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The 1981 Boston Celtics enjoyed a magical season. The previous year, Larry Bird was a rookie and helped the Celtics win 61 games after collecting just 29 the year before. In Bird’s second season, Celtics GM Red Auerbach surrounded him with some elite talent by pulling off one of the biggest trades in franchise history.

The Celtics won the first of three championships of the decade by beating the Houston Rockets in six games. Boston players knew they had the title secured even before they suited up against the Rockets.

The 1981 Boston Celtics mounted an impressive comeback in the conference finals

Cedric Maxwell of the Boston Celtics in action against the Philadelphia 76ers during an NBA game circa 1981 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Things didn’t look so good for the Celtics when they faced the rival Philadelphia 76ers in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. In what turned out to be one of the most intense and most competitive series in NBA history, the Celtics found themselves trailing 3-1 in the series before heading back home for a must-win Game 5.

With 1:51 left in Game 5, the Sixers held a six-point lead. The Celtics then went on an 8-0 run to pull out a 111-109 victory and stay alive. The Celtics headed to Philadelphia for Game 6, visiting a place they hadn’t won in 11 meetings. It was a chance for the Sixers to close out the series and earn a berth in the championship round.

Philadelphia appeared well on its way to the NBA Finals as the Sixers held a 17-point lead, but Bird, who finished with 25 points and 16 rebounds, led a frantic rally that saw the Celtics win 100-98. In the series finale back in Boston, the Sixers led by seven points with 5:23 to go but never made another field goal as Boston pulled out a remarkable 91-90 win.

The series was as intense and physical as expected between the rivals. Five of the seven games were decided by two points or less.

The Celtics knew they were winning the championship once they beat the Sixers

After the grueling series with the Sixers, the Celtics faced the Rockets in the ’81 NBA Finals. Former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell knew that there would be no tougher stretch of games than what Boston just went through.

Maxwell, who was the 1981 Finals MVP, played on two championship teams with the Celtics, also winning a title in 1984.

“I laugh when I think about the greatest series that I’ve ever played in,” he said on the Cedric Maxwell Podcast. “It wasn’t a championship series, but it had to be that Philadelphia/Boston 1981. Those were wars, man. They were wars.”

M.L. Carr, a reserve forward on that Celtics team, said there was no doubt the Celtics were defeating the Rockets for the championship.

“We knew we were going to win,” Carr told Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation.  “We’d gone through such an incredible battle with the Sixers that there wasn’t a doubt in the world. 

“Beating the Rockets was a foregone conclusion. We knew there was no way we’d come up short. Talent-wise, we felt we were the superior team, and we had such a will to win after losing to the Sixers the year before and then coming back to beat them to reach the Finals. We knew we were going to take care of business.”