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Cedric Maxwell and all-time underrated Boston Celtics

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Overshadowed by the Big 3 frontline, Cornbread was key cog on two Celtic title teams.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The intersection of a few factors usually combine to make a fine player underrated, or largely unnoticed in comparison to his abilities and accomplishments.

Often a very good player toils in relative anonymity in a small market, or on non-winning teams. More often, as in the case of ex-Celtic forward Cedric Maxwell, the underrated star plays on strong clubs surrounded by greater or more celebrated teammates.

Jamaal Wilkes fits this bill well, having been overshadowed at UCLA by Bill Walton, at Golden Stae by Rick Barry and later with the Lakers by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin Johnson.

Celtic bank shot artist Sam Jones might also fit this definition well, as he was surrounded by greats like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn and John Havlicek on eight championship clubs. However, Sam was a perennial All-Star, Hall of Famer and a member of the 50 Greatest Player list, so he was not as underrated as some other unsung standouts.

Also, the unheralded fine player may not fit stereotypical notions of what a star looks like, and/or have an unorthodox style of play. He may have a game that is underappreciated or not well understood by the public at large, and the major media.

The lanky, laconic Maxwell fit all those latter criteria and then some after starring at a small college, then as a supporting player on some great NBA clubs. He never made an All-Star team, nor did he probably even come close in an era chock full of great forwards.

Yet he was a very fine all-around player and crucial member of great Boston teams that comprised the NBA’s best aggregate record from 1979-85. With Maxwell as a key starter, Boston won two titles and could have doubled that if not for critical injuries in 1982 and 1985.

Thus the versatile Maxwell gets my vote as the all-time most underrated Celtic. A garrulous, carefree person and player on the surface, Maxwell knew how and when to turn up the intensity. Max was very serious and clutch when the situation dictated and was often most dire.

Boston made Maxwell the 12th pick in the 1977 draft by Boston after he led Cinderella UNC-Charlotte (now just Charlotte) to the NCAA Final Four. The 49ers lost a 51-49 heartbreaker in the semis at the buzzer to eventual champion Marquette on a last-second shot by Jerome Whitehead, ending their title dreams.

Maxwell received the nickname “Cornbread” from his UNCC teammate Melvin Watkins. The pair had gone to see the 1975 movie “Cornbread, Earl and Me”, in which a 12-year-old boy is traumatized by the murder of his friend, a star basketball player.

Watkins thought that Maxwell looked like the murdered title character (ironically played by future Warrior/Laker star Wilkes), and thus began calling him Cornbread.

Maxwell did not like the moniker until it caught on with the New York media during the then still-prestigious NIT of 1976, where his 49ers lost 71-67 to Kentucky in the championship game despite Cedric winning tournament MVP honors.

Ironically, Cornbread and his future forward tandem teammate Larry Bird both wore 33 in college and led their relatively unknown teams to the Final Four, Bird two years later for Indiana State.

Of course Bird was the greater player and led ISU, the last undefeated team to get to the title game (33-0), to a much-ballyhooed NCAA finals. Meanwhile, Maxwell’s UNCC team came up just short of reaching the finals, lost the now-defunct third-place consolation game and is largely forgotten.

As a player, Maxwell was a tough competitor with an all-around game that lacked only perimeter shooting in his arsenal. A gangly 6-8.5 and 210 pounds, Cedric had a variety of unorthodox inside moves and was a highly effective interior scorer. Max was also a good passer, as well as a very fine offensive rebounder.

Despite not being much of a leaper, he found myriad ways to score with up and under moves, half hooks and clever head fakes, and was expert at drawing fouls and converting free throws. In his eight seasons with Boston, Maxwell averaged just under six free throw attempts a game, with a career-high of nine foul tries per outing in 1978-79.

He was like a baseball pitcher who threw a lot of off speed pitches and junk to disrupt timing and get the hitter off balance (or in basketball terms, the defender)- then put them away with a sneak pitch. He had a way of getting in opponent’s heads as well, frustrating them with his ungainly, heady efficiency.

Just by gazing at his unusual running gait, long arms and legs, and underwhelming athleticism tended to make opponents underestimate Cornbread. But if you did that, he could make you pay dearly.

Max was a good foul shooter and a fine defender, with good hands. He was a surprisingly good ballhandler who was capable of leading the fast break or finishing it as a scorer with his length and clever touch around the hoop. He stayed within his limitations and rarely shot outside of 10-12 feet unless necessary.

From 1978-81, the durable Maxwell also missed only five total games. Over six seasons from 1978-84 before he hurt his knee, Max averaged 79.7 games per season, missing just 14 games total over that span.

Before the emergence of Kevin McHale as a superstar, Max usually guarded the opposing team’s top scoring forward, and typically did a fine job with his length, smarts, positioning and underrated movement and anticipation.

As a rookie in 1977-78, Max averaged 7.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in just 16.8 minutes a game. That season marked the decline of the 1970s Celtics, who had won their second title of the decade in 1976 with an aging team that quickly fell out of contention two years later.

The next season in 1978-79, Maxwell became a starter (37.1 minutes a game) and improved to 19 points per outing to lead the Celtics in their first season without the legendary John Havlicek since 1962.

In addition, the highly efficient Max led the NBA in field goal percentage at 58.4 accuracy, shot 80.2 percent from the foul line and pulled down a career-best 9.9 rebounds per game.

In fact, Maxwell only tried 19 three-pointers in his entire 11-season NBA career, making just one for the 1983-84 Celtics.

Max also averaged 2.9 assists and 0.9 blocks per game in his breakthrough second season. But the Celtics were a miserable 29-53, good for last place in the Atlantic Division.

Things turned around quickly with the arrival of the transcendent Bird for the 1979-80 campaign, and with Larry in tow over the rest of his career, Maxwell became less of a focus for the offense.

Yet Cornbread again led the league in field goal accuracy at 60.9 percent, and averaged 16.9 points and 8.8 rebounds (3.6 offensive caroms) per contest in 1979-80.

The Celtics posted the greatest single-season turnaround in league annals to that point with a 32-game improvement to 61-21, the best record in the league. Boston advanced to the eastern finals, but lost to the more experienced rival 76ers 4-1.

In 1980-81, Boston again registered the best record in the NBA at 62-20. Maxwell averaged 15.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists a game while shooting 58.8 percent from the field.

This time in the 1981 playoffs, the Celtics rallied from a 1-3 deficit to Philadelphia in the eastern finals to defeat the hated Sixers.

Maxwell’s fight with a fan under the basket in game six game at Philly sparked a Celtic rally, as Boston earned its first win at the Spectrum in 12 tries during a 100-98 must-win thriller. Cedric contributed 17 key points to the series-tying triumph.

The Celtics then took game seven at home 91-90 on Bird’s last minute pull-up transition banker to cap arguably the greatest playoff series ever.

https://www.celticsblog.com/2014/12/12/7380855/recounting-greatest-playoff-series-ever-spine-tingling-1981-ECF

Then in the Finals Boston defeated a pesky, slowdown Houston squad 4-2 to clinch their 14th title. Maxwell was voted series MVP after leading the team in scoring (17.7 ppg). Cedric also averaged 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in the title series.

Cornbread shot 58.6 percent from the field in the 1981 Finals, hitting on 42 of 74 shots as well as 22 of 28 from the charity stripe (75.9 percent). His 34 offensive rebounds led the Celtics in the series, illustrating his penchant for grabbing key boards inside.

In a game three win, Max posted 19 points and 10 rebounds. In a game four loss, he upped those numbers to 24 and 14, including nine offensive caroms.

In the Celtic blowout game five win that untied the 2-2 series and put Boston in command, Max led the way with 28 points and 15 rebounds. Cornbread made 10 of 13 shots from the field and eight of 10 foul shots as Boston went on top, 3-2.

In the series clincher, Cornbread canned seven of 11 shots and five of six free throws to tally 19 points in the 102-91 victory that gave Boston its third post-Russell crown.

In 1981-82, Max posted highly respectable numbers of 14.8 points and 6.4 caroms per contest, shooting 54.8 percent from the floor over 33.2 minutes a game.

Once again Boston improved by one win and crafted the NBA’s best record at 63-19. The Celtics appeared headed toward a much-awaited Finals showdown with Los Angeles after blowing out the 76ers 121-81 in game one of their third straight eastern finals battle.

But then point guard Nate Archibald separated his shoulder in game three, and Boston again fell behind 3-1. Once more they rallied to force a seventh contest at the Garden. But without their creative playmaker, this time the 76ers took advantage and avoided another collapse to defeat Boston and end their repeat chances.

In 1982-83 Max’s numbers continued to dip with the ascension of McHale as his minutes (28.3), ppg (11.9), rebounds (5.3), FG pct. (49.9) and shot attempts (8.4) per game dropped to their lowest numbers since his rookie campaign.

Boston lost to Milwaukee in the eastern semifinals, leading to demanding coach Bill Fitch’s ouster. In 1983 low-key former Celtic guard K.C. Jones took over the helm, Boston acquired backcourt defensive ace Dennis Johnson, and Boston rose to the top of the NBA standings for the fourth time in Bird’s five seasons at 62-20.

Maxwell again averaged 11.9 ppg, grabbed 5.8 caroms per outing and shot 53.6 percent from the field in the 1983-84 season.

And for the first time since 1969, the Lakers and Celtics finally renewed their storied NBA championship series rivalry for the eighth time. https://www.celticsblog.com/2015/3/3/8139605/revisiting-and-analyzing-the-epic-1984-nba-finals

In the highly-anticipated 1984 Finals, Maxwell got under the skin of star Laker second-year forward James Worthy, a fellow North Carolina native who ironically grew up admiring Maxwell.

The admiration society came to an abrupt halt when Max gave the choke sign after Worthy clanked a key free throw late in overtime of game 4, helping clinch a 129-125 Celtic win in a raucous LA Forum.

In game six Worthy got a measure of revenge, albeit a cowardly one. As Cedric steamed in for a layup on a fast break, Worthy shoved Maxwell hard in the back from behind into the basket stanchion.

Worthy turned and ran away after the cheap shot, which was likely in part retaliation for the Kevin McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis at the same Forum basket in game four. Maxwell got up angered, yet did nothing in return.

But Cedric got his revenge in game seven, scoring a team-high 24 points to lead the Celtics over the Lakers, 111-102. Championship banner number 15 was one of the sweetest in team annals, with Cornbread playing a major role.

Maxwell sank 14 of 17 free throws in the clincher; he also grabbed eight rebounds and dished out a team-best eight assists in 43 crucial minutes. In the final seconds with victory assured, Max and M.L. Carr openly mocked Earvin Johnson.

Boston stifled the vaunted Laker fast break in game seven by dominating the backboards 52-33 - including 20 offensive rebounds - while LA pulled down a mere 24 defensive caroms.

Finally faced with someone his size, the defensively-challenged Tragic simply could not handle the Maxwell’s unusual assortment of clever inside moves.

For the series, Cornbread averaged 13 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He sank 47 of 55 free throws (85.5 percent) and abused Earvin Johnson inside when Boston went to its big lineup of DJ, Max, Bird, McHale and Parish, which drubbed LA on the boards.

By averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds per game over the epic, grueling series, Bird was the clear MVP of the 1984 Finals. But Maxwell was arguably the MVP of the seventh game.

In 1984-85 Cedric’s Boston career started to unravel. He injured his knee and played in a career-low 57 games, 51 of which were starts. He averaged 11.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in 26.2 minutes. The continued improvement of formner sixth man McHale led to even less minutes and shots for Max.

When Maxwell got hurt, McHale stepped into the starter’s role and became a superstar, helping Boston roll to a league-best 63-19 record. Maxwell never regained his starting job, effectively being “Wally Pipp-ed” by Kevin’s incredible Lou Gehrig act.

The Celtic brass and some teammates were reportedly miffed that Max did not rehab his knee injury with enough dedication, in their opinion. When they needed the old Max off the bench in the 1985 playoffs, he was unable to deliver.

When he returned to action after a 33-day absence on March 22, Cornbread scored just 25 total points in the final six games of the season. Still, Boston again posted the NBA’s best record for the fifth time in Bird’s sixth seasons and was favored to repeat.

Yet once again injuries would help prevent a repeat. Maxwell never returned to form, and Bird was bothered by finger and elbow injuries to his shooting hand and arm.

Boston struggled past scrappy Cleveland 3-1 in round one, outgunned Detroit 4-2 and then knocked off the aging rival 76ers 4-1 in the eastern finals to earn a return engagement in the Finals with the Lakers.

After a 148-114 blowout victory in game one, aka the Memorial Day Massacre, the Celtics appeared headed for title number 16. But they got over-confident after posting their fourth win in the last five Finals games over Los Angeles.

But then the vengeful Lakers became very aggressive, turned the tables and won four of the next five games.

Maxwell scored just 13 points and grabbed a mere five rebounds in the series - a year after averaging those numbers in the 1984 Finals. Adding insult to his ignominy, a sulking Max did not even play in game six, the series-clinching 111-100 loss at home in what proved to be his final contest in Celtic green.

In the off-season, Red Auerbach knew Boston needed to shore up its frontline, especially in backing up center Parish, who was already in his early 30s and playing heavy minutes after they traded Rick Robey to get DJ from Phoenix.

When Bill Walton called Red in the summer of 1985 begging to be acquired from the lowly LA Clippers, Bird happened to be in the Celtic patriarch’s office. Red asked Larry what they should do, and Bird enthusiastically told Red to go get the redhead. Walton was Bird (and McHale’s) basketball idol growing up.

In order to acquire Walton (the 1972/73 NCAA Final Four MVP, the 1977 NBA Finals MVP and 1977-78 season MVP), Auerbach dangled Maxwell, who was in disfavor by then. Thus the only trade of NBA Finals MVPs took place. On his way out the door, Maxwell aimed a few choice parting words at Auerbach.

Max enjoyed a solid comeback season in LA, averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game for the lowly Clippers. But buoyed by the addition of Sixth Man of the Year Walton, Boston roared to a 67-15 record and won its third title in five seasons.

Many observers, including myself, think the 1985-86 Celtics are the greatest team in NBA history. As good as Max was, a healthy Walton improved Boston from champion to all-time great status, so the trade was a success.

The next season, Cornbread averaged 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Clips over 35 games before being traded to Houston (for a first round pick and a second rounder). In Texas he was re-united with former Celtic coach Bill Fitch, now head of the Rockets.

Max was supposed to help Houston return to the Finals, where they had lost to Boston 4-2 in 1986. But a hobbled and aging Max was unable to regain much of his old magic. He also did not have the supporting cast he had enjoyed in Boston, particularly Bird’s pinpoint post-entry passing.

Larry, McHale and Parish also drew a lot of double teams that allowed Max to score inside and crash the offensive glass with abandon, a skill he excelled at.

He scored just 7.2 points a game for the 1986-87 Rockets, who slumped after Ralph Sampson went down with a knee injury. Maxwell helped the Rockets defeat Portland 3-1 in the first round, but then the defending conference champion Rockets were upset 4-2 in round two by the 39-43 Seattle SuperSonics.

Max scored seven points off the bench in the epic game six, 128-125 double OT loss to the Sonics that finished the series. Over the series, he averaged 5.2 points and 2.7 boards per contest.

Before it really blasted off, the anticipated Twin Tower Rocket dynasty was grounded.

The next season of 1987-88 proved to be Maxwell’s last at age 32 for the Rockets. He averaged 3.1 points and 11.9 minutes, shooting a career-low 46.8 percent from the field.

Maxwell was traded by Houston to Washington for little-used backup center Jim Grandholm in October of 1988, but never played for the Bullets and retired.

Maxwell and Red kissed and made up eventually, and Cornbread was welcomed back into the fold.

Over his 607-game Celtic career, Maxwell scored 8,311 regular season points (13.5 average), grabbed 4,023 rebounds (6.6 avg., 1,618 offensive boards), and doled out 1,390 assists (2.3) over 18,945 minutes (30.5 per contest).

He shot 55.9 percent from the field and 78.3 percent from the charity stripe. The efficient Maxwell led the NBA in offensive rating in 1978-79 and 1979-80. But in an era filled with standout forwards, Maxwell never made an All-Star team.

On his own club, he was first outshone by the aging Dave Cowens and Havlicek, then later by the brilliant trio of Bird, McHale and Parish. His greatest individual season of 1978-79 came after Hondo retired, Dave was slowing down and before the arrival of the Big Three up front.

Maxwell unselfishly gave up some of his shots and minutes in the early 1980s as Boston shot to the top of the NBA once Bird arrived, followed later by Parish and McHale.

Yet without his versatility and clutch play, Boston may very well not have won the title in 1981 and 1984.

In 88 playoff games over six post-seasons for Boston, Maxwell averaged 12 points, 5.9 rebounds and two assists a game. He shot 54.6 percent from the field and 78 percent from the foul line.

If you take away his 1985 playoff campaign when he was injured and played just 11.9 minutes a game, his Celtic career playoff numbers jump to a more-impressive 14 points and seven rebounds an outing.

The two-time NBA champion had his number 31 retired by Boston on December 15, 2003. He returned to Beantown and WBZ as the team’s radio voice, and continues to do a fine job of describing the action from courtside with the insight of a heady player.

All-time underrated Celtics team

(Each player’s Boston career stat average in parentheses)

1st team

Center-Robert Parish (1980-94: 16.5 ppg, 10 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 55.2 FG%, 31.6 mpg, 9 All-Star Games, 2-time 2nd team All-NBA, 3 titles, HoF)

https://www.celticsblog.com/2014/11/6/7165141/hail-to-the-chief-stoic-center-robert-parish-celtics

Forward-Cedric Maxwell (1977-85: 13.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 55.9 FG%/2-time NBA FG pct. champ, 30.5 mpg, 2 titles)

Forward-Tom “Satch” Sanders (1960-73: 9.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, defensive ace, 24.2 mpg, 8 titles)

Guard-Larry Siegfried (1963-70: 11.6 ppg, 3.5 apg, 85.4 FT%/2-time NBA FT pct. champ, 24.5 mpg, 5 titles)

Guard-Danny Ainge (1981-88: 11.3 ppg, 4.4 apg, 48.7 FG%, 38.6 3-pt%, 86.7 FT%, 1 All-Star, 28.1 mpg, 2 titles)

https://www.celticsblog.com/2015/4/13/8397341/remembering-devilish-danny-ainge-l-the-5th-wheel-on-the-great-boston

6th man F/G-Frank Ramsey (1954-64: 13.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 80.4 FT%, 24.1 mpg, 7 titles, HoF)

2nd team

C-Ed Macauley (1950-56: 18.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 38.5 mpg, 7 All-Star Games, 2-time NBA FG% champ, 3-time 1st team All-NBA/1 2nd team, HoF)

F-Bailey Howell (1966-70: 18 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 48.0 FG%, 1 All-Star, 30.7 mpg, 2 titles, HoF)

F-Don Nelson (1965-76: 11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 48.4 FG%/1974-75 NBA FG pct. champ, 76.9 FT%, 21.8 mpg, 5 titles)

https://www.celticsblog.com/2016/9/19/12965170/don-nelson-the-boston-celtics-unlikely-multiple-time-champion

G-Don Chaney (1969-75, 78-80: 8.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5-time NBA All-Defense, 77.8 FT%, 22.8 mpg, 2 titles)

G-Avery Bradley (2010-17: 12.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 77.2 FT%, 2-time NBA All-Defense, 28.1 mpg)

6th man-Paul Silas (1972-76: 11.5 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 32.4 mpg, 3-time NBA All-Defense, 2 titles)

3rd team

C-Rick Robey (1979-83: 8.3 ppg, 5 rpg, 51.0 FG%, 19 mpg, 1 title)

F-Dino Radja (1993-97: 16.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 49.7 FG%, 32.6 mpg)

F-Scott Wedman (1983-87: 6.2 ppg, 46.4 FG%, 35.5 3-pt%, 14.1 mpg, 2 titles - former all-defense pick and 2-time All-Star for KCK)

G-Chris Ford (1978-82: 10.3 ppg, 3.3 apg, 37.5 3-pt%, 29.3 mpg, 1 title)

G-Paul Westphal (1972-75: 7.3 ppg, 49.3 FG%, 14.4 mpg, 1 title)

https://www.celticsblog.com/2016/11/2/13495234/paul-westphal-the-budding-boston-celtics-star-who-got-away-suns

6th man-M.L. Carr (1979-85: 6.3 ppg, 45.0 FG%, 16 mpg, 2 titles)

All stats from basketball-reference.com.

To contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.