Prior to the season, the NBA moved the Rockets and San Antonio Spurs from the Central Division of the Eastern Conference to the Midwest Division of the Western Conference. The Rockets and Spurs traded places with the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. The Midwest Division also took in the expansion Dallas Mavericks.
The Rockets that season were led by Moses Malone, who practically carried the Rockets to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Calvin Murphy, the shortest player in the league at the time, set two NBA records, sinking 78 consecutive free throws to break Rick Barry's mark of 60 set in 1976 and achieving a free-throw percentage of .958, breaking Rick Barry's record set with the Rockets in 1979. Other key contributors of the 1980–81 team were Rudy Tomjanovich, Robert Reid, Mike Dunleavy, Sr., Allen Leavell, Billy Paultz, Bill Willoughby, Calvin Garrett, Tom Henderson, and Major Jones. Houston tied with Kansas City for second place in the Midwest behind San Antonio with a regular season record of 40–42.
Houston's playoff run began by drawing the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson in the first round. The Rockets upset Los Angeles, two games to one, with the Rockets winning both games in Los Angeles. The Western Conference Semifinals matchup featured the Rockets against the Spurs and multi-year scoring champion George Gervin in a Texas Shootout, which would turn to a four games to three victory for Houston behind strong contributions from Murphy and Reid, including Murphy's career playoff high of 42 points in the climactic Game 7. This set up an unlikely Conference Finals matchup with Kansas City, being that both teams finished the regular season with identical losing records, together compiling just 80 total victories of 164 games played. The Kings, led by Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, and Phil Ford fell to the Rockets in five games, and the Rockets would break into the NBA Finals for the first time, the first of four in franchise history.
This was the Celtics' first appearance in The Finals since their 1976 championship winning team against the Phoenix Suns. The Celtics were not quite the same team as five years ago, as they added the likes of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale, a trio that would come to be known as "The Big Three." M. L. Carr, Cedric Maxwell, and Nate Archibald were also capable players off the bench, and key cogs in Boston's balanced offensive attack. However, the Celtics lost future Hall of Famers Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich and JoJo White to retirement. Still, the Celtics, led by Bird, won 62 games and managed to squeak past Philadelphia for the league's best record due to tiebreakers.
The Celtics's playoff run started with a first-round bye, straight into the conference semifinals. Despite the layoff, the Celtics easily swept the Artis Gilmore-led Chicago Bulls, and then faced the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers for the right to advance to The Finals. After a hard-fought and physical series, the Celtics eventually came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to defeat the Sixers, repeating a feat they accomplished in 1968. Five of the games in the series ended with the winning team on top by two points or less, including a 91-90 nail-biter in Game 7.
Both teams had met in the playoffs the year earlier, when the Rockets were in their final season in the Eastern Conference. The conference semifinal had a slightly different Celtics team, with 1970s star Dave Cowens still starting at center, perennial players Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for Boston arriving the following season, and Rick Barry for Houston was in the final season of his career with the Rockets. The Celtics blew out the Rockets in four straight, by a total of 74 points.
(*)The Celtics were tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the NBA's best record, but the Celtics earned the division title and the overall top seed based on tie-breakers.
The Boston Celtics won both games in the regular season series:
No one figured this series to be much of a Finals. Houston, in fact, had lost its previous dozen games to the Celtics, including a 4–0 series sweep in the previous years' playoffs. But Malone, who had averaged nearly 28 points and 15 rebounds over the season, would have none of the "Boston Curse". He came into the series fired up, going so far as to call the Celtics "chumps". The Celtics, meanwhile, were coming off three close games in the Eastern Conference Finals in upsetting the heavily favored Philadelphia 76ers. So, the Celtics were understandably flat.
Houston led 57-51 at the half and kept that intensity through the game. Late in the fourth period, with the Celtics trailing 87-84, Bird put up an 18-footer from the right side. As soon as he turned it loose, he immediately rushed in for the rebound. He caught the ball in midair as his momentum was carrying him out of bounds on the baseline just right of the lane. In an instant, he switched the ball to his left hand (a right-handed shot would have hit the side of the backboard) and flipped it in the basket. Bird would finish with 18 points, 21 rebounds, and nine assists. Moses Malone would grab 15 rebounds, but was held to 13 points.
The crowd went nuts over Bird's shot, with general manager Red Auerbach leading the cheers. Bill Russell, who was broadcasting the game for CBS, looked on in disbelief.
"Larry was able to make the play", said Russell, "because he not only knew where the ball was going to land, he knew that he knew."
The shot carried Boston to a 98-95 win and Auerbach proclaimed, "It was the one of the best shots I've ever seen a player make."
Malone would come up big in this game, scoring 31 points and pulling down another 15 boards. Bill Willoughby would add 14 off the bench to make up for poor shooting by Robert Reid (0 for 7) and Calvin Murphy (4 for 13). Reserve guard Allen Leavell's late basket would give the Rockets the 92-90 victory. Bird would lead the Celtics once again with 19 points and 21 rebounds. The victory was Houston's eighth road win of the playoffs, a record that stood until the 1995 Rockets won nine playoff games en route to winning the championship.
With the series back in Houston, Robert Reid, matched up with Larry Bird, would begin to garner attention for his defense on the Celtics star, holding him to three baskets and eight points. But, the Celtics would not need Bird's scoring in this one. The Rockets shot a paltry 3 for 17 in the second quarter, fell behind by 17, and never recovered.
Cedric Maxwell led six Celtics in double figures with 19 points. His teammates, meanwhile, played some pretty good defense of their own, holding the Rockets to 71 points, the lowest output for an NBA team in a Finals game since the Syracuse Nationals scored 71 in the 1955 NBA Finals (which was, incidentally, the year the shot clock was introduced).
Reid continued his air-tight defense on Bird, holding him to another eight points, while scoring 19 himself. The star of this game was Mike Dunleavy, Sr., who had 28 points. Malone would add 24 points and 22 rebounds as the Rockets tied the series. Another key was the Rockets' relentless offensive rebounding and second-chance opportunities; they grabbed 28 offensive rebounds (Reid had 10 and Malone 9 with 4 put-back dunks) on the way to out-shooting the Celtics in attempts, 103 to 74.
The Rockets had a losing regular season record at 40-42, but, up to Game 5, they showed they definitely belonged in the finals with the Celtics. So, no one could blame Moses Malone for doing some trash-talking. Earlier, he had simply declared, "Boston ain't that good." Before Game 5, though, Malone went a little too far, saying, "I could get four guys off the street in Petersburg (Virginia, Malone's hometown) and beat them." This was all coach Bill Fitch would need to motivate his troops.
With Bird still struggling offensively, Cedric Maxwell shouldered the load, scoring 28 points and pulling down 15 rebounds and sparking several fast breaks to a Celtics rout, 109-80.
Still reeling from Malone's previous barbs, the Celtics took it right to the Rockets back at The Summit, leading 84-67 in the final period. However, as coach Fitch looked on in disgust, the Celtics went five minutes without a basket as the Rockets, led by Calvin Murphy, reeled off 13 unanswered points in a furious comeback and eventually cut the lead to only 3, with the Houston crowd erupting louder after each basket. Larry Bird then finally broke out of his shooting doldrums to personally blunt the Rockets' rally. Bird hit a 15-foot jumper, fed series MVP Maxwell for a basket, and hit a back-breaking, 24-foot, three-point shot to put the Rockets away for good and send Boston to its 14th NBA Championship, and at last a championship ring for 11-year veteran Tiny Archibald.Boston Celtics
The Celtics, who suffered through a down period in the late 1970s after winning the 1976 NBA title, reasserted themselves as a powerhouse throughout most of the 1980s. Boston won the NBA championship in 1984 and 1986 and reached the Finals in 1985 and 1987, although Fitch was replaced by K.C. Jones as coach after the Celtics were swept in the 1983 playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals. Bird was named the league's Most Valuable Player three times in the decade, Parish became one of the NBA's most dominant centers and Kevin McHale moved from bench player to All-Star at power forward. Maxwell was the sixth man on the 1984 championship team, but was traded before the 1985–86 season to the Los Angeles Clippers for Bill Walton. Archibald was replaced at point guard in 1983 by Dennis Johnson, who arrived in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. Following the 1981 season, the Celtics drafted Danny Ainge of BYU, who became the team's starting shooting guard after a brief career in baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Rockets reached the playoffs in the 1981–82 season, but then experienced a precipitous decline which coincided with Malone's trade to Philadelphia, where he joined with Julius Erving to lead the 76ers to the 1982–83 NBA championship. Houston posted the NBA's worst record in the 1982–83 season and the second-worst, three games ahead of the Indiana Pacers, in the 1983–84 season, and earned the number one pick in the draft each time. Those were the last two drafts when the number one pick was determined by a coin flip between the worst team in each conference; the lottery was instituted in 1985 in response to rumors of the Rockets throwing games late in both season in order to secure a higher draft pick.
The Rockets selected Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon with those picks and hired Fitch as coach after he was fired by the Celtics following the 1982–83 season. Houston returned to the NBA Finals in 1986, where they would once again lose to Boston in six games. Robert Reid and Allen Leavell were the only remaining members of the 1981 team to play in the 1986 Finals (Reid wore No. 50 in the 1981 Finals, but upon his return in 1983, Sampson already had No. 50, forcing Reid to wear No. 33).
McHale served as the Rockets coach from 2011 through 2015.Before 2003, the 1981 NBA Finals received the lowest television rating in NBA history. The 1981 Finals drew a 6.7 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. Meanwhile, the 2003 Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets drew a 6.5 rating. Due to this, the 1981 finals were the last to be broadcast on tape-delay, with weeknight games airing after the late local news in most cities. Games 3 and 4 were played back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, May 9 and 10, to give CBS two live Finals games. Game 3 remains the last Finals contest played on a Saturday. Game 4 tipped off at noon Central (1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific) in order for CBS to telecast golf following the game.
Following the Finals, Gary Bender became the lead play-play announcer for CBS' coverage of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, while Rick Barry's contract, following his questionable racial comments about Bill Russell during the Finals, was not renewed. Russell would remain the main color analyst for the next two years alongside newly promoted main play-by-play commentator Dick Stockton. Curiously, Barry and Russell would reunite, this time on the NBA on TBS during the mid-1980s. Russell was replaced as CBS' lead analyst following the 1983 Finals by former Celtics teammate Tom Heinsohn.
Brent Musburger narrated the duration of the 1981 NBA Playoffs on film, known as "The Dynasty Renewed".