The 2019 Celtics could use a big dose of Cedric Maxwell. The bigger-than-life personality that captivates and motivates teammates and agitator that gets under the skin of playoff opponents. These Celtics are certainly talented in Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum. It was NBA Finals or bust for this group ever since training camp in September.
The 1981 Boston Celtics had four future hall of famers on their roster. They had the original “The Big 3” of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in their primes and Tiny Archibald running the point. The 1981 Celtics finished 62-20 and were considered the favorites to reach the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference.
Then they lost Game 1 of the Eastern finals to the hated 76ers. They fell behind 3-1 entering Game 5 in Boston. It was Maxwell who had 16 points, eight rebounds and drained all eight free throws in a 111-109 win to help the C’s stay alive. Back in Philly, he had 17 points in a 100-98 nail biter victory. Then, in Game 7 back in Boston, he 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field in the epic 91-90 win to thrust the Bird Celtics to their first NBA Finals.
In averaging 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds in the six-game dispatch of the Rockets, Maxwell earned the Finals MVP. In 1984, he was reported to have said before Game 7 with the Lakers, “climb on my back, boys” reminding everyone in green and white that he was there for them when it mattered most. In 2008, during the NBA Finals, Maxwell said those actually weren’t the words he uttered (His teammates actually heard an X-rated version before the most important game of the 1984 season). How did Max respond in that Game 7? He dropped a game-high 24 points and converted 14-of-17 at the line in 43 minutes in the 111-102 win that clinched Banner 15.
For all the frivolity that is rightly associated with Maxwell’s unforgettable utterances and actions over the years, it was his performance on the court that backed it up, and then some. It was Maxwell who went blow for blow with Bird in the clutch ring of basketball. He was as big-time as he was big personality. In Bird’s early years, people might forget that it was Maxwell who started over Kevin McHale. It was a lineup of Maxwell, Bird, Parish, Archibald and Chris Ford.
And Maxwell proved to be the best kind of leader on that ’81 group, backing up his words with countless big games in the clutch.
Imagine Maxwell giving the choke sign to Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons before a pair of free throws. Imagine Max walking out on the court with a cane in front of Joel Embiid to make fun of his always balky knees (Ironic, given how Max’s career in Boston ended). How sweet would it be to watch Maxwell get into it with Kyle Lowry, Kevin Durant or better yet, Draymond Green? The possibilities for playoff drama are limitless.
That’s how great it was to watch Maxwell in his prime. He didn’t care about image. He was only concerned about doing whatever it took to get himself those rings, sort of like Brad Marchand, only without the costly penalties that leave the Bruins short-handed. Maxwell knew the line and rode it brilliantly, agitating but never losing control.
Midway through this season, a season many Celtics have admitted has been an emotional drain and not very much fun, players like Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris were openly wondering about whether the chemistry was there to take this group to the NBA Finals, a destination most expected they would land in the spring.
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The 1981 Celtics never lacked that vibe. They had Max, along with McHale, M.L. Carr and Gerald Henderson off the bench. They had attitude and backed it up with a ruthless attack of opponents.
Like the ’81 Celtics who steamrolled the Chicago Bulls in a four-game sweep in the Eastern semifinals (which Boston’s first round was back then), these Celtics weren’t really tested against an inferior Pacers team in the first round and without Victor Oladipo, the result was never in question.
But now, it gets interesting. The Celtics rolled the Bucks in Milwaukee on Sunday in Game 1, with Maxwell in the building doing what he does best – providing ample color analysis to the stunning beatdown of The Greek Freak (“Take that with your Greek salad!” when Al Horford blocked his shot in the 112-90 romp). They were blown out in third quarter Tuesday night in Game 2 and lost Game 2. Series tied, 1-1, headed back to Boston. Now is the time for that attitude that Maxwell provided.
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Maxwell’s bigger than life personality wouldn’t necessarily take a huge burden off Kyrie Irving, Al Horford or Gordon Hayward. It would necessarily make life earlier for the young Jays of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. But it would loosen things up on a team that seemed like it was walking a tightrope all season.
The closest thing the Celtics have in personality to Max is Marcus Morris. The closest thing they have in mental toughness and tenacity is Marcus Smart.
This is not to say Bird, Parish or Tiny Archibald weren’t huge in the comeback against Philly in the Eastern finals or the NBA finals against Houston. Of course, they were.
But the one veteran who was walked the fine line between confidence and brashness was Max. It’s something that Celtics and fans alike could use more of the rest of the playoffs.