The NBA's two marquee heavyweight franchises, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, engaged in three memorable championship series showdowns over a four-year span from 1984 through 1987.
The Larry Bird vs. Earvin Johnson storyline rekindled interest in the NBA and re-ignited the historic Celtic/Laker rivalry, dormant since 1969, and elevated it to the status of greatest championship rivalry in American pro sports history.
Twelve times the fierce foe franchises have met in the Finals, with Boston holding a 9-3 edge. The Yankees hold an 8-3 margin over the Dodgers in baseball's most prolific World Series rivalry, and many parallels mark both championship histories.
Interestingly, both title rivalries feature the east coast club holding a near identical edge over a long-suffering runner-up that moved west to Los Angeles (Minneapolis Lakers to LA in 1960, preceded by the Brooklyn Dodgers move to LA in 1958).
The Lakers lost to the Celtics the first eight times they met, but have won three of the last four series. The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in their first five championship meetings, but have split the last six, including winning their most recent World Series face-off way back in 1981.
Since basketball has become more popular while baseball interest has waned slightly since the heyday of the Dodger/Yankee rivalry, the Lakers and Celtics enmity they has become the greater and more modern, relevant rivalry.
Boston vs. LA also has featured more iconic personalities and individual battles which the head-to-head nature of the sport features, amplified by a culture increasingly defined by individualism.
In addition, Boston and LA have met five times for the title since the last time the Yanks and Dodgers hooked up in the World Series 35 years ago.
Three of those titanic meetings took place during the mid-1980s as the NBA enjoyed a massive renaissance in popularity.
Although the Celtics were significantly hobbled by injury in 1987 and to a lesser extent in 1985, the 19 games these rivals contested during the those three championship series at the highest level remain a high-water mark in league annals.
At any given time, as many as eight top tier Hall of Famers and nine All-Stars were on the floor at the same time.
Of those 19 battles seven were blowouts, ending in favor of LA 4-3. Of the 12 very competitve contests, three games stand out the most as the best and closest, and all three happened to be the fourth game of each series (with apologies to games two and seven of the 1984 Finals).
In each series, LA led 2-1 and the fourth games went literally down to the very last second of regulation play after fierce and quality competition throughout. And amazingly, in each case the road team won all three fourth games.
Without further ado, let us recall and analyze the first of that epic trio of fourth game thrillers.
George Orwell's famous novel "1984" helped shine a light on what turned out to be a great sports year. The summer Olympics in Los Angeles were a major hit, Joe Montana and the 49ers beat Dan Marino and the Dolphins in a Super Bowl showdown and the Chicago Cubs made it to the baseball playoffs for the first time in 39 years before folding in dramatic fashion.
But the much-anticipated Boston vs. Los Angeles NBA Final was the biggest and best story. For finally in their fifth season as pros, after one or the other had been in the championship series every year from 1980-83 without facing off against his nemesis, Bird and Johnson were set to meet for the title.
The two teams split the first two contests in Boston Garden, with the Celtics pulling out a thrilling overtime win in game two to even the series.
Reeling from a 137-104 game three drubbing punctuated by a succession of Laker fast breaks and high fives, a wounded Boston club trailed 2-1 with a near must-win fourth game looming at the rabid LA Forum.
No team in NBA history had ever come from 3-1 down in the Finals to win the title in the first 32 instances, until the 2016 Cavaliers, so Boston desperately needed to win.
An angry Bird publicly questioned his team's heart after watching the fast-breaking Lakers celebrate openly after scoring layups and dunks at will over a wilting Boston club in the blowout loss at LA.
Team agitator and emotional leader M.L. Carr led the grim Celtics onto the Forum floor single file amid a chorus boos for game four, claiming it was "not the March of Dimes, this is the march on to victory."
LA edged in front with a big second quarter at intermission, 68-58. With the momentum and home court advantage in the Laker favor, the Celtics were in trouble.
But Boston dug down deep and clawed within 90-88. Along the way, the simmering rivalry of racial and historical undertones boiled over into a dramatic battle of tempers, lost poise and physicality that changed the entire series.
Yet behind the scenes it was another defensive switch that also changed the course of the Finals substantially. For the first three and a half games, Celtic coach K.C. Jones had inexplicably used slight 6-1 defensive ballhawk Henderson to guard the 6-8.5 Earvin Johnson, giving up 50-60 pounds in addition to much height and reach.
Maybe Henderson reminded Jones, a 6-1 Celtic defensive ace, of himself with his size, speed, athleticism and tenacity. Jones had been picked by the LA Rams as a defensive back in the NFL draft.
But the springy-legged Henderson was simply too small to bother the much bigger Johnson, who had clear sight lines to pass easily over Gerald, as well as a big advantage under the boards.
K.C.'s strange assignment was even more puzzling considering the fact that before the season Boston had acquired the NBA's premier defensive guard in 6-4 Dennis Johnson via trade for just such key matchups.
They also had another physical, excellent defender in powerful and smart 6-3 Quinn Buckner off the bench. The belated switch of the long-armed, taller and tenacious DJ onto his Laker namesake kept Earvin from getting easy looks over the defense and at the basket.
Dennis had been a Johnson nemesis out west dating back to his days with Seattle and Phoenix, and knew Earvin's game well. Perhaps keeping Dennis off of the Laker star was K.C.'s way of motivating the occasionally laconic DJ, but if so, he waited almost until it was too late to make the dramatic switch.
"Don't get lazy on him; make him work," Jones warned Dennis when he called him over to the sideline for a brief bit of advice. And so he did, every step of the way, wearing Earvin Johnson down. As he rose to the occasion of the new assignment, DJ's offense also picked up dramatically over the last half of the series.
The clever, experienced Dennis made Earvin expend more energy just bringing the ball upcourt with pressure defense. DJ was much harder to physically bully and his tenacity openly frustrated the Laker guard.
Much has been made of the McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis on the fast break in the second half of game four as the turning point of the series. But revisionist history likes to make things simple and is also frequently wrong when seen through the lens of much time passed.
Riley and many of the Lakers, so-called experts and their fans to this day erroneously point to this "bullying" tactic as the switch that put Boston in control, and it has become accepted myth/fact that the rough foul was what helped the Celtics win it all, while ignoring the real factors over the final 3.5 games that determined the series.
For of course no one single play dictates such a topsy-turvy seven-game series that featured dozens of huge plays and emotional momentum changes.
Today's penchant for oversimplification to a single "key" and under-analysis, especially when it comes to basketball - think of all the relative OVER-analyzing done in football and baseball by TV announcers and media outlets due in part to all the ample dead time compared to basketball's faster pace - lends itself to this sort of stunted, easy categorizing.
But the DJ switch onto Earvin Johnson was the biggest tactical turning point of game four, and the series. The Laker guard's on-court miscues may have been the biggest turning points, along with a couple big shots by Bird and a lost temper by the normally composed Jabbar. And of course, how Boston dominated the boards the second half of the series.
People also forget that the physical, no-layup tone that McHale is usually blamed for inciting was already put in place by the New York Knicks and coach Hubie Brown in the eastern semifinals vs. Boston that spring.
After Boston blew away the outmanned Knicks in the first two games of that series, Brown instituted a no-layup rule to slow down the more talented Celtics.
In response Ernie Grunfeld took down McHale, Bernard King tried to start a fight with Kevin, and then a very ugly incident took place that made the Rambis takedown look almost tame in comparison.
Late in game six at New York, the Knicks trailed the series 3-2 but led that contest by 11 midway through the fourth period. Bird darted into the passing lane and picked off a Knick pass, then rambled full-speed up the left side of the floor toward the basket with two NY guards in hot pursuit.
As Bird neared the hoop, Ray Williams came up on his left side and tried to grab him around the shoulders for a two-handed takedown. His hands slipped off the Celtic great but Rory Sparrow, who was coming up hard on Bird's right, swung a hard forearm and elbow to the side of Larry's head as he went down.
The force of the high-speed collision sent Bird flying into the stanchion under the basket. A flagrant two-shot foul was called, and Sparrow was immediately ejected by referee Earl Strom as the Garden crowd howled.
Knick reserve Trent Tucker tried to restrain the protesting Sparrow, and then-New York assistant Rick Pitino helped escort him out. Bird sustained a cut to the back of his neck for his troubles, but never uttered a word of complaint or made any gestures or antics toward the offenders or the refs.
He simply got up, sank both free throws and led Boston on a comeback that fell just short 106-104 as the fired-up Celtics finished the game on an 13-2 run.
Boston rode that anger and momentum into game seven and blew out the Knicks 121-104 as Bird turned in perhaps the best playoff performance of his career with a 39-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece.
But the norm for very hard playoff fouls had already been set. And most people forget or don't know that a few plays before McHale took down Rambis, Jabbar made multiple dangerous, rough plays that escalated the physicality.
First he threw an elbow into Maxwell, knocking him down and out of bounds, with no foul called. Then very shortly after, Henderson reached in and stole the ball from Kareem, who unleashed an elbow toward the head of Gerald but missed as the Celtic guard ducked out of the way.
Jabbar stood in the backcourt complaining and throwing his arms up and down angrily. Meanwhile Bird went up to shoot an open jumper but instead found Parish with an unselfish pass inside for an easy layup, after the Chief had outrun the lagging Kareem downcourt.
The pass was an example of how Bird liked to reward his teammates for hustling while also sticking a psychological dagger into the upset Jabbar.
Then an angry Worthy found himself in the lane engaged in a loose ball tie-up on the floor, and threw several elbows around in a childish temper tantrum. Tempers were clearly close to erupting, but it was the Lakers doing the elbow throwing.
In disingenuous fashion ever since, they have never admitted these incidents, preferring instead to play the victim role to curry sympathy, make excuses and distract followers from seeing the truth that Boston simply beat LA.
But the McHale foul is what gets remembered as the supposed turning point. Ironically when an incensed Rambis got up to go after McHale, Worthy shoved Kurt, his own teammate, backwards over the row of photographers under the basket. It was Bird who ended up extending a hand to pull Kurt up.
Moments later, Jabbar grabbed an offensive rebound and nailed Bird in the cheekbone with an intentional elbow via his backswing on the way down. Bird grabbed his cheek to make sure it was still in place, shook his head and voiced his displeasure in close quarters to Jabbar, but without being physically threatening.
An incredibly infuriated Jabbar swore at Bird, nose to nose, with the F word clearly being used, pointed and threw his finger toward him to punctuate his foul language. Kareem had blown his cool, and pushed away both REFEREES and a teammate who tried to restrain him as he backed away from the fray, Meanwhile Bird continued to calmly plead his case.
Yet no technical was called; however, the Lakers and Jabbar had clearly blown their cool under pressure. LA still held on to a close lead, but the mood had changed. Boston had become the hunter instead of the hunted, and would close the game on a 67-53 charge.
With 45 seconds to go, LA led 113-108. Things looked dim for the Celtics, but decisive board work carried them through. DJ drove the lane and missed. A tip by McHale missed. Parish grabbed the board and missed a baseline shot.
Not to be denied, the Chief grabbed his miss, and on their fourth try tossed in a short shot while being fouled with 39 seconds left. His clutch foul shot cut the deficit to 113-111 and the collective collars of the Lakers suddenly began tightening.
The hosts still had a chance to put it away, but Cooper dribbled away much of the clock before missing a 15-footer, with Johnson tellingly not touching the ball the entire possession.
Parish rebounded but away from the board, in a crowd under the basket jockeying for the rebound, Bird was clearly shoved in the back out of bounds and Jabbar was called for pushing him, a double-whammy for the Lakers.
For not only had they put the deadly Bird on the foul line for two potential tying free throws, Jabbar had fouled out. Without making Boston take time off the clock or execute on offense, they were given a golden opportunity to tie it up at the foul line.
At the other end, Bird stepped to the line with 16 ticks remaining for the two biggest foul shots of his NBA career to that point. Because if Bird missed now, the league's premier pressure player would be seen as having choked. His first shot went straight in to bring the deficit to one.
A nervous Larry set his feet and let the second shot fly. It hit the front iron, rimmed to the back and up into the air tantalizingly as Bird leaned forward to body English the shot in. Backspin brought the ball back down through the net to tie it.
Again though, like in game two, LA still had a chance to win after a tying Celtic play, as Henderson had done with his steal and layup late in game two. And again Johnson flat-out choked with a historic brain cramp.
Johnson frittered away 10 seconds with the ball near the right sideline in front of the Boston bench looking to feed a posting Worthy. With Kareem out, Worthy was now the Laker go-to halfcourt option.
But the bigger Parish smartly fronted James over his right shoulder and picked off a late, errant Johnson pass with one hand. Bird quickly called timeout and a subsequent one-footed runner by Larry from 27 feet rimmed out, as did a McHale follow at the buzzer to force overtime.
Just like in game two late in OT, Parish had come up with a potential game-saving steal. The Chief's clutch swipes were just another aspect of the multi-layered series that has been overlooked and forgotten.
In the extra session, DJ hit a jumper and then converted an incredible tip-in. Parish fouled out trying to block a Swen Nater shot as both starting centers were now disqualified. Worthy hit a tough baseline turnaround with Bird all over him, then made an off-balance three-point play in the lane to put LA up 123-121.
Bird answered by posting up Cooper and scoring inside over the Laker defensive stopper to tie it with 1:20 left. And then Johnson once again folded. With the score tied at 123, the Laker guard was fouled with 34 seconds left, but missed BOTH foul shots long. BOTH.
Bird rebounded the second miss and Boston called timeout. Johnson dejectedly practiced his free throw form as he walked, dazed, to the Laker bench.
In the huddle, a rejuvenated Bird and the Celtics smelled Laker blood in the Pacific waters. Bird wiped his right hand off on Scott Wedman's towel on the bench right before he prepared to throw the ball in bounds, tipping off that he expected to shoot.
Jones had called a play for Bird, who moved furiously without the ball to get open, and muscled through a fallen Cooper in the lane, which forced none other than Johnson to switch onto him in the mid-block area on the left side of the lane.
It was a matchup for the ages, mano a mano. No zone defense this time to bail Johnson out, like Michigan State employed in the NCAA finals to double and triple-team Larry.
In such switch situations, Bird always tried to score on Johnson. "I've got a little on me," he would say, calling for the ball. And remember at that time in 1984, Bird and Johnson were not yet friends. In fact, they disliked each other intensely.
Larry aggressively called for the ball as he jockeyed for position before pinning his nemesis on his back. He took the pass on the left side of the lane, spun and lofted a clutch 13-foot fallaway that swished perfectly through the cords to give Boston the lead for good with 16 seconds left in OT.
A jubilant Carr met Bird at the bench with a high-ten. LA was not yet done, but with Jabbar fouled out their anchor was gone.
Worthy was fouled with 10 seconds to go and had a chance to tie, but left the first free throw well short.
Cedric Maxwell, Worthy's boyhood idol growing up in North Carolina after Cornbread led Cinderella UNC-Charlotte to the 1977 Final Four, raised both arms and gave the choke sign toward the booing Laker crowd while switching spots across the lane.
Jabbar buried his face in his arms on the bench, unable to watch as Worthy bounced in the second shot. DJ was fouled immediately and swished two clutch free throws to give him eight huge points in the extra session. As usual in the clutch, he had come up very big.
Still, the Lakers had one last chance to tie with a three-pointer. They were down 127-124 and had the ball out of bounds at midcourt. Puzzlingly, they chose Worthy to throw the pass in, and again he made a bad decision and toss reminiscent of the Henderson steal late in game two.
This time it was Carr who slammed the door on the Lakers. He suckered James into throwing over his head toward Johnson and "Not Yet Big Game James" took the bait. He floated an underthrown pass that wobbled toward midcourt.
M.L. deflected the ball with both hands toward the Celtic basket, chased the loose ball down and flew in to the hoop ahead of the stunned Worthy to throw down an emphatic slam that put the finishing touches on an epic 129-125 OT win. Once again, Boston had come up with another huge steal on a pass by Worthy.
An excited Carr high-fived everyone in the vicinity after the final buzzer. "I told you we'd be back, I told you," yelled a fired-up Carr to the taunting Laker fans and disbelievers via the CBS cameras as the happy Celtics sauntered off the Forum floor. The comeback win guaranteed a game six back in LA.
An angry Laker fan threw beer into Carr's eyes as he exited the court, but he and Boston were just happy to be going back home tied 2-2 with the momentum now firmly in their court.
The determined Bird, despite an off-shooting night, scored 29 points and pulled down a series-best 21 rebounds. And for the first time in the series, Parish played without fear against Jabbar, scoring 25 points and grabbing 12 caroms.
DJ added 22 markers. Kareem scored 32 points and Worthy was unstoppable again inside with 30 points on 14-17 shooting. Johnson recorded a 20-11-17 triple-double, but made the two huge mistakes to again cost his team a chance at victory at the end of regulation, leading to another overtime defeat.
It seemed the mentally tougher and better halfcourt team showed its mettle under pressure better, having won both gut-check OT games in the series.
Asked afterward if his teammates played like sissies in game four, Bird responded in his southern Indiana accent with a politically incorrect psychological ploy answer, stating "we can play a lot harder. We played like a bunch of wee-men (women) tonight."
After surviving two tense, must-win OT games with the aid of costly Johnson late-game errors, there was the growing sense now among players and fans that the Celtics were the mentally and physically tougher squad, and thus better equipped to win the close games. LA had found a way to lose at home somehow despite shooting 59 percent.
Certainly playing in the much superior, more physical Eastern Conference also helped Boston win the tough, close and physical battles vs. the less rugged Lakers.
Coasting (relatively speaking) through the weaker, run and gun Western Conference, Los Angeles faced very little tough or close opposition. They cruised to the Finals for the fourth time in five years. Meanwhile, Boston had to navigate great 60-win teams like the 76ers and Bucks, and ancient rivals like the Knicks and Hawks, or the rugged Bullets just to reach the final round.
Twenty turnovers didn't help the Lakers in game four, nor did their comparatively poor foul shooting (Boston shot 84%, LA 64%).
Plus the Celtics played with the desperate urgency of a team not wanting to fall behind 3-1.
But it was the clutch play of DJ, Bird and Parish that really carried Boston through, helped along by the costly Johnson gaffes.
The Celtics rode the momentum of the road OT win to a 121-103 win back home in the Sauna Game where a red-hot Bird shot 15-20 and scored 34 points with 17 rebounds. Under the last year of the 2-2-1-1-1 format, the Celtics nearly closed it out at LA in game six before a late collapse evened the seres.
But Boston won game seven at home, out-rebounding the Lakers by a whopping 52-33 margin, to hang banner 15 and punctuate one of its most satisfying championship runs.
Up next: Game 4, 1985: Boston survives classic battle at the buzzer
If you wish to contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at email@example.com.