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Happy Birthday Larry Bird: Remembering the Legend's 12 Greatest NBA Championship Series Performances

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Does his epic "sauna" game in the classic 1984 Finals Game 5 win over the Lakers top the list?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With his 58th birthday coinciding with Pearl Harbor Day, it seems a good time to review and list the top 12 Finals contest performances in the storied career of Celtic legend Larry Bird. 

Bird played in 31 championship series games over five trips to the Finals, leading the Celtics to three crowns and a 16-15 overall record. 

Other than the 1984 seven-game classic victory over Los Angeles, the other four Finals he played in each went six contests, with two being injury-plagued losses to the hated Lakers.

With opposing defenses always geared up to stop him and Larry not benefiting from a big size and reach advantage at his position like rivals Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin Johnson, Bird occasionally suffered through some scoring struggles, at least by his lofty standards, in a few Finals contests.

But what set him apart was his ability to beat you in other ways if his shot wasn't as deadly as usual. Larry could defeat you with rebounds (21 in game one of the 1981 Finals, a series where he averaged 15.3 caroms an outing, and 21 again in game 4 in 1984), great passing, tremendous shooting from all angles and the foul line, creativity, and just incredible basketball smarts, will to win and determination.

The list of players could beat you as many ways as Bird could and did is very short: John Havlicek, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, perhaps Walt Frazier and Rick Barry.

And so without further ado, on to my dozen best of Bird in the Finals. 

12) Game 7, 1984 Finals

Even though it was not one of his best championship series contests statistically, it would be remiss not to list perhaps Bird's most satisfying Finals moment.

In their first NBA Finals showdown, Bird avenged his college title defeat to Earvin Johnson and led the Celtics to a hard-fought game seven win in the classic 1984 Finals over the arch-rival Lakers before a raucous Garden crowd. 

Larry tallied a solid 20 points and 12 rebounds in the finale, canning all eight of his free throws. He drained four foul shots in a row in the waning seconds to score the last four points of the epic series and clinch a hard-fought 111-102 victory. 

With the Laker defense keying on Larry, his fine passing helped set up clutch teammate Cedric Maxwell for a team-high 24 points. And his stellar board work helped Boston whip LA on the glass in perhaps the decisive factor of the game, 52-33.

Long-time CBS announcer Brent Musburger informed Bird during the locker room post-game celebration that he would have likely been named MVP, even if Boston had lost.

At the end of their post-game interview, Musburger asked Larry if the series triumph "got him even with Magic Johnson after all these years," a reference to the gut-wrenching 1979 NCAA finals defeat suffered by Bird and his previously unbeaten, 33-0 Indiana State team to Michigan State.

That crushing defeat still gnaws at him to this day, so much so that Bird has never watched that game on a replay of any kind since it took place over 35 years ago.

As usual, Bird played it close to the vest in his answer but reading between the lines, one could sense the deeper truth in his answer to Musburger's probing query. 

"We don't talk about that, we're professionals now...but I won this one for Terre Haute," he said, referring to the home campus of Indiana State.

"You sure did," beamed an admiring Musburger. Much later that night though, deep into the celebration, Bird confided to teammate Quinn Buckner these telling words about the titanic win over his nemesis Johnson: "I got him, I finally got him."

While game seven in 1984 wasn't one of his very best championship series performances, it was probably Larry Bird's most gratifying.

11) Game 4, 1987 Finals

This contest was probably the toughest defeat to swallow of Bird's professional career, yet his nearly heroic and stoic reaction to the loss, after just missing a gutsy long shot at the buzzer, was a high-water mark for him in class and comportment under the most trying of basketball times. 

Perhaps because he had been through so much disappointment and numerous personal setbacks in his life, Bird was able to handle the miss in stride with characteristic stoicism.

"I'm not going to take no three (at the end) like he did," admitted Earvin Johnson after his junior sky hook finished the improbable LA rally, aided by numerous bad calls. "I will stick to the two and under shots," he laughed.

Bird had put Boston ahead 106-104 with a left corner triple seconds before the last miss, despite James Worthy literally holding onto him with two hands by the jersey so hard that he almost pulled his number 33 off before Larry broke free by back-pedaling into the deep corner. 

Then after he caught the pass from Danny Ainge and released the long shot, Bird was hit on the arm by Mychal Thompson on the follow through. No call was made on either foul, and it could easily have been a four-piint play to give Boston a three-point lead.

However, after a missed Jabbar foul shot was batted out of bounds by Thompson after he shoved McHale in the back going for the rebound, LA was given another chance when referee Hugh Evans ruled the ball belonged to the Lakers with seven seconds left. 

Johnson then hit his running hook in the lane past a hobbled McHale with two seconds remaining to put the visitors ahead, 107-106.

After a timeout, Bird took a fine halfcourt in-bounds pass from Dennis Johnson, turned and launched a rushed left side bomb over a scrambling Worthy. The shot was on line but just a hair long, and after hitting the rim and bounding high into the air, the ball bounced to the floor harmlessly as the final buzzer sounded.

Indeed, the scoreboard operator and everyone else seemed shocked that Boston had blown a huge lead and the last shot had missed, so much so that he kept the buzzer on for several grating seconds. Even Pat Riley later said Bird looked at him after the shot as if to say "how could you leave me open?"

"Larry Bird seldom misses that shot, especially in Boston Garden," said a relieved Worthy later.

But instead of whining, falling to the floor, making facial gestures, claiming to have been fouled or making excuses as he was surrounded by celebrating Lakers in front of the LA bench, Larry did not change expression. 

He just walked off the floor immediately following the toughest loss of his NBA career - after Boston had blown a 16-point second half lead amid several blown referee calls to fall into a 3-1 hole.

Bird scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and passed out seven assists, but shot just 7-of-19 from the field, although he hit two of three beyond the arc and all five of his foul shots.

An incredible 14 to one free throw advantage for the Lakers in the fourth quarter at Boston Garden, as well as severe fatigue by a hobbled and short-handed Celtic team, go a long way toward explaining the loss. 

Notorious "road referee" Earl Strom and Hugh Evans, who had also teamed to officiate the Boston game six loss to LA in the clincher of the 1985 Finals, called game four in 1987. Strom even admitted in his autobiography "Calling the Shots" that his partner Evans blew an obvious goaltending call in the second half that cost Boston a basket.

Evans had also fouled out McHale late in game 6 in 1985 on a very poor call, sending Kevin and his 32 points and 16 rebounds to the bench, sealing Boston's doom.

In the second half of game four in 1987, Bird also blocked and stripped a Byron Scott baseline drive cleanly from behind, yet was called for a two-shot foul by Evans. A melee broke out, with A.C. Green and Scott both shoving McHale and trying to start a fight, but no technicals were called.

As chaos reigned on the court Bird calmly palmed the ball, walked right up to Evans and looked him straight in the eye, not saying a word. He then shook his head disapprovingly at him and handed Evans the ball in silent protest of the ridiculously bad foul call.

Yet instead of complaining afterward, as Boston could have justifiably, they did not. A very sportsmanlike Bird even went so far as to shake his head at the post-game press conference and generously call Johnson "the best I've ever seen."

After the series, Bill Russell recognized Bird's classy, no-excuses demeanor despite the bad calls, all the injuries and death (Bias) Boston fought through in 1987 only to come up just short. The Celtic legend told Bird that "the way you conducted yourself made me proud to be a Celtic."

Amen. Sometimes true champions aren't crowned by the final tally on the scoreboard, and no NBA team ever exemplified this more than the 1987 Celtics.

10) Game 1, 1987 Finals

Even though the Celtics were beaten 126-113, Bird turned in one of the best shooting nights of his Finals career. Larry sank 14 of 25 shots from the floor and all four of his free throws for 32 points, the second-most of his championship series tapestry. 

In one stretch, he made 11 consecutive shots in a desperate yet ultimately futile attempt to keep weary and beaten-up Boston in the game. 
One of the best shots he made was a driving transition scoop shot off glass he willed into the hoop under the arm of the 7-2 Jabbar. Bird added seven rebounds, six assists and a steal in the defeat.

9) Game 4, 1984 Finals

Shooting-wise, Larry did not enjoy one of his best games, connecting on just nine for 24 from the floor. But he did convert all 10 of his foul shots and one of three from three-point land for 29 points, and his last shot was arguably the biggest single basket of his Finals career. 

With the game knotted 123-123 in a tense overtime battle, Earvin Johnson blew a pair of foul shots and Bird rebounded. After a timeout, on offense he moved furiously without the ball to get a chance to put up the tiebreaking shot, leaving a fallen Michael Cooper in his wake. 

Johnson picked up Bird on a switch, and the hungry Larry sensed the perfect opportunity to burn his nemesis. Bird took Johnson into the mid-post area, called for the ball and then swished a perfect 13-foot fallaway from the left side of the lane over the helpless Laker to give Boston the lead for good. 

Their dramatic 129-125 OT road win tied the series 2-2 and was the turning point in the 4-3 Celtic series victory, a Finals many think was the best ever.

Bird also pulled down a series-best 21 rebounds, nine more than any player on either team, in 49 grueling minutes of play. At 6-9 in a series featuring several as tall or taller players and better leapers, that extremely high total of caroms displays his sheer determination, desire and great positioning.

8) Game 3, 1987 Finals

With the injury-plagued Celtics down 2-0 to a younger and healthy LA club hungry to regain the title from Boston, much of the media talk surrounding the series centered around a potential Laker sweep, not a possible Celtic comeback. But Celtic pride would not allow such a thing, especially on the hallowed parquet.

Bird began the crucial contest by missing his first six shots from the field, as well as his first foul shot, while LA ran out to an early lead of 29-22. 

But then Larry warmed up in the second period, drilling his next six shots. After the slow start he canned 10 for 18 from the floor and shot a perfect 10-10 at the foul line for 30 points. 

He also yanked down a game-high dozen rebounds and pased out four assists as the Celtics, with a career game from unlikely hero Greg Kite, stayed alive with a must-have 109-103 victory.

7) Game 4, 1986 Finals

Having just lost a bitter third game 106-104 that trimmed their series lead over Houston to 2-1, Boston faced a loud and angry Summit crowd in Texas for game four. 

The game was tight all the way. It was tied 30-30 after one period, the Rockets led 64-63 at the half while the visiting Celtics nosed ahead 86-85 heading into the final stanza.

With Houston right on their heels in the final minutes, K.C. Jones cleverly inserted sixth man Bill Walton into the game at a key juncture. The big redhead converted a huge offensive rebound reverse layup to make him a perfect 5-5 shooting on the game. 

But perhaps his biggest play came when he attracted a double team and tossed a perfectly timed, one-handed pass out to Bird spotting up behind the three-point line on the wing. An open Larry launched a clinching trey that swished through the nets so perfectly that it barely rippled the nets.

The shot was the dagger that for all intents and purposes, won the series.

As he had done five years earlier at the same half of the Summit floor, Bird hit a backbreaking triple at Houston to put away the Rockets. He loved to shut up a visiting crowd with a big shot, and his clutch three from Walton gave Boston a 106-103 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead, paving the way to their 16th banner a few days later.

Larry scored 21 points on nine of 17 shooting to help lead a balanced Boston attack. With his superb court vision, he dished out a game-high 10 assists and also grabbed nine rebounds to just miss a triple-double.

6) Game 2, 1986 Finals

In a 117-95 whipping of the Rockets at Boston, Bird put on a magnificent all-around display. All Larry did was drain 12 of 19 shots from the field, splash three of five beyond the arc, and can all four of his foul shots for a game-high 31 points.

Bird also grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists, made four steals and blocked a pair of shots. In perhaps his best pass, he faked a behind the back dish to completely fool the rotating Rocket defense, then whipped a pass to an open Jerry Sichting for a baseline jumper.

Another time he faked an open three-pointer, and in the same motion tossed a perfect alley-oop to Robert Parish for an easy basket.

Boston crushed Houston 63-39 over the middle quarters to break open a close game against his former coach and future Hall of Fame co-presenter, Bill Fitch.

5) Game 4, 1985 Finals

Amid an extremely hostile Forum atmosphere, Boston trailed 2-1 and faced a must-win situation due to the implementation of the new 2-3-2 format which promised a potential clinching fifth game in LA on the horizon if the Celts lost.

The Celtics trailed 90-83 when Larry put on one of the greatest three-minute displays of all-around brilliance in Finals history to single-handedly will Boston back from the brink of near elimination.

First he blocked a Bob McAdoo jumper from the side and forced a jump ball, which he won. He then buried a 22-footer from the right wing. Larry then grabbed an offensive rebound, put in a left-handed follow and was fouled, completing the old-fashioned three-point play at the line. 

He then stole a backdoor feed from Jabbar by baiting the Laker center into throwing a pass to Earvin Johnson with a jab step and retreat move, and easily intercepted the dish to the cutting Laker guard. 

Larry then faked a pass, drove left into the lane and swished a pretty double-clutch scoop, but the gorgeous shot was waved off due to an illegal defense Laker technical foul call.

Bird calmly canned the foul shot that he had forced with his fake pass. He then anticipated a teammate miss and muscled into perfect rebounding position. 

He hauled down yet another offensive rebound and tried his patented over the head reverse layin for the stickback, but the spectacular shot rolled around the rim and out for his only "misplay" during the run where he took over the game.

At the other end, Larry hustled back and fronted Jabbar in the post. After taking a forearm to the back of the head from Kareem, he deflected the 7-2 center's kickout pass for another steal. 

He then sprinted out, took a long pass, lined up an open 18-footer along the left side in front of the LA bench, and swished the jumper.

His incredible display got Boston back in the game for the stretch run and completely changed the momentum as the Celtics snagged a slim lead. 

Eight points on two long jumpers, a three-point play, and a foul shot, plus two offensive boards, two great steals, and a blocked shot all in a short time span. Whew.

The teams trade haymakers the rest of the way, with Danny Ainge nailing two huge long jumpers on passes from Bird to help tie the score at 105-105 in the final seconds. All eyes in the Forum and millions worldwide via TV were trained on Bird, expecting the clutch marksman to take the final shot. 

As Dennis Johnson dribbled out top, Larry curled around a double screen on the low right block, took a pass and drove into the circle as the Lakers desperately doubled him to prevent a last-second winner by the game's best clutch shooter. 

Earvin Johnson swiped at the ball as he came over to help, yet Larry smartly anticipated this maneuver and protected the ball well with both hands as he split the defense above the foul line. 

But instead of forcing a tough off balance shot as most superstars might have done in an attmept to be the hero, Larry kept his poise and kicked the ball out to his left to an open Dennis Johnson, whom the Laker guard had abandoned to double Bird. 

DJ let fly from 20 feet and his shot swished through the net just before the final buzzer sounded to tie the series in dramatic fashion, 107-105. 

Bird and the Celtics celebrated wildly before a Laker crowd stunned into silence at midcourt, having narrowly avoided a 3-1 deficit and almost certain defeat. 

Larry made half of his mere 16 field tries and canned 10 of 12 from the charity stripe to tally 26 points. Dogged all over the court by the thinly-veiled Laker zone defense, he refused to be baited into forcing bad shots and instead spread the floor with spacing, shooting and deft passing. 

Few great players would be able to show the discipline needed under such pressure to not make mistakes and force shots and passes when the entire offense was predicated on Larry making plays.

In addition, he also imposed his will on the game by grabbing 11 rebounds. He doled out five assists (including the game-winner), made three steals and added a block, all while making just one turnover in 43 fierce minutes under great pressure.

4) Game 6, 1986 Finals

The Boston Garden was ready to draw Houston blood after 7-4 Ralph Sampson punched diminutive Jerry Sichting in the prior contest to set off a bench-clearing brawl in the Summit. 

As Bird told his teammates in the locker room before the tip-off, "if we don't give them (Rocket) blood, they will want ours." 

The Celtics came out so fired-up that they missed several foul shots early. Bird later said his heart was beating harder than it ever had before a game. An intimidated Sampson did not make a field goal until the second half and was a non-factor, scoring eight incidental points in 38 minutes.

Meanwhile, a pumped-up Bird pieced together a 29-point, 11-rebound, 12-assist triple double effort. Chief among the most memorable plays was when he scooped up a mistimed Walton pass while cutting across the side of the lane, dribbled out behind the three-point line in serpentine fashion and buried a left corner trey.

On another play he outfought the Rockets for an offensive rebound directly under the basket, turned and while falling out of bounds fed Kevin McHale for a layup.

As Walton later recalled Bird's all-around tour de force display, he said number 33 had gone out and "painted the perfect Larry Bird masterpiece." He added three steals to his stat line and sank two of three three-pointers, as well as 11 of 12 foul shots.

Bird himself later said his heart was pounding harder than it ever had before a game that day, and he never reached that same level of excited anticipation before a contest again.

After the series, Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon called Finals MVP Bird the "best all-around player I have ever seen." On the heels of his third consecutive regular season MVP and his second Finals MVP in three years, it seemed more than an appropriate, if not a patently obvious statement. But a telling and well-deserved admission, nonetheless, from a fierce and great opponent.

3) Game 1, 1981 Finals

In the very first game of his Finals career, Bird and Boston took on the upstart Rockets, led by rebounding machine Moses Malone. 
Houston had upset the defending champion Lakers in the first round while Boston had come from 3-1 down to beat the rival 76ers in a conference finals for the ages. 

Suffering from a physical and emotional hangover when the 40-42 Rockets came to town two days later, the sluggish Celtics trailed much of the game as Houston slowed the pace to a physical snail's pace. 

Then Bird made the play of the series that woke up the crowd and Gang Green. He shot a 16-footer from the right elbow and immediately sensed it was off to the right. 

Bird instinctively went to the spot along the right baseline where he anticipated the long rebound and caught the carom in midair. While suspended in midair off the ground, he switched the ball to his left hand as he floated out of bounds and tossed in a soft southpaw nine-footer that swished through.

The crowd roared its appreciation and the team got a huge shot in the arm. Red Auerbach called it the greatest play he had ever seen after the game. Courtside on CBS, Bill Russell also called it a truly great play. 

Only a basketball savant with great ambidexterity, body control and touch like Bird could have pulled off such an amazing play. Just to get the rebound and anticipate the bounce was impressive. To finish it off by making a left-handed floater going out of bounds to his right was a once-in-a-lifetime play, especially considering the circumstances and what was at stake.

The incredible shot brought Boston within a point, broguht the crowd to life and inspired the Celtics to end the game on a winning spurt.

Larry then snared a high-flying defensive rebound and tossed a long outlet to Cedric Maxwell for a fast break dunk that capped the splurge and put Boston ahead 96-91 in the final minutes.

Moments later in the close contest, Boston was clinging to a 96-95 lead in the final 25 seconds. Robert Parish missed a left baseline jumper and Bird out-tipped the bigger Malone for the weakside rebound, his 20th carom of the game. 

Malone fouled him on the head as he went up for the putback, but no call was made as it came up short. Yet Larry doggedly stayed with it, grabbed another offensive rebound, then gave a head fake to freeze the multiple defenders forming a crowd around the hoop.

He then patiently took a dribble along the baseline, emerged on the other side and banked in a pretty left-handed reverse layup for his 18th point with 15 seconds to go that clinched the final outcome, 98-95. Once again, great poise under pressure.

"I want the ball in them situations," explained Larry in his southern Indiana accent. Indeed. Eighteen points, 21 rebounds and nine assists, and the clinching shot to boot made for a pretty impressive Finals debut.

2) Game 6, 1981 Finals

Boston led a surprisingly tough championship series 3-2 when they headed to Houston for game six in search of their first title since 1976. 

Larry, at the end of his grueling second season, had struggled to score in the three prior outings against the tough defense of the slowdown Rockets and 6-8 defensive ace Robert Reid. He was catching some media criticism, despite his great contributions in other areas (over 15 rebounds per game, as well as leading the team in steals and assists).

But in this contest Bird busted out in superstar fashion, answering his critics with both barrels like a true champion. His eight third period points helped break open a close game. The Celtics held a seemingly safe 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, but a big late run by the hometown Rockets sliced the deficit to just 86=83 as the Summit stadium rocked to its core.

The championship that seemed secure moments before now was in doubt.

Larry then took over and drilled three straight jump shots to quiet the crowd and stem the Rocket rally. (A fourth basket on a pull-up jumper from the circle was disallowed for a questionable palming call that would never get called today, let alone on a superstar). 

Yet with feisty Houston buoyed by its partisan crowd they still managed to hang within striking distance. 

Scrambling Houston was still very much alive with 90 seconds left when Bird then put the final stake in their heart. He took a swing pass from Chris Ford and swished a left corner trey to double the lead to six. He then took a charge and made a diving steal to keep the Rockets at bay.

When Houston guard Mike Dunleavy missed a corner three in the final half minute, it was the sure-handed Bird who came down with the defensive board amid a crowd to seal the outcome, the last of his 13 rebounds. And per usual, he passed beautifully as well, including a behind the back dish to Parish for an open jumper.

Boston went on to win 102-91 to clinch the first championship of the Bird era, and their first crown since the days of John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and JoJo White. 

Later, a grinning Larry took the cigar out of a happy Red Auerbach's mouth and puffed on it in the victorious locker room. He had scored a game-high 27 points, including nine of the team's 11 in the decisive late run, and answered his critics emphatically. 

1) Game 5, 1984 Finals

This was clearly Bird's best individual performance among all of his 31 Finals games. With the titanic series tied 2-2 after a pair of overtime classic wins by the Celtics, the rival teams went into the pivotal fifth game amid stifling 97-degree Boston Garden heat and humidity, without air conditioning.

While the Lakers were huffing and puffing, Jabbar was sucking on an oxygen mask but Bird was "looking fresh as a daisy", noted Laker coach Pat Riley after the impressive 121-103 Celtic victory. 

The blowout win signaled a clear tipping point in the seesaw series to the Celtics, and they would control most of the last 3.5 games of the Finals after defensive ace Dennis Johnson finally switched to guard Earvin Johnson.

Perhaps the oppressive warmth inside the ancient Garden served to loosen up the tightly-muscled, highly driven Bird. Years later Celtic reserve guard Quinn Buckner recalled the extreme heat made worse by having over 15,000 people pressed together in the 56-year old facility. 

"I've lived in Texas, and I never felt heat like I felt that day," said Bird's pal and brief Indiana University teammate.

All Larry did in his dominant game five showing was shoot an astounding 15 of 20 from the field, nail both of his triple tries, score 34 points, and grab 17 rebounds, both easily game-best totals. 

He scored by posting up inside, hitting from outside, from mid-range, on putbacks and drives. His three-pointer as the shot clock ended near the close of the third period put the hosts ahead 88-77 and was a classic Bird gut-punch that lifted the Boston crowd to a frenzied pitch. 

As he strode triumphantly to the bench, Bird uncharacteristically kept his right arm extended well over his head for multiple high fives, sending the nearly-beaten Lakers a message that he was now confident Boston was in charge of the series. He also contributed two steals and a blocked shot.

"Aw hell, I play in hotter weather back home in Indiana in the summer," said Bird when asked about the heat, probably a true statement but also a psychological ploy aginst the tiring Lakers.

"The difference tonight was Mr. Bird," Riley said succinctly.

"He's like a coal miner, he goes down and does the dirty work," said Celtic coach K.C. Jones, pointing up Bird's impressive 14.0 series rebound average per game in the epic 1984 Finals.

Bird enjoyed many more fine performances in his 21 other Finals contests, but the above were the 12 best, in my opinion. 

Of course, had his career begun in 1999 instead of 1979, he would probably have appeared in twice as many championship series and won close to two hands full of rings against the much weaker competition that Tim Duncan, LeBron James and other recent standoutts have feasted upon.

If you wish to email the author directly, you can reach Cort Reynolds at