When there is a discussion about the greatest NBA teams in league history, one team always is at the top: The 1986 Boston Celtics. Anyone fortunate enough to have followed that team through the 1985-86 season and through the playoffs to the championship knows without a doubt that this team was special and deserves its place in the discussion of the best team ever.
The 85-86 Celtics won 67 regular season games, taking basketball to an art form with their nightly clinics, regardless of who they played. They were led by four of the NBA's 50 greatest players: Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton playing some of the best basketball of their respective careers. Larry Bird won his 3rd consecutive MVP award in this season. Bill Walton had one of the best years of his career, playing a career high 80 games and winning the 6th man of the year award.
The Celtics dominated their opponents in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They swept the Chicago Bulls 3-0 in the first round. The highlight of this first round series was the Celtics double-overtime classic in game 2. This was Michael Jordan's coming out party as he exploded for 63 points at the Boston Garden. In spite of Jordan's heroics, the Celtics prevailed and won the game 135-131. Next, the Celtics defeated the young Atlanta Hawks four games to one in the semifinals. The highlight of this series for the Celtics was a game 5 blowout (132-99), that featured the Celtics outscoring the Hawks in the third quarter by a score of 36-6.
The Eastern Conference Finals matched the Celtics up against the Milwaukee Bucks and former Celtic Don Nelson who was coaching the Bucks. Although he was loved as a Celtic, Nelson had aroused the ire of Celtics fans in the 1983 NBA Playoffs by accusing Danny Ainge of playing dirty in a series that the Bucks swept. The Celtics got their revenge in this series as they easily swept the Bucks with 4 straight wins.
In the Finals, the Celtics faced the Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, and head coach Bill Fitch, who had been Larry Bird's first coach with the Celtics. If there was one downside to this very special playoff run for an even more special team, it was the fact that the Celtics weren't able to face the hated Lakers in the Finals yet again. But the Rockets stunned everyone and won the Western Conference Championship in five games over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Rockets won their 4th game in very dramatic fashion as Ralph Sampson hit a buzzer-beating turnaround jumper. The Lakers had the lead with 1 second on the clock when Sampson caught the inbounds pass, turned to the basket and released it. The ball hit the rim, bounced high and fell through the basket handing the Lakers a devastating loss and sending the Rockets to the Finals to face the Celtics juggernaut.
The Celtics dominated the first two games at the Boston Garden, where they had gone 40-1 during the regular season. The 40-1 home record still stands as the best regular season home record in league history. The Rockets defeated the Celtics 106-104 in a very hard fought game three. The Celtics would win game 4 106-103 in another tense, hard fought battle with Walton coming up big for the Celtics down the stretch. The fifth game featured a fight that still gets people going in Boston when it is mentioned. 7'4" Ralph Sampson ignited a brawl with Jerry Sichting who was 15 inches shorter than him. The fight led to Sampson's ejection. After the fight and ejection, Jim Petersen lead the Rockets to a decisive victory but Sampson's actions motivated the Celtics in the next game. Bird would dismantle the Rockets in game 6, as the Garden crowd booed every time Sampson touched the ball and "Ralph Sampson is a sissy" signs were seen in the Garden. The Celtics blew out the Rockets 114-97 to win their Sweet 16 Championship.
This championship was even more special to Celtics fans because it was the last they would win for 22 years. Tragedy, injuries and age all conspired to keep the Celtics from winning another championship until another very special Celtics squad won Banner 17 in 2008. The 1986 Finals series started 25 years ago today and Banner 17 was won on June 8, 1986. Today, as many are over hyping the Miami Cheat, pause and remember a true champion and arguably the best team in league history. Enjoy this look back at game 6 of that series.