The Boston Celtics are preparing for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight. This game is the least anticipated Conference Finals Game in Boston sports in recent memory. Think about it. When was the last time, as a sports fan, that you were dreading watching a game to potentially put a Boston team in a position to play for championship? The series has been painful and embarrassing for Celtics fans to watch. Unfortunately, it’s not different in the Western Conference. The NBA lack of parity has reached an unprecedented level and there is a major lack of competition issue. We discussed this in our latest post: https://www.firstscoreboston.com/nba-parity-competition-failure/ .
The Conference Finals this year are basically an exhibition for the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. This was not the case thirty years ago in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons played in one of the most memorable Conference Finals series of all time. These two teams battled for seven games and both teams fully thought they were going to win. For starters, these two teams truly hated each other. There were dirty plays and fights. Though it all, the most memorable part of this series was an all-time great play by an all-time great player which ultimately decided the series.
Let’s take a step back and provide a bit of history and background leading up to this series. The Celtics were coming off of their third NBA championship in six seasons in 1986. They were at their absolute peak as a team, at this time, and were basically unbeatable at home. Heading into the 1987 NBA Playoffs, the Celtics were a combined 89-3 at home over their previous two seasons. 89-3 is a 97% winning percentage. Absolutely absurd! Picture the confidence Patriots fans have today and multiply it by two. That’s how much of a sure thing the Celtics were at home in their peak years. With all of their greatness, it was clear that this team was not as good as the 1986 team which was arguably the best team of all-time. The NBA Sixth Man Award winner in 1986, Bill Walton, played just 10 games the next season. Walton was done and the Celtics bench was very weak. They needed fully rely on their starting five of Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. All five players average over 35 minutes played per game that season…and they were gassed by the end of it.
Here were the numbers for the Celtics starting five in the 1986-97 season:
Bird – 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists, .525 FG%, .400 3 point %
McHale – 26.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, .604 FG%
Parish – 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, .557 FG%
Johnson – 13.4 points, 7.5 assists
Ainge – 14.6 points, 5.6 assists, .443 3 point %
Stats aside, this starting five was basically unstoppable when they were all of the floor together and healthy. By this time, they have all been playing together for at least four seasons. Each player knew the strengths and weaknesses of their peers. Most importantly, these players were all unselfish and cared about winning over their own personal agenda. Yes, it was a different league with a different mentality back then! The 1987 team did need to deal with some adversity though. They were getting a bit older and the more minutes they played, they started to wear down a bit. In the playoffs, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale all missed games due to injury. Their were no legitimate backups. This meant that the three-time defending Most Valuable Player in the NBA, Larry Bird, needed to carry the team on his back.
Throughout the playoffs, Bird amazingly raised his game to another level. In 23 playoff games, he averaged 27.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 7.2 assists. The Celtics wiped the floor with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for the second straight season with a series sweep. In the series clinching game in Chicago, Bird had 32 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists. Many NBA fans do not know that in two head-to-head series between the Celtics and Bulls, Bird’s Celtics never lost a game to Jordan’s Bulls.
The Celtics then went on to face the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks gave the Celtics fits over a gritty, seven-game series. The Celtics were showing their age and lack of depth. In the end, it again was Bird leading the Celtics to a series win in Game 7. 31 points, 10, rebounds, 8 assists while playing all 48 minutes. Just another day at the office. The Celtics Big Three dominated on the boards as the Celtics out rebounded the Bucks 57-27. Refreshing to hear now, right?! The Celtics were onto the Conference Finals.
The Detroit Pistons had a solid year going 52-30 in the regular season. Their team was led by Isiah Thomas, a perennial All Star. Thomas, at this point in the his career, was considered to be a next tier superstar. In other words, he was the next level down from the top three of Bird, Jordan, and Magic Johnson. Thomas wanted to get to that next tier and he had an emerging supporting cast to help him get there. The Pistons had five players who averaged over 15 points a game including Thomas, Adrian Dantley, Bill Laimbeer, and Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. In addition, they had something that the Celtics did not have…a strong and physical bench. These Pistons were “The Bad Boys”. Along with Laimbeer (the most hated player in the NBA at the time), the Pistons had Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and John Salley off the bench. The Pistons went 7-1 in their first eight playoff games leading up to the Conference Finals. They were on a roll and they felt like it was their time. They were all physical players and they knew what they need to do against the aging Celtics. Their plan was to wear them down.
Going into the series, the Celtics were the favorites. Although Parish, Ainge, and McHale were banged up, the Celtics still had the playoff experience which meant a lot. Plus, they had home court advantage and it was virtually impossible to beat a team who won 97% of their home games. And, of course, they had Larry Bird.
To start the Conference Finals, Danny Ainge didn’t play in either of the first two games in Boston. Game 1 went to the Celtics 104-91. Bird had a triple double with 18 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists. Parish had 31 points and 9 rebounds. The Celtics also held serve in Game 2 with a 110-101 win despite 36 points and 10 assists from Isiah. Bird went for 31 points, 12 assists, and 9 rebounds. The Celtics were up 2-0 and had full control of the series at this point. “The Bad Boys” were simply just another speed bump on the path to an NBA Finals appearance against the Lakers.
It was on to Detroit and the Pistons had different ideas. In Game 3, the Pistons completely embarrassed the Celtics to the point that the C’s pulled their starters in the fourth quarter. Ainge was still out and Bird and McHale shot a combined 11 for 27 from the field. The Pistons knew that if you shut down Bird and McHale, you shut down the Celtics and that’s exactly what they did. Thomas and Dantley combined for 48 points in a 122-104 route.
Game 4 was when this became a rivalry. In another absolute blowout, the Pistons began to take their aggressive play to another level. They were knocking Bird and McHale around and showing that they were the more agile and stronger team. The Celtics were getting embarrassed. Then, the play that changed the entire series happened. Larry Bird received a pass under the hoop and up faked. Bill Laimbeer came across the lane and vigorously took down Bird without going for the ball at all. It was planned out, dirty play which he was known for. The only difference here was that he did it to a player who wasn’t going to take it. Bird went after Laimbeer and threw a punch in the scrum. Then as the players were separately, he rifled the basketball at Laimbeer and hit his target. Rodman and Isiah then came in to battle with Bird and he wasn’t having any of it. Bird and “The Bad Boy” were both ejected. The Pistons won 145-119. 2-2 series.
So, here we are. Tuesday, May 26, 1987. Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Boston Garden. The Pistons were cocky and confident after their two blowout wins. They had frustrated Bird. They took the Celtics out of their game. The Celtics? Well, they were at home and they had been in positions like this many times before. The had Ainge back in the starting lineup. From their standpoint, there was no way the Pistons were going to come into their building and steal a game. The Celtics and their fans also knew that this was a must-win. They weren’t going to win in Detroit in Game 6. This was it.
The Celtics jumped out quickly with 38 points in the first quarter and a nine point lead after one. The next defining play of the series also came in the first half. After battling for a rebound under the basket, Bill Laimbeer and Robert Parish got tangled up. Parish proceeded to level Laimbeer with a quick left and right sending Laimbeer to the ground quickly. Laimbeer was bleeding and appeared to be knocked out. Parish simply walked down the other end of the court. The message? Simple. You don’t take down our best player and get away with it. The refs? Well, they did nothing. This was a physical series and it wasn’t going to be decided like that. No flagrant foul. Hard to imagine in today’s NBA world. Both players stayed in and the game in continued on. The second half of the game was back and forth. Parish was battling an ankle injury and had to come out of the game multiple times. McHale was battling with foul trouble. He played just 27 minutes in the game. This left it up to Bird down the stretch for the Celtics. He got hot in the 4th quarter, but the Pistons weren’t going down. Isaiah hit a jump shot at the top of the key with 17 seconds to go in the game to give the Pistons a one point lead.
A giant sigh was felt across Boston Garden. Detroit’s bench went crazy. Timeout, Celtics…
During this two minute timeout, all 15,000+ people in the building knew who the ball was going to. Bird was not only the best player in the NBA, but he was also the most clutch player. The Garden crowd was feeling pressure, but it was still optimistic. Because we had Larry. That made Celtics fans feel good no matter what the situation. This was no different. But, Larry needed to make this! If he didn’t, the Celtics were done. After the timeout, Rick Mahorn started trash talking to Bird as went to take the ball out on the sideline. Bird usually would like to engage in this, but not this time. Not to Rick Mahorn. Instead, Bird just gave Mahorn a smirk. The smirk that said it all.
Bird inbounded the ball to Dennis Johnson. DJ took a few dribbles as Bird flared out to receive the pass on the left hand side behind the three point line. Bird stared down Mahorn and pumped right. Then, he darted left off the dribble towards the hoop. As Bird put the ball up, Dennis Rodman came across the lane and blocked Bird’s shot. The ball deflected off of Jerry Sichting and it was Pistons ball with five seconds to go…
Game, series, and season over.
Bill Walton said years later “when we lost the last opportunity to score, I was sure it was over.”
Celtics Head Coach, K.C. Jones: “The game was over and Detroit had won.”
As the call was made, Bird had fallen down and slid on his backside all the way down towards the Celtics bench. As he stood up, the Detroit players were celebrating. They knew it too. They had just won Game 5. They had taken down the great Boston Celtics. The Celtics time in the sun was over and they were the new beasts in the East. Bird quickly moved towards Joe Dumars at the foul line as Isiah went to inbound the ball. Bird was right on him, but he had an eye towards the player who wide open with no one guarding him about ten feet from Isiah. Before Thomas even threw the pass, Bird darted straight towards Laimbeer…
As the pass floated in the air, it was clear that Laimbeer had no idea that Bird was there. Bird leaped in front of him and somehow got his right hand on the pass. However, his momentum was moving him out of bounds. He managed to get his other hand on the pass and kept his feet from going out. He then turned and saw DJ racing towards the hoop. Bird got the pass off before the Pistons could reset. He threw a perfect pass to DJ who then layed it in before Dumars could get to him. 1 second left…
The Boston Garden went absolutely crazy. The Celtics players were ecstatic and hopping around the court…except one player. Larry Bird went all the way out to half court to make sure a long pass was not thrown to catch the Celtics off guard. The noise. The celebration. Just like everything else, he blocked it all out. Get the win. Nothing else mattered.
During the timeout, the Garden continued to erupt, but there still was one second. Anything can happen, right? A weak inbound pass ended the game. Celtics led the series 3-2.
Detroit took for granted that Larry Bird was beaten before the final buzzer sounded.
The Pistons, as expected, went on to win Game 6 113-105. Bird actually played his best game in Detroit with 35 points and 9 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. In Game 7, his 37 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists were enough as the Celtics won 117-114. The game included a 15 foot left handed shot by Bird in the closing minutes of the game. Just because he could…
The Celtics were back in the Finals and Bird was at his absolute peak. However, the Celtics didn’t have the manpower to compete with the Lakers. McHale was playing on a broken foot. The bench was depleted. The Lakers won the series in 6. It was the last time the Celtics made it to the Finals in the Bird-era.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Larry Bird steal, it’s still amazing to review the impact this play had and how it defined the player who made it. Larry Bird was never out of a basketball game until the final buzzer sounded. The Detroit Pistons learned this the hard way on this spring night 30 years ago.
Danny Ainge: “(Sigh)…They forgot… They forgot about Larry Bird. That’s all.”