The 1981 NBA Finals saw the Boston Celtics return to the championship series two years after drafting future legend Larry Bird, and it was also five years after their last title in 1976. Coached by former Celtics guard K.C. Jones, the Celtics won 62 games, the second most in franchise history. Led by forwards Bird and Cedric Maxwell and center Robert Parish, the Celtics conquered the reigning Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers in seven games and were an overwhelming favorite over the Houston Rockets, a team that finished the regular season 40-42.
The Rockets upset the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a three-game mini-series and then overcame the San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game Western Conference Semi-Finals. By defeating the Kansas City Kings in five games, the Rockets reached their first NBA Finals. Despite their underdog role, the team played with a chip on their shoulder, and center Moses Malone was nearly unstoppable inside. The NBA Finals series would ultimately come down to whether Malone’s supporting cast was up to the task.
Boston employed a veteran backcourt of Nate “Tiny” Archibald at point guard and Chris Ford at shooting guard. Their frontcourt was considered the best in the league with Cedric Maxwell at small forward, Larry Bird at power forward, and Robert Parish at center.
The Celtics’ bench ran four players deep, anchored by future sixth man Kevin McHale at forward. M.L. Carr at small forward and Gerald Henderson at point guard provided depth on the wing, and Rick Robey backed up Parish at center. Eric Fernsten and Terry Duerod also saw limited postseason minutes.
The Rockets’ backcourt was manned by Tom Henderson at point guard and future coach Mike Dunleavy at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, Robert Reid played small forward with Billy Paultz at power forward and Moses Malone at center.
The bench for the Rockets ran 4-5 players deep, with longtime point guard Calvin Murphy providing an offensive spark as the sixth man. Calvin Garrett and Bill Willoughby also provided depth at small forward, and Allen Leavell served as a fourth guard. Major Jones played sparingly throughout the season as a backup power forward, and future coach Rudy Tomjanovich saw limited minutes in the playoffs.
Game One: Rockets 95, Celtics 98
The Rockets and Moses Malone came out in game one with something to prove and built a 57-51 lead by halftime. Larry Bird kept the Celtics close with his 18 points, 21 rebounds, and 9 assists. The play of the game occurred late in the fourth quarter when Bird launched an 18-footer from the right wing. After the ball left his hands, Bird attacked the offensive glass, caught the rebound, switched the ball to his left hand, and flipped it into the basket before falling out of bounds. Despite Malone’s 15 rebounds, Boston was able to come back and win the game with the help of Maxwell and Parish who had 26 points and 19 rebounds between them. Reid led the Rockets with 27 points.
Game Two: Rockets 92, Celtics 90
Game two was a close contest until the final buzzer. Moses Malone shook off game one and scored 31 points and pulled down another 15 rebounds to lead Houston. Larry Bird once again led Boston in scoring with 19 points and 21 rebounds, but the team as a whole shot poorly from the field. Bench players Bill Willoughby and Allen Leavell came up clutch in the fourth quarter, contributing clutch baskets in the final two minutes.
Game Three: Celtics 94, Rockets 71
The Rockets’ confidence going into game three dissipated early as they shot themselves out of the game and turned the ball over 23 times. Malone led Houston with 23 points and 15 rebounds, but it was not enough despite Robert Reid’s excellent defense on Larry Bird. Cedric Maxwell led the way with 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Bird still contributed in other areas with 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Chris Ford contributed 17 points to help out.
Game Four: Celtics 86, Rockets 91
In game four, the Rockets stormed back while utilizing only six players the entire game. Reid once again suffocated Bird, holding him to only 8 points. Maxwell (24 and 14) and Parish (18 and 12) both turned in double-doubles, but it was not enough to overcome Dunleavy’s 28 points and Malone’s monster double-double with 24 and 22. Reid played a great two-way game, scoring 19 points of his own.
Game Five: Rockets 80, Celtics 109
Boston led wire-to-wire in game five, outscoring Houston 19-1 during a five minute stretch in the first quarter. Bird once again struggled from the field, converting only five field goals. Maxwell came up big again with 28 and 15, and Parish turned in another double-double with 18 and 10. The Celtics held Malone to a relatively tame 20 and 11, and no other Rocket stepped up to contribute.
Game Six: Celtics 102, Rockets 91
Despite a hot start by Houston, Bird finally shook off his shooting slump to score 26 points to go along with 13 rebounds. Maxwell and Parish continued their consistent play with 37 points between the pair, and Archibald contributed a tidy 12 assists. Reid (27 points) and Malone (23 points, 16 rebounds) led a late charge but came up short as the Celtics won their first championship since 1976 and their 14th overall.
Cedric Maxwell was awarded the Finals MVP, a fair selection given Larry Bird’s shooting struggles in games three, four, and five. Though they would come up short in 1982 and 1983, the Celtics would return to the NBA Finals in 1984 to rekindle their rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Thanks to a monster 1982 regular season, Moses Malone would win his second MVP award in Houston. Although, the Rockets would have to wait another five years before they appeared in another NBA Finals, again facing the Celtics in 1986. Their roster would look entirely different, however, as Malone would leave after 1982 to join the Philadelphia 76ers.