Larry Bird is one of the ten greatest players in the history of the NBA. Certain completely unbiased fans, like myself, rank him very highly in that top ten.
Maybe you lived through the glory days of the 1980s Celtics but you can’t quite remember how Bird got his rings. Or maybe you’re a younger fan wondering if Bird really deserves his place in the Pantheon of basketball greats.
As someone who watched Bird play and has now researched and written more than a half dozen articles about his career, I can help you out.
There were three Larry Bird championships with the Boston Celtics: in 1981, 1984 and 1986. Bird was Finals MVP in the team’s victories over the Houston Rockets in 1986 and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984. Bird’s Celtics also defeated a very different Rockets team in 1981.
You can read up on all three of Larry Bird’s incredible championships below. Some of the greats Bird defeated in the playoffs include Moses Malone, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Larry Bird Championship #1: 1981 Boston Celtics
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Head Coach: Bill Fitch
Regular Season Record: 62-20 (The Celtics tied with 76ers for 1st in the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and the NBA but the C’s got the #1 seed in a tiebreaker by winning the last game of the season vs the Sixers).
Celtics Starters: Tiny Archibald, Chris Ford, Larry Bird, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Robert Parish.
Key Names off the Bench: Kevin McHale, Gerald Henderson, Rick Robey and M.L. Carr
1981 Conference Semis: Celtics def. Chicago Bulls 4-1
The Celtics swept the Bulls after getting a bye in the first round for winning the Atlantic Division.
- The Bulls featured Reggie Theus and Artis Gilmore (who would briefly play with Bird later in his career).
- The Bulls had swept the Knicks 2-0 in a best-of-three first round.
- The games were close enough but never really in doubt.
- Larry Legend averaged 23.5 points, 13 boards, and 7.3 assists per game for the series.
1981 Eastern Conference Final: Celtics def. Philadelphia 76ers 4-3
The Celtics snuck past the Philadelphia 76ers in 7 games after the Sixers had taken a 3-1 lead to open the series.
- The Sixers had an incredible roster featuring three Hall of Famers in Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones. They also starred Darryl Dawkins, Caldwell Jones and Celtics-Killer Andrew Toney.
- The Sixers swept a weak Indiana Pacers team in round 1 (2-0) then went seven games to defeat a tough Milwaukee Bucks team starring Bob Lanier, Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief.
- Some have called this Conference Final the greatest non-final series in NBA history. Five of the seven games were extremely close and the last three games, all close to the very end, were decided by a total of five points.
- The Celtics won game 2 at home but lost two games in Philly to fall behind 3-1. The C’s won games five and six by two points each to reach game 7.
- Game 7 at the Boston Garden was one for the ages! The Sixers took an 89-82 lead with five+ minutes to go. The C’s turned up the D and Bird was everywhere. He tied it up with two free throws with 3 minutes to go. He banked in a shot with a minute to go to put the C’s ahead for good and they won 91-90.
- Bird averaged 26.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for the series.
1981 NBA Finals: Celtics def. Houston Rockets 4-2
The Boston Celtics won the 1981 NBA Championship in six games giving Larry Bird his first NBA title.
- Houston had a tough road to the Finals: they beat the defending champion Lakers featuring both Kareem and Magic in the first round 2-1. The Rockets then took 7 games to dispatch George Gervin’s San Antonio Spurs and five games to defeat the KC Kings in the West Finals.
- This version of the Rockets starred “Big Mo” Moses Malone and also featured Robert Reid, Mike Dunleavy and Calvin Murphy. They were under .500 in the regular season.
- The C’s were heavily favored and had won 10 straight vs the Rockets, but Houston put up more of a fight than expected.
- Houston lost a close game 1 then won a tight game 2 in Boston. The C’s won in a blowout in game 3 in Houston before Houston tied it up with a tight win in game 4. The Celtics blew out Houston in game 5 behind a big effort from Cedric Maxwell and then took a big lead and held on to win in game 6.
- Cedric Maxwell averaged 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists to win Finals MVP. He and Chauncey Billups are the only two retired players to win Finals MVP but not to make the Hall of Fame.
- Bird had a good series in other categories, but did not score at his normal rate. He averaged 15.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists for the series.
Larry Bird’s 1981 Playoff Stats
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Larry Bird Championship #2: 1984 Boston Celtics
Head Coach: K.C. Jones
Regular Season Record: 62-20
Celtics Starters: Gerald Henderson, Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish.
Big Names Off the Bench: Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Quinn Buckner, Scott Wedman
|New York Knicks||4-3|
|Los Angeles Lakers||4-3|
1984 First Round: Celtics def. Washington Bullets 3-1
The Celtics took four games to get by the Bullets in the first round best-of-five series.
- The Bullets were the 8th seed in the East winning only 35 regular season games and finishing last in the Atlantic division. They snuck into the playoffs because of a weak Central division.
- The Bullets featured Jeff Ruland – a really good, likely underrated, player who was at his peak. Ruland, a center, averaged 22 points and 12 boards for the season. His career was cut dramatically short by injury.
- The Bullets also had rookie Jeff Malone, who was a backup at this point but would go on to be a star, and future Piston Bad Boy Rick Mahorn.
- The games were closer than you’d expect for a 1 seed vs 8 seed series. Boston won two close ones to start the series before Washington stole game three by 3 points.
- The C’s closed it out winning game four by 3 points.
- Bird averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game for the series.
1984 Conference Semis: Celtics def. NY Knicks 4-3
The Celtics took seven games to defeat Bernard King’s Knicks in the conference semifinals.
- The Knicks had slipped past a young Detroit Pistons team featuring Kelly Tripucka, Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer in five games in the first round.
- These Knicks really were Bernard King’s team. He was pre-knee injury at this point and averaged 26 per game in the regular season and 29 per game in this series.
- New York also featured Bill Cartwright and Rory Sparrow.
- The home team won every game in the series with the C’s taking a 2-0 lead, the Knicks tying it up at home, the C’s getting game 5 in Boston, the Knicks tying it up in New York and the C’s winning game 7 at home.
- Bird poured in 39 in game 7 to lead the C’s to 30.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists for the series.
1984 Eastern Conference Final: Celtics def. Milwaukee Bucks 4-1
The Celtics made short work of the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, winning in five games.
- The Bucks, coached by Celtics legend Don Nelson, won the Central Division title in 1984.
- The Bucks won a five-game series over the Hawks to start the playoffs and got by Darryl Dawkins and his NJ Nets in round 2.
- The Bucks were led in the series, as they had been in the regular season, by wing Marques Johnson and Hall of Fame guard Sidney Moncrief.
- The series was not a close one: the C’s took a 3-0 lead before Milwaukee won their second home game to stay alive. The C’s shut the door at home in game 5 winning 115-108.
- BIrd averaged 27.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.0 assist per game for the series.
1984 NBA Finals: Celtics def. Los Angeles Lakers 4-3
The Celtics got the better of their Showtime Lakers rivales in a heated seven game series to claim the 1984 NBA Title.
- The Lakers starred Kareem Abud-Jabbar in his sixth NBA Finals and Magic Johnson in his fourth.
- The Lakers were coached by Pat Riley and also featured defensive ace Michael Cooper, a young Big Game James Worthy, Kurt Rambis and Byron Scott.
- The teams traded games throughout the series. The Lakers took game 1 in Boston and looked like they made take a commanding 2-0 lead when Gerald Henderson stole the ball and the series.
- The Lakers destroyed the C’s in their first home game 137-104 in game 3. Trailing in game 4, Kevin McHale clothes lined Kurt Rambis to spark the C’s to victory.
- The C’s took game 5 at home behind Larry Bird’s 34 points and 17 boards. Magic led the Lakers to victory at home in game 6, setting the stage for a Boston Garden Game 7.
- The Celtics stayed unbeaten all-time in home Game 7s with a clear cut 111-102 victory. The 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell led the team in scoring after saying something like “Get on my back boys” before the game. Maxwell later claimed he said something like that but not quite so family friendly.
- Larry Bird won his first NBA Finals MVP. He averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 boards and 3.6 assists per game for the series.
Larry Bird’s 1984 Playoff Stats
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Larry Bird Championship #3: 1986 Boston Celtics
Head Coach: K.C. Jones
Regular Season Record: 67-15
Celtics Starters: Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
Big Names Off the Bench: Jerry Sichting, Bill Walton and Scott Wedman
1986 First Round: Celtics def. Chicago Bulls 3-0
The ‘86 Celts, in the conversation for the greatest team of all time, defeated Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player of all time, in the first round.
- The Bulls lost Michael Jordan for most of this season to a foot injury and they were mostly terrible, finishing 4th in the Central Division.
- Jordan scored an all-time playoff record in game 2: 63 points.
- Jordan averaged an insane 43.7 points, 5.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds for this, his second NBA playoff series.
- Even with Jordan exploding, only game two was close at 135-131.
- Bird averaged 28.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists for the C’s. Pretty good matchup between he and MJ.
1986 Conference Semis: Celtics def. Atlanta Hawks 4-1
After dispatching MJ, the C’s cruised by Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semis.
- In addition to ‘Nique, the Hawks starred Kevin Willis, Spud Webb and future C’s coach Doc Rivers.
- The Hawks also still had good rebounder Tree Rollis. Tree had famously bit Danny Ainge in a playoff fight three seasons prior.
- Dominique was an offensive force, but, unlike MJ, he was not noted for doing much else – especially playing defense. He averaged 24 points for the series. It’s hard to beat great teams with such a one-dimensional star.
- The games were reasonably close if the series was not. The Celtics won the first three games by an average of 6 points before the Hawks got their only win at home. The C’s closed it out with a lopsided victory in game 5.
- Bird averaged 27.2 points, 9.6 boards and 7.0 assists for the series.
1986 Eastern Conference Final: Celtics def. Milwaukee Bucks 4-0
The Celtics swept the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
- The Bucks now featured a young Terry Cummings along with Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief.
- The Bucks swept the Nets in the first round then took seven games to get by a tough Sixers squad starring a young Charles Barkley, a prime Mo Cheeks and an aging Dr. J.
- The games were not much closer than the series itself. Only game 3 finished within ten points with the Cs winning 111-107.
- Bird averaged 25.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game for the series.
1986 NBA Finals: Celtics def. Houston Rockets 4-2
The Celtics won the third and final title of the Bird era with a victory over the twin towers of the Houston Rockets.
- The Houston Rockets were mostly a completely different team from the Moses Malone-led Rockets of the 1981 Finals.
- This Rockets team still had Robert Reid but now also featured Rodney McCray, Ralph Sampson and were led by a young Hakeem Olajuwon.
- The Rockets swept the Sacramento Kings in round 1, then took six games to get by a fun Denver Nuggets team starring Alex English and Fat Lever.
- In the Western Conference Finals the Rockets handled the defending champion Lakers in five games.
- The NBA Finals series was closer than either of the Conference Finals. The C’s won a couple home games to start the series then lost a close one on the road. The Celtics won a very close game 3 in Houston to take control of the series with a 3-1 lead.
- The Rockets fought back to win handily in game 5 at home but the Celtics closed out the series in game 6 in the Boston Garden to take their third title of the Bird era.
- Larry Bird averaged 24.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game for the series. He won his second NBA Finals MVP.
Larry Bird’s 1986 Playoff Stats
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Check out my other Larry Bird Articles
If you are interested in Larry Bird Championships, you might be interested in checking out some of these posts I have written about Larry Legend.
I wrote about his underrated defense here.
I wrote about his nicknames here.
I wrote about his best teammates here.
I wrote about his rookie season here
I wrote about his draft class here.
I wrote about his record in the NBA Finals here.
I wrote about his prime here.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Adapted from: “Bernard Cardinal Law, Larry Bird and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn” by Boston City Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.