Reaching the 41st birthday is even more depressing than encountering No. 40. The 365 days between 40 and 41 confirm the axiom that it’s all downhill after 40.

Every ache, twinge and spasm serves as a reminder. Lately, I’ve been comparing the maladies of old age with those of vintage Celtics. My back is stiffer than Larry Bird’s. My feet are as brittle as Bill Walton’s. I move slower than Greg Kite. And so on.

It only makes me feel older to realize that this is the 25th anniversary of the 1986 world champion Boston Celtics. But looking back on those days ultimately brings a smile to my face, even though Wang Chung ruled the pop charts then, because the 1985-86 Celtics are simply the greatest team of my lifetime, in any sport.

The crux of that team’s greatness wasn’t its dominance (67-15 regular season, 15-3 postseason). It was how these Celtics dominated that set them apart. 

This collection of Celtics was better than the sum of its parts, which is incredible considering five future Hall-of-Famers played starring roles. With the help of some skilled role players, and despite Kite, they elevated basketball into a ballet of player and ball movement that hasn’t since been matched.

Not even close.

A little context is needed. In 1985, the Celtics lost in the Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. The biggest difference between the two teams was L.A.’s depth, especially in the frontcourt.

Red Auerbach went to work immediately after the Finals, trading a rapidly-declining Cedric Maxwell for the injury-prone Walton. The big redhead quickly fit in with his new team and became a fan favorite (I remember him getting a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd at the Cumberland County Civic Center during a preseason game).

With Walton on board, the bench went from suspect to strength. Auerbach also acquired Jerry Sichting, a slight point guard from Indiana who was automatic from 15 feet. Combined with Scott Wedman, a key contributor on the 1984 title team, Boston had a bench that could rapidly put points on the board.

More importantly, Walton spurred Larry Bird to greater heights.

Bird was in his prime and already doing things on a nightly basis that would fill up the highlights on Sportscenter. When he was on the floor with Walton, though, they were bound to do something the most dedicated basketball fan had never seen before.

Together, they always seemed to be two steps ahead of the defense. The passes they made weren’t just remarkable because they went behind the back or through the legs of some clueless defender (Hello Jack Sikma), they were exquisite because they required precise timing and reading of angles, and the viewer in the stands or at home could see the play unfold before their eyes while the defense was still clueless.

The passing fancy spread throughout the team. Even Kevin McHale, up to then considered a black hole in the low post, occasionally looked for the open cutter.

To execute the kind of passing the Celtics were doing, the passer and the intended receiver to be on the same wavelength. Usually, everyone in green was simpatico, like when Bird and Robert Parish worked the pick-and-roll, or Dennis Johnson whipped a fastball to Bird cutting backdoor along the baseline.

The impetus behind it were Bird and Walton, and when all of the Celtics were following their lead, it was as beautiful to watch as anything you’ll ever see in sports.

On the occasion the passing wasn’t crisp, the Celtics were still deadly. Bird was at the peak of his scoring powers, capable of beating anyone one-on-one. McHale may have been more unstoppable, making double- and triple-teams moot with his expansive low-post repertoire. Parish had the rainbow jumper and could still beat most of his fellow big men down the floor on the break.

Johnson, always a fearless penetrator, developed a more consistent jump shot and was as clutch as Bird. Danny Ainge had a deadly outside shooting touch, even after Tree Rollins tried to bite off his finger.

Lest we ignore half of the game, the Celtics also had one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. DJ could shut down the league’s best guards. With his elastic-man arms, McHale smothered forwards, whether they were wisps like Alex English or skyscrapers like Ralph Sampson. Parish blocked or altered the shots McHale couldn’t get to, and Bird was the ultimate free safety, closing off passing lanes, doubling and stripping unsuspecting big men and diving out of bounds for loose balls.

Most discussions of the NBA’s greatest teams usually include the 1985-86 Celtics, and the Celtics of the first “Big 3” era are a part of sports lore, but this particular season doesn’t face a lot of scrutiny because, frankly, there wasn’t much drama.

The Celtics rolled through the regular season. The thing people probably remember most from their first 82 games is a loss. On Christmas Day, they blew a 20-plus point lead to rookie Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, then lost in double overtime.

It was a classic case of Boston dominating then getting bored and leaving the door open for a hungry young team to steal a win. It happened on several occasions that season, and kept them from reaching the vaunted 70-win mark.

That loss was the turning point of the season. The ticked-off Celtics ticked off a 46-8 record from that point and ran away with the best record in the league. They dominated the Lakers in two highly-anticipated mid-winter meetings and lost only one game at home all season.

The playoffs were almost anti-climatic because there wasn’t anything close to a legitimate challenger. Michael Jordan had his national coming out party with his 63-point performance in a first-round game that the Celtics won in double overtime, but he couldn’t prevent a Boston sweep.

The Atlanta Hawks, with Dominique Wilkins, Spud Webb and all of their athleticism, gave the C’s a little trouble in the second round, but the series was never in doubt. If you ever want to see the 1985-86 Celtics summed up in one quarter of basketball, watch the third quarter of Game 6 of that series. The Celtics set a playoff record while outscoring the Hawks, 36-6, in one of the most thorough butt-whuppings anyone has ever seen on a basketball court.

Of course, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks serves as a pretty good sample of Celtic dominance, too. Boston swept that series so easily that I remain convinced the Lakers decided to take a dive in the Western Conference finals to avoid their imminent downfall.

It’s too bad because Celtics fans would have to wait another 22 years to see their team humiliate the Lakers. The spunky Houston Rockets pushed the Celtics to six games, mostly because Akeem (not yet Hakeem) Olajuwon was about the only thing that year the McHale-Parish-Walton triumvirate couldn’t stop. But there is little to wax nostalgic about in that series other than the Sichting-Sampson fight in Game 5.

The 1985-86 Celtics aren’t frequent topics on ESPN Classic because, in retrospect, their championship was pretty much a foregone conclusion. They didn’t make for high drama on television.

They did make sweet music on the hardwood, though, and I’m glad I’m old enough to remember how sweet it was.


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