Just seconds to go at Boston Garden, a heated playoff series on the line vs. a fierce Celtic 1980's rival. And then a spectacular scene unfolds in game five of the Eastern Conference finals.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Larry Bird makes a great steal from an All-Star guard and Boston holds on for a dramatic one-possession win to clinch the East title and a trip to the championship series.
Ah yes, "The Steal" in 1987 vs. Detroit, right? Whoops, wrong year and opponent, but a very similar result.
Most fans remember Larry's legendary last-gasp steal of the Isiah Thomas in-bounds pass and subsequent feed to Dennis Johnson for the winning layup in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern finals to beat Detroit.
Yet far less remembered is his great, conference final-ending swipe in Game 5 two years earlier vs. the arch-rival Philadelphia 76ers.
That Bird-preserved 102-100 win in 1985 capped the fourth and final Eastern Finals meeting of the decade between the Celtics and their east coast nemesis, the 76ers.
Lost amid the storied Laker-Celtic championship rivalry is the fact that the Boston-Philadelphia enmity arguably ran even deeper because of proximity, the greater amount of times the enemies played one another due to being in the same division and conference, and the classic head-to-head individual matchups that abounded.
Plus, Philly actually had some limited success in beating Boston, something the Lakers never experienced until the mid-1980's, adding an extra layer to the rivalry.
Those powerhouse eastern foes had to butt heads regularly just to MAKE it to the Finals. The Lakers had no such consistently great, let alone good rival out west. Plus, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Detroit all provided difficult obstacles throughout the decade in the east that Los Angeles luckily avoided in the wild, weak west.
The Celtics and 76ers met in five straight titanic playoff series from 1965-69, with Boston winning four times. Russell, Sam Jones, Bailey Howell and Hondo vs. Wilt, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham comprised the star-studded marquee.
The combatants met again in 1977 in a hard-fought seven-game battle, plus four more times in the 1980's. Every time but twice out of their 10 series from 1965-85, a trip to the championship series was on the line. And each time they met, the victor went to the Finals. Five times the foes battled through a seven-game series, with Boston winning three and Philly two.
The Celtics won eight of the 10 memorable playoff series vs. the Sixers over that 21-year span, and the survivor went on to win the NBA crown seven times. In fact, the only time Boston did not capture the title after vanquishing Philadelphia in the playoffs was in 1985, due in part to injuries to Bird and Cedric Maxwell.
In 1967, the 76ers ended the record run of eight straight Celtic titles with a 4-1 win in the East finals en route to a 4-2 win over the Warriors in the Finals. "Boston is dead" chanted the 76er crowd in the clinching win over the Celts.
The fans seemed right when Philly again posted the league's best record in 1968. Their fourth straight eastern finals showdown against Boston was delayed by the assassination of Martin Luther King. The 76ers then raced to a 3-1 lead over the Celtics for the second year in a row, and seemed poised to repeat as champs.
But then a funny thing happened on the 76ers' way to the LA Forum and a championship series matchup with the Lakers.
Boston won game five in Philly and game six at home to force a decisive seventh game in the Spectrum. In a close battle all the way, the Celtics gutted out a 100-96 road victory. Sixer center Wilt Chamberlain made just six of 15 foul shots and took only two shots in the second half. Wilt finished with a mere 14 points in his final game wearing a 76er uniform since he would be traded to the Lakers in the off-season.
Boston went on to beat Los Angeles for a sixth straight time in the championship series, 4-2. John Havlicek led six Celtics averaging double figure points with 27.3 ppg plus nearly nine rebounds and seven assists per game. The superior Boston balance offset 57.5 combined ppg by Laker greats Jerry West (31.3) and Elgin Baylor (26.2).
In 1969 after Wilt had become a Laker, Boston took out the Sixers 4-1 in the eastern semis before pulling off a memorable 4-3 Finals upset of Los Angeles in the swansong for Russell and Jones.
The heated Boston/Philly rivalry - which had been keen when the Warriors were in Philadelphia before moving to San Francisco, and the Syracuse Nationals moved to replace them as the 76ers - would then wait eight years to be revived.
The rivalry was renewed briefly with Dave Cowens, JoJo White and John Havlicek facing off against Dr. J, Doug Collins and George McGinnis. In 1977, the 76ers edged aging defending champion Boston 4-3 in the eastern semifinals to end Havlicek's penultimate season.
But then Philly lost to Portland and Bill Walton 4-2 in the Finals to start a frustrating pattern. After eliminating the Celtics in both the 1980 and 1982 ECF, Philly fell to LA each time in six games, having little left for the rested Lakers after knocking off the Celtics.
It was almost as if beating Boston was a title in itself for Philadelphia, who had no center to compete with Walton or Jabbar.
But after a two-year Celtic playoff hiatus, the fierce rivalry was rekindled brighter than ever in 1980, with the delicious Bird vs. Erving duel serving as the headline matchup.
Also on the playbill throughout the decade were fascinating subplots like McHale and Maxwell vs. Bobby Jones and Charles Barkley, Robert Parish vs. Moses Malone or Darryl Dawkins, and Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and Nate Archibald vs. Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks and Lionel Hollins in the backcourt.
"It's one of the best rivalries in sports," McHale said at the time.
"No two teams in professional team sports want each other's throats like these two; this is definitely the ultimate," echoed Erving.
"We got probably more respect for the 76ers than any other team in the league, period," offered M.L. Carr, also getting in a psychological jab at the Lakers while emphasizing that their eastern rivalry was preeminent.
In 1980 Philly took out an inexperienced Celtic team led by rookie Bird and aging veteran Cowens in the East Finals, 4-1. Boston returned the favor by coming from 3-1 down to win arguably the best series ever in the 1981 East finals, repeating their 1968 feat of three back-to-the-wall wins in a row over Philly.
But first, Boston had to win game five in the final seconds 111-109 to avoid another embarrassing five-game elimination at home. In game six at Philly, the Celtics ended an 11-game losing streak at the Spectrum by rallying from 13 points down.
A long right side leaner by Bird bounced high off the rim and glass before settling into the net to help give Boston a late lead. With Parish fouled out, rookie Kevin McHale came in and saved the series/season. The long-armed McHale blocked a driving shot by Toney off the glass and also secured the rebound in the final seconds to preserve a one-point lead and an eventual 100-98 win.
In game seven, Bird's pull-up 15 foot banker in transition gave the Celtics a thrilling 91-90 victory as the scrambling Boston defense held Philly without a basket over the final five minutes to cap a courageous rally. The Celtics went on to take their 14th banner over Houston in an anticlimactic but rugged Finals, 4-2.
In 1982 it looked like Boston would continue its reign. They posted a league-best 63 wins and crushed the 76ers 121-81 in game one of the ECF. But a shoulder injury to Archibald helped the vengeful Sixers take the next three.
Still, Boston rallied from 1-3 down yet again to force another seventh game at the Garden. But this time the 76ers surprised most observers and took game seven, 120-106. In 1983, after finally acquiring a championship-caliber center in Moses Malone, Philly swept to the title over LA 4-0 after Milwaukee ousted the Celtics.
In 1984, Boston came back to win title number two of the Bird era over LA without having to face the defending champion Sixers, who were upset by the Nets in round one.
The rivalry was still heated, but after two years of no playoff showdowns as the 76ers continued to age while Boston peaked during the Bird era, the ferocity had started to wane just a bit.
In 1985 the two foes finally met again for the fourth and last time in the decade for the East crown. Boston was in its heyday and powered their way to a deceptively-commanding 3-1 lead over the Sixers as Erving slumped mightily.
Toney, an intense sharpshooting 6-2.5 guard, had earned the nickname "the Boston Strangler" after burning the Celtics in 1982 for 34 points in game seven. That display and the 1983 76er title prompted Red Auerbach to make deals for defensive aces Quinn Buckner and Dennis Johnson to combat him, as well as the likes of All-Star big guards Sidney Moncrief and Earvin Johnson.
As the latest in a long line of 76er shooting guards who tortured Boston from Greer in the 1960's to Collins and Lloyd Free in the 1970's, the Celtics had no answer for the quick, sweet-shooting guard who excelled in one-on-one play from little-known Southwestern Louisiana.
"I feared Andrew Toney more than anyone, even more than Michael Jordan," said Danny Ainge.
Toney rarely shot outside 18 feet, but had an unusual, almost two-handed quick high release on his accurate jumper. He also possessed textbook footwork that made him extremely hard to defend. Toney was too quick and too good a driver for bigger guards to defend, and too deceptively strong for smaller guards whom he could muscle or shoot over.
Plus he looked to score every time he got the ball, and the 76ers isolated him as much as possible on the wings. He had no conscience offensively. Toney was a more aggressive, slightly better offensive version of another mid-sized guard from Louisiana who would follow him to the pros, Joe Dumars.
Among the Sixers, the quietly intense marksman was called the "Silent Assassin." In the game seven 76er upset at Boston in the 1982 ECF, the Celts employed Carr, Gerald Henderson, Ainge, Chris Ford and finally even Bird to try and defend Toney, all in vain, as he tallied 34.
Three years later when the rivals finally met up again, the Celtics had won the first three games in their 1985 series fairly convincingly. But an 11-point 76er win in game four behind 20 boards from rookie Barkley not only staved off a sweep, it gave them renewed confidence.
However the agitating Maxwell fanned the flames of the rivalry, saying of the impending fifth game, "I think it is probably going to be a mercy killing; they are ready to die."
In that game five at Boston, the fired-up 76ers didn't die easily as they battled the hosts tooth and nail the whole way. The Celtics did not want to go back to Philadelphia for a sixth game, and the fifth contest turned into another classic, capped by a dramatic fourth period.
Boston held a precarious 56-51 lead at halftime of the tense physical battle, and was ahead 81-77 after three stanzas when consecutive baskets by Cheeks halved the 76er deficit.
Led by the digged defense of DJ, the Celtics managed to slow Toney down, holding him to just 13 points on five of 12 shooting in 34 minutes.
Down just 93-92 after a Toney jumper, Dr. J went for an ill-advised steal and paid dearly for it. He missed the pass and over-ran Larry, whom he was guarding. The gamble left Bird open to knock down a 17-foot leaner from the center of the circle.
Eighth-year Philly head coach and Hall of Fame player Cunningham took the struggling Erving out of the game. In the series, Dr. J averaged just 14 points and 5.2 rebounds a game while shooting an anemic 32 percent from the field. Ainge then stole the ball and McHale splashed two foul shots for a 97-93 lead with 3:44 to go.
Next, Parish came up with a swipe but then lost a long lead pass out of bounds when Jones hustled back and knocked the pass off his fingers. The speedy and high-flying 6-9 Jones, the most ambidextrous forward not named Bird in the NBA, followed by banking in a pretty left-handed reverse layup at the 3:05 mark.
McHale split a pair of free tosses a minute later, and Ainge made another big steal off a bad 76er entry pass. Two clutch DJ foul shots with 1:40 to go gave Boston a 100-95 advantage. Just one hundred seconds stood between Boston and a Finals rematch with the Lakers.
Yet the 76ers would not go away. "Plenty of time, plenty of time," cautioned Cunningham from the Sixer bench.
The effusive and loose Barkley, at the time aka Boy Gorge and the Round Mound of Rebound, took a gutsy trifecta from out top and drained it (he made four of five treys in the series) to get the 76ers back within striking distance, down just two with 90 seconds left.
DJ continued his clutch shooting by sizing up an open shot from the top of the key before launching it. The clutch Celtic guard got a good bounce off the rim and glass before the ball went through the net for a 102-98 lead.
Inserted back in the game, a proud and motivated 35-year old Dr. J showed he could still soar. He swooped to his right into the lane, palming the ball with an outstretched right arm. Erving then flicked a flying finger roll that spun off the front iron and glass before nestling into the hoop.
Boston was clinging to a 102-100 lead when it went to fourth period maven Bird for the knockout punch. Larry, shooting just 6-of-16 to that point, fired an 18-footer from the right wing over Erving. The shot was on line yet a tad short. The ball bounded up into the air and it appeared perennial rebound leader Malone or Barkley would gobble up the carom.
But then the feisty Ainge then made one of the biggest plays of the night, one that didn't show up by his name in the boxscore. The 6-4 guard surprised Philly's big board men by crashing the offensive glass in pursuit of the miss, and Danny ripped the ball out of the bruising 6-10 Malone's grasp.
The ricocheting leather then bounced out of bounds off the burly Barkley, giving Boston the ball again with a fresh shot clock and only 33 seconds remaining. Instead of Philly having a chance to set up a play and go for the tie or lead, the Celtics had a fresh clock and an all-important possession.
Boston held the ball as the clock wound down, with DJ dribbling out top while patiently waiting for Bird to pop out of a double stack near the baseline, guarded closely guarded by Erving as Barkley provided help.
Bird eventually got the ball on the right wing with 15 seconds to go and drove past Erving to his left into the lane. The good Doctor gave Larry a serious grab as he neared the right elbow, but there was no call, not in that situation, even in Boston. The sneaky hold by Dr. J knocked Bird's timing off enough to make him miss an indecisive, wrong-footed lane runner from roughly 11 feet.
The shot was on line but short, and the precious rebound bounced to Erving, who raced out in transition yet bumped into teammate Toney before regaining possession. The 76ers were over-eager and disorganized yet still had a chance to tie - or even win on a trey as the Celtics scrambled back on defense.
It was great theater, and a classic denouement was in the works.
Bird sprinted back after his potential game-clinching miss, displaying underrated speed at crunch time, determined to make up for his late misses. Defensive stopper DJ picked up Erving near the left sideline just past halfcourt, so Dr. J passed the ball ahead to Toney in the deep left corner directly in front of the Philly bench.
Bird, aware of how dangerous Andrew was, ran straight to the quick guard and pinned him in the left corner as the clock wound down.
Not only did Larry crowd him aggressively in a perfectly crouched defensive stance, he cleverly positioned himself near the sideline and baseline for extra help.
As Toney hesitated briefly and Cunningham contemplated a timeout, the tension rose. Play continued since the Sixers felt Toney might be able to take advantage of the much bigger Bird off the dribble.
Usually Andrew would size up his defender for a moment, then either beat him off the bounce all the way to the basket, launch a jumper, or start a hard drive, only to stop on a dime and fire a deadly mid-range pull-up shot. It was that last option which was hardest to stop.
Yet before Toney could even make a move of any kind, Bird quickly snaked his left hand in at the ball being held in front of Andrew's stomach and pried it loose. As a shocked Toney froze, Larry snared the loose sphere out of midair, all in one incredibly fast motion.
Three seconds remained. Toney inexplicably ran away from Bird upcourt instead of fouling him, seemingly intimidated or unaware of time and score. Or maybe he was just under Bird's late-game spell as he added to his tapestry of great game-clinching plays.
Larry Legend then crouched low, dribbled out two seconds as Barkley desperately ran toward him, and calmly threw a crosscourt pass over the Chuck Wagon to Ainge to run out the clock.
Deus ex machina. Game and series over, 4-1. Rivalry over.
Larry smiled broadly, raised both arms in the air briefly, pumped both fists and clapped his hands in self-congratulation as he headed toward the Garden tunnel. An excited Maxwell ran up to Bird and high-tenned Larry while a sullen Malone passed by silently in front of them.
The bitterness of the rivalry ran so deep that Moses certainly was not going to congratulate Bird, who had also beaten his Rocket team in the 1981 Finals.
No handshakes were fortchcoming from Doctor J, the game's ambassador of good sportsmanship, either. Carr high-fived Bird and so did backup rookie guard Rick Carlisle, clad in streetclothes.
The clutch DJ, who led all five Boston starters who tallied double figures with 23 points, went over and shook Cunningham's hand warmly as the rival clubs descended toward the locker rooms. It would be the last game Billy C coached in the NBA.
The Sixers dejectedly trudged to their locker room while Boston and their fans celebrated. McHale stretched his long arms skyward as he entered the tunnel, seemingly almost high enough to touch the championship banners above the parquet floor.
The win allowed Boston to exhale a sigh of relief. Despite an off night shooting, the versatile and resourceful Bird found a way to save the day at the end, and the banged-up Celtics were able to avoid being extended to six or seven games before facing the healthier Lakers.
After the big win, Bird was thoughtful in the triumphant locker room. "It's never easy against Philadelphia...there's no greater time I have had in basketball than going out and beating the 76ers." He had scored 20.8 ppg in the series, second to McHale's series-best 21.2, while Toney was held to 17.6 ppg.
Thus in 1985 the Celtics evened their 1980's playoff rivalry with the rival 76ers at two series wins apiece. Each team won 12 games during their 24 epic conference final meetings in 1980-81-82-85.
If one takes away the 40-point bombing by Boston in game 1 of the 1982 ECF, the total point differential in the other 23 games was a mere plus-seven for the Celtics.
Yet after losing game four of the 1981 conference finals, Boston came on strong and won 10 of their last 15 eastern final meetings, including four blowouts. And after 1985, the aging 76ers declined, and never returned to the conference finals again until 2001.
Since the Bird steal that dramatically ended the series, the two foes have not met again in a conference finals almost 30 years later, and are not likely to again anytime soon.
From 1980 through 1987, Boston and the 76ers shared all eight Eastern Conference titles to represent the East in every NBA Finals, and combined to win a total of four championships. The Celtics captured five Eastern crowns and three NBA banners, Philly three East titles and one league title trophy.
By 1987, the rising young Pistons had replaced the 76ers as Boston's major Eastern Conference nemesis. Defensive ace Jones retired in 1986, Moses was traded to the Bullets, Toney's career was prematurely ended by recurrent foot injuries, and Dr. J hung up his shoes for good after a first round playoff loss to the Bucks in 1987.
In the second round in 1985, Boston won an offensively-oriented series over the Pistons, 4-2. Detroit realized they could not outscore the Celtics, and changed their identity. When the foes met again two years later, the series bore little resemblance to the shootout of 1985.
The 1985 Pistons were a run and gun squad with sharpshooter John Long and high-scoring Kelly Tripucka in their lineup. Yet they transformed into a defensive, physical juggernaut after a big trade of Tripucka to Utah for Adrian Dantley, the 1986 drafting of shot-blocking frontcourt rookies John Salley and Dennis Rodman, the acquisition of bruising Rick Mahorn and the development of Dumars to replace Long.
The Hawks actually edged Detroit for the Central Division crown in 1987 and lost out by only two games to Boston for the best record in the conference and home court advantage.
But the new defensive-minded, rough and tumble Pistons whipped Atlanta 4-1 in one east semifinals while Boston barely avoided blowing a 3-1 lead and edged Milwaukee 4-3 in their series to set up what was to become a classic series worthy of the old Celtic/76er eastern final hoop wars.
Boston won the first two games at home by 13 and nine points as the younger Pistons appeared a bit overwhelmed by the setting. But then Detroit, playing back-to-back weekend games at home in the raucous, cavernous Silverdome, evened the series with two convincing victories over a beat-up Celtic team that suddenly looked old and very vulnerable.
For an injured Walton, it had to be an unpleasant reminder of the infamous "Lost Weekend" his top-ranked UCLA team had suffered on the Oregon trail during his senior season of 1974.
His two-time defending champion Bruins were upset by Oregon State and Oregon (ironically coached by Dick Harter, a Piston assistant in 1987) on consecutive weekend nights and were toppled from their perch atop the college basketball world, never to return. Making the losses even more inexplicable was the fact UCLA had just blown out both Oregon teams the previous week.
With UCLA's aura of invincibility finally punctured, their unprecedented run of seven consecutive national crowns would end at the Final Four the next month in double overtime at the hands of N.C. State and David Thompson.
Bird had been thrown out of game three, along with Parish, after uncharacteristically losing his cool following a brutal takedown by Bill Laimbeer and Rodman. It appeared the tiring, older Celtics might be unraveling under the strain of an injury-plagued season, consecutive tough series, and the pressure to repeat.
The defending champion Gang Green Celtics sought to avoid the same fate the Walton Gang had suffered 13 years earlier, and dug deep to come up with an epic answer to the hungry and healthier Pistons.
Ultimately, it took an unbelievable steal by Bird and clutch finish by DJ to snatch victory from the venomous jaws of the Pistons, while an injured, forlorn Walton could only watch this time from the bench as Bird's self-described valet.
Thus came the unforgettable fifth game in the epic '87 ECF. Boston led throughout but the Pistons kept coming. Parish slugged Detroit center/agitator Laimbeer multiple times and broke his nose, but was not even called for a foul (although the NBA later suspended him for game six).
Finally, Isiah Thomas put Detroit ahead 107-106 in the final seconds when he bumped away pesky defender Jerry Sichting to create space and drained a 17-foot jumper from the left side of the circle. After a timeout, Boston got the ball out, sideline left at halfcourt. The weary Celtics appeared to be fading and ready to be dethroned.
But a gaunt Bird smiled slyly at the refs as he pointed to make sure of the in-bound spot while walking over to pass the ball in. His smile was usually a bad sign for the opposition. A close observer could tell from his mischievous grin in a grim situation that Larry truly relished the game-ending chance to be the one who delivered the dagger.
Bird had already accomplished everything one could in the sport - multiple championships, first team all-league every year in the NBA, Rookie of the Year, three season MVPs, two playoff MVPs, etc. - and so he lived for such game-winning opportunities that made all his practice and preparation worthwhile.
He tossed the ball in and took a return pass at the left wing. Bird patiently jab-stepped, then drove past the slower 6-10 Mahorn along the left baseline with less than 10 seconds remaining. Knowing that Bird was almost certain to take the potential game-winning shot, the entire Detroit defense shifted to collapse on Larry.
As he elevated along the left baseline to release a tough hanging drive, Dennis Rodman, Thomas and Laimbeer all converged on Bird, who released a short double-clutch, off-balance runner.
Yet the high-flying Rodman soared in from the weak side and blocked the shot away toward the sideline. Sichting and Mahorn chased frantically after the loose ball, and the Piston big man cleverly bounced it out of bounds off Jerry's leg. He then confidently pointed toward Detroit's end to influence the call as the partisan Celtic crowd howled its disapproval.
On the bench, injured reserve Walton grabbed his head and red hair in disbelief, and the look on his face clearly spelled doom and defeat. Thomas and Dumars even celebrated briefly - and prematurely - by raising both arms in triumph and running upcourt several steps before returning for the important in bounds play.
Their excitable reaction to the play and call in their favor showed Detroit's general immaturity level, and revealed that their guard leaders lacked the poise and experience necessary to finish off a great champion in a close battle.
After referee Jess Kersey made the correct call to give the Pistons possession, Thomas quickly ran back downcourt and jumped out of bounds to throw the ball in. Piston coach Chuck Daly was frantically calling for timeout at the other end, but in his excitement and haste Thomas ignored him, intent on getting the ball in while Boston was stunned by the turn of events, and apparently disorganized.
Larry Legend couldn't go down this way, could he? Especially in the Garden.
Perhaps Isiah had seen Bird do a similar quick in-bounds pass late in game seven of the prior round vs. Milwaukee. Dennis Johnson made a spectacular block and save by jumping over the Buck bench while knocking the ball out of bounds off former Seattle teammate Jack Sikma.
Wanting to keep the momentum going, Bird signaled the referees frantically with his hands to get him the ball so he could in-bound the ball as quickly as possible while the Bucks were reeling. In that case, it worked as Boston survived a Milwaukee upset bid with a late run that erased a late deficit.
But ten days later at the same venue, Isiah's attempt to hurry a routine in-bounds pass backfired and helped create one of the greatest moments in NBA playoff history.
Bird was sitting on the floor near the foul line after his shot was blocked, probably angry. He got up and immediately and made contact with Dumars to prevent the good-shooting guard from getting the pass. He then quickly realized Thomas was going to pass in to Laimbeer, back toward the Boston basket instead of to Dumars, who was further away from Thomas.
Bird started to lean to his right and move almost imperceptibly toward Laimbeer, baiting Isiah. Then when Thomas floated the pass over a pressuring Sichting instead of throwing a crisp pass, Bird covered ground much faster than he was supposedly able to do toward the Detroit big man.
"Quickness is anticipation, and Larry Bird anticipated better than anyone," Walton would recall. "He was the smartest player in the world of basketball."
Laimbeer failed to come to the pass, a fundamental error, perhaps out of fatigue or inexperience, or maybe from not truly wanting the ball in such a high-pressure situation. Maybe it was momentary paralysis.
Whatever the reason, Laimbeer merely reached for the pass and the ball seemed to hang in the air, allowing Bird a chance to flash in front of him. Larry got his right hand on it and deflected it downwards to himself near the baseline, smartly flicking it and not hitting it too hard, or it could have gone out of bounds.
Bird quickly recovered the loose ball before it bounced out of bounds, stablized himself and as he tightroped the baseline, turned and calmly surveyed the court. It appeared that he even had his heels up in the air to avoid touching the baseline, so aware was he.
"AAAAAnnnd now there is a steal by Bird," described legendary Celtic announcer Johnny Most.
Kodak, as his first NBA coach Bill Fitch had called him, because he could take a mental picture and know where all 10 players on the court were at any given time.
Bird might have been the most calm person in the ancient Boston Garden, which came to its feet on the steal. Standing in front of the Boston bench, Walton's eyes got big and he began to raise his arms in anticipation of a spectacular Larry Legend finish.
Time seemed to slow down and for a moment it looked like Bird might try his patented behind the backboard shot from about 16 feet out along the left baseline to win it. It would have been an almost impossible shot and angle, especially under the circumstances, but then again Larry Legend had made a career-long habit of making the impossible possible, of proving doubters wrong.
But then he saw a white Celtic jersey streaking toward the lane. Instinctively from his defensive position beyond the three-point line on the same left side of the court as Larry, Dennis Johnson had begun cutting to the basket and the open lane as soon as he saw Bird flick the ball away from Laimbeer's grasp.
"I saw a white jersey and of course, it was Dee-JAY (cutting)," Bird would later say in his southern Indiana accent.
So instead of shooting, Larry fed Dennis perfectly in stride with a soft pass as he cut down the left side of the green lane. DJ under-hand scooped a tougher than it looked right-hand layup high off the glass from the left side. Not textbook, but effective.
"Underneath to DJ," continued Most. "He lays it in right at one second left!"
Thomas, realizing his horrible gaffe after being paralyzed for a second, rushed in behind Dennis to grab a potential rebound. But there was no carom forthcoming as Johnson's layup banked through the net with a second left to put Boston on top 108-107.
"What a play by Bird...Bird stole the in-bounding pass and laid it off to DJ, and DJ laid it up and in...Boston has a one-point lead...Oh my, this place is going crazy," exclaimed Most from his perch high atop the Boston Garden, which rumbled as it rarely had before. Maybe never.
The uber-concentration of Bird, who always competed hard until the final buzzer in true old-school fashion, compelled him to run back on defense to prevent a long pass. Meanwhile, DJ smartly jammed the in-bound passer, necessitating a Piston timeout.
Bird then walked straight into the arms of a waiting DJ for a big hug as he walked to the Celtic huddle while the crowd roared.
"I've always felt that if you give 100 percent every time you step on the floor, good things will happen," Bird would explain later of his hard-nosed Hoosier hoops philosophy.
Walton raised both arms in sheer glee and jubilation after the basket, smiling as broadly as possible. He gave injured teammate Scott Wedman a high-five. As the timeout wore on, the pro-Celtic crowd's roar crescendoed as the fans came to appreciate how improbable and great that winning steal and finish truly were.
And how close the Celtics had been to losing, being down 3-2 and heading to Detroit without a suspended Parish. To make the incredible play even more sweet, it came at the expense of the hated Pistons, who had showed the champions little or no respect while playing overly physical basketball.
Bird's iconic steal to win game five of a rancorous 1987 eastern finals is the most famous swipe by Larry Legend. The interception ranks right up there in Celtic lore with "Havlicek stole the ball" at the end of game seven in the 1965 eastern finals vs. the 76ers, and Gerald Henderson's game two pilfer and tying layup late in game two of the 1984 Finals vs. the Lakers.
"All they had to do was get the ball in and that game was over, the series was over, they had been pounding us in Detroit and it would have been so easy for them to close it out up there...and then, Isiah Thomas made a mistake he will remember the rest of his life," later recalled a beaming Walton, limited by a foot injury to cheerleader status.
"But I wasn't that surprised; I see Larry make that sort of play every day in practice," he crowed.
Dennis admitted years later it was the very favorite play of a long, storied career that saw him win three titles and a Finals MVP for Seattle in 1979. "It was almost like DJ was in Bird's head," said former Piston great Bob Lanier of the great synchronicity between the two highly-competitive teammates.
Many fans forget that with a second left, however, Detroit still had a chance to get off a winning shot after a timeout advanced the ball to halfcourt.
But Bird AGAIN anticipated the pass to Laimbeer along the sideline and made a high wall with his arms outstretched to crowd Big Bill. An intimidated Laimbeer mis-handled the ball before he was even able to get a shot off, clinching the epic win as the buzzer sounded.
Having held serve with another epic homecourt victory, Boston went on to win game seven 117-114 at the Garden in another thriller to clinch their fourth straight Eastern Conference crown a few days later.
"How could you forget about Larry Bird?" asked an incredulous Ainge 19 years later in a 2006 NBA TV documentary celebrating number 33's 50th birthday with their version of his 50 greatest moments. "When about anyone else would have quit, he kept playing." The steal was ranked as Bird's number one moment by the show.
"It just shows how Larry was destined or determined, or a combination of the two, to be special," Ainge added. "I think it's the single greatest play of his career."
Ironically, a college analogue of legendary two-fors by a future Olympic teammate of Bird also had its predecessor mostly forgotten, like Larry's great steal in 1985.
Almost every hoop fan remembers the historic 16-foot turnaround buzzer beater Christian Laettner swished to cap the epic Duke/Kentucky elite eight 1992 overtime battle and give the Devils a 104-103 win.
But two years earlier - the same time frame difference between Bird's biggest steals - he did almost the same exact thing, which has been largely forgotten. In Laettner's sophomore season, Duke trailed UConn 78-77 in the 1990 NCAA elite eight with just a few seconds left.
After a timeout, Laettner threw the ball in from halfcourt, received a return pass, took a dribble and drained an athletic, hanging, double-pump jump 15-footer from the left elbow as time ran out. How many 6-11 players had the body control and shooting touch to make such a difficult shot?
The clutch buzzer-beater sent Duke to the Final Four for the second of four straight times in his great career, 79-78.
Those two legendary baskets made Laettner the only man to ever hit TWO elite eight game winners, and he is the only one who will ever be able to lay claim to that distinction. Precious few people sink even one buzzer beater to make the Final Four, but two?
It's highly unlikely to even be in position to be the man to take two of those in a regional final - let alone make them both - especially today when most college stars leave for the pros after a season or two.
Yet the same could be said for Bird in 1985 and 1987. Two saving game five steals in the waning seconds of the East Finals from an All-Star guard against a fierce rival. Unbelievable.
Few people recall the 1990 buzzer-beater that beat UConn, much like few remember Larry's steal from Toney. Laettner's shot over Kentucky and Bird's steal against Thomas and Detroit in 1987 are simply so iconic, so ingrained in the minds of fans, that they they overshadow the prior, similar heroics.
Of course, Larry and Laettner were teammates on the original Olympic Dream Team in 1992, Bird's last hurrah and Christian's introduction to pro ball before his rookie season.
Larry often looked out for the lone collegian on the superstar-studded Olympic squad, frequently sitting by the awestruck 22-year old on the bus.
But that was Larry Bird - looking out for his teammates, as well as being a great leader and a superb all-around player. Bird was known best as a great shooter, passer and scorer, yet two of his most memorable plays were clutch, high-pressure playoff steals.
If he didn't beat you with his shooting, he did it with passing, rebounding, hustle, great basketball smarts, ambidexterity or some other bit of unexpected improvisation.
Thus even on a bad-shooting night in game five of the 1985 conference finals, the competitive and clutch Bird found a way to overcome it and beat even the fiercest of rivals in a true season-deciding situation.
Seven years after the Toney steal at Larry's 1992 retirement press conference, Bird pointed out that the battles vs. the 76ers, Erving, Moses, Toney and Bobby Jones during the 1980's were the most bitterly-fought rivalry games of his storied career - even bigger than the Laker showdowns, since they played Philly much more often.
Familiarity bred contempt, as well as respect.
Bird, who has a long memory (remember he fired Isiah as head coach upon his return to the helm of the Pacers and hired ex-teammate and assistant Carlisle), wouldn't even dignify the physical Piston rivalry in the retirement press conference.
Especially after the ridiculous, sour grapes post-game seven loss comments of Rodman and Thomas - which added insult to injury (literally and figuratively) to the tackle takedown by Laimbeer and Rodman in game three that could have severely injured Bird's already balky back. Or even ended the reigning three-time MVP's career in its prime.
But in his storied career full of buzzer-beaters and memorable plays, that Piston steal had to go down as one of his greatest plays ever. Possibly greater than the 76er pilfer considering the series score at the time.
Thus the quick hands and mind, underrated athleticism, competitiveness and heart of Larry Legend did in the 76ers and Pistons as he literally stole the 1985 and 1987 Eastern Conference titles with the game-changing swipes.
Just ask star guards Andrew Toney and Isiah Thomas how slow Bird wasn't. Even Billy Hoyle couldn't have fooled them as well.
If you wish to contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.