The Boston Celtics made the 1985 NBA Finals but lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers….as the series exposed some of Boston’s weaknesses….such as the lack of bench scoring….which was exploited after Kevin McHale moved to the starting lineup with Cedric Maxwell bothered by knee injuries. In addition, Larry Bird played through an elbow injury which severely affected his shooting. In the offseason, president Red Auerbach decided to tweak the roster by trading Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers for oft-injured center Bill Walton….then he made a trade with the Indiana Pacers by acquiring the younger Jerry Sichting for an aging Quinn Buckner. These moves would pave the way for the Celtics’ greatest season yet.
Entering the 1985–86 season, the Celtics surged to a league-best 67–15 record….powered by an NBA record 40 victories at home. Their incomparable home record alone….since tied by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2015–2016 regular season….put the Celtics in the conversation among the NBA’s greatest teams in a single season.
In the playoffs, Boston needed just three games to defeat the Chicago Bulls in the first round….despite a playoff record 63 points by Michael Jordan in Game 2. When asked about Jordan’s performance in Boston’s 135-131 2OT victory….Boston’s coach K. C. Jones said, “I don’t have a word for today.” In retrospect, this game is considered to be a classic clash between arguable the NBA’s greatest player, Jordan….and arguably the NBA’s greatest team in Bird’s ’86 Celtics. In the second round of the ’86 playoffs….Boston eliminated the Atlanta Hawks in five games….with the clinching Game 5 an obvious no-brainer as Boston outscored Atlanta 36–6 in the third quarter en route to a 132–99 victory…..then the Celtics swept the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals in four games….a direct reversal of their second round meeting in the 1983 NBA Playoffs.
Following their previous Finals appearance in 1981….the Houston Rockets entered a brief rebuilding period….as long-time Rockets Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich retired….while Mike Dunleavy, Sr., Bill Willoughby, Tom Henderson and Billy Paultz moved on to different teams. But the biggest move came during the 1982 offseason…. when the Rockets traded Moses Malone to the 1983 champions Philadelphia 76ers….as the loss of Malone sent the Rockets to a league-worst 14–68 record in the 1982–83 season….after which the Rockets were awarded the top pick of the 1983 NBA draft and selected Ralph Sampson….then after a 29-win season in 1984….the Rockets were once again rewarded with the top pick in the 1984 NBA draft….and they selected another center in Akeem Olajuwon…. who paired alongside Sampson were dubbed as the “Twin Towers”….who along with Allen Leavell and Robert Reid were to see the Rockets acquired Rodney McCray, Lewis Lloyd, Craig Ehlo, Mitchell Wiggins and Jim Petersen.
Under third-year head coach Bill Fitch…who was the head coach of the 1980–81 Celtics championship team….the Rockets posted a 51–31 record and won the Midwest Division title. In the first round, they swept the Sacramento Kings….then eliminated the Denver Nuggets in six games during the second round. In the conference finals, they were matched up against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers….and after losing Game 1….the Rockets stunned the Lakers by winning the final four games….highlighted by a series-clinching buzzer beater by Sampson in Game 5.
Therefore, both the Celtics and the Rockets came into Game 1 of the 1986 NBA Finals after very successful runs through the Playoffs…..when the “Twin Towers” Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon were saddled with foul trouble for much of the game. Sampson got three quick fouls just 4:45 into the game and scored only two points…. whereas, Olajuwon picked up five fouls despite scoring 33….after 25 had come in the first half. The Celtics backcourt tandem of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge provided the third quarter spurt by combining for 22 points, while Boston held Houston to just 17 points in an expected victory.