Boston’s 100 Greatest Games: No. 39
The 1985–86 Boston Celtics finished 67–15, the second-best record in franchise history. They were 37–1 at Boston Garden, the best home record in NBA history. (They also won three “home” games in Hartford.) In the opening round of the playoffs, Boston faced a Chicago Bulls team that had finished 30–52. That was (and still is) the worst record of any playoff team since 1968.
And yet the Bulls were a tough draw. Forty-three of Chicago’s losses had happened while Michael Jordan was sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot. But Jordan had returned a month before the playoffs. He was healthy. He was hungry. And the challenge of facing the greatest Celtics team ever, on their home floor, inspired the first sustained display of his legendary competitive fire.
Chicago coach Stan Albeck’s strategy was obvious in Game 1—maybe too obvious. Isolate Jordan and let him do his thing. Jordan scored 30 first-half points and the Bulls built an early twelve-point lead. But in the second half Boston clamped down on Jordan (he still finished with 49 points) and pulled away for a 123–104 win.
In Game 2, Albeck again gave Jordan the green light—but within a more conventional offensive structure. The result was a revelation. Jordan again came out firing, scoring seventeen first-quarter points as the Bulls again built an early lead. This time, Chicago sustained that lead for most of the game. When at last the Celtics surged ahead, in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, it happened on a play that would have broken the average player’s will. With the shot clock about to expire, Larry Bird nailed a long three that put the Celtics up 93–92 and took the roof off the Garden.
Instead of wilting, Jordan got better. He collected a pair of free throws on a drive to the hoop to regain the lead. Those were the first of eighteen fourth-quarter points. Five times Jordan’s shots either tied the game or gave Chicago back the lead. Only one other Bull, Dave Corzine, hit a field goal in the fourth quarter—and that was on a feed from Jordan with three minutes left.
Almost as telling as Jordan’s point total were the Celtics foul totals, which climbed in direct proportion. Bill Walton and Dennis Johnson fouled out. Bird, Robert Parish, and Danny Ainge each had five. So it’s not as if the Celtics weren’t trying to stop Jordan. They just couldn’t do it. Said Bird, “I didn’t think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us the past two games.”
The clearest sign that Jordan had already achieved a rarefied status among NBA players came at the end of regulation. With the Bulls down 116–114, Jordan attempted the last shot just before the buzzer. He didn’t take the ball into the paint to go for the tie. He pulled up for a three, going for the win. It was his first attempt from beyond the arc all day.
It was no good. But referee Ed Middleton whistled Kevin McHale for a foul, on what could generously be termed a borderline call.
To review: With a playoff game on the line, an official gave a 23-year-old second-year player on a 30–52 team the benefit of a critical call over a veteran team with a 40–1 home record playing on their own floor.
Still, Jordan needed to deliver under intense pressure. At the time, a shooter was awarded just two free throws when fouled on a three-point attempt. Jordan, all alone at the foul line, with all zeroes on the clock and 14,890 Boston Garden fans trying to rattle him, needed to sink both to send the game into overtime.
The first one nearly rolled out before dropping. The second one was all net. It was Jordan’s 54th point of the game.
The game seesawed through the first overtime and into the second. With 1:12 left, Jordan again tied the game, 131–131, with a short jumper. That gave him 63 points, breaking Elgin Baylor’s playoff record of 61.
Baylor had set the record at Boston Garden 24 years earlier. The Lakers had won that game, but the Celtics won the 1962 NBA Finals (see Game No. 11). Even paired with the great Jerry West, Baylor couldn’t overcome a balanced Celtics team that featured seven future Hall of Famers.
And so it was with Michael Jordan in 1986. The Celtics had five future Hall of Famers, and it took every one of them to overcome Jordan’s singular performance. Bird had 36 points, twelve rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. McHale had 27 points and fifteen rebounds. Johnson had fifteen points and eight assists. Parish had thirteen points and nine rebounds. Walton had ten points and fifteen rebounds.
Two guys who were not destined for the Hall also came through at crunch time. Danny Ainge had 24 points, all after halftime, as Boston battled back from a double-digit deficit. And when the Celtics needed one last answer for Jordan, it came from backup guard Jerry Sichting, who hit a jumper from the top of the key to break the final tie.
Afterward Jordan professed to be unimpressed with his performance. “I wanted to win the game so badly that the points don’t even mean anything to me,” he said. “Maybe fifteen years down the line I can look back and be happy about it. But not now.”
The Celtics completed a first-round sweep of the best-of-five series with a 122–104 win at Chicago. (Jordan fouled out of that game with just nineteen points.) Boston coasted to the 1986 NBA championship with a 15–3 playoff record, including 10–0 at the Garden. No other team pushed them as hard on their home floor as Jordan’s Bulls did.