In the winter of 1982, the Boston Celtics were still riding high from their 14th championship banner, won the previous spring over upstart Houston and Moses Malone in six bruising contests.
Still, they hadn't quite hit their stride by the NBA dog days of February the following season. On Sunday, Feb. 21, the champs fell behind by 15 points early at Seattle and came up just short in a comeback bid 103-100 to "fall" to 37-15.
Robert Parish scored 34 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while Larry Bird registered a 22-12-14 triple-double, but it wasn't enough. Particularly glaring was the un-Celtic like 8-for-15 foul shooting, and the normally solid defense giving up 55 percent field goal shooting to the Sonics (43-of-78).
A spark was missing. Maybe the Celtics were suffering from the post-championship blahs just past the midway point of a long, grueling NBA season.
Now mind you, most teams would love to be 37-15 with 30 games left in an 82-game grind. Since Bird arrived in Beantown three years before, Boston had been the league's best team, banishing the dark days of the late 1970's to a distant memory.
But for the Celtics, who had won 61 and 62 games in the first two seasons of the Larry Bird era, 37-15 (a healthy .712 win clip) was a drop from the established norm. They would have to at least go 23-7 (.767) the rest of the way to post another 60-win season.
More importantly, the rival 76ers had nosed ahead of Boston by 1.5 games at 39-14 in the Atlantic Division standings following a 109-102 win over Phoenix.
Homecourt advantage had played a key role in Boston winning the title the year before. The Celtics won a classic seventh game 91-90 at home over the Sixers to clinch an improbable rally from a 3-1 deficit. It was unlikely they would have done it without having games five and seven at the raucous Boston Garden.
And it appeared improbable they could repeat if the hungry 76ers had home court, having beaten Boston in 12 of their last 13 meetings at the Spectrum.
Thus, the Celtics needed to turn it up a notch. Utah came to town Feb. 24 and Boston bombed the 19-35 Jazz, putting them away with a 37-13 first period.
Bird netted 27 points to lead seven Celtics in double figures as they won going away, 132-90. No one suspected at the time, however, that this was the start of the longest win string in the storied history of the league's most successful franchise.
Another patsy, the 15-40 San Diego Clippers, came to Boston next. Playing without the injured Bill Walton as they had for most of the last three years, the Clippers were no match for the Celtics, who rolled to a 122-110 victory.
Bird scored 24, dished out 11 assists and grabbed nine boards while Gerald Henderson, in for an injured Nate Archibald, added 21 points. Joe Bryant, Kobe's dad, scored eight for the Clips, while rookie Tom Chambers netted a dozen.
Central Division leader Milwaukee, also jostling for the league's best record at 40-15, then came to Boston for a Sunday afternoon, nationally-televised CBS showdown on Feb. 28.
Coached by former Celtic Don Nelson, the Bucks were a legitimate title contender, led by All-Stars Marques Johnson, center Bob Lanier, Sidney Moncrief and Brian Winters, one of the league's sharpest shooters.
Milwaukee nudged ahead 84-81 after three quarters, but then a not so funny thing happened on the Celtic way to the (LA) Forum and a much-anticipated Finals matchup with Earvin Johnson and the arch-nemesis Lakers.
Bird got elbowed in the face by Milwaukee journeyman reserve center Harvey Catchings and suffered a fractured cheekbone. Larry had to leave the game and would be out indefinitely. Suddenly the run for the best record and inside track on repeating as champs seemed in peril.
Yet with their superstar sidelined, the deep and talented Celtics regrouped and rallied for a 106-102 victory. Parish recorded a monster 29-point, 17-rebound game against the aging southpaw pivot duo of Lanier and Catchings.
Two days later, Boston embarked on a road trip through Texas, starting at the third-year expansion Dallas Mavericks. The spunky Mavs battled Boston tough as the Celts struggled to find their footing without Bird.
Yet the C's hung on for a 101-97 victory as Parish scored 27 points. Rookie Danny Ainge added 17 in his highest-scoring game since he had retired from major league baseball and joined the Celtics three months earlier.
In place of Bird, second-year man Kevin McHale scored 12 points. In even better news, the 76ers lost at Chicago to fall for a third straight game as the Celtics seized first place for good.
Boston traveled to San Antonio two days later for step two of the Texas triangle. The Celtics had to outscore the 37-20 Spurs by 13 points (54-41) in the second half to post a 110-101 victory, their fifth in a row.
Parish netted 26 points, Cedric Maxwell scored 25 and M.L. Carr tossed in 22 to offset 48 points by the "Iceman", George Gervin.
McHale added 18.
The next day in Houston, the 33-27 Rockets were waiting, eager for revenge. The Celtics had clinched the crown on their Summit court the previous May as Bird scored 27 and grabbed 13 rebounds. Thus Houston was extra-poised to avenge that 102-91 defeat, especially with Bird still on the injured list.
The contest was close throughout, with the score knotted 50-all at the half. Yet as 1981 Finals MVP Maxwell scored 24 points, the Celtics pulled out a 100-98 squeaker. Malone tallied 38 to pace the Rockets and Elvin Hayes, who had returned to Houston at age 35 after nine years with the Bullets, added 19.
Boston journeyed home to face the rival Knicks March 7 and struggled to beat the 28-34 New Yorkers before pulling out another nailbiter, 107-106.
Parish led the way with 28 points and a dozen rebounds. Meanwhile Maxwell netted 21, McHale contributed 17 points and 10 caroms, Ainge scored 16 and Rick Robey added 11 off the bench.
The next night Boston went to Detroit to take on the much-improved Pistons, led by their standout rookies Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka. Parish continued his strong play with 25 points, Maxwell scored 27 and Henderson added 22 as Archibald continued to rest an ailing shoulder.
Thomas and Tripucka combined for 45 points while future nemesis Bill Laimbeer contributed 18 points and 11 boards in the 111-101 victory.
The win streak was picking up steam at eight as Boston improved to a league-best 45-15.
Predictably, Bird made his return after missing five games against his home-state club, the Indiana Pacers, on March 10. He came back to a loud ovation wearing a special facemask to protect his cheekbone, which he only wore a few games before discarding it.
The 29-33 Pacers were no match for the streaking Celtics, who won easily, 121-100.
The big story was the return of Bird - not to the starting lineup, but as sixth man. Yet in 22 productive minutes, Larry Legend amassed 21 points and eight rebounds.
Parish compiled 21 points and 12 boards while McHale added 17 and eight.
Win number 10 came on March 12 at New Jersey, 113-109. Future 1985 Celtic experiment-gone-bad Ray Williams led the upset-minded Nets with 31 markers. But Parish matched him with 31 points and added 14 rebounds.
In 25 minutes off the pines, Bird tallied 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in his sixth man imitation of John Havlicek. McHale, in 39 minutes, registered 15 and eight. Twelfth-year veteran Archibald also made his return after a 23-day absence with two points in eight minutes.
Finesse-oriented Phoenix (34-28) came to Boston two days later and became victim number 11 in a row, 105-92. Parish doused the Suns with 33 points. Bird posted an 18-8-7 line over 36 minutes in his new reserve role, but uncharacteristically missed both of his foul shots.
Fellow Hoosier sharpshooter Kyle Macy scored 21 points to pace Phoenix, while future Celtic great Dennis Johnson scored just nine on 3-of-15 shooting.
Boston then traveled to Washington and survived an overtime scare to edge the rugged Bullets, 98-97. The Celtics had to rally from a 71-62 deficit in the final period to force OT at 86-all.
Bird fired in a game-high 31 points to lead the come-from-behind effort. 1968 Olympic hero Spencer Haywood, in a comeback season from drug and personal problems, topped the .500 Bullets with 24.
The two clubs would later meet in a tough playoff series that spring which Boston won 4-1, a score that does not indicate how close the series really was. Boston had to win game five in double OT after Bird fouled out, and only survived a barrage of Frank Johnson three-point bombs when McHale forced a second extra session on a follow shot at the buzzer.
On March 17, Boston welcomed sub-.500 Atlanta to town and came away with a 113-109 triumph on the strength of a 30-19 third period.
Still starting, McHale scored 25 and Bird netted 22 off the bench as the win string reached 13 to improve the Celtic ledger to 50-15.
The Spurs came to town for a rematch, but were rudely dismissed 134-110. Carr led six Celtics in double figures with 20 markers while Bird added 19 as Boston balance more than offset 31 by Gervin and 30 from Mike Mitchell.
Boston then journeyed to Philadelphia to take on the rival Sixers in a Sunday, March 21 CBS showdown. On the strength of the streak, the Celtics had widened their lead to 3.5 games over the rival 76ers, who had to win to have a reasonable chance at overtaking Boston for the division crown.
However, the Celtics quieted a standing room only crowd of 18,364 at the Spectrum by taking a 25-15 lead after one period. A 37-18 blowout third stanza extended the Boston lead to an unthinkable 92-66, and they cruised to a surprisingly easy 123-111 victory.
Parish pummeled the outmanned 76er centers for 37 points and 21 rebounds. Bird flew off the pines to post a 29-9-8 line, more than enough to negate a 38-point outburst from the Boston Strangler, Sixer guard Andrew Toney.
The win, their 15th in succession, improved the Celtic record to 52-15 and gave them a nearly insurmountable 4.5 game lead over Philly with just 15 games left.
Two days later, Boston went to the old Chicago Stadium and held off the upset-minded 28-39 Bulls by a 110-103 count. Bird registered 25 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in relief. Maxwell scored 29 points while the long-armed McHale added 14 points and 14 rebounds.
The proud Bird was now nearly seething at still coming off the bench. But head coach Bill Fitch was not about to take a chance and ruin the momentum and mojo they had built up during the 16-game skein.
Larry, who remembered all slights and used them as motivation to prove his doubters wrong at every level, expected to be back in the starting lineup well before then. As the best all-around player in the NBA in just his third season, he expected to be treated as such.
However, Fitch was an old school, tough guy who had worked his way up through the college ranks and had been the first coach of the expansion Cavaliers through their often-torturous first decade.
Bill's no-nonsense approach was illustrated in the Bird/Fitch story Larry told at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1998. Like all rookies back then, Bird was not allowed to ride in first class on planes.
After Bird had established himself as a star, he decided to "make my move," as he recalled. He told Fitch that since he was a "first-class player, I deserve to ride in first class."
The sometimes grouchy Fitch, who was suffering from a bad back yet could be very funny and usually blunt, simply looked at Larry and told him "get your butt back in coach."
It is hard to imagine that happening to Kobe or LeBron as rookies, isn't it?
And so Bird remained out of the starting lineup as the latest in a long string of good and great Celtic sixth men, from Frank Ramsey to John Havlicek, Don Nelson, Paul Silas and Carr - albeit for a very brief time.
Perhaps Fitch knew how to motivate Bird as well. Larry loved to rise to any challenge and certainly did not resent his coach, evidenced by the fact he chose Fitch and Walton as his Hall of Fame presenters 16 years later.
The 1959-60 Celtics, led by Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Ramsey, KC and Sam Jones, had set the club record of 17 wins in a row.
But with Russell out, their streak was snapped on New Year's Day of 1960 when the 10-27 Cincinnati Royals whipped them 128-111 as Jac Twyman poured in 40 points.
Now 22 seasons later, the Bird-led Celtics were aiming to tie that mark at home against Fitch's old team, the hapless 15-52 Cavs.
Before the typical sellout crowd of 15,320 at the Garden, Boston did so as they won easily 134-115. Parish scored 27 points and Bird netted 25 to lead seven Celtics in double digits.
McHale scored 14 and the recently-returned Archibald added 13 as they tied the franchise mark for wins in a row and improved to 54-15.
Scott Wedman, who would join Boston the next season, scored 21 for Cleveland.
The record-breaker came at home March 26 against the 33-36 Pistons in another mismatch, 125-104. McHale topped the victors with 21 points, Maxwell scored 20 and Bird added 18 to pace seven Celts in double figures.
Tripucka led Detroit with 21 points, but Thomas scored just seven. Bird's nemesis from his short 1974 stay at Indiana University, former Hoosier Mr. Basketball and 1976 NCAA tournament MVP Kent Benson, was held to six.
Bird loved to burn Benson, who had mistreated the sensitive freshman at Indiana. The normally-stoic Larry celebrated joyously after he burned Benson on a game-winning runner at the buzzer that beat Detroit 131-130 at Hartford on Jan. 29, 1985.
Now the second-longest win streak in league annals was within reach at 20, set by the 1970-71 NBA champion Bucks of Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor.
The previous mark of 19 straight, set by the 1969-70 champion New York Knicks, was the next target on Boston's list.
But predictably it was the rival 76ers who ended the record run on another Sunday, March 28 CBS telecast. They ran out to a 26-15 lead and handed the Celtics one of their six losses at home that season by a decisive 116-98 margin.
Toney scored 23, Julius Erving 21 and Bobby Jones 19 as the Sixers placed six in double digits.
Archibald paced Boston with 22 points. McHale scored 19 and grabbed 15 rebounds, while Bird was held to 12 points and nine boards.
The loss cut the 76er deficit to 5.5 games as they improved to 49-21 while Boston, losing for the first time in five weeks, dropped to 55-16.
The Celtics rebounded to post a modest three-game win streak, snapped at Milwaukee on April 6 by a 122-116 count. They then won three more in a row, including a revenge 110-109 OT victory at Philadelphia.
Maxwell tallied 25 while Bird and McHale each scored 20 vs. the 76ers. Larry added 15 boards and seven assists in 40 minutes with Parish out. In his stead during one of his four starts that season, Robey (arguably the NBA's best backup center at the time) scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 35 minutes.
A 106-103 win over the Nets in the previous game, coupled with a 76er loss to Atlanta, had clinched the division title for Boston at 60-17 as the 76ers dropped to 54-23.
Fitch finally put Larry back in the starting lineup, ending his great experiment with Bird as sixth man. The Celtics lost at Chicago in game 79 in the last game before Bird was back in the starting five, 120-115.
Playing without Parish again, Robey scored 17 and Larry fired in a game-high 35 points but Boston still lost to the 30-48 Bulls.
Undoubtedly Fitch wanted to return the lineup to normalcy with the playoffs looming, as well as placate his sensitive superstar.
So Bird was back in the starting five for the final three games, where he averaged just 12.3 ppg in reduced minutes as Fitch tried to give his true reserves more playing time and rest the starters for the post-season.
Larry came off the bench in 58 of his 77 games that season, missing five with the facial injury caused by the Catchings back swing.
In the win streak he scored 22.5 ppg, compared to 22.9 for the entire season. In the 10 games he came off the bench in the win string, Bird scored at a 22.6 per game clip. Over th enext nine, that number dipped to 20.6 ppg.
Interestingly, in 1983-84 Dallas forward Jay Vincent missed 21 games with an injury and was relegated to a permanent "instant offense off the bench" role upon his return by another old school ex-college coach in Dick Motta.
Unwittingly, the former Michigan State standout complained that "the Celtics wouldn't make Larry Bird a sixth man if he got hurt."
Yet somehow unbeknownst to the clueless Vincent, the Celtics HAD made Larry a sixth man during their club-record streak less than two years earlier.
The 18-game streak team mark stood for 27 years until bettered by one by the 2009 Celtics, another defending champion Boston outfit who came up short due in large part to injuries.
A coasting Boston club split its final four games in 1982 to end up 63-19, making them owners of the best record in the league for a third straight year. And it was the third year in a row they had improved by a game, from 61 to 62 and then 63 wins.
Alas, the recurrence of a separated southpaw shooting shoulder, suffered by Archibald in game three of the conference finals vs. the 76ers, helped prevent the much-anticipated Boston vs. LA/Bird vs. Johnson rematch in the championship series.
After Boston blew out frigid-shooting Philly 121-81 in the opener, the 76ers rebounded to win the next three. Yet the Celtics again rallied from a 3-1 deficit to force a seventh game for a second consecutive season.
But this go-round the vengeful 76ers overcame the ghosts of Celtics past and took game seven in Boston to avoid blowing a 3-1 lead to the Celts in the East finals for a third time (the other being in 1968).
Boston had beaten out the 76ers by five wins for the league's best record on the strength of their record win string. But with the speedy Nate out, they could not replace the penetration, passing, shooting and fast-breaking skills of Archibald.
The extremely athletic Henderson was much better on defense but a big drop-off as a playmaker, and the absence was glaring vs. the 76ers, and the C's did not have enough time to properly adjust to the loss of Nate in mid-series.
During the 18-game win streak, Boston outscored its opposition by 208 points, an average of 11.6 points per contest, almost double their normal healthy 6.4 ppg victory margin that season. As expected, the rest of the frontline got more shots with Bird out hurt and then coming off the bench. Parish and McHale's production went up during the streak. The Chief tallied 21.4 ppg in the string as compared to 19.4 the rest of the season. McHale netted 15.2 ppg in the win skein and 13.2 in the other 64 games that season.
But it was Larry's forward runningmate Maxwell who enjoyed the biggest offensive increase with Bird playing a reduced role. During the streak Cornbread scored 17.8 ppg, and in the other 60 games that year he averaged 13.9 ppg.
Carr and Henderson also scored more with Archibald out for the first nine games of the streak.
The 63-win season despite injuries to Bird and Archibald underscores the great depth of that 1981-82 Celtic team. A second unit of Robey, McHale, Carr, Ainge and Henderson was better than many other first string units in the league.
The streak jump-started Boston to a 26-4 finish as they won at an .867 pace over the final 30 games to easily beat Philly by five games and Los Angeles by six for best record honors.
It is a good bet that Boston would have beaten the Lakers in the Finals, since the Celtics had the homecourt advantage and great depth, as well as a healthy, young Bird. LA was also without the injured Mitch Kupchak and James Worthy, who was a college junior leading North Carolina to the NCAA title in 1982.
Interestingly, when Bird retired following the 1992 Olympics, savvy club CEO Dave Gavitt tried to get him to play one more season with an ingenious plan.
Bird would serve as the Celtic sixth man and play only in home games and close road games they could drive to, in order to avoid the pressurized airplane cabins that irritated his back greatly.
But Larry didn't want to disrupt the lineup and hang on after missing almost half of the 1991-92 season and playoffs, and declined - knowingly losing a big bonus as well. He also avoided a self-serving, season-long farewell tribute victory lap, a la Jabbar, Dr. J and recently, Derek Jeter.
Ironically, Havlicek and McHale both started out as great Celtic sixth men, then finished their long Hall of Fame careers back in the same relief role during their final seasons. McHale started just 36 games over his final four regular seasons.
But the sixth man role was not for the proud Bird, except for the last 13 games of the then-record win streak in 1982, plus six more games. He did come off the bench some during the 1992 playoffs, but wasn't truly a sixth man.