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Filling the Void: 1986 NBA Playoffs – Jordan/Bird Showdown

Michael Jordan and Larry Bird squared off in the first round of the 1986 playoffs in a battle for the ages.

Michael Jordan Slam Dunk Contest by Cliff is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Filling the Void: 1986 NBA Playoffs – Jordan/Bird Showdown

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

We’re several weeks into our worldwide attempt to “flatten the curve” and have been offering daily escapes into the sporting events of yesteryear through our “Filling The Void” series. We’ve looked back on the inspiring, mind-boggling and remarkable events as well as the ordinary, daily games we’ve been missing in our lives. We here at The Turf Sports sincerely hope you and your loved ones are staying healthy and being safe through these trying days. We’d also like to take a moment to send out a huge THANK YOU to all of those front-line folks keeping society going – from the medical community to those stocking grocery store shelves, delivering supplies around the country or helping us all fight this virus together in some other essential, invaluable way. You are all heroes.

Repping Red and Black in a Sea of Green

Growing up outside Boston in the mid-90s, I’m not sure I actually knew who the Celtics were. Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman introduced me to basketball. Every morning, my brother and I would wake up before 5, make ourselves some breakfast, and watch the Bulls game we recorded the night before. My first jersey was Scottie Pippen, which I insisted on wearing pretty much anytime I left the house.

If you’re like me, you’ve been living for “The Last Dance” every Sunday for the past few weeks. I knew next to nothing of the mythical Celtics and the indelible mark they left on the game. To me, Larry Bird was the tall guy playing golf with MJ in Space Jam.

A Reborn Celtics Fan

When I went to my first Celtics game, I went up to the balcony and was eye-to-eye with the banners. 16 championships were staring me in the face, with no knowledge of who earned them or how they got there.

Needless to say, I boned up on my Celtics history pretty quick. With ’86 being the most recent championship, I went to YouTube to watch clips of the ‘80s Celtics and discovered Larry Legend.

Teams Rising and Falling

In the first round of the ’86 Eastern Conference Playoffs, we saw the 1-seed Celtics hosting the 8-seed Bulls. For the Celtics, they were right where they were supposed to be – dominating the conference as a perennial championship favorite.

The Bulls season was not quite as pretty. Due to a broken foot, Jordan would only step on the court for 18 games that season. With Jordan out, the Bulls limped through the season but managed to snag the 8-seed at 30-52 thanks to some late-season heroics from MJ.

Fun fact: 30-52 is the second-worst record for an NBA team that made the playoffs.

A Passing of the Torch

The Celtics were expected to roll over the Bulls, which they did to the tune of a 3-0 series sweep. While a sweep of a 1 over an 8-seed is hardly notable, MJ put on a show for the ages. Averaging over 43 points per game in the series, Jordan almost single-handedly brought a legendary Celtics team to their knees in game 2.

As sports fans, we have the luxury of history to review the performance of individuals and teams over time. In ’86, I’m sure nobody thought twice of the Celtics romping over one of the worst playoff teams in NBA history. However, hindsight allows us to look back and acknowledge the truth: this series would help to usher in a new age in basketball. MJ was basketball’s future. On the other hand, the Bird-led Celtics were fading, as the organization would not see another championship for over 20 years.

A Clash of Titans

After a resounding 19-point defeat in Game 1, MJ and the Bulls were looking to bounce back in Game 2 if they had any hopes of keeping the series alive. In Game 1, Jordan had already dropped an insane 49 points to carry the team, while the Celtics employed their typical team-approach, with 4 players scoring 23+ points. This was a shadow of things to come in Game 2.

Jordan came out aggressive, scoring 17 points in the 1st, giving the Bulls an 8-point lead. As successful as that quarter was for His Airness, it was equally frustrating for Bird. Bird would go 0-for-5 and got into a scrap that would see him injure his shooting hand.

Despite Bird picking up steam in the second, Chicago largely dominated the game through the first 2.5 quarters.Boston faced double-digit deficits for much of the first half. However, midway through the third, things started to change.

The Tide Turns

With a fast-pace and some chippy defensive play, Bird and Danny Ainge led the Celtics back in the third and cut Chicago’s deficit to three. Undeterred, Jordan would finish the third frame with 36 points and seemingly couldn’t miss. However, Bird was out for blood. With the shot clock expiring early in the 4th, Bird would drain a LONG three to give the Celtics their first lead since the first basket of the game. He was nipping at Jordan’s heels with 29 points.

With almost no scoring coming from his supporting cast, Jordan would have to take over for Chicago to win. And that’s exactly what he did. Jordan would go on to score 18 points in the final frame. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep up with pace established by Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, leaving the Bulls trailing by 2 with only 6 seconds left.

Clutch Jordan…kind of

With a final play being drawn up, everybody and their mother knew Jordan was getting the ball. After a Belichick-ian series of time-outs, the ball was inbounded to Jordan, who drove half the court to put up a 3 as time expired. As one of the greatest clutch shooters of all time, my heart sank. But the ball clanged off the back rim and the Celtics had their Game 2 victory.

However, a late whistle blew. On his way upcourt, Jordan was fouled by Kevin McHale and was sent to the line, where he tied the game.

Just like that, off to OT we go.

Team vs. the Individual

Through the first OT, we saw a balanced approach by both teams. Ainge, Parrish, and Sichting would score for Boston, with Jordan and Orlando Woolridge leading the scoring for Chicago. With the players wearing down, play was getting chippier, passes were looser, but the intensity ratcheted up. Jordan gave Chicago the lead early in the period, which they still held with only 15 seconds on the clock.

This time, Boston would turn to Ainge, who drove the lane to tie the game at 125. After a pair of misses by both teams, we were onto 2OT.

Jordan’s Final Push

The fatigue was apparent from the tip for both teams. Jordan, with 59 points, needed a blow and would sit the first minute+ of 2OT. With their best player on the bench, Ainge would lead a Celtics charge that would put Boston up 4.

Upon re-entering the game, Jordan would not be denied. He scored 4 straight points to tie the game but Chicago would not put another point on the board. With a Bird pick-and-roll to Robert Parrish, Boston would ice the game, going on to win 135-131.

Bird would close the game with 36 points, 12 boards, and 8 assists. Jordan finished with an NBA-record 63 points, 6 assists, and 3 steals.

The Past and Future of the NBA

Outside of seeing some legends square off in a classic battle, this was a somewhat meaningless game on the surface. Boston would wipe the floor with Chicago in Game 3, sweeping the Bulls en route to Banner 16. But with 30+ years in the rearview, this game represented so much more.

The Bird-led Celtics were a dying breed – a team of selfless, win-first players that often sacrificed individual glory for rings. The ’86 Celtics had 6 previous and current All-Stars on the roster, many of which would eventually see their numbers in The Garden rafters accompanying the 3 banners they’d put there. You’d be hard-pressed to find a collection of talent like that in the next 30 years of the NBA.

Jordan’s Transcendence

It was clear – Jordan was the future. He was a legend-in-the-making with all the mentality and skills to carve himself a place in NBA lore. The fundamentals-driven days of the NBA were dying and Jordan would usher in the era of above-the-rim basketball. His athleticism, strength, and abilities would shape the game of future NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

MJ demonstrated the impact one transcendent talent could have on an otherwise mediocre-to-subpar team. He brought a level of excitement to the game that would explode the NBA’s popularity in the mid-90s and lead to the true globalization of the game.

I’m a child of the 90’s. The Jordan-led Bulls were basketball incarnate for me. And while team ball may have been dying in the Jordan era, this Celtics team was truly a thing of beauty.

Ryan grew up outside of Boston in Waltham, MA watching the Pats, Celtics, Sox and Bruins. Despite now living in the vastly inferior sports city of NYC, he remains a die-hard Boston sports fan and is often "that guy" in the bar ridiculing NY sports. Ryan works in tech and is the Co-Founder and President of the recently incorporated Emergent TheaterWorks in NYC, a non-profit theater company focused on producing new and underdone works.

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