The Boston Celtics Hopes for a Title Repeat in 1987 Came to a Crashing Halt on Dec. 17, 1986
After putting together one of their best seasons in franchise history, the Boston Celtics were looking to build on it. The 1985-86 team won 67 games and cruised through the postseason en route to their third NBA title of the decade. Hopes were high for a repeat.
Those hopes took a significant hit two months into the 1986-87 season. The Celtics still managed to go 59-23 but just didn’t have enough when it counted most.
The Boston Celtics suffered a severe blow with an injury to Bill Walton
While the Celtics had four future Hall of Famers in their starting lineup, Boston’s key to success in 1986 was the bench. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson led the way, but it was the key addition of Bill Walton, another future Hall of Famer, who provided stability off the bench.
Walton, a former NBA champion and MVP, came to Boston via trade before the 1985-86 season. The oft-injured center’s primary role was to spell McHale and Parish. He played his role to perfection, playing 80 games and winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Expectations were high the following season. Boston sought its first championship repeat since 1969. The Lakers ruined their initial bid for a repeat in 1985 by gaining revenge on the Celtics, who topped LA in seven games in 1984.
On Dec. 17, 1986, Boston’s hopes for a second straight title took a hit when Walton underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle. Walton had feet problems throughout his career but managed to dodge any issues the previous season. This time, Boston wasn’t so lucky.
In late February 1987, the Celtics went into LA for what turned out to be a preview of the 1987 NBA Finals. Walton was still out, and his return was unknown. His absence was felt as the Celtics blew a 17-point lead, and the Lakers won 106-103.
Walton played 10 games during the 1986-87 season
Between the time when Walton had his surgery in December and when the Celtics played the Lakers in February, Walton hadn’t even begun to jog yet. The Celtics hoped late March would be a return date, but several players expected the worst.
“I think the guys are going with the theory that Bill won’t be back,” said Celtics reserve guard Rick Carlisle, per Sports Illustrated back then. “Then, if he does return, it will be that much better.”
Without Walton, the Celtics were primarily a five-man team. The starters played heavy minutes. Jerry Sichting came in to give Johnson and Danny Ainge a break, but Walton was needed in the frontcourt. With him on the sideline, Boston turned to Greg Kite, a big body and a tough physical presence, but he didn’t have much in the way of offensive skills.
Walton played 10 games during the regular season. He averaged 11.2 minutes and was far from effective. He returned for the playoffs but played one minute in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons after playing sparingly in the first two rounds.
Walton played five of the six games in the NBA Finals against the Lakers but totaled 24 minutes. Still, the Celtics took the Lakers to six games in the championship round but were unable to secure that elusive repeat.