clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Recounting the grueling, underrated Eastern semifinal Celtic playoff win over rugged Washington in the 1982 playoffs

Improbable late game 5 comeback led by McHale, Larry and Max helped Boston close out pesky Bullets in double OT epic

Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

Lost amid all the many great Celtic playoff battles of the 1980's vs. the rival Lakers, 76ers, Pistons and Bucks was a rugged eastern semifinal battle in 1982 vs. the then Washington Bullets (now Wizards).

Heading into those 1982 NBA playoffs, the Boston Celtics were riding high as the defending league champion and the holder of the best record in the loop at 63-19.

In just his third season, Larry Bird had established himself as the best all-around player in the NBA. But for the second time in a row he finished as MVP runner-up, this time to the much less well-rounded Houston center Moses Malone, whose somewhat misleading offensive rebounding numbers were augmented greatly by grabbing a large quantity of his own missed layups.

As the best team in the NBA, the Celtics received a first round playoff bye. Washington, which had rebuilt impressively after the loss of its vaunted front line, had missed the playoffs in 1981 for the first time since 1968. The perennially-contending franchise had lost in the Finals in 1971, 1975 and 1979 while winning it all in 1978 over Seattle.

Yet by 1981 the Bullets were a fallen dynasty of the 1970's desperately trying to hang on and compete in a brutal Eastern Conference behind juggernauts Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, three of the NBA's top four teams.

Rebuilding guru coach Gene Shue, who had guided the Baltimore Bullets to the 1971 Finals and the 1977 76ers to the championship series only to lose each time, was brought back and led the Bullets to a 43-39 record - and into the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years year as the fifth seed. 

Shue inherited a tough job. For years the Bullets had focused on winning in the present, and by the early 1981 had gotten too old to contend, much like George Allen's "Over the Hill Gang" of the 1970's did in Washington for the Redskins as that decade wore on. 

Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld, plagued by bad knees and age, retired in 1981. Long-time Bullet All-Star power forward Elvin Hayes was traded at 35 back to Houston, where he starred in college and had started his career with the Rockets.

Super sixth man Mitch Kupchak bolted for the Lakers as a free agent, but a severe knee injury a third of the way into the season effectively ruined his career and relegated him to a meager reserve role for the next five years.

Underrated small forward Bob Dandridge, arguably the MVP of the 1978 Bullet champions, played just 23 games in 1981 before going back to Milwaukee to finish his career in 1982.

Yet with a few shrewd moves the Bullets were back in the post-season in 1982, where the recent powerhouse would win their last playoff series until a whopping 23 years later in 2005. And Shue would earn his second NBA Coach of the Year award for his efforts. 

The former All-Star guard blended together a team with no big stars but seven players averaging between 10 and 19 points a game into a solid, tough club. It was a big, physical and bruising halfcourt team that no one wanted to play, similar to Memphis today.

Rookie power forward-center Jeff Ruland, a second round draft pick as a junior out of Iona, took Kupchak's place as sixth man and excelled. He averaged 14.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a game in just 27 minutes a night while shooting 56 percent from the field.

At 33, former All-Star Spencer Haywood returned from a year playing in Italy to earn NBA Comeback Player of the Year honors. He scored 13.3 ppg and upped that to over 20 in the playoffs.

Young veteran Greg Ballard, a good mid-range shooting sturdy backup during the Bullet title run, emerged as the team scoring leader at 18.8 ppg once he was given a chance to start. Sharpshooting southpaw off guard Kevin Grevey, the lone starter holdover from the 1978 champs, tossed in 13.3 per game as well.

A 23-year old Rick Mahorn, in his pre-Bad Boy days with Detroit, scored 12.2 ppg and teamed with Ruland to form a rugged tandem known by Bullet backers as "Bump and Thump" - aka much less affectionately by Celtic announcer Johnny Most as "McFilthy and McNasty."

Speedy rookie point guard Frank Johnson out of Wake Forest teamed with veteran John Lucas, the number one overall draft pick out of Maryland in 1976, to score a combined 19 ppg and give the Bullets a dangerous but inconsistent playmaking duo.

Jim Chones, a veteran 6-11 center-power forward who won a ring starting for the Lakers in 1980 after several fine seasons with Cleveland, was acquired as compensation for the loss of Kupchak. And young swingman Don Collins added 10 ppg off the bench.

Meanwhile, the title-holding Celtics were a budding juggernaut. In Bird's three seasons they had posted the league's best record each time with successive win totals of 61, 62 and 63. Other than an aging backcourt, they boasted the best and deepest frontcourt in the NBA.

Back then, only six teams in each conference made it to the post-season, with the two division winners receiving first round byes. The other four teams would face off in a pair of best of three mini-series.

In its first round series, Washington swept fourth seed New Jersey 2-0. Johnson tallied 17 ppg, Grevey scored 16.5, Ruland added 15 and Haywood 14.5 to lead a balanced offense. They won 96-83 in game one on the road and eliminated the Nets 103-92 in game two at the Capital Centre to set up a second round matchup with the rested champion Celtics.

Just two days after they closed out the Nets behind 23 points from Grevey, the Bullets had to play at the hallowed Boston Garden. With little time to prepare, Washington was no match for the Celtics. Eight Boston players netted between nine and 21 points, led by 21 from reserve swingman M.L. Carr.

Boston outscored the Bullets 59-39 after halftime to win going away, 109-91. But game two would be a different story. Perhaps the homestanding defending champions were a bit over-confident after having swept Washington 6-0 in the season by almost 10 ppg, and then taking the series opener by 18. 

Disregarding the 36-6 Boston home record to that point in the season, the grind-it-out Bullets slowed the then-fast breaking Celtics to a halfcourt crawl and pulled off an eyebrow-raising upset.

Boston led 51-44 at intermission, but a 33-23 Bullet third period set up a shocking comeback at the Garden. Trailing 102-100 in the final seconds, Johnson drained a three-point goal just before the buzzer to give the visitors a 103-102 upset.

The rookie guard and Haywood led the Bullets with 26 points apiece, while Ruland powered in 19 points and snared 10 rebounds.

Bird scored 26 and McHale netted 20 off the bench, but the rugged Bullets outmuscled Boston 47-36 on the boards. Now the series was knotted 1-1 heading to Landover, Maryland for two games in a hostile environment that promised to be even more physical. 

And at that time, with Washington still just three years removed from consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 1978/79, they maintained a bit of an intimidating champion aura, especially at home. Still, Boston had won nine in a row at Washington since Bird entered the league, and was confident.

Boston jumped out to a 28-18 lead after one quarter to quiet the crowd, and then held on for a 92-83 win in game three. Robert Parish led all scorers with 25 points and 13 rebounds while Cedric Maxwell contributed 20 markers. Haywood and Ballard topped the Bullet scorers with 19 and 18, respectively.

Washington played with desperation in the fourth game, seeking to avoid a 1-3 deficit heading back to the Garden. But Boston rallied late to tie it and force overtime after four periods, 91-91. 

With Parish scoring 28 while pulling down 15 big caroms, and McHale hitting for 25 points in relief, the Celtics overcame a 4-of-16 shooting night by Bird and 28 from the rejuvenated Haywood to win 103-99 in OT. 

In the two Bullet losses at home, the streak-shooting Johnson connected on just four of 28 field attempts.

Heading home for the potential closeout contest, Boston was poised and expected to eliminate the spunky, undermanned Bullets. 

But Washington battled Boston to a 52-52 halftime tie. Still, the more talented Celtics began to pull away in the third quarter with a 34-21 period. 

The USA cable network, with Hubie Brown and Marv's brother Al Albert calling the action, broadcast the game as the first of a doubleheader. The network blandly branded their NBA playoff coverage that spring as "Showdown '82." 

The USA nightcap contest featured a San Antonio 109-103, 4-1 series closeout win over Seattle from the old Kingdome, but it could not remotely approach the drama, skill and intensity of the fifth game in Boston.

Early in the second half, a lane banker by Parish put Boston in front 64-58. M.L. Carr converted a left-handed fast break layin off a nice Nate Archibald bounce pass to stretch the lead to eight.

Haywood backed in Bird for a layup but it was waved off since he bogarted Larry badly. Ballard canned a 16-foot right side jumper yet two foul shots by the Chief restored the lead to eight with 7:02 left in the third.

Bird then threw a gorgeous wraparound bounce pass around Ballard past an unsuspecting Ruland to an open Maxwell slicing down the baseline for a reverse layin.

"What a pass, what a pass!" exclaimed Brown. "Absolutely beautiful...Bird has great peripheral vision."

A short turnaround jumper by Mahorn cut the deficit to 70-62 moments later. Boston answered and then after Carr missed a transition layup, the typically well-positioned Bird grabbed the weakside rebound. After giving a head fake to freeze the bigger Ruland, Bird powered in a layup off glass over him to build the lead to a dozen.

A jump hook in the lane by Maxwell extended the lead to 14. Bird then made a fine steal which led to Max driving coast to coast to finish a four on two break with a layup that rolled in. Boston lengthened its lead to 18 before Washington crept back within 86-73 heading to the fourth period. 

Bird showed off more of his incredible passing skills, creativity and hand-eye coordination when he grabbed a long overthrown pass with his right hand while going out of bounds and fired the ball to an open Carr under the hoop.

But M.L. may have been so surprised by the amazing pass that he blew the layup. Ruland canned a running hook off glass. The powerful rookie then buried a nine-foot jumper over Rick Robey for a three-point play that brought the visitors within 86-78.

Bird gave his buddy Robey a nice bounce entry pass along the left baseline in an effort to score back against Ruland. Big Rick turned to the baseline and tossed in a nice southpaw jump hook.

Next, Gerald Henderson hit Robey in transition with a one-handed pass off the dribble for a layin and a 90-78 Boston bulge.

Little-known Bullet rookie Garry Witts, a fifth round pick out of Holy Cross, then drilled a 17-footer from the circle on his first shot of the night to slice the lead to 10.

Lefty Lucas then tossed in an off-balance baseline shot to make it 90-82 with 8:44 remaining. McHale answered by splashing a pair of foul shots that restored the lead to 10.

Bird then spun and drained a lovely baseline fadeaway over a flailing Ballard for a 94-82 margin. Henderson split a pair at the foul line, followed by a left baseline jumper from Haywood.

Robey then tipped in a McHale miss yet Haywood hit from the other baseline to stay within striking distance at 11.  

Showing off their second string chemistry, Henderson then drove into a crowd, left his feet and hit a cutting Robey with a pretty wraparound feed that Rick banked in.

Yet the Bullets still did not fold. Haywood canned his third basket in a row off a pick and roll to make it 99-88.

Henderson again penetrated and found Robey on the left baseline, and the 6-11 backup center rose for a two-handed stuff and a 13-point lead. The shot gave Robey 10 points in the period.

Johnson, the rookie playmaker from Wake Forest, then nailed a 17-foot pull-up jumper. This was followed by a near melee that changed the course of the contest.

Boston in-bounded to Henderson, who was hounded by Johnson in the backcourt. Robey, who was known for setting brutal headhunter picks in the backcourt, set up to nail the rookie. Johnson tripped over Robey, who was called for a foul, and hit the floor hard while falling slightly into Henderson.

Gerald nonchalantly dropped the ball on the fallen Johnson's head, and feisty Frank jumped up and elbowed Henderson in the side of the head. Seeing this, Robey grabbed Johnson around the neck with his right hand while the Bullets raced onto the floor to defend their little guard.

Both benches emptied, with much jawing but no punches thrown. Bird ended up trying to give Chones his warm-up jersey back. Just when the fracas died down, Henderson was knocked to the floor and it nearly erupted again.

Bird and Archibald helped Henderson up to his feet, and cooler heads prevailed as time was called. When play resumed, Bird was called for a dubious foul when he tied up Ballard as the refs whistled it close to avoid another brouhaha.

An angry Bird drove the left side and lofted in a high-arching banker over Mahorn for a 103-90 edge with 4:05 left. But Ruland snared his sixth offensive board and flipped in a pretty three-point finger roll to pull within 10 and start the comeback by the fired-up Bullets.

Ballard buried a right wing 16-footer to cut the Boston lead to eight. Archibald swished a wide-open right side 14-footer off a rare assist from Parish.

Then Johnson, who had made just 22 percent of his three-pointers all season (a mere 21.5 percent), improbably heated up in response to being pushed around. He nailed a pull-up 29-foot triple to make it 105-98. "They should give him four, that was so far out," offered Brown.

Johnson then came downcourt moments later, turned and launched another trey over Nate from straight on out front that went in with 2:22 left in regulation.

Suddenly the once-safe lead was whittled to just four, and the crowd began to murmur uneasily. McHale came up with a pair of big offensive rebounds and ended up splitting a pair at the charity stripe for a 106-101 cushion with 1:34 left.

Parish then rejected a Ruland layup and Bird saved it while tip-toeing along the baseline. With another basket, Boston would be home free. 

But Boston did not score and Johnson, this time guarded by fellow rookie Danny Ainge, got a pick from Mahorn and drained yet another long trifecta from out top to pull the plucky Bullets within 106-104 with 46 ticks to go.

Boston went to Parish, who missed a turnaround jumper. Ruland came down with a tough rebound in traffic and drew an over the back foul on the Chief.

Ruland calmly drained both foul shots to tie it with 24 seconds remaining in regulation. With the game and series on the line Archibald dribbled out much of the clock waiting for Parish to post up on the left block. Robert fired his patented baseline turnaround while closely guarded by Mahorn, and missed badly.

Ruland rebounded and the game went into overtime. Interestingly, Bird did not get the ball on either of the last two possessions.

In overtime, the Bullets missed first and Bird yanked down a strong rebound. Johnson reached in for a steal try and accidentally hit Larry in the face instead, but Bird did not even complain, flinch or gesticulate to the refs. A mere common foul was called, and play went on.

Today, had LeBron been smacked in the face in similar fashion by such a lesser light, "the King" almost certainly would have exaggerated the contact, gestured wildly and complained incessantly to officials as he regularly does on the rare occasion when he does not get a call. It was another example of how Bird was far tougher than James ever has been, mentally and physically.

On the next Bullet possession, McHale came up with a spectacular weak side block on a Ruland shot, but Maxwell fouled the rookie. He hit both shots to give Washington its first lead of the second half.

Parish finally got his baseline turnaround jumper to drop when it rolled around the rim and in to tie it. Ballard responded by drilling a left elbow jumper. Two Parish foul shots tied it again 110-110 with 3:13 to go in OT.

Mahorn then made one of two at the charity stripe. Parish brought the ball down in the lane and Johnson swiped it away. then drove the length of the floor for a layup and a 113-110 lead.

It was the first fast break basket of the half for the ultra-slowdown style Bullets. Maxwell answered with two important free tosses at the 2:15 mark. But Johnson made a nice pass out of sideline double team to a cutting Ballard, who nailed a 14-footer as the shot clock expired to build the lead back to three.

Parish air-balled yet another turnaround jumper and at the other end, Ruland spun past the Chief along the left baseline for a power layup and a 117-112 Bullet lead with 1:06 to go. At that juncture, Washington had outscored Boston 55-32 since late in the third period. 

But that would be their high-water mark.

Maxwell again kept Boston alive by drawing a foul and drilling both key free tosses with a minute left. McHale then came up with another huge defensive play. 

Denying Mahorn the ball, he got in the passing lanes in textbook fashion and picked off a Ballard pass. Big Kevin then rumbled coast to coast on a rare fullcourt foray. The gangly second-year big man took off from 12 feet in the lane while avoiding the bruising Mahorn in midair, and at full extension bounced in a long-armed flying layin.

The crowd roared its approval as the timely, clutch steal and finish got Boston within 117-116 with 45 seconds to go in the extra session.

Mahorn then floored Archibald with a brutal pick that freed the big man up for an open foul line jumper, which he canned. The screen seriously jarred Nate's left shoulder, an injury that would crop up even more seriously in the next series and perhaps cost Boston back-to-back titles.

At the other end, an angered Archibald drove and did a full somersault after being fouled. But he hit only one of two free throws with 21 ticks to go, keeping the deficit at two.

With Washington trying to run out the clock, the ever-present Bird came up with another huge defensive play when he cleanly tied up Johnson along the sideline with just nine seconds left in regulation. 

Larry then won the center court jump on a determined second try, slapping it to Nate as he fell backward. Archibald drove the lane and threw up a wild double-pump shot that missed the rim and bounced off the glass wide of the rim.

But McHale had gotten perfect position for a potential rebound and tipped in the miss cleanly with a second left to force a second overtime at 119-119. On the Washington bench, an exasperated Shue shook his head in disbelief at how his team had blown the lead in the final seconds.

The Celtic crowd bellowed its approval after McHale's second massive basket in the final minute of overtime.

Washington scored first in the second OT, but Boston finally went to Bird, who posted up the 6-5 Grevey. Larry tossed in a gorgeous floater over a late double-team, but again the basket was waved off for a foul call on Grevey before the shot. 

It is hard to imagine continuation being disallowed for later stars like Jordan, Bryant or James in a similar situation after such a spectacular shot, but Bird did not get the superstar calls they did, especially early in his career. The game was refereed more evenly then than it is now.

After Boston missed, Bird came up with another steal with his great anticipation skills. He then drove to the basket and swished a one-footed runner from 10 feet out to tie it 121-all.

Yet Johnson and Ruland each hit two free throws to give Washington a four-point lead again, 125-121. Ruland drew Bird's fifth foul with 2:50 left and Larry was subbed out for as big Jeff improved to 15-16 at the line on the night.

Maxwell canned a clutch short turnaround jumper in the lane, a patented unorthodox inside move by Cornbread. Once again he kept Boston close when they desperately needed to score in overtime.

Ruland then spun to the hoop for what looked like another layin, but McHale swooped in and swatted the shot away. At the other end, Kevin rolled to his right and swished a pretty baseline jump hook to tie it 125-125.

Johnson split a pair of free throws to give Washington its last lead at 126-125 with 1:37 left to play. Henderson then blew by Johnson for an uncontested layup as the Bullets mistakenly overplayed a fake pick and roll. 

It proved to be the final lead change as Boston moved back in front 127-126 with 1:24 to go. "These are two heavyweights slugging it out," observed Al Albert.

The springy-legged Henderson, a much better defender than Archibald, then blocked a Johnson jumper and Parish grabbed the loose carom at the 1:02 mark.

At the other end Parish then pulled down an offensive board, laid it in and was fouled by Mahorn. It was Rick's third foul on the possession (he had mauled McHale on the first putback try), and his sixth official foul finally disqualified the remorseless banger.

The Chief completed the three-point play for his 33rd point with 41 seconds left. Johnson's three-point bombardier luck then ran dry. He missed a long triple, yet Ruland rebounded the misfire. Jeff passed out to Johnson, who air-balled another long trey that McHale corraled with 23 seconds left.

The discouraged Bullets let Boston run off 13 seconds before finally fouling Maxwell. Cedric split a pair to make the lead five and all but put the game out of reach. 

Johnson launched another desperation three and missed badly once more, and Carr ran out the clock to end the bruising series that was much closer than the final 4-1 score would indicate.

Shue shook hands with Robey, Maxwell and Boston coach Bill Fitch as the tired teams exchanged the customary post-series congratulations on their way to the tunnel and locker rooms.

Ruland and Parish each scored 33 points in the memorable fifth contest. Bird tallied 26 but sat out the final 2:50, incredibly. Yet his scoring, overtime tie-up and steals were indispensable to the win.

Maxwell also netted 26 big points, while Archibald tallied 15 and McHale added 14 huge markers off the pines. All 10 of Robey's points came in the fourth quarter.

Both teams shot 33 free throws, with Washington hitting 29 and Boston converting 25. The Celtics sank 53 baskets to 47 by the Bullets, who hit three treys, all by Johnson late in the fourth period.

Interestingly, the Celtics did not can a single trifecta, nor attempt any in the second half and overtimes.

Johnson supported Ruland with 22 points, while Haywood collected 21 before fouling out. The consistent Ballard contributed 18 points while Mahorn scored 11 and Grevey 10.

For the series, Parish led Boston with 23.2 ppg. Maxwell contributed 17.4 per while Bird added 17.2 and sixth man McHale tallied 16.6. Haywood led the Bullets with 22.2 ppg. Ruland singed the nets for a 17.8 per game clip, with Johnson netting 15.0 and Ballard adding 14.2 ppg.

Over the last four hard-fought games, Boston outscored Washington only by a combined total of 17 points, winning twice as the last two victories came in overtimes.

The tough series helped get Boston ready for their rubber match series with Philadelphia in the 1982 eastern finals. The Celtics blew out the 76ers 121-81 in game one, but when southpaw Archibald was tripped and separated his left shoulder - which Mahorn had originally hurt with his hard screen in game five - Boston fell behind 3-1 with Nate sidelined.

For the second year in a row the Celtics rallied from 1-3 down to force a seventh game vs. Philly at the Gah-den. But this time, instead of a thrilling win and a much-anticipated dream matchup in the Finals vs. the hated Lakers and a chance for Bird to even his personal score with nemesis Earvin Johnson, the Sixers upset Boston to advance to the championship series.

The Celtics simply had no one to replace the creative penetration, passing, transition and scoring skills of Tiny at the point. Henderson was a far better defender but not a true point guard, and his starting inexperience and lack of offensive skills showed vs. Philly in the crunch.

The disappointing 4-3 loss left a bad taste in Boston mouths as they appeared poised to be the first NBA repeat champion since the 1968-69 Celtics. 

But it doesn't erase the memory of the forgotten classic win over the bruising Bullets, and the late-game heroics of McHale and Maxwell in the clincher.

If you want to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog