Don Nelson, the all-time winningest head coach in NBA history with 1,221 wins, will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of its Class of 2012. Until now, the Milwaukee Bucks have had 11 memebers in the Hall, and each and every one of them belonged to another team and city at least as much as they belonged to Milwaukee and the Bucks. No longer will that be the case.
Recent devotees of the NBA may believe that Coach Nellie invented smallball in Oakland with the Warriors. Or perhaps they think that his 2007 victory over the Mavericks was his finest moment as an NBA head coach. But Nelson had a long history in the NBA, and he accomplished a special oft-forgotten feat. He handed Larry Bird his worst-ever defeat. (The following is an excerpt from a piece published on this site earlier in the month.)
Larry Bird’s Celtics once got swept out of the NBA Playoffs.
It wasn’t one of those anything-can-happen, best-of-three series that the NBA used in the early 80s, either. The Bucks, led by Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson, dominated in a four-game sweep, controlling the final quarter of each game. Boston, on the other hand, found themselves in unfamiliar territory; in their 37-year history, the Celtics had won 14 championships, but they had never been swept before.
And they didn’t take it particularly well, either.
After the game, Bucks owner Jim Fitzgerald was stunned by the reaction of Boston GM Red Auerbach and company. “They went away saying they’d get back at us if it was the last thing they did.” (A year later, the Celtics did.)
Auerbach claimed that it wasn’t the losing that upset him, but rather Coach Don Nelson’s treatment of one of his players. Midway through the series, Nelson lashed out in the media at Danny Ainge.
“I don’t like the way he undercuts my players… Innocent little Danny Ainge isn’t so innocent.”
The MECCA crowd seized upon Nelson’s remarks and booed Ainge mercilessly at each touch for the two games in Milwaukee.
Auerbach wasn’t pleased with Nelson, a former player from his days as a coach in Boston.
“They beat us. But to me the worst thing is what they did to (Ainge). It wasn’t fair. The crowd was all over him every time he touched the ball.”
When told of Auerbach’s remarks, Nelson retorted coyly, “I guess I’ve been a bad boy.”
While Auerbach didn’t care much for Nelson’s style, the Celtics players liked their own coach even less. Bill Fitch’s dictatorial, drill-sargeant style had worn thin in his fourth year in Boston. His players were ready to let him know that, too.
Game 1: Milwaukee 116, Boston 95
Milwaukee rode a hot start by Bob Lanier (8/9 FG, most of them on sixth man Kevin McHale) to a 54-48 lead. It got worse for the Celtics in the second half.
Bird jammed a pinky and quickly picked up fouls #3, 4, 5 in the third period. The Bucks outscored Boston 32-24 in the quarter.
Then Fitch sealed his own fate as a coach: He benched his starters in the fourth quarter (Sound familiar, Bucks fans?) while his subs stretched a 14-point deficit into a 23-point hole. According to Fitch, his starters quit so he tried something new.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, executed Don Nelson’s game plan to perfection. They sagged inside to slow the Celtics’ talented front court players, instead daring their guards to shoot. Boston — featuring Tiny Archibald, Quinn Buckner, and Gerald Henderson in the back court — only had one reliable outside shooter in Danny Ainge, and he was sporting a bandaged finger courtesy of a bite from Atlanta’s Tree Rollins.
The tactic worked. Boston guards shot 17-47 FG for the game, most of them open looks.
Game 2: Milwaukee 95, Boston 91
The game plan that had worked so well for Don Nelson in Game 1 failed disastrously in Game 2 — even without Larry Bird in the lineup — for a half.
Bird missed Game 2 with a 104-degree fever from the flu. Scott Wedman started in his place, and the tandem of him of Danny Ainge shot down the Bucks from long range. The pair converted 17-of-18 field goal attempts, and the made baskets held the Milwaukee fast break scoreless as Boston took a 57-42 halftime lead.
Nelson mixed things up in the second half. He switched defensive strategies three times in an attempt to cool of Boston’s shooters and force them down other avenues. Down by eight points heading into the final quarter, he decided to test the Celtics’ Achilles’ heel one more time.
The plan worked.
Without Bird to close out the game down the stretch, the Celtics crumbled. As the Bucks once again sagged into the paint, Boston misfired (4/22 FG for the quarter). It probably didn’t help that Fitch played his best shooter, Ainge, for 40 consecutive minutes before giving him a breather. He played with heavy legs in the fourth.
Then Moncrief hit the game-clincher, driving across the lane and hitting a runner with 17 seconds left that barely beat the shot clock buzzer. Things looked bleak for Boston. Their star was ill, the players reviled the head coach, and now they were heading West for a back-to-back on the road while trailing in the series two games to zero.
Game 3: Milwaukee 107, Boston 99
May 1 meant mayday for the Celtics.
Larry Bird, still recovering from the effects of the flu, flew into Milwaukee a day after the rest of his teammates.
A fierce MECCA crowd brought brooms for a sweep and green rubber chickens as fowl to hang in effigy for Bird. On the court, things got testy as well. In the third quarter, Bob Lanier and Kevin McHale had to be separated when Lanier took exception to a high elbow from McHale.
With the game close in the fourth quarter, Fitch inserted Scott Wedman for offense. Nelson took advantage. He went to an offensive set that isolated Marques Johnson on Wedman. They had had many previous battles when Scott was in Kansas City, and Marques knew he could score on him. He took him down low and brutalized him, scoring three straight baskets and providing the winning margin over the stunned Celtics.
“It would be so embarrassing to have a team like Milwaukee beat us four straight,” Bird said. ”The thing we have to do is play like it is a seventh game, hopefully to get a victory, go home, and see what happens.”
But the locker room was fractured, and one needed to look no further than Kevin McHale to hear a viewpoint quite different than Bird’s
“If you get beat, there’s nothing you can do,” said McHale. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m going to hold my head up high.”
Game 4: Milwaukee 107, Boston 93
Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief made sure that the Bucks swept, combining for 54 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists. If you want to know how the Celtics played, perhaps the best testament came from referee Jake O’Donnell during a timeout jaunt to press row.
“Did you ever see Boston play like this? It looks like they’re out of synch.”
While Bird fought nobly to the tune of 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists, the other two members of Boston’s frontcourt — Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell — only grabbed a combined 7 boards.
Complaining about the tactics on Ainge during the series, Auerbach moaned about the lack of sportsmanship shown by Nelson.
“He’s got my respect as a coach, but not for what he did to Ainge.”
And Nelson really did have the respect of Auerbach. Sensing the mutiny in his own team over Fitch, and knowing that he would need a replacement, Auerbach went over to see Nelson one more time. Alone with Nelson, away from the media, he had one more pressing question that he had to ask.
‘Would you ever consider coaching the Boston Celtics?’
Sources used included the Boston Globe, New York Times, Milwaukee Sentinel, and Milwaukee Journal from late April/early May 1983, as well as the ESPN.com piece linked above.