth quarter. The real problem, though, was the second-half play of Tatum and Brown. Tatum got off to a quick start in the game, but he and Brown combined for seven shot attempts in the second half. That’s right, a total of seven shots after halftime.
The Celtics played as if they had already made the NBA Finals. Jimmy Butler played as if his life was on the line. Butler finished with 47 points and put the team on his back, forcing a Game 7 Sunday night.
Back in ’81, the Celtics played with a purpose every night. Both Boston and Philadelphia won 62 games that season, and the Eastern Conference Finals showed just how evenly matched the teams were. Five of the seven games were decided by two points or less. Boston was down 3-1 in the series, but Bird and the Celtics gutted it out, finding a way to advance to the NBA Finals.
In Game 5, Boston trailed by six points with 1:51 to play. The Celtics outscored the 76ers 8-0 to win 111-109 behind Bird’s 32 points. Philadelphia held a 17-point lead in Game 6 at home, a place Boston had lost 11 straight times. Boston rallied to win 100-98. In the series finale, the Celtics trailed by 11 in the third quarter and by seven with 5:23 left. Philly didn’t make another basket the rest of the way as Boston pulled out a 91-90 victory.
Bird’s quote after clinching the series summed up the play of the current Celtics in Game 6
Everyone in Boston believed the Celtics were headed to the NBA Finals to face the Golden State Warriors. The players sure seemed to play that way as well. Maybe that’s how the Sixers played at home in Game 6 when they led by 17 in a place Boston struggled. Everyone talked about the Spectrum jinx. McHale had a different outlook.
“Everybody’s been talking about the jinx,” he said after that game, per Sports Illustrated. “Well, what about the law of averages? Put chimps on roller skates, let them play in the Spectrum enough times, and sooner or later they’ll win.”
After clinching that series, Bird emerged from the shower and was asked about his thoughts. He made a quick, clear comment that could also suit the current Celtics.
“I can’t understand why Philly kept letting us back in,” Bird said.
While Miami took charge from the get-go in Game 6, the Celtics let the Heat right back into the series. Miami heads home for a winner-take-all Game 7. The Celtics had a golden opportunity to seal the deal at home, but their stars were non-existent in the second half. Brown missed two key free throws down the stretch that turned the tide.
The Celtics let the Heat back in. Now it’s up for Tatum and Brown to put together a Bird-like performance in Game 7 to save their season.