1981 NBA Finals - Celtics Defeat Rockets

The 1981 NBA World Championship Series was the championship round of the 1980-81 NBA season, pitting the Boston Celtics against the Houston Rockets.

For the 1980-81 season Houston Rockets (head coached by Del Harris), Moses Malone practically carried the Rockets to the NBA finals. Meanwhile, Calvin Murphy, the shortest player in the league, set two NBA records, sinking 78 consecutive free throws to break Rick Barry's mark of 60 set in 1976 and achieving a free-throw percentage of .958, breaking Rick Barry's record set with the Rockets in 1979. Other members of the 80-81 team were Rudy Tomjanovich, Robert Reid, Mike Dunleavy, Sr., Allen Leavell, Billy Paultz, Bill Willoughby, Calvin Garrett, Tom Henderson, and Major Jones. Houston tied with Kansas City for second place in the Midwest behind San Antonio with a regular season record of 40-42.
Houston's playoff run began by drawing the defending NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson in the first round. The Rockets upset Los Angeles, two games to one, then got past the San Antonio Spurs and George Gervin, four games to three, in the Western Conference Semifinals. This set up an unlikely Conference Finals matchup with Kansas City. The Kings, led by Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, and Phil Ford fell to the Rockets in five games.

1981 NBA Finals: Boston 4, Houston 2
Celtics Return to Glory

The loss to Philadelphia in the 1980 playoffs had taught the Boston Celtics one clear lesson: They had to get bigger.
So Red Auerbach went shopping in the spring of 1980. In 1979, Auerbach had been eager to get rid of Bob McAdoo, the prolific scorer who hadn't fit into the Celtics' system. Detroit's Dick Vitale was just as eager to get such a player, so the Pistons agreed to make a deal.

Earlier, the Celtics had signed Detroit's M.L. Carr as a restricted free agent, and as a result they owed the Pistons compensation. Accordingly, Auerbach offered to "give up" McAdoo for Detroit's two first-round draft picks in 1980. Detroit agreed.

Then the Pistons sweetened the deal by finishing last in the NBA for the 1979-80 season, meaning the Celtics had the top pick to go with the 13th selection. Auerbach wanted Kevin McHale, a smooth power forward out of the University of Minnesota, but he and coach Bill Fitch also wanted veteran center Robert Parish, whom the Golden State Warriors were shopping around the league.

The Warriors, who picked third, wanted to draft Joe Barry Carroll out of Purdue and figured they would need the top pick to get him. So Auerbach traded Boston's two picks to Golden State for Parish and the third pick in the draft. As a result, Auerbach and Fitch got the frontcourt of the '80s: Parish at center and McHale at power forward, joining Larry Bird at the other forward spot.

The Warriors, meanwhile, drafted Carroll first and Rickey Brown 13th. The deal was branded the most lopsided trade ever by 19 NBA general managers in a 1989 poll conducted by The Sporting News.

Fitch decided to start backup point guard Gerald Henderson, a minor league refugee, and Carr in the backcourt to open the season. The starting guards from the previous year, Nate Archibald and Chris Ford, came off the bench. This helped build Henderson's confidence, but the arrangement only lasted a few games. With the team struggling, Fitch switched back to Archibald and Ford.

Like Magic Johnson with the Lakers, Bird's passing sustained the Celtics. And Bird, too, had to learn to keep his teammates involved. That facet of his game improved greatly as the season progressed, and the Celtics grew into a textbook example of precise ball movement. From their fast breaks to their halfcourt game, they developed a knack for finding the open man.

Out west, the Lakers had fallen on hard times. Magic had suffered a cartilage tear in his knee during the season, then struggled back from surgery to rejoin his team late in the schedule. But they never had time to jell. Instead, they lost to Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs, two games to one.

Houston had finished a mediocre 40-42 in the regular season after spending most of the year trying to be a running team. But a late-season loss to Boston convinced coach Del Harris that he needed to slow it down and cater to Malone's pace. After dumping the Lakers, the Rockets battled San Antonio through a seven-game semifinal series. From there, they trashed Kansas City in the Western Conference Finals, four games to one.

The Rockets backcourt featured Mike Dunleavy, Calvin Murphy and Allen Leavell. Robert Reid was a reliable swingman, while Rudy Tomjanovich and Billy Paultz helped Malone up front.

No one figured it to be much of a Finals. Houston, in fact, had lost its previous dozen games to the Celtics. But Malone, who had averaged nearly 28 points and 15 rebounds over the season, would have none of it. He came into the series fired up. The Celtics were chumps, he informed the press.

Game 1 in the Garden was surprisingly tight. Houston led 57-51 at the half and kept that intensity through the game. Late in the fourth period, with Boston struggling, Bird came upcourt and put up an 18-footer from the right side. As soon as he turned it loose, he knew it was bad and immediately rushed in for the rebound. He caught the ball in midair as his momentum was carrying him out beyond the baseline. In an instant, he switched the ball to his left hand (a right-handed shot would have hit the side of the backboard) and swished a 12-footer.

The crowd went nuts, with Auerbach leading the cheers. Bill Russell, who was broadcasting the game for CBS, looked on in disbelief.

"Larry was able to make the play," said Russell, "because he not only knew where the ball was going to land, he knew that he knew."

The shot carried Boston to a 98-95 win and left Auerbach puffing another cigar. "It was the one best shot I've ever seen a player make," he claimed.

"Bird sort of flipped it," said Reid. "What can you say about a play like that?"

After playing on emotion for four straight games, Boston came out flat for Game 2. Fitch was so infuriated he put his first through a blackboard in the locker room at halftime. That did little good, though. Houston's precision and Malone's inside play and rebounding kept the game close. Then the Rockets stole it at the end, 91-90.

"Sometimes a slap in the face wakes you up," Carr said after Boston's loss in Game 2. The Celtics awoke with stifling defense and a 94-71 blowout of the Rockets at the Summit. Cedric Maxwell did much of the work for Boston, as Bird was held to just eight points. Late in the game he and Reid got into a little fracas, which seemed to be more a result of Bird's frustrations than anything else.

Harris tightened things up in Game 4 by using just six players. Bird was again held to just eight points, while Malone ruled the inside. Houston got a lead, then held on for a 91-86 win that evened the series. Afterward, Malone had plenty to say. He told the media he could get four guys off the streets of Petersburg, Va., his hometown, and beat the Celtics. "I don't think they're all that good," he said. "I don't think they can stop us from doing what we want to do."

It seemed to be just the emotional spark the Celtics were looking for. "The man threw down a challenge," Maxwell replied, "and this is a team that responds well to challenges."

In Game 5, Reid continued his defensive domination of Bird, holding him to 12 points. The Boston forward was averaging nearly 16 rebounds and eight assists during the series, but his shooting was nothing short of frosty. The rest of the Celtics, particularly Maxwell, took up the slack. They won at home, 109-80, to take a three-games-to-two lead.

"The Celtics are still chumps," insisted Malone afterward.

The series returned to Houston on Thursday, May 14, and Bird broke out of his slump. Boston had a six-point lead at the half and kept it down the stretch. When Houston pulled close late in the fourth, Bird came downcourt and laced in his only three-pointer of the series, which propelled Boston to a 102-91 win and the team's 14th championship.

Afterward, in the locker room, Bird stole Auerbach's lit cigar and puffed impishly. "We're the champions," he said as he broke into a coughing spell.

"He's just one of a kind," said Fitch. Or maybe one of a pair. Magic, the other half of the odd couple, was waiting in Los Angeles for another chance at the ring.

The Boston Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets four games to two in the best-of-seven NBA Finals series to conclude the 1980-81 NBA season. The victory gave the Celtics their first NBA championship since 1976 and their 14th in franchise history.

The Rockets were making their first Finals appearance and had finished below .500 during the regular season (40-42). It was the first time a team that went below .500 in the regular season reached the Finals since 1959, when the Minneapolis Lakers reached the Finals despite going 33-39 in the regular season.

Cedric Maxwell won NBA Finals MVP honors, becoming the third different Celtics player to win the award, joining Jo Jo White and John Havlicek. The Finals MVP award was not given out until 1969, meaning there was no MVP named for the Celtics first 10 championships.

The Celtics had home-court advantage for the Finals, which were played under the 2-2-1-1-1 format and televised partially on tape delay for the final time. The Celtics swept the two regular-season meetings in 1980-81.