Almost Upset: Pacers-Celtics 1991
People forget, but the Boston Celtics in the early 1990s were a problem 😤
In the tired ole annals of Standard NBA History, the Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish just magically disappear after the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals when they lost to the Detroit Pistons. After all, the Celtics would never again reach the ECF, let alone the NBA Finals, with the Hall of Fame trio on their roster. And in 1989, Bird played just six miserable games as Boston went 42-40, their worst record since Larry Legend showed up in the fall of 1979. Having usurped Boston, Detroit would be the East’s dominant team until Chicago did to them what they had done to Boston.
Well, the Standard NBA History has the general outcome correct, but leaves out a lot of the fussy details.
Still bothered, but not broken, by his bad back, Bird returned for some mighty fine twilight seasons, Parish continued his “ageless wonder” routine, and McHale was bumped back to his ancestral role as sixth man after a few years as a starter. The elderly frontcourt—and by extension the Celtics—had their lease on competitiveness extended thanks to the rise of Reggie Lewis.
Taken 22nd overall in the 1987 draft, Lewis’s unexpected ascendance was balming for another reason. He helped ease, but not erase, the shocking death of Boston’s 1986 first round pick, Len Bias.
Comfortable at either small forward or shooting guard, the slender 6’7” Lewis helped salvage Boston’s 1988-89 season. After just 4.5 PPG in his rookie campaign, Lewis was given the opportunity to start following Bird’s injury and he made the most of it. He averaged 18.5 PPG on .486 FG% and .787 FT%. He also was a tremendous defensive player averaging 1.5 SPG and 0.9 BPG.
Still, Boston did go 42-40 that year. They were unceremoniously swept in the first round by the top seed Pistons.
But as a new decade dawned, Bird would be back, Lewis was bordering on All-Star status, and Boston got to work retooling the rest of the roster.
Remember that Lewis was thrust into the starting lineup permanently in late December of ‘88. This move was abetted by the signing of forward Kevin Gamble in mid-December to buoy the bench that Lewis was now leaving. Further buttressing the frontline, the Celtics traded away longtime guard Danny Ainge and the thinly-built, offensively oriented Brad Lohaus to Sacramento in exchange for the more muscular center Joe Kleine and defensively-inclined power forward Ed Pinckney.
Although Dennis Johnson retired after the 1990 season, Boston’s guard rotation would be in good hands. They snapped up Brian Shaw with the 24th overall pick in 1988. The 6’6” Shaw was more than capable of running point guard. In 1990 Dee Brown was snagged with the 19th overall pick.
(Boston also drafted Dino Radja in 1989, but it’d be a few years before he arrived on American shores. Now there’s a great what-if!)
So, yes, Boston was still anchored by the elderly trio Bird-McHale-Parish, but Lewis had joined them as a co-star. And the supporting cast from 1988 to 1991 had actually improved.
The only question was whether this injection of youth could compensate for the potent-but-dwindling power of the Big Three.
Well… yes and no.
In 1990, the Celtics finished 52-30 just a game behind the Charles Barkley-led 76ers for first in the Atlantic Division. However, they endured a mild upset in the first round. As the 4th seed, they faced off with the 45-win New York Knicks. Boston slapped them around in Games 1 and 2 (11-point and 29-point wins, respectively). Then they narrowly missed out on a sweep in Game 3, losing 102-99. In Game 4, New York blew out the Celtics, 135-108. Then in Game 5, held in Boston, Patrick Ewing delivered an all-time performance (31 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, four blocks) to send the Celtics packing.
Undaunted, the Celtics fully finished their revamp in 1991 and were a striking 56-26. Better than the defending champion Detroit Pistons, who were 50-32.
The Celts ran away with the Atlantic Division and were the only Eastern club within striking distance of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls’ 61-21 record. Hell, on February 17, the Celtics were 39-12 while Chicago was 35-14. The Celtics obviously cooled off a bit to end the season, but the heady play was despite Bird appearing in just 60 games that year as he took most of April off to prepare his sore back for the playoffs.
So why the hell are they here in Almost Upset?
Oh, right. Chuck Person.
We last saw Person during his sensational rookie season where he nearly led the 41-41 Indiana Pacers to an upset of the 57-win Atlanta Hawks. The years since that series had been uneven for Indiana, which I chronicled in the coda of that Almost Upset article.
The summation is that by 1991, the Pacers were once again 41-41, but a totally different ball club. Person was still around, as was Vern Fleming, but now more familiar Pacers of the 1990s were starting to show up, namely Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Detlef Schrempf.
The essence of the Pacers at this point was a torrid offense. They were fifth in the league with 111.7 PPG. They also gave up 112.1 PPG, which was “good enough” for 25th in the Association.
Indiana also hit a minor jackpot with Micheal Williams. The 6’2” point guard got his first real NBA playing opportunity this season and he was a fleet-footed problem 😤 averaging 11.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, and 2.1 SPG in just 23.4 minutes a night. The Celtics had better thank their lucky stars they got Dee Brown that year too and that Johnson had already retired. Williams would have run DJ into oblivion.
So for all their troubles of successfully retooling on the fly, the Celtics were rewarded with a deceptively good 41-41 opponent in the #2-#7 matchup.
OFFICIAL PROHOOPSHISTORY STARTING LINEUP SCOREBOARD
(the deeper the shade, the bigger the presumable advantage; if both are white it’s a wash)
Look, this shit is ridiculous. I give Bird the barest of edges over Person because Larry had much better passing skills, but Chuck was obviously younger and could light it up. The super edge held by Parish is deceptive. Greg Dreiling is the most ceremonial of starters I’ve ever seen in my life. He started every game of the series, but averaged 15 minutes.
So because of this nonsense we’re also including a bench scorecard for the first time.
Well, shit. That didn’t help at all.
Shockingly, there are washes up and down the roster. Like, I’d say the Celtics are the better team but the collection of talent is about even. The true advantage on Boston’s side is experience, but is this the moment when experience becomes geriatrics?
This game was fun. Absolutely fun. Watch it. Hubie Brown even has the call!
Anyhoo, I can’t even figure out what to focus on there was so much greatness.
37-year-old Robert Parish made his first 10 shots of the game. Kevin McHale scored 25 points in 27 minutes. Reggie Lewis somehow wound up with 28 points and I don’t even really remember him doing it. A George Gervin type performance there.
Larry Bird was obviously pained by his back as he shot 6-20 from the field. He still wound up with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists, and three steals.
Indiana matched Boston’s effort nearly the entire night. Reggie Miller had 20 points in the second half. Chuck Person hit a bevy of twisting turnarounds (23 points) while tossing in eight boards and seven dimes. Rik Smits was a Dutch dreadnought off the bench: 17 points, 8-10 FGs in 19 minutes.
There was just an abundance of intelligent basketball on display from both teams. The advantage for Boston was that they exhibited more discipline than Indiana. The Pacers were a fast and quick team, but a few times too many they’d rush into a play, instead of letting the situation develop.
For the Pacers this hurried approach cost them the game, but I sure had fun watching.
(Also don’t let the high score fool you. Both teams were busting their asses on defense, which led to lots of fast breaks.)
This game was the Chuck Person show as he set a then-record for threes made in a playoff game with seven.
At one point in the 2nd quarter, Person scored 16 straight points for Indiana as he made jump shots from every conceivable angle and distance on the court. Ever the trash talker, the gun-slinging Person had much to say afterwards and the legendary Bob Ryan was there to record it all.
“I love it,” he declared when the 130-118 win was finally recorded in the books. “National TV. Parquet floor. Those [expletive] banners up there. The leprechauns. They were all trying to stop me, and no one did.”
Person also added, “Maybe I’ll have to go home and put my arm in traction tonight.” It was a dig at Bird’s back problems. Bird was probably delighted and pissed at the trash talk. By the way, Larry Legend actually finished with 18 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds, but still struggled to shoot (7-18 FGs).
The other star of the game was Micheal Williams. The Pacer guard water-bugged his way to 24 points (8-14 FGs, 8-10 FTs) and 10 assists. As a team Indiana torched the nets for .575 FG% on the night. An offensive tour de force for the whole team as the franchise got its first NBA playoff road victory.
Person probably should have put his arm in traction. The Rifleman was out of ammo as he shot a putrid 2-8 in this game for just six points. Miller, Schrempf, and Williams combined for 58 points thanks to some beautiful foul shooting (28-32), but the team was just .410 from the field.
Not going to cut it for a team predicated on helter skelter offense.
In contrast, the Celtics had a gay old time. Bird and Lewis struggled shooting from the field (9-26), but the team still shot .542 overall. And they were cash money from the foul line making 34 of their 41 freebies.
A superb team effort, six players for Boston finished in double-figures. McHale stood out the most with 22 points, eight boards, four blocks, three assists, and two steals off the bench.
After the game, Bird and Person were notable quotables as usual.
“I make no excuses. They played one heck of a defensive game out there,” a carefree Person acknowledged. “It was nothing I did. They just did a terrific job.”
Bird gave his two cents. “I don’t guard Chuck and he don’t guard me. I can bust Chuck any time I want to. So if he guards me, I’ll bust him.” Bird then kept on jawing. “It’s the same thing they used to with me and Magic,” he said. “But Magic is a completely different player than Chuck and it was sort of a privilege to be matched up against Magic like that. But Chuck? I don’t know about that.”
Well, whatcha know about now, Larry?
Person rebounded from his Game 3 stinker with 30 points to lead all scorers. He even buried a jumper in Bird’s grill to give Indiana a 107-105 lead, which was part of a personal run of 12 points for the Rifleman.
At least Larry finally got his shooting touch in order making 7 of 14 shot attempts. He also added eight assists.
The difference in this game, however, was at the foul line.
Indiana shot a near-perfect 29-30 from the charity stripe this game while Boston was a solid 26-34. That was the difference in the game, though. Near-perfection beats solid any day.
In other happenings, Reggie Miller wasn’t far behind Person with 27 points of his own. Williams still buzzed around the court with 18 points, nine dimes, and five steals.
On the Celtics side of things, Lewis also regained his shooting form going 9-17 for 22 points and five assists. McHale kept up his dynamite play with 24 points off the bench to lead all Boston scorers.
A furious fourth quarter comeback gave Indiana just enough juice to squeeze out this win and force a do-or-die Game 5 back in Boston.
Boston led 97-88 with about 10 minutes remaining, but the Pacers obviously turned on the offensive jets to finish this game out on a 28-16 run.
Well, if you know anything about this series, it’s this game.
Cuz this game was a game that would make you say THIS GAME as you watched it live. Hell, almost 30 years later it’ll make you say THIS GAME. If the Library of Congress had a repository of classic basketball games like they do with books and movies, this contest would be in it.
If you ain’t seen it before, watch it. Find time. Watch it.
My words will fail to do it justice.
Larry Bird and Chuck Person went fucking at it. And the supporting casts were brilliant too.
Bird had his best game of the series despite (because of?) slamming his face on the floor. He probably had a concussion and was led off the floor for several minutes to get treatment. He of course returned continued lighting Indiana’s ass up. He finished the game with 32 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. He was 0-5 from downtown, but still finished 12-19 overall from the field and was 8-10 from the line.
YMCA MVP game right there.
As for Person he dazzled with 32 points as well. He buried five of his nine three-point attempts and added four boards and four dimes.
Like I said above, though, there were a few great supporting performances to augment the stars.
Micheal Williams: 23 points, 10 assists
Reggie Lewis: 22 points, 10-17 FGs
Detlef Schrempf: 20 points, six rebounds
Robert Parish: 21 points, eight boards
A great way for a great series to end as Larry Bird gave a twilight legendary performance. He also got to talk more shit about Chuck.
“This did feel sweeter because I’ve known Chuck for awhile,” Bird mused. “But it always seems that I get the last word.”
I repeat my demand you watch the full game. It’ll make you love basketball 1000% more.
Here’s the crummy part for the ‘91 Celtics.
They should have made the Eastern Conference Finals and given Michael Jordan’s Bulls a great showdown. Instead the Celtics lost 4-2 to the Detroit Pistons in the semi-finals. Boston actually outscored Detroit in the series and at one point had a 2-1 series lead. But age and injury caught up with them.
Exhausted from Indiana, Bird missed Game 1 of the series with back spasms. Pistons got that win. Parish twisted his left ankle in Game 1 and finally went down for good when he sprained it again early in Game 5, which Boston lost 116-111. The Chief was entirely absent from Game 6 which Boston lost 117-113 in overtime. At least Detroit would get swept away by the Bulls in the conference finals.
(I’m choosing to omit information concerning Isiah Thomas having his own ankle injury this series because I do not give Isiah Thomas any sympathy.)
For the 1991-92 season, Boston and Indiana essentially ran back the same squads. Only problem for Boston was that Bird was even more fragile than the year before as he appeared in just 45 games.
Boston dipped to 51 wins, which was still good enough to win the Atlantic Division. The Pacers finished with 40 wins and the two clubs met again in the first round of the playoffs. It was another spirited contest, but this time Boston swept Indiana. It was close, though.
Game 1: BOS 124 — IND 113
Game 2 (OT): BOS 119 — IND 112
Game 3: BOS 102 — IND 98
In the second round, Boston lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. Once again they barely missed out on a chance to get stomped by the Chicago Bulls. But the writing was on the wall early on in the playoffs for Boston. Bird missed the entire first round series vs. Indiana. And in the Cleveland series, he played in just four of the games as a role player.
On the bright side, Reggie Lewis had fully ascended as the team’s leader averaging 28.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.4 SPG and .547 FG% versus Cleveland.
For the 1992-93 season, Bird retired but the Celtics behind Lewis and the ancient McHale and Parish still won 48 games.
In their first round series against the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis came out smoking. He scored 17 points in 13 minutes before collapsing on the court. Boston persevered and won the opener 112-101, but Lewis would never play another NBA game. He died that summer after collapsing again from a heart condition.
In Game 2, McHale found the fountain of youth scoring 30 points on 13-18 shooting as he schooled Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. But Charlotte won the game in double overtime, 99-98. The Hornets blew out Boston in Game 3 and eked out a Game 4 win thanks to Mourning’s famous jumper from the top of the key.
With Bird already retired, McHale followed suit after the ‘93 season. With Lewis’s untimely passing, Parish was the last man left for the 1993-94 season. Boston finally buckled and drooped to 32 wins missing the playoffs for the first time since 1979. The Chief signed with the Hornets as a free agent after the 1994 season. A youthful 40-years-old Parish would play three more seasons and get one more ring with the Bulls in 1997.
As for Indiana, they were running on a treadmill. 41 wins in ‘91 followed by 40 in ‘92 followed by 41 in ‘93. All those seasons ended in first round playoff exits. Person had been traded to Minnesota following the 1992 season, but with yet another average season ending in the first round, the Pacers axed coach Bob Hill and brought in Larry Brown.
Furthermore, the team retired its identity as a high scoring, no defense club.
Brown’s hiring precipitated other moves. The biggest was trading Schrempf to Seattle for the defensive-minded Derrick McKey. More low-key, was the addition of Dale Davis and Antonio Davis giving Indiana further muscle on the interior.
The Pacers improved to 47 wins in 1994 and made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost in seven games to the New York Knicks. Thus began the Classic Pacers era of the NBA where they appeared in the 1994, 1995, 1998 and 1999 ECFs and the 2000 NBA Finals.
These early 90s Pacers teams didn’t come close to that success, but they were fun to watch and at least made the playoffs ever year. That was something the franchise had struggled to do ever since the NBA-ABA merger. While Reggie and Rik would stick around long enough to enjoy the big glory years, do give Person, Schrempf, and Micheal Williams credit for giving Indiana some long-sought credibility after so much misery in the 1980s.
Next time on Almost Upset: our first series from the Western Conference as the Utah Jazz struggle to put away the Los Angeles Clippers!