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Celtics History Week: The Christmas Day Collapse of 1985

Recapping the Christmas Day collapse gift that turned the Celtic championship season around

Larry Bird

The 1985-86 Boston Celtics were, in the estimation of many including myself, the best team in NBA history. They boasted Larry Bird in his prime as he won a third straight season MVP, and a second Finals MVP award.

Kevin McHale was an established superstar and teamed with Bird to form the best forward tandem in league annals. Center Robert Parish was still an All-Star center en route to the Hall of Fame.

Clutch defensive ace Dennis Johnson and versatile Danny Ainge comprised one of the league’s best backcourts, along with sharpshooting third guard addition Jerry Sichting.

Newcomer Bill Walton would play a career-best 80 games and win the Sixth Man of the Year award, sparking Boston with his energy, enthusiasm and great skill set.

Swingman sniper Scott Wedman was the league’s best seventh man. With all that talent and skill, the Celtics had a slight tendency, especially early in the 1985-86 campaign, to get complacent and let up on lesser opponents.

This tendency showed up in a season-opening loss to the 39-43 New Jersey Nets, who improbably handed Boston two of their mere 15 defeats that season as the Celtics rolled to a league-best 67 wins.

But never was the tendency to let up more evident than in the Christmas Day CBS collapse against the awful rival New York Knicks, who would end up 23-59 after losing star forward Bernard King to a knee injury.

At 21-6, the Celtics came to the Big Apple having lost two in a row on the road, including a game four days earlier at the arch-rival 76ers despite 34 points by McHale.

They were grumpy and grumbling about having to play early on Christmas Day, as Peter May recounted in his fine book “The Last Banner” about the 1985-86 Celtics.

McHale even stayed home to open presents with his kids that December 25, 1985 morning, then drove from Beantown to New York for the early EST start.

Coached by Hubie Brown, the 9-19 Knicks boasted rookie standout center Patrick Ewing, but little else. Yet New York played hard, and made up for a lack of talent and skill with an effective fullcourt press and halfcourt trap defense that bothered blase Boston much more than it should have.

Boston managed to build a 25-point lead midway through the third period, yet scored just 28 points over the last 19 minutes of regulation as hard-charging New York rallied to force the first of two overtimes.

The Celtics were held 26 points below their average of 112 ppg coming into the fray, and managed just 104 even with 10 extra minutes. Distracted and unmotivated, they shot just 34 percent from the floor.

Bird and McHale combined to connect on just 15 of 48 field tries. Even worse, the starting Boston guards made only three of 16 fielders. And Boston committed 26 costly turnovers.

The embarrassing, nationally-televised eventual double-OT defeat caused the Celtics to re-dedicate themselves. Angry and motivated, they won 20 of the next 22 games, with one of the defeats at 21-30 Sacramento, another normal patsy.

A 29-4 run after the Christmas collapse advanced them to 50-11 when the dust settled, far ahead of the pack. It was the best 61-game start by an NBA team since Walton’s MVP regular season of 1977-78 when he led the defending champion Blazers to a 50-10 mark before injuries kept Portland from a certain repeat and started Walton’s long slide into injuries, lawsuits and dozens of foot operations.

Boston came into Madison Square Garden for the Christmas contest 2-0 against the Knicks, owning wins over NY by nine and six points. They came out very sluggish, but so was offensively-challenged New York. Neither team scored for the initial 90 seconds until McHale sank a short hook shot.

Underrated power forward Pat Cummings, who had averaged 20 points and 11.5 rebounds a game in the two prior New York losses to Boston that season, got the Knickerbockers on the board with two foul shots.

Bird’s right corner 17-footer put the green back in front. Larry then missed a left-handed lane runner, prompting CBS analyst Tommy Heinsohn to make a critical observation.

In years past, “those shots were almost automatic,” said the ex-Celtic great player and coach. “He made those shots look easy...he makes the unusual look normal.” But as he struggled with early-season back issues, Bird looked almost ordinary shooting the ball, he implied.

McHale sank two foul shots and Bird then went around the world (behind his back) on a fast break, yet got too far under the basket and shot his drive off the bottom of the rim against two flailing Knick defenders.

Two DJ free throws and and Parish basket made it 11-6. A little later, Larry posted up the 6-6 Ernie Grunfeld and banked in a left-handed hook arched perfectly over Ewing for a 19-12 lead. Parish followed by canning his patented 11-foot left baseline shot.

Journeyman Knick backup power forward Ken “the Animal” Bannister made a nice tip-in to cut their deficit to 21-14. Crowded by Grunfeld, Bird spun to his right and lofted a high-arching 15-foot right baseline jumper that gave Boston a 23-14 bulge after the uneven opening stanza.

Struggling New York scored just six points over the final six minutes of the period, but managaed to stay within nine as the sleepy Celtics acted as if they were still resenting having to play on Christmas Day.

”I don’t think they are bored, but they can get complacent,” offered Heinsohn when asked by play-by-play partner Dick Stokcton if Boston was so good that they often got bored with the game and lesser opposition.

Reserves Walton and Rick Carlisle checked in for Boston. Cummings and Walton traded pretty left-handed hooks in the middle of the lane. Knick 6-8 reserve forward Jammin’ James Bailey, a high leaper with limited offensive skills, nailed a lane pull-up shot.

Bosotn then went on a 12-8 run to build a 37-26 cushion. Ewing slammed in an alley-oop and 6-9 stringbean forward Louis Orr scored a drive when McHale goaltended to cut the Celtic lead to 37-30.

At the other end, McHale’s hook was goal-tended by Ewing, and he completed a three-point play to provide a 40-30 lead at the 2:02 mark. Parish split a pair of foul shots and Knick playmaker Rory Sparrow sank a jumper.

Bird then drained a high-arching right corner triple to make it 44-32. “He likes to take the shot that can break your spirit,” Heinsohn noted of Larry’s tendency to nauil dagger three’s.

A Parish tip-in of a McHale missed hook just before the buzzer extended the lead to 46-32 at intermission. Bird led Boston with 13 points, but both teams had shot just over 35 percent in the offensively-ugly first half as Ainge and DJ were 0-8.

Parish out-hustled the Knicks for a transition layup to open half two. McHale then split two Knicks on a nic eleft baseline drive for another layin, prompting a timeout from an unhappy Hubie Brown.

Ainge canned two foul shots after a breakaway foul call on Trent Tucker. Orr split a pair at the line to give NY its first point of the half after 4:07 into the period, which elicited a sarcastic cheer from the disgruntled pro-Knick crowd of 17,480.

Bird then canned a slick spinning left side banker from a tough angle just before the shot clock expired. Boston gained its biggest lead of 25 points at 58-33, capping a 21-3 flurry.

But then the game began to switch momentum. Gerald Wilkins, younger brother of Dominique, hit two foul shots. Sparrow sank a coast to coast layup to make the first Knick basket over eight attempts in the quarter.

A 10-0 NY run got the suddenly surging Knicks within 15. Walton snared a fine defensive rebound, but threw an outlet pass to no one that sailed out of bounds.

Wedmansplashed a right side 17-footer to stop the spurt, yet Sparrow answered by nailing a pull-up jumper. The speedy guard then drove right at Wedman in transition and flipped in a lefty layup over the backpedaling Celtic reserve.

The driving shot punctuated a 14-2 splurge that inched NY within 60-47. McHale rejected a Cummings hook, then made one of two foul shots at the other end to momentarily stem the onrushing Knick tide.

On a fast break, Sichting cleverly faked a long shot and hit a cutting Walton in stride with a perfect feed. The big redhead banked in a running right side hook for a 63-47 bulge.

Bailey hit a foul shot, and then Wilkins stole the ball when Sichting was caught in a double team sideline trap and made a bad pass to center court. Wilkins cruised in for an easy dunk to cut the lead to 63-50 with 11 seconds left in the period.

At the other end, reserve Sam Vincent’s low pass went off Wedman out of bounds, setting the stage for a huge momentum-changing play with just two seconds left.

Orr threw an 85-foot in-bounds lob to Bailey, who collided with Walton in mid-air trying to corral the long toss. Bailey twisted, faded away and tossed in a prayer shot that the officials generously gave continuation on as an angry Walton slammed the ball to the Garden fllor in frustration.

The Rutgers product sank the foul shot to complete the play and bring NY within 63-53 after three periods of play. Twenty of the 21 Knick points in the quarter came in the final six minutes.

Boston still led by 10, but the game felt much closer with the crowd now fired up and the Knicks playing with great intensity.

Parish converted a pair of charity stripers to open the fourth quarter, but the normally-poor shooting Wilkins knocked down an 18-footer.

Wilkins got away with an extra hop step on a leaning right side banker to pull within 65-57. The Knick trap defense continued to fluster Boston, but DJ made his first basket of the game in seven tries on a very difficult 17-foot turnaround from the right baseline.

Bailey sank a putback off glass then blocked a driving McHale shot, but as called for goaltending as Ewing complained to no avail.

Bird then blew by Grunfeld along the right baseline, crossed over and sank a gorgeous right-handed reverse layup for a 71-59 Celtic lead with 9:29 left.

Yet the Knicks hung in there, creeping within 77-67 three minutes later. Sparrow swished a 17-footer, and the opportunistic Orr sank a three-point stickback inside. Suddenly at the 4:39 juncture, the Knicks were within 77-72, the closest they had been since the first stanza.

In a 14-minute span, the previously ice-cold Knicks had outscored the league’s best team 39-19. Parish canned two foul shots, but Ewing sank a turnaround banker.

Crowded by Orr along the left side of the lane, Bird squeezed off a high-arching 13-footer that swished through, much to the Knick forward’s disbelief.

Yet the rookie Ewing again splashed a bank shot over Parish to cut the lead to 81-76. DJ split two foul shots but Ewing converted two to cut the Celti lead to 82-78 at the 3:11 mark.

Ainge drove in and was called for charging into Ewing. Inspired, Patrick then leaned in and knocked down a double-clutch bank shot to make it 82-80 at the 2:34 juncture.

Yet with the 6-9 Cummings hanging all over him, McHale drained a tough right baseline half hook. A possession later, Kevin and Cummings collided in a transition mix-up and the Knick was called for a foul as McHale shoved him away.

An angry Cummings trailed McHale to the foul line and spewed some choice invectives right in his face as Kevin seemed not to notice, bending over to colect himself for the foul shots.

McHale calmly sank both shots for an 86-80 cushion with 1:51 left in the fourth period. As New York called timeout to regroup, Dick Stockton seemed to sound the death knell for the Knicks.

”They have really given the Celtics quite a scare”, he noted, as if to say nice try, but too little, too late.

Ewing missed a runner but kept coming, tapping in his own misfire. Ainge turned the ball over but Sparrow missed, and DJ corraled the loose ball after a mad scramble. However, Bird was then called for traveling as Boston again turned it over when they had a chance to put the Knicks all but away.

Given another reprieve, a fired-up Ewing then knocked down a turnaround 16-footer to inch within 86-84 with 55 ticks remaining. Johnson then drove the lane and tossed up a runner that missed, and compounded his istake by fouling Sparrow on the ensuing loose ball.

The Knick guard drained both free throws to tie it 86-86 with 34 seconds left, capping an improbable 53-28 NY comeback.

Boston went to McHale one on one against Cummings on the right side. But he waited far too long tomake his move, and when he spun to shoot Ewing stripped his shot from behind on a clever double team.

The Knicks had a chance to win it as the excited crowd rose in unison, but Cummings left an open 19-footer short. Ainge grabbed the crucial rebound with three seconds left, and out-letted tahead to DJ. But his 40-footer at the horn bounced harmlessly off glass to force overtime.

Depite not leading the entire 48 minutes, somehow the Knicks had clawed back against a far superior team to tie them at the end.

Sparrow buried a jumper from the circle to open OT, giving the hosts their first lead of the game. Ainge swished a 16-footer over Ewing, who landed awkwardly and jammed his knee, forcing him to go out briefly.

Parish then swished a 15-footer as the 24-second clock expired for a 90-88 lead. Orr canned yet another stickback inside to tie it 90-all with 2:52 remaining.

McHale swished a pretty 13-foot right side fadeaway to break the tie 19 seconds later. Then after a Knick miss, Ainge was speeding upcourt on a break when Cummings poked the ball away from behind to Orr at halfcourt saving a likely transition basket.

”That’s the third great defensive play made by Cummings,” Heinsohn offered. “That saved an easy fast break basket.”

Orr accepted gift and nailed a pull-up jumper to tie it 92-92. A pair of Bird foul shots gave Boston the lead back with 1:57 to go. McHale then missed a golden chance to put NY down four when he split two free throws.

Yet at the 1:09 mark he splashed two more charity stripers to give Boston what seemed to be a fairly comfortable five-point lead as Cummings fouled out.

Yet Ewing would not go down. He swooped in for a layup to keep the Knicks alive just six ticks later, a basket that came far too easily.

Bird was bumped by Grunfeld (no call) and missed a long left side step-back shot. New York rebounded yet missed, and Bird had another chance to put the Knicks to sleep.

Yet the normally uber-clutch Legend badly over-shot a right side baseline floater. Ewing rebounded and NY called timeout with 16 seconds left.

”Larry Bird showed me he is not (physically) right, missing those tweener shots,” Heinsohn observed. “Those are usually automatic, but that one was shot well long.”

Three-point marksman Tucker was inserted by Brown for a potential tying trey, or as a decoy.

To illustrate the major difference in how the game was played then and how little the triple was used, Tucker was the Knick season leader with 16 - SIXTEEN! - made trifectas 28 games into the campaign. Nowadays, Steph Curry has 16 made triples three games into the season - and probably 40 or more tries.

Parish almost intercepted the errant in-bounds pass to foil the Knick plans, but his deflection ended up throwing the Celtic defense out of position.

His near steal opened up Tucker on the right side as Boston over-rotated, and he was able to squeeze off a quick release 24-footer before a flailing Ainge recovered. Tucker’s shot found the bottom of the net to tie it at 97-all as the Garden crowd roared.

Yet 11 seconds remained, more than enough time for Boston to get a good winnign shot off. Ainge gave Bird some advice as they walked out of the huddle, then took the in-bounds pass.

Larry tried to shake off Grunfeld as Ainge drove to the right corner. The Knick defense swarmed Danny, and he missed Bird backpedaling open to the top of the court as he called for the ball.

Bird had jusy missed two shots to go 8-23 for the game, but he always wanted the last shot, and making this one would make up for an off night and finish the upstart Knicks off.

Yet Ainge instead forced up a difficult 19-foot right baseline fadeaway that missed. McHale snagged the rebound and went up for a 12-footer, but Grunfeld blocked it from behind just before the horn as Kevin howled for a body foul that was not forthcoming.

The crowd went wild as the unlikely late five-point rally forced another extra session. Not only were the Celtics in a giving mood, the fans were given a double-OT Christmas gift.

DJ canned a pretty reverse layup off a sharp Parish feed to open the seocnd overtime, but that was to be the last gasp for a wheezing Celtic team.

Energized by the crowd, the Knicks just kept charging until Boston finally dropped. Grunfeld swished a long left side shot to tie it 99-99, and Ewing gave New York just its second lead on a turnaround 15-foot bank shot.

They never trailed again. McHale rose up and cleanly blocked a Ewing shot inside, but fumbled the carom out of bounds. Wilkins sank a drivjng finger roll at the 3:26 juncture.

McHale made one of two foul shots with 3:12 remaining. But then Bannister nailed a dagger left elbow shot over a sagging McHale. Sparrow then picked off a bad DJ pass, sped past the Celtic guard and sank a fast break layup for a 107-100 lead.

The steal and score with 2:37 left sent the crowd into a frenzy. Bird missed a right wing trey, and Ewing made two foul shots after McHale appeared to block his shot cleanly again, only to hit his hand on the follow through.

Walton, in for Parish as the Chief could not stop Ewing, left a 16-footer short after sitting most of the second half. Bird subbed out for Wedman, signaling the whte flag.

Sparrow capped a 14-1 Knick second OT run by nailing two foul shots. Ainge sank a layup off a pretty snap Walton pass, btu was called for a violation to negate the lay as nothing continued to go right for Boston.

Carlisle was whistled for travelng and Sichting missed two shots as the Knicks ran the lead, incredibly, to 113-100.

Only two foul shots by Greg Kite and a short jumper at the buzzer by Carlisle snapped the 10-0 Knick closing spurt and reduced the final margin to 113-104.

The improbable Christmas comeback gift put a rare smile on the face of the permed Hubie Brown, a noted taskmaster and curmudgeon.

Amazingly, Boston had been outscored 80-46 over the final 28-plus minutes. Bird made just eight of 27 shots for 23 points to go with 10 boards and four assists. McHale scored 29 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, but made only seven of 21 shots, plus 15 of 19 free throws.

DJ (2-9) and Ainge (1-7) shot horribly and made poor decisions with the ball down the stretch, helping lead to a whopping 26 turnovers as Boston literally and figuratively gave the game away on Christmas Day.

Parish sank eight of 15 shots and grabbed 18 caroms to go with 24 points, but could not handle Ewing, who scored 32 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. Sparrow added 22 efficient points and eight assists.

Bannister contributed 14 rebounds and eight markers off the bench, and Cummings added 11 caroms. The unfocused Celtics made just 33 of 96 field goal tries, for 34 percent accuracy.

”That was a humiliation,” said Celtic owner Alan Cohen, a New Yorker who watched the game in person, befuddled. “I distinctly remember feeling so good at halftime. I think we felt full of ourselves. Hubris is what it was.

”It was terrible,” he continued, as quoted in May’s book The Last Banner. “You constantly learn lessons in life, and that was one I learned. As the game wore on and the Knicks won, all I could do was sit in the stands and this not going to work out?”

At 21-7, the sky was not falling, but there was cause for concern. Bird’s back was balky and the bench production was shaky at best. Coach Jones was still searching for a good rotation and substitution pattern.

As May wrote, Jones came away from the stinging defeat with “a better look at what we should be doing. You lose a 25-point lead and the game, it’s hard to describe, but it was a totally embarrassing disappointment to me.”

For the extremely taciturn Jones, that was a major admission. He was loathe to criticize his players publicly (unlike his drill sergeant predecessor Bill Fitch), having been a player himself. This approach made his veteran players love K.C. and want to play even harder for him.

Back in Boston and alone for Christmas that night, Bird invited fellow Hoosier native Sichting to his house to commiserate over a few beers. The two Indiana natives agreed that it was a pathetic performance.

”Everyone was so pissed off about it,” said Sichting in the Peter May book. “It turned the whole season around.”

The embarassing lesson learned on national TV galvanized the Celtics. They made lemonade out of lemons as they won 29 of the next 33 games to put the league on notice that they were not to be denied in regaining the title they had lost to the Lakers in the 1985 Finals after their memorable seven-game triumph over Los Angeles in the 1984 championship series.

Riding a four-game road loss skid, Boston flew cross country to face a solid young Utah team on the rise three days after the Knick debacle.

Back in his college home state, BYU alum Ainge shook off the horrid shooting vs. the Knicks to hit two crucial late jump shots. Jazz rookie Karl Malone missed a last-second shot to preserve a much-needed 110-108 win.

Bird and McHale each shot 10-16 from the field to tally 24 points apiece and offset 39 by Adrian Dantley.

The Celtics traveled to LA to take on the other team from the city of Angels, the lowly 11-21 Clippers, on December 30. Walton grabbed 13 rebounds and scored nine points in 17 minutes against his ex-teammates and the former Celtic standout he was traded for, Cedric Maxwell.

Back to their confident selves, Boston led by as many as 32 points and cruised to a 125-103 win. Cornbread tallied just six points, uncharacteristically missing four of six foul shots, and grabbed 10 rebounds in 31 minutes.

The Celtics next won the next two games by 18 and 12 points to start out 1986 strongly. Bird got his back troubles straightened out and won his third consecutive season MVP award.

Boston reeled off 13 straight wins from January 8 to February 5 and was never headed en route to a sparkling 67-15 record, a mere one win behind the best mark in franchise annals set in 1973.

Bird led Boston on a 15-3 post-season romp that culminated in a 4-2 Finals win over Houston that was not as close as the final score indicates.

Yet the remarkable run was spurred on by the disastrous loss to the rival Knicks on Christmas Day 1985 on CBS. The 25-point lead blown in the second half was almost unfathomable given the talent and skil difference between the squads, as shown by the 44-game bulge Boston held over the Knicks in the final Atlantic Division standings.

The dismay caused by the epic collapse forced embarrassed Boston to focus harder and never let up, even with big leads, the rest of the season.

Boston ended up 5-1 against the lowly Knicks that season, and won the next three meetings between the eastern rivals by an average of 15 ppg.

The Celtics roared to a league-record 40-1 mark at home that season, and went 10-0 at the Garden in the playoffs, with only one close game at home. Boston won its 10 post-season games by an average of 19.4 ppg, including a 132-99 closeout win over Atlanta in game five of the east semifinals.

It was in that game that Boston crushed the Hawks with a 36-6 third period for the ages. Behind an angry Bird, they had learned to never let up.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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