By Professor Parquet
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 second of the epic trio of Celtic/Laker fourth game thrillers.
Just like a year before, Boston trailed 2-1 in the Finals after a blowout loss in game three at the Forum. Game four in 1985 might have been even more imperative to win since the NBA had switched to a 2-3-2 format for the Finals that very season, a format that would not change back to 2-2-1-1-1 for almost 30 years.
A loss to go down 3-1 might mean the series could well be over without even a chance to return home for potential games six and seven for the team with the better record.
Boston topped the NBA with 63 wins, followed closely by LA with 62. It was the fifth time in Bird's six seasons that the consistently great Celtics won over 60 games and led the league in victories.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the new format giving the team with the lesser record home court advantage for the middle three contests was implemented at just the wrong time.
After winning game one in a 34-point blowout known as the Memorial Day Massacre, Boston had won four of the last five Finals games vs. the Lakers dating back to game four in 1984. Celtic reserve Scott Wedman sank all 11 of his field goal attempts, including four treys, to score 26 points and spark a 148-114 bombing of LA.
"Who the f is Scott Wedman?" rudely railed Riley, who certainly knew of Scott, a two-time All-Star with the Kings who had even played against Pat at the end of his career. With several good years left, the 6-7 Wedman came to Boston at age 30 to assume the unenviable role as Bird's backup and sometime big guard, and was woefully underused.
Led by a resurgent Jabbar, LA bounced back to win the next two games 109-102 and 136-111. After an embarrassing game one effort, Kareem showed great pride and demonstrated that he was still capable of playing like a superstar at age 37.
Back in LA for game four, the Forum crowd smelled blood. They were determined not to let the events of 1984 repeat themselves, let alone the eight consecutive championship series losses the Celtics had heaped on them. Before 17,505 partisan fans the Lakers built a 32-28 lead after one period.
Boston edged in front 59-58 at halftime, but LA took the lead back 84-82 heading to the final quarter of the barnburner. The Lakers then continued their momentum by scoring six of the first seven points of the fourth period to forge a seven-point lead. The hosts seemed to be on the verge of taking command of the game and building a 3-1 series lead.
But then the determined Bird, at the peak of his powers, turned the game around himself.
The nearly perfect 3 minutes
An angry Bird hitched up his short shorts and put together arguably as great and impactful a short-term all-around performance of any player in Finals history. It is doubtful any player ever did more in a bigger back-to-the-wall situation.
With a loss staring them in the face, Larry Legend shook off the pressure and single-handedly pulled the Celtics back into the series with a tour de force effort in all phases of the game.
First, he grabbed a defensive rebound and hungrily went to the Forum floor to tie up Bob McAdoo, then won the jump ball with superior timing and tipped it to a teammate.
At the other end he came off a baseline screen to the right wing, caught a pass from DJ and knocked down a perfectly arched bomb from just inside the three-point line.
The sweet-shooting McAdoo, a three-time scoring champion, then appeared to have an open side jumper, but Bird timed it perfectly and blocked the shot out of bounds from the side and behind.
He grimaced and balled up both his fists in a perfectionist's response to not being able to corral the ball before it went out of bounds, but one could sense his confidence rising.
"He's getting that mean look," Tom Heinsohn perceptively noted from his CBS analyst courtside seat. "He can't out-leap you, but he can outsmart you."
After a Laker basket, Bird hustled in from the weak side to get good offensive rebounding position. He hauled in a Celtic miss, banked a short putback back in left-handed and was fouled, converting the three-point play to bring Boston within 92-88.
The Forum crowd began to get uneasy, sensing another Celtic rally, yet kept up its constant roar.
On defense, an energized Bird picked up his arch-rival Johnson as he cut through the lane, then double-teamed Jabbar. Kareem tried to pass to the cutting Johnson for a layup, but Bird had anticipated the dish and quickly retreated after doubling Jabbar.
He jab-stepped at the big man then dropped back into the lane to swipe the pass with his left hand, bringing it into his right as he fended off Earvin with his hip.
"Bird suckered Jabbar," Heinsohn crowed, not an easy thing to do to the heady veteran Laker center.
At the other end, Larry made a gorgeous drive that was unfortunately called off. Bird swooped left into the lane and swished a double pump scoop from 10 feet, but the spectacular basket was disallowed for an illegal defense call.
So Larry calmly stepped to the line and nailed the technical foul shot. After a Parish miss, he snared yet another offensive rebound from the weak side. But this time his patented overhead, no-look reverse layup putback rolled in and out.
It was about the only play that he did not complete in his historic showcase.
After Cooper missed a transition jumper, Bird ran out hard up the left side and took a long feed from DJ. Finding himself surprisingly wide-open for one of the few times in the entire series against the lagging Laker transition defense (their halfcourt D often doubled as a thinly-veiled zone), Bird took his time, cocked the ball and let fly from 19 feet out right in front of the Laker bench.
The jumper hit nothing but net for his eighth straight point to bring Boston within 92-91.
At the other end, Bird hustled back to pick up Jabbar in the post, fronting him while waiting for Parish to get back and pick up his man. When the Chief got back on defense, Jabbar gave the retreating Bird a forearm to the back of the head for his troubles so he could receive an entry pass.
Bird quickly doubled back down on Jabbar and deflected his pass to a teammate. The steal led to a fast break drive by DJ, who was fouled and made both free throws to put Boston ahead.
When the smoke cleared, in that short time Bird had brought Boston back from 90-83 down to 93-92 ahead in an absolutely critical stretch of a must-win game amid the most hostile of surroundings.
"I tell you, Larry Bird is doing everything," said an admiring Heinsohn.
In those nearly perfect almost three minutes, he scored eight consecutive points (and could have had even more if his scoop been allowed or his second putback had not spun in and out), snared two offensive boards, stole two passes, made one block, won a jump ball and hit two of two foul shots.
He nailed two long jumpers and converted a left-handed three-point play. The only minor flaw in the run was a difficult overhead stickback which missed only when the putback rimmed in and out.
Still, his incredible spurt had carried Boston back into the game and series. With LA keying on him the rest of the way, Bird cleverly and selflessly switched gears and became a facilitator.
He drew the defense and hit Ainge with a fine pass, and Danny rewarded his confidence by burying a long right corner two-pointer to bring Boston within 102-101 at the 95-second mark.
After Jabbar split a pair of free throws, Bird drew a double team and passed smartly into the lane where the unstoppable Kevin McHale tied it 103-all.
After Parish rebounded a McAdoo miss, Boston called timeout with 50 seconds to go. With Worthy holding Bird away from the ball, Ainge buried a clutch 22-foot jumper from the right foul line extended to put the Celtics ahead 105-103.
Danny had shot just two for eight, but then he drained his last two long jumpers in clutch fashion.
Jabbar then missed a right baseline hook, but Johnson went over the smaller Ainge for the rebound and put in the stickback to tie it 105-105. The offesnive rebound hoop provided his only points of the tense final period.
Boston called timeout with 19 ticks left, and everyone in the Forum and watching on TV expected Bird would get the ball for the last shot. The crowd rose to its feet in anticipation of a real Hollywood ending.
Larry threw the ball into DJ and jogged up the left side of the floor. Bird crossed under the hoop, taking his time by shuffling sideways, and then curled patiently around a Maxwell baseline screen as Johnson dribbled the clock down out front.
Bird popped out on the left side, caught a pass from DJ and dribbled into the circle to his left, guarded by Laker defensive ace Cooper. As he dribbled into traffic, Earvin Johnson helped out and dove at his left hand to make him pick up his dribble, not wanting to let Larry take the last shot.
"If you give him a chance at the end of the game...Larry Bird is gonna win that game," Johnson would say later.
Sandwiched by the two Lakers, Bird cleverly pulled the ball back away from the Johnson steal try, revealing that he anticipated such a maneuver. Had Johnson been successful, there may have been time for the speedy Cooper to convert a winning breakaway before the buzzer.
Instead Larry drew the double team unselfishly and leaped off his right foot as he split the defenders. He then kicked the ball out perfectly to his left and slightly backward to DJ, who stepped into the soft but firm dish delivered perfectly into his shooting pocket.
Never a great shooter but always a tremendous clutch shooter, DJ had been unwisely left open by his namesake's gamble. He caught the feed in stride, lined up the open 20-footer and let fly.
The shot looked good all the way and swished through the cords just before the final second ticked away, giving Boston an incredible 107-105 comeback win to tie the series. It was one of the most memorable Finals games ever between the two fierce combatants, and the shocking finish stunned the Lakers and their partisan crowd.
The jubilant Celtics raced onto the Forum floor, happy to have earned another game four reprieve for the second year in a row. Despite having trailed for most of the final 14 minutes, they had found a way to pull out an epic must win on Laker turf.
Bird showed an uncharacteristic amount of emotion after the DJ swisher. He high-fived Greg Kite and leaped into the air with his right arm extended before getting a hug from happy reserve teammate Quinn Buckner near midcourt. Larry high-tenned McHale, then high-fived Wedman before leaving the court in jubilation.
Playing all 48 minutes, McHale scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. DJ contributed 27 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in 46 minutes. Bird tallied 26 points, grabbed 11 boards, made three steals and dished out five assists, including the winning helper.
Jabbar led LA with 21 points while Johnson posted a 20-11-12 triple-double. But Boston got the last laugh again on the DJ buzzer beater.
Under the new 2-3-2 format, instead of going home to continue the momentum of a buzzer-beating game four road win, Boston had to stay in LA for a fifth game.
Playing at home two days later no doubt aided the revenge-minded Lakers, who were able to build a 17-point third period lead behind series MVP Jabbar's 36 points. Boston methodically rallied within 105-101 in the final minutes, but ran out of gas and ended up losing by nine to fall behind 3-2.
With Bird hampered by an injury to his shooting elbow and Maxwell a DNP due to a serious mid-season knee injury, the Lakers then won game six in Boston (as Ainge, DJ and Parish combined to shoot just 11 for 45) to claim their first title over the Celtics in the ninth try on Father's Day.
Max scored only 13 points over just 54 minutes in the entire series, after tallying 24 alone in the game seven win over LA the year before. He was traded for Bill Walton in the off-season and would never play another game for Boston.
Up next: Rubber match - the controversial and classic game 4 of the 1987 Finals.
If you wish to contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.