Bird Steals the Ball in a Crazy ECF
It is an iconic moment involving one of the NBA’s greatest players and ranked #4 on the NBA’s 60 Greatest Playoff Moments. On this day in 1987, Larry Bird stole Isiah Thomas’ floating inbound pass to set up the winning score in the final seconds of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the upstart Detroit Pistons.
An Aging Dynasty
But there is much more to the story. It begins the prior June with the Celtics winning their 16th championship with the most dominant team of the Larry Bird-era and one of the best of all-time.
That same month, Celtic GM Red Auerbach, hoping to add some youth to help the legendary big three with the second pick in the draft selected 6 foot 8 inch Maryland sensation Len Bias. Larry Bird was so excited he said he would come to rookie camp to work with his new teammate. Then tragedy struck and Bias was dead a day later from cocaine intoxication.
Even without Bias, the Celtics remained dominant with a 59-23 record – second only to the 65-17 Los Angeles Lakers. Bill Walton, who won the 6th Man Award in 1986, would play only 10 games and miss much of the playoffs.
The Celtics swept Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and reached the finals after a hard fought 7-game battle with the Milwaukee Bucks. Detroit had swept the Washington Bullets before upsetting Central Division champion Atlanta 4-1.
A Slug Fest with the Bad Boys
Boston won the first two games, but in Detroit the Pistons dominated the Celtics winning Game 3 122-104 and then crushing the Celtics 145-119 in Game 4.
In Game 3, the Piston lived up to their “Bad Boys” reputation when Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman clothes-lined Larry Bird in flight, provoking a fight that would get both Laimbeer and Bird fined. Bird still believes that Laimbeer was a dirty player who tried to hurt opponents (even positioning himself so players would land on him and twist their ankle).
This blew up in Game 5 when stoic Celtic Center Robert Parish slugged Laimbeer knocking him to the ground. Amazingly, he was not ejected (but was later suspended by the league) and finished the game with 11 points and 8 rebounds.
Yet it all came down to the final seconds with Detroit up 107-106, when Bird made one of the most famous steals in NBA history which was cemented by the quick play of teammate Dennis Johnson to run to the basket to get Bird’s feed.
Danny Ainge’s reaction to his teammate’s clutch play:
When Larry stole it, I was just like ‘Are you kidding me? Not only was it unbelievable anticipation, but people who don’t think Larry is athletic, that sort of tells it all right there, who he is.
Not only his hands, his vision, but his unbelievable anticipation and his mental toughness. … Nobody else makes that play.
Today, Ainge compares it to Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run “down with two strikes against the best reliever in baseball, hitting a home run when it looks like it’s over, when it looks like there’s a 99 percent chance you’re dead, and you win.”
Detroit would win the next game against the Parish-less Celtics, but Bird would carry the team to victory in Game 7 with 37 points.
The Celtics, however, would lose to the Lakers 4-2 in the Finals thanks in part to Magic Johnson’s legendary “baby sky hook” in Game 4 that prevented the Celtics from tying the series 2-2.
In 1988, the Celtics would clinch the top seed in the East for the 5th year in a row, but they would lose their rematch to Detroit in the ECF 4-2.
They would not return to the finals for 20 years, when they beat the Lakers 4-2.