In 1986, the Celtics looked to retool their bench, a major weakness in the 1985 NBA Finals against the Lakers. They traded aging forward Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers for former MVP Bill Walton and traded backup guard Quinn Buckner to the Indiana Pacers for the younger Jerry Sichting. In the regular season Boston won 67 games, their second-most in franchise history, including a stellar 40-1 record at home. They steamrolled through the playoffs, sweeping the Bulls (despite Michael Jordan’s NBA record 63 points in game two), beating the Hawks in five, and sweeping the Bucks to reach their third straight NBA Finals.
The Houston Rockets looked decidedly different from the team that faced the Celtics in 1981. Without Moses Malone, the team went through a tough rebuilding period and landed the number one overall draft pick twice: selecting 7’4″ Ralph Sampson in 1983 and 6’11” Akeem Olajuwon in 1984. The two big men came to be known as the Twin Towers, and 1986 saw the Rockets make a playoff run following a 51-win regular season. After sweeping the Sacramento Kings, Houston faced off with Denver in a tough series. Houston won in a double overtime thriller in game six and moved on to face the defending champion Lakers. After losing game one the Rockets won four straight, capped off by Sampson’s game-winner in the fifth game to upset Los Angeles and move on to the Finals.
The Celtics’ starting lineup in 1986 was identical to the previous season. Veteran Dennis Johnson played the role of point guard, and sharpshooter Danny Ainge played shooting guard. In the frontcourt, Larry Bird (coming off his third straight MVP award) played small forward while new full-time starter Kevin McHale played power forward and Robert Parish remained the center.
Boston’s bench was much stronger with young backup guard Jerry Sichting and backup big man Bill Walton (the 1986 Sixth Man of the Year). Greg Kite played the role of fourth big man, and shooter Scott Wedman missed most of the Finals series due to injury. Young players Rick Carlisle, Sam Vincent, and David Thirdkill scarcely played.
The Rockets’ regular point guard John Lucas was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy, forcing Lewis Lloyd to slide over from shooting guard. On the wing, Houston started veteran Robert Reid alongside Rodney McCray. In the post, Ralph Sampson played power forward while Akeem Olajuwon assumed the role of center.
Backup guards off the bench included Allen Leavell (from the 1981 Rockets) and Mitchell Wiggins. Jim Petersen was given the duty of playing backup to both Sampson and Olajuwon inside. Players to see limited minutes included Craig Ehlo, Steve Harris, Hank McDowell, and Granville Waiters.
Game One: Rockets 100, Celtics 112
In game one, the Twin Towers were limited by foul trouble–Sampson picked up his third foul just five minutes into the game and finished with just two points. Despite committing five fouls, Olajuwon was able to record 33 points with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. Boston built their lead in the third quarter behind 22 points combined from Ainge and Johnson. Robert Reid and Rodney McCray combined for 36 points for Houston, while the Celtics rode their starting lineup to a victory. DJ finished with a near triple-double with 19/11/8, and Bird did the same with 21/8/13. McHale and Parish scored 21 and 23 respectively.
Game Two: Rockets 95, Celtics 117
The Celtics blew out the Rockets in game two behind a huge 34 point third quarter. Olajuwon and Sampson led the way with 21 and 18 respectively, but no one else stepped up to contribute. Bird had a game-high 31 points off 12/19 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds and 7 assists. McHale also delivered 25 points alongside Johnson’s 18 and Ainge’s 15. This victory was the 40th straight win at Boston Garden for the Celtics.
Game Three: Celtics 104, Rockets 106
The Rockets looked to get back in the series at home in Houston. Olajuwon had 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks, and his frontcourt mate Sampson delivered a huge 24 points and 22 rebounds. Robert Reid, with 20 points and 9 assists, held Bird to a poor shooting 10/26 from the field for 25 points. Despite his shooting woes, Larry turned in an added 15 rebounds and 11 assists for a triple-double. McHale had 28 points and 11 rebounds for Boston, and Johnson had 20 points of his own. The Rockets looked to even the series at two games apiece in game four.
Game Four: Celtics 106, Rockets 103
Larry Bird had a huge three-pointer late in game four to give the Celtics the lead for good. His near triple-double of 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 10 assists paved the way for Boston, alongside Parish and Johnson’s 22 points each. Olajuwon had 20 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks for Houston, and Sampson contributed 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. By losing game four, the Rockets now faced a practically insurmountable 3-1 deficit in the series.
Game Five: Celtics 96, Rockets 111
Game five was highlighted by a fight in the second quarter between Jerry Sichting and Ralph Sampson, the latter of whom was ejected. Olajuwon carried the Rockets to a lopsided victory to stave off elimination with 32 points, 14 rebounds, and an absurd 8 blocked shots. McHale led the Celtics with 33 points, but Bird was held to only 17 points. With the series now 3-2 in favor of Boston, the Celtics looked to return home and close out the series on their home floor.
Game Six: Rockets 97, Celtics 114
Larry Bird played his best game of the series in game six, delivering a triple-double with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists. McHale played well also, tallying 29 points of his own, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks. For the Rockets, Sampson was a major letdown scoring only 8 points while saddled with 5 fouls. Olajuwon had another double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds, but it was not enough as the Celtics clinched their 16th world championship and their second in three years.
This was the third championship for Larry Bird (a runaway Finals MVP) and company. The Celtics would return to the NBA Finals again the next year to face their old rival the Los Angeles Lakers. Sadly, 1986 would be the last championship Boston would win in the ’80s. After 1987, the Celtics wouldn’t reach the championship series again until 2008, but their run of four straight Finals from 1984-1987 is a crowning achievement of the era.
For the Houston Rockets, losing in the 1986 NBA Finals was the second time they finished as the seasonal runner-up in the ’80s. Despite their success in reaching the Finals, the duo of Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon proved to be a failure. Sampson was traded two years later following an injury, and the Rockets wouldn’t reach the Finals again until 1994 with Olajuwon still a dynamic force inside.