Last May, on the 26th anniversary of the play, John Karalis of Red’s Army offered up a small blog post in tribute to Larry Bird’s steal of Isiah Thomas’ rushed pass in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. The steal, which immediately led to Bird’s ninth assist of the game (he also managed to contribute 36 points and 12 rebounds) as he dished to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning score, directly saved Boston from going down 3-2 in their series with the upstart Detroit Pistons. Karalis called it “the best play in Celtics history.”
Nearly four months to the day of the 26th anniversary of what John Karalis calls “the best play in Celtics history,” former Celtics guard Gerald Henderson decided to offer a video rebuttal. Timely, all around! MassLive’s Jay King, via Pro Basketball Talk, transcribed Henderson’s message:
"Not too long ago, you called Larry Bird's steal against the Pistons in '87 the best play in Celtics history. Well, as you know, that's not true," said Henderson. "It was one of them. It was a fantastic play by The Legend, but you forget about my steal in Game 2 of the '84 Finals. The Lakers were so stunned that Magic (Johnson) -- Tragic Magic at the time -- he ran out the final play, dribble, dribble, dribble."
With 18 seconds left in the 1984 Finals, the Celtics trailed 113-111. To make matters worse, the Lakers held the basketball and a 1-0 series lead. If they could have closed out Game 2, they would have opened the Finals with consecutive victories at the Boston Garden.
But Magic Johnson lofted an ill-advised cross-court pass, which Henderson intercepted and raced in for a game-tying layup. After Johnson weirdly dribbled out the regulation clock, the Celtics earned an overtime victory to tie up the series. Though they fell by 33 points in Game 3, they eventually prevailed in seven games.
Yes, there was a time when Magic Johnson was known as “Tragic Magic,” as late playoff game decision-making and free throw woes had all but wiped out the rock solid clutch image he seemed to set in stone with his work in the 1979 NCAA National Championship, and his legendary Game 6 performance in the 1980 NBA Finals.
Take a look at what Henderson believes to be the finest play in Celtics history:
As documented by King above, Henderson’s steal was crucial. Only three teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the NBA Finals, and with the Lakers seemingly at their peak (“they should have swept,” Bird famously said following the championship round) even that legendary Boston squad would have had a nearly-impossible task taking four of the next five in order to win Bird’s second ring. Instead, Henderson’s steal gave them a 1-1 split, and the Celtics would go on to win in seven games.
Bird’s steal in 1987? The context is a little different. Watch:
For one, the game was televised on TBS, an Eastern Conference finals showdown that was NBA Finals-worthy, but hardly seen by as many people as saw Henderson’s swipe. Secondly, while Bird’s steal still allowed for the Celtics to go back to Detroit with a commanding 3-2 lead, the Pistons showed no ill-effects of the Game 5 embarrassment, and forced a Game 7 with a 113-105 win. The Celtics took that Game 7, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1987 Finals in the weeks following. Bird’s steal, while typically Larry Legendary, didn’t end up having the same championship implications.
Of course, both Karalis and Henderson are forgetting one crucial play: John Havlicek’s tip to Sam Jones (they didn’t count such deflections as “steals” back then) in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics were up a point in the final seconds of that contest, against a Wilt Chamberlain-led Philadelphia 76ers squad that was probably the league’s second best team in the 1965 (the Sixers managed only a .500 record in the regular season, but Wilt Chamberlain wasn’t traded to the franchise until after midseason) playoff bracket. Bill Russell, in a rare late-game misstep, bounced an inbound pass off a wire on the basket stanchion in front of the Sixers’ hoop. Philadelphia had once last chance to score with the game’s leading scorer in Chamberlain in place, as the squad attempted to dethrone a Celtics team that had won six championships in a row.
Instead, Havlicek saved it, Jones grabbed it, and the Celtics prevailed.
Unlike Henderson’s steal, it didn’t take place in the NBA Finals, but it was just as crucial. If not more, because the Lakers had the home court advantage and five games in place to down those 1984 Boston Celtics.
Larry’s move? Well, it was easily the best thing I watched live in my parents’ den on TBS during the 1980s. Congratulations, Larry. And happy 26th anniversary.