Thirty-two years ago yesterday marked the anniversary of one of the greatest game 7s ever in NBA annals, as Larry Bird led Boston against arch-rival Earvin Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in a one-game, winner-take-all contest.
Not since Bird and Indiana State had matched up against Johnson and Michigan State five years before in the NCAA title game had the basketball world anticipated a showdown so much. At this time, the rival superstars had not yet become friends, so their antipathy added yet another layer to the seventh game showdown.
After four pro seasons passed where one or the other team made it to the Finals yet somehow managed to avoid one another, the league and hoop fans everywhere finally had the NBA version of a one-game championship bout between the league's two heavyweight teams and headline players.
As venerable Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan summed up, "It was a very highly-anticipated game of basketball." And how.
The matchups were delicious, with great undercards. Abdul-Jabbar vs. Parish. McHale vs. Worthy. DJ vs. Magic. K.C. Jones vs. Pat Riley. History, skill and tradition vs. perennial runner-up anger and talent. Parquet vs. smooth jazz. Green and white vs. purple and gold. Black vs. white. Red Auerbach vs. Jerry West. Cooper's sticky defense vs. Larry Legend.
And of course, the main bout of Larry Bird vs. Earvin Johnson.
The date of Tuesday June 12, 1984, marked the fourth championship series seventh game between the diametrically and geographically opposed Celtics and Lakers, and it was the third to take place in Boston.
The Celtic record in the prior game sevens vs. LA, all barnburners, was a perfect 3-0. But the margin of victory was very slim: 110-107 in OT in 1962, 95-93 in 1965 and 108-106 in 1969 at the Forum.
After Boston lost game one at home, most experts expected the Lakers to win going away. Somehow Boston, who won 62 games despite a tougher schedule (division and conference) became decided underdogs to a 54-win Laker team that barely got by a .500 Phoenix squad in the West finals and featured talented but raw playoff rookies like Worthy and Scott in key roles.
Boston rallied from a 1-2 deficit in the series to win a near-must fourth game classic in overtime at the Forum. Back home for game five, Larry Bird sizzled in 97-degree heat by making 15 of 20 shots from the field en route to 34 points and 17 rebounds in a 121-103 triumph that swung the series momentum squarely in Boston's favor.
If not for a second-half rally by the Lakers from a double-digit deficit back home in game six, the Celtics would have already wrapped up their 15th crown. Now they would have to try and finish it off in the Garden, site of so many agonizing Laker losses and memorable Celtic triumphs.
And so after a long and grueling eight-month season and playoffs, it all came down to one game in the highest-rated NBA TV telecast ever. Key seventh men for both teams, sharpshooters Bob McAdoo and Scott Wedman, were sidelined with injuries.
With the tension level at an all-time high, the teams battled to a 30-30 tie in game seven after one period. Boston edged in front 58-52 at the half before its raucous home crowd.
Then with Bird on the bench for a rare rest, the Celtics surged in front. It was as if they wanted to do it for Larry, or maybe the Lakers were so completely designed on defense to contain the versatile Bird that they didn't know what to do in the few moments he was sitting on the pines.
The determined Larry played 306 of a potential 346 minutes in the series, more than any player on either team, an average of nearly 44 per game.
Amid rumors that he was going to be let go as a free agent after the season, third-year guard Danny Ainge came up with 10 clutch points, including a pair of crucial outside jumpers while Bird was resting. His key outburst probably kept Danny in Celtic green for the next five years, as the multi-sport star developed into an All-Star.
Gangly forward Cedric Maxwell used his array of unorthodox inside moves and good post entry feeds from Larry to score and draw fouls. Cornbread sank 14 of 17 free throws en route to 24 points. DJ came up big as well. Yet the efficient inside offense of Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy, with 29 and 21 points, respectively, kept LA close.
With Larry cheering his teammates on from the pines and waving a towel in his best M.L Carr imitation, Boston built a 91-78 lead after three stanzas. Showing off a rare smile, Bird seemed to sense his revenge was nearly complete. The Garden scoreboard flashed "12 minutes until banner number 15" as the crowd roared.
But it was DJ who reminded his excited, prematurely celebrating teammates to get serious and back into the huddle since the game was far from over. And he was right to do so.
Four years earlier, LA amazingly overcome a 23-point second half deficit against his defending champion Sonics in game four of the 1980 West Finals, a loss that all but ended their repeat dreams and propelled LA to the title.
So Dennis was the grimmest and most serious of Celtics at the time, knowing it was not over until the fat lady sang.
In the fourth period, the Celtics started to play a little tentatively, milking the clock on their possessions and losing their natural offensive aggressiveness. The Lakers sensed this and took advantage of the opening to began a last-ditch rally. On one key play, Kurt Rambis kept a tip alive two times before LA put it back in.
Much maligned by some fans, Rambis was (according to Worthy) the key to the devastating Laker transition game with his defensive rebounding, outlet passing and underrated ability to run the fast break. Worthy was a terrible defensive rebounder who leaked out on the break, while Kareem in the latter stages of his career was not a good rebounder.
Johnson's value was amplified by his ability to rebound and lead the break immediately without an outlet pass. His rebounding numbers were helped by his immense size as a point guard (6'9", 230 lbs.) and the fact he had few good rebounders on his own team to contend with for boards.
Up near the Garden rafters (far from his Forum courtside seats) Laker superfan Jack Nicholson cheered on his revitalized Los Angelinos, thought to be dead moments earlier, on to a seventh game comeback that might end their longstanding Celtic curse.
Maxwell missed some rare foul shots, allowing the Lakers to creep closer. Abdul-Jabbar, whose Bucks had lost a seven-game classic to Boston ten years earlier, was determined not to have it happen again as he scored 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting.
The Lakers pulled within 105-102 in the final minute after Worthy nailed a pull-up 14-footer in transition. Bird went for the jugular at the other end, but when he drove to his left for a foul line fadeaway, Abdul-Jabbar anticipated smartly that Bird would try to hit the big shot dagger.
Kareem switched out and with his 7-foot-2 frame and reach made Larry arch his slightly-rushed fallaway just an extra inch too long off the back iron.
After the Lakers rebounded, Laker guard Johnson rushed upcourt and drove into the lane. But defensive ace DJ picked him clean and rushed back up the floor for what looked like the title-clincher.
Meanwhile, after being picked clean, Earvin Johnson had comically continued his move into the paint without the ball, hoping for a call but getting none while play raced in the other direction.
But Laker defensive ace Cooper hustled back to defend against Dennis, who was so intent on driving in for a layup that he missed a wide-open Bird on the right wing. The high-flying Cooper blocked DJ's shot off the backboard and LA got the ball back to Earvin Johnson.
The championship that seemed so certain moments earlier now hung in the balance as Johnson weaved downcourt, looking to cut the deficit to one or even tie it with a three-pointer. Another basket would definitely give the rallying Lakers all the momentum.
Instinctively, Johnson drove into the lane, looking for a foul or an easy shot. But the Celtic interior defense smartly anticipated his intentions. Again, used to getting every iffy call by initiating contact on his frequent no-advantage forays, Earvin forced penetration into the lane hoping for a gift foul.
But the tall, alert Celtic tandem of Parish and McHale each rose up and stuffed Earvin simultaneously. They did so skillfully while also avoiding body contact with Johnson, whose method of drawing cheap fouls when stopped was often to throw his body into the defense then flail, yell and fall down.
But in this most crucial of situations, there was no such bailout foul whistle forthcoming. Maybe in the Forum, but not in the Garden, especially when the double-block was clean.
The poor play and reaction of Johnson was reminiscent of his airball at the end of a series loss in 1981 vs. Houston, when the Lakers trailed by one and the play was designed to go into Abdul-Jabbar for his patented hook.
Earvin tried to be the star instead, left a 14-footer well short against the defense of 6-foot-2 Houston guard Tom Henderson, then claimed and acted like his arm had been hit, when replays showed Henderson never came close to touching Johnson's arm.
Fast forward three years later. Johnson inexplicably dribbled out the clock at the end of game two, forcing overtime which Boston won. In game four, with the score tied at the end of regulation he threw the ball to Parish. Then in overtime, he missed two critical foul shots with the score tied 123-123, then saw Bird swish the game-winning fallaway over him on a switch to even the series, 2-2.
After the McHale/Parish block, again DJ came up with the critical loose ball. Once more he drove hard downcourt to the hoop and this time drew a foul on Cooper as he lofted up a layup.
Dennis nailed two clutch foul shots to give him 22 points and a perfect 12 of 12 from the foul line on the night. Interestingly, after K.C. Jones switched Dennis onto Magic, the clutch DJ rose to the occasion and scored over 20 points in each of the last four games after starting the series very slowly.
The veteran guard had shot 0 for 14 in game seven of the 1978 Finals as his Sonics lost a close battle and the title to the Bullets. Embarrassed, the proud Johnson then rebounded to win the playoff MVP the next year for Seattle.
Then after a reputation-tarnishing stint in Phoenix, he resurrected his career in Boston and redeemed himself as a great pressure player again. And along the way, he avenged the 1980 Conference Final loss to Earvin and the Lakers, which ended his Sonic career as he was traded to Phoenix in the off-season for Paul Westphal in the famous All-Star "changing of the guards" deal.
Back in the final moments of 1984's game seven, LA missed again, and Bird rebounded and was fouled. After making the first foul shot, a drunk Celtic fan ran the length of the parquet floor from behind him to congratulate Larry as he stood at the charity stripe. Bird shook his hand, then shook his head in disbelief and retreated almost to halfcourt to regain his concentration.
Bird finally stepped back to the charity stripe and cleanly made the second shot to build the lead to 109-102 with less than 30 seconds to play in the first season of new league commissioner David Stern.
Worthy missed a long shot, Bird came up with the ball and refused to give it up, dribbling while fending Byron Scott away from the ball with his body until he was fouled.
He was savoring this win he had waited five long years for, and wanted to be the one to stick the final dagger into Earvin and the Lakers. No way was he going to give up that ball. Only after the foul was called did he give the precious sphere to DJ, who had been begging for the ball in front of the Celtic bench.
With the long-awaited title round revenge over his nemesis almost complete, Bird toed the line and nailed his seventh free throw in as many attempts.
He turned away from the line, clapped his hands in self-congratulation as if to say "that's it" and looked up at the scoreboard above the parquet to make sure the time and score was truly right. Reassured, he was able to finally to enjoy this hard-earned moment of triumph.
Boston had been embarrassingly swept out of the playoffs in 1983 by Milwaukee while the Lakers made their third NBA Finals appearance in four years, to just one by Bird and Boston (coming out of the much tougher East).
Now they were on the verge of avenging the most ignominious playoff finish in franchise history, even more gratifyingly at the expense of the rival Johnson and Los Angeles.
With his load finally lightened, number 33 then went back to the stripe and hit his eighth consecutive foul shot to seal the verdict with under a half-minute to go, 111-102. Somehow a bunch of powder got thrown onto the floor, and play was stopped for several minutes, prolonging the Laker agony.
"Oh, does it hurt when you know it's not going to be your year," said TV analyst and former Celtics great/coach Tom Heinsohn on CBS as the camera zoomed in on a dejected, beaten Earvin Johnson. It was as if Johnson could not believe he had lost.
After winning titles at the high school, college and pro levels by the tender age of 22, he had become grossly spoiled and had begun to believe in his own press clippings and Tinseltown invincibility.
On the bench, Maxwell and Carr mocked Earvin's pistol gun-point and wink style of congratulating himself and teammates after a good play. But out of respect, DJ declined to join in on the hijinks.
Behind the Celtic locker room doors, some Boston players called him "Cheesy" for his fake smile. McHale called him "Tragic" after his lethal mistakes in the 1984 Finals.
Many Celtic players came onto the floor to implore the excited home fans, now ringing the aged parquet floor ready to storm the court, to back up and let them finish the contest.
Finally play resumed. Johnson was open for three but passed off instead and Cooper missed a trey, the ball bounded out towards midcourt, and bedlam ensued as the buzzer sounded. Hundreds of delirious fans dressed in mid-June summer gear stormed the parquet floor.
Bird and his teammates literally fought their way to the victorious locker room. Coming down the tunnel, a dazed Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes mistakenly started to enter the Celtic locker room, then exited quickly after realizing their mistake.
Once in the safety of the victorious Celtic locker room, the reticent Bird was eventually interviewed by CBS announcer Brent Musburger, who told him he had been named the championship series Most Valuable Player—adding that had the Lakers won, Larry would still likely have been the MVP.
Ever the reporter, Brent asked Larry if this epic win got him "even with Johnson after what happened all those years ago," in college (only five years actually, but somehow it seemed longer).
Bird, rarely if ever letting his true emotions show publicly, ran his left hand through his blonde hair, wet with sweat and celebratory beer. He answered evasively but tellingly, "Well we don't talk about that, we're professionals now...but I won this one for Terre Haute (home of Indiana State)."
"You sure did," said an admiring Musburger. "Thank you, Larry." It wasn't apparent if he was thanking Bird for the interview, or for the performance he had given, or most likely, both.
Three years earlier at the parade for his first NBA title in 1981, Bird told the assembled throng that he had "Won this one for French Lick" as teammate Chris Ford laughed.
In the Lakers' locker room, after a long shower, a chagrined Johnson finally emerged and told the media that "we gave it to them...we helped them, and at the same time they took it."
Later on, deep into the night of championship celebration, Bird let his true emotions come out. In a private conversation, he told his brief Indiana University 1974 teammate Quinn Buckner in reference to Johnson, "I finally got him. I got him."
Bird contributed 20 points and a dozen rebounds in game seven, while Parish scored 14 markers and yanked down 16 caroms. McHale and Ainge each tallied 10 off the bench. Maxwell added eight rebounds and eight assists to his team-hgh 24 points.
The Celtics overcame 39.5 percent field goal shooting with superior rebounding and 84 percent foul shooting. The Lakers hit on just 18 of 28 foul shots (64 percent) and gave up 20 offensive rebounds while grabbing just 24 defensive caroms.
Boston won the key battle of the boards by a major 52-33 margin, paving the way to the win with relentless offensive rebounding that slowed the vaunted Laker running game.
Their big lineup of Parish, McHale, Bird, Maxwell and DJ pounded the Lakers on the glass, exploiting the biggest LA weakness of defensive rebounding.
Lost in all the talk of the McHale/Rambis clothesline, the Henderson game two steal, the numerous "Tragic" Johnson gaffes, the two overtime classics, the game five steambath, Larry's quotes, the revenge Worthy hit on Maxwell in game 6 and another Celtic seventh game win over LA, was DJ's strong defense on Earvin Johnson.
Once K.C. switched Dennis onto Earvin midway through game four, the series turned. Max also guarded Earvin Johnson some in game seven and frustrated him with his equal size and very long arms. He also took the defensively-challenged Johnson to the hoop inside at the other end for a clutch total of 24 points.
Maxwell, like Bird two years earlier, had suffered his own Final Four disappointment after leading a Cinderella team (UNC-Charlotte) to the 1977 semifinals while wearing number 33 before a last-second shot by eventual champion Marquette ended his title dream.
Thus in the end an overwhelming desire to win, capstoned by Bird's burning drive to beat Johnson, pulled the Celtics through. And a 25-point advantage at the free throw line didn't hurt either, where Boston made a whopping 43 of 51 foul shots—mostly the result of LA fouling too much inside on the boards and in trying to catch up late.
Boston was the aggressor in game seven, and for much of the last half of the series, they dominated. The Celtics won three of the last four games, and the one they lost, they could easily have won after blowing a big second half lead.
Earvin Johnson scored 16 points in game seven but made only 5 of 14 shots from the field and committed seven costly turnovers, including two in a row in the final minute when the Lakers had rallied to within three.
Worthy added 21 points but snared only four rebounds in 40 minutes. Rambis led LA with nine caroms despite playing just 26 minutes. The 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar, nearing age 37, pulled down just six boards in 43 minutes.
Bird averaged 27.4 points, 14 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in the grueling series despite being harrassed, double-teamed and run at by the Laker defense throughout.
He accepted every challenge they threw at him and kept coming, until he and the Celtics were the ones left standing, not the undeservedly favored Lakers.
Even though game seven was not his finest hour, his presence and passing drew so much attention it allowed others to shine. And fittingly, he got to clinch arguably the greatest championship series in NBA history by making the last four points of a classic game seven at the foul line.
If you want to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.