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 competitive 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 last and most controversial of the epic trio of Celtic/Laker fourth game 1980's thrillers. For amid a spate of highly dubious calls, the rubber match showdown for team of the decade honors was decided in one team's favor.
Game four in 1987 was another shining gem in the storied Laker/Celtic Finals history, worthy of Shakespearean drama. The rubber match series of their trilogy of title showdowns in the 1980s, this game would decide the American team sports rivalry of the decade.
CBS host Brent Musburger cleverly opened the telecast by saying Boston hoped the Celtics would tie the series 2-2 with a home win, making it the "Garden of Even."
He also continued the analogy of the series as the third and final heavyweight fight between two past and future champions that hated one another and had very contrasting styles, the flashy Muhammad Ali and the tenacious Joe Frazier. Like Boston, Frazier had won the first meeting, but Ali (LA) had taken the rematch and then the Thrilla in Manila...
In the classic, pivotal fourth game of the 1987 NBA Finals fatigue, a failure to secure a rebound off a missed free throw, costly late turnovers, bad luck and several bad calls illustrating the prevailing zeitgeist cost Boston the game and ultimately, the championship and laurel as team of the decade.
The Celtics, winners of six in a row at home in the playoffs, came out tight and did not make a field goal until Parish drilled a short hook in the lane for a 4-3 lead three minutes into the fray. In fact they were so keyed up, the Celtics missed their first six shots.
Both squads knew what was at stake and were uncharacteristically uptight. A pair of Danny Ainge outside jumpers offset two Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hook shots for a 17-15 Boston lead. Kareem cleared space for one of his running hook banks with a serious elbow into Ainge's chest.
Larry then outfought Mychal Thompson for a rebound and launched a 75-foot left-handed outlet bounce pass to a streaking Ainge, who converted a lefty layup. Bird was probably the only player in the league to have the skill and audacity to throw such a long pass with his off hand.
McHale later split two free throws for a 25-17 Boston bulge. Greg Kite continued his unlikely heroics from game three by blocking an Earvin Johnson short hook, but Thompson scooped up the loose ball and laid it in. The action was heating up as the players lost themselves in the fierce competition.
Boston then got a break when Johnson tried to throw the ball out of bounds off Jerry Sichting's legs in the corner, but the ball stayed in the court. Kite scooped it up and passed smartly to McHale, who ended up converting an awkward layup off the broken play.
Ainge drove the lane off a screen for a nice layup that bounced in off the rim and glass. Johnson answered with a foul shot and a spinning left-handed hook after bumping Darren Daye backward to clear space, making it 29-22 Boston after 12 minutes of fierce play.
LA had uncharacteristically missed five of its seven free throws in the period, but stayed close by grabbing nine early offensive rebounds to just one by the Celtics. Bird's only two points had come at the foul line.
On CBS, Tom Heinsohn compared the heavyweight basketball bout to Ali vs. Frazier. "Right now Frazier (Boston) is taking Ali (LA) up off his toes and backing him into a corner," he observed.
Early in period two Bird illustrated his particular, underrated defensive skills. He made a great strip of a Michael Cooper drive on the break, leading to a McHale layup at the end of the ensuing picture-perfect fast break. The play was typical of Bird's great hands and unsurpassed anticipation at defending in transition.
Probably no player in the league was better at stopping undermanned fast breaks on defense than Bird, due to his smarts, mental intimidation, quick hands and even quicker mind.
This time he let Cooper get a half-step ahead on a drive down the right baseline, all the while staying close on his left shoulder. Then when Cooper reached up to shoot a driving runner, Bird swatted it away cleanly from the side over his head with his cat-quick left reflexes as the Laker defensive standout stumbled out of the play, surprised.
McHale's layup off a perfectly timed pass from DJ to end the two-on-one break brought the Garden crowd to its feet in appreciation of the great play at both ends.
Earvin Johnson rolled in a hook shot from the right block. Bird tried to get fellow Hoosier sharpshooter Sichting going when he made a two-handed touch pass to the Celtic guard against the rotating LA defense for an open 19-footer. But he aimed the shot a bit too much and missed long. His perimeter shooting off the bench was a key, overlooked part of the Boston attack.
Shortly thereafter McHale, finally looking more healthy than he had since playing with the flu in game six at Detroit, gave for Univversity of Minnesota teammate Thompson a classic up-and-under move, drew the foul and made both free throws.
Thompson was one of the few big men who could guard kevin remotely well; one had to figure his time as an upperclassman to McHale helped him learn - as did his very physical play vs. the Celtic low-post master.
After Ainge missed again from deep, Johnson was called for a rare traveling violation on the ensuing transition play. Parish slipped on a wet spot and had to go to the locker room to have his swollen ankle retaped.
DJ froze the over-reacting defense with a fake pass and drove in for two on a southpaw layup. A double-teamed Bird hit an open Ainge with a good pass, but he bobbled the feed in his eagerness to shoot. Still, he recovered the ball, dribbled to his right and buried his 13th point on a 17-footer for a 49-40 Boston lead at the two-minute mark.
Laker forward James Worthy finally got his first basket on a short lane jumper for a three-point play with 1:44 left in the half. This was followed by another Ainge jumper from 21 feet in the corner off a beautiful cross-court, wraparound lefty pass that only Bird could throw.
Worthy then isolated for several seconds on the left side against McHale, then answered with a fine spin move off the glass for two points.
McHale took his time against Kareem in the low post, gave him a series of fakes, then banked in a short right-handed shot.
A wild sequence of events then ensued that led to a major melee.
Ainge stole a bad outlet pass but missed an open jumper. McHale pressured Jabbar hard in the backcourt, and Kareem finally brought the ball upcourt himself at a high rate of speed, clearly enjoying his role as guard (as most big men do, when it is done in short spurts). He got out of control though and tried to throw a one-handed scoop pass on the run, which DJ read and picked off.
However, in transition the other way Ainge missed an open corner jumper and Rambis rebounded, which led to a key 5-on-2 Laker break.
Johnson pushed it up for LA, then made an underhand pass to his left to a hard-charging Worthy, who was filling the left lane with his customary head of steam. He drove to the basket with abandon toward two Celtics, and was fouled quite hard high with two hands by DJ and then slightly by Kite as he came down off balance.
He hit the floor hard and assuming wrongly that Kite had also taken him down (or with some sort of built-in anger at him), Worthy came up swinging at Kite as both teams rushed to separate the pair. Earvin Johnson tried to grab the furious Worthy but couldn't quite hold him back.
Kurt Rambis angrily grabbed DJ and pushed him backward out of the fray, and Riley quickly and bravely jumped in between Kite and Worthy, head down to avoid getting hit.
The play happened in front of the Laker bench which quickly spilled onto the court, the 1984 Rambis incident and ghosts of Celtics past in the Garden still in their minds. Laker reserve Adrian Branch, a seldom-used southpaw, took a lefty swing at Kite from behind but missed as the Celtic center backed away in self-preservation mode amid several Lakers.
Kite took a shot to the face, retreated from Worthy's wild swing and then pushed Worthy, but never threw a punch at him. Ainge immediately turned to the referees and gave the out sign to Strom, asking Earl to eject the star Laker forward, who had clearly thrown a punch and maybe even two at Kite - in the wild melee it was hard to tell exactly how many times he had swung at the reserve big man.
About two weeks earlier in the 1987 playoffs, during game three of the western finals Sonic bruiser Maurice Lucas manhandled and shoved Jabbar out of bounds. Kareem was clearly angered but never made a move to retaliate against or even touch the 6-9 Lucas, a bruising veteran power forward known for his aggressive play as "the enforcer." Yet Kite was made an easy scapegoat in game four of the Finals.
A closer look at the 1987 Finals incident shows Dennis Johnson actually was the one who fouled Worthy hard on a two-hand takedown to the chest and arms that knocked James off balance and backward in midair.
His momentum still carried him toward Kite, who had his forearms up to brace himself for a collision yet barely brushed the Laker forward in midair as he fell to the floor in a heap. But the reputation of Kite as an un-talented bruiser led Worthy to assume it was the third string center who had perpetrated most of the foul.
The two CBS commentators also mistakenly assumed Kite had committed the hard foul and repeated it several times before Dick Stockton noted with surprise in his voice that DJ had correctly been assessed the personal foul.
But their mis-reporting of the original foul only served to cloud the understanding of the play and illustrated a stereotypical pre-judgment against Kite as a nothing but a banger or hatchet man.
Whether he was or not, he had not committed the foul on the play. Coming off of his fine play in game three one might think he would get better treatment, but by 1987 his uncharitable reputation was firmly in place.
True, he was not a scorer at all, but the limber Kite actually was a fine rebounder, passer and a great team defender. The fact that Boston had employed such hatchet man players in the distant past, like Jungle Jim Loscutoff (who could also play a bit, having averaged over 10 points and 10 rebounds a game in 1956-57) was coming back to haunt the much less physical Celtics now 25 years later.
Ultimately only a toothless double technical was called on Kite and Worthy, who after the smoke cleared then made the two free throws from the original foul.
Why was Worthy not thrown out or at least given a harsher punishment than Kite, who only defended himself after Worthy had taken two swings at him?
Had the Laker star been ejected and missed the second half, the Celtics would certainly have won the game. At that time the NBA did not have rules governing players coming off the bench to escalate such incidents either, or several Lakers would have been suspended for future games in the rest of the series. Reserve Branch, now an ESPN college basketball analyst, took a cheap shot that no one even noticed.
Ultimately the overwhelmed officials did what was quickest, easiest and least likely to cause trouble.
Strom wrote in his 1990 autobiography "Calling the Shots" that, "Dennis Johnson caught him high and flipped him over. Worthy came up swinging and got into it with Greg Kite. There were players on the court everywhere...I felt like a sheepherder. I called Worthy and Kite together. Each was trying to plead his case."
Strom's response was a straight, even-across-the-board appeasement ruling to keep things under control. But his biased decision victimized Kite, who hadn't even swung and as Strom himself noted, wasn't even the one who took Worthy down.
He called the two players together at the foul line, put his hand on a stoic, motionless Kite's chest (but did not touch or attempt to restrain a riled Worthy) and said, "James, you've got a foul shot coming. We're all right. Now we've got a double technical foul on you guys. If you get another unsportsmanlike call, you're gone. Let's go."
Fortuitously, the NBA had allowed the controversial "road ref" Strom to wear a microphone during this pivotal contest. Earl was dubbed thus because when he officiated games, road teams had a significantly higher winning percentage than normal. The contrarian ref often worked against the crowd and had the guts to give deserving calls to the visiting teams in the face of rowdy crowds. But sometimes he went overboard...
Kite might or might not have have hammered Worthy if Johnson hadn't gotten him first, but instead all the maligned Celt reserve did was lightly bump the flying forward, who was already falling backward from the DJ foul. It seemed that on the floor, only Rambis had seen the incident as he angrily confronted Dennis and pushed him backward from the melee.
However, with the Boston crowd raucous and the refs (and NBA) still mindful of the McHale takedown of Rambis in game four of the 1984 Finals, it was the first of many calls that were to go against the Celtics as Strom and Hugh Evans injected themselves into the game too much to avoid a fracas and potential Garden crowd problems.
Perhaps another short passage from Strom's book also helps explain the unfair ruling. After he called a flagrant foul against a Hawk player for undercutting Michael Jordan in the late 1980s, someone from the Atlanta bench yelled an oft-thought observation about NBA referees at the veteran official.
"Ah, you're just protecting the superstars," the man said to Strom.
"Damn right I am," Strom replied. "You eliminate these guys from the game and we're all out of work."
Translation: Worthy is a smooth All-Star, and even in Boston that's not a fair trade to eject both in a Finals game, whether Kite did or didn't do anything. Sorry, Greg, but you are seen as a scrub. So suck it up...
When play resumed and order was somewhat restored, McHale swished a long turnaround baseline shot over Kareem and Rambis with one tick left in the half. Johnson's subsequent 78-foot heave at the horn miraculously rimmed in briefly off the glass, but then popped out to keep Boston ahead 55-47 at halftime.
Bird had not canned a field goal in just three shots, and only had two made free throws (but grabbed eight rebounds) to his credit in the half, yet Boston led by eight.
It should have been a telling stat that a tired Larry had attempted just three shots in 23 minutes of play, but this fact was lost in the shuffle. Still, the Celtics had to feel pretty good at home, knowing that the Legend would eventually warm up.
McHale had 17 points and seven boards at the break, while Ainge had tallied 15 points and DJ 11. Johnson led LA with 19 in the first half, but no other Laker had more than seven.
The second half would be one of the fiercest, best, surprising and most controversial in playoff annals.
DJ started half two with a 15-foot line drive jumper from the left elbow. Worthy responded from 17 feet, but McHale scored on a short, quick release baseline jump hook. As usual, he held the ball high and never brought it down to get off his lethal, feathery touch.
Scott drove baseline and his pocket picked by the long-armed DJ on an unorthodox reacharound from over the left shoulder, but Evans whistled a complaining Johnson for a foul, partly because the steal was so unusual.
Then Scott, who averaged just six ppg in the three games at Boston, missed a baseline jumper but the ball bounded out long. Jabbar clearly shoved DJ with two hands in the middle of the back to grab the long carom and quickly passed back out to an open Scott, who this time nailed the open 17-footer for his fourth point.
Boston now led 59-51. DJ passed to Bird, who freed himself from Worthy with a good jab step. Wide open with his feet set and body squared, Bird then got untracked from the field.
He took his time, cocked and unloaded his classic off-the-right-ear jumper from 20 feet out on the right wing about 90 seconds into the second half, and it went straight in, bolstering his confidence in the new half.
Bird smartly helped on Kareem from the under the hoop along the left baseline and forced a surprised Jabbar into a missed a turnaround. Larry Legend then leaked out on the break, where he was fouled by Scott and made two free throws to put Boston up by 12.
Worthy followed another missed Kareem hook with a big offensive board and tough jumper on the baseline, while Parish countered with a 12-footer over Green and Johnson as Boston made its fourth straight shot of the third period.
The accurate shooting start of half two countered the game's slow start, and showed how the Celts had warmed to the task and were poised to tie the series with a series of body blows before the haymaker.
Worthy spun baseline for a jumper and was fouled by McHale on the arm, but no call came as he complained loudly, throwing his fist at the ref as the action moved upcourt. Perhaps realizing they missed the call, the refs let Worthy's antics go without a technical. Ainge then left an open floater short from the left baseline because he aimed the 10-footer hesitatingly instead of just shooting it freely.
The Lakers hurried downcourt on the ensuing fast break, and Scott drove through the two Boston defenders for a pretty layup right down the heart of the lane. At the other end, Ainge snapped off a fine pass to a wide open Bird in front of the basket.
But after not falling for the requisite Bird head fake, Worthy smartly stuffed his half-hook inside shot and also grabbed the rebound.
After an LA miss, with the shot clock running down Ainge threw a crosscourt pass to Bird, who head faked Green and coolly sidestepped him as the Laker forward flew by. The shot clock ticked down to two as another defender, Byron Scott, rushed at him, but too late.
Keenly aware of the clock and his position on the floor, Larry launched a trey from out top and the shot clock expired as the ball was in midair. The ball rotated perfectly and dropped cleanly through the hoop to make the lead 68-55 with 7:52 to go in the third.
Ainge gave the leader of the Celtics a high five as the crowd roared.
Finally feeling warmed up after being temporarily freed of the constant Laker defensive restraints, Bird ran through a series of screens and received a pass on the next Boston possession. He dribbled to his left, stepped back behind a McHale pick and drilled an 18-footer from the left wing to prompt a Laker timeout as the bulge reached 15 points.
Following the timeout, Robert Parish went one-on-one with Thompson and swished a left baseline jumper. Cooper was whistled for a technical after shoving McHale hard with two hands to the upper chest just after the shot went through, and Bird converted the free throw.
Johnson hit a triple, but in a classic parry and thrust, just as Earvin swished the pull-up jumper, Bird was already thinking ahead. When the ball went through the hoop he grabbed it, quickly stepped backwards out of bounds and in one motion, fired a one-handed 70-foot baseball pass right in stride to a streaking Ainge for a nice-left-handed layup.
It was one way the ultra-competitive Bird had learned to combat a potentially key score, by deflating it with a quick easy comeback basket. While others might be burying their head after a dunk or big shot by an opponent, he would seize any momentary letdown by an opponent with deadly long-court passing.
Playing at his peak, Johnson came back with two foul shots to keep LA alive. Parish buried another baseline jumper, this time over Kareem, for his fourth straight made basket. Sizzling Boston made eight of its first nine shots in the third quarter.
Then came another key play that was miscalled.
Bird drove the lane for a left-handed drive but missed badly. He got his own rebound, however, yet rushed his reverse layup over Jabbar just a tad and missed it off the glass. But McHale soared in and tipped the miss and the ball rattled in, out and then was about to drop back in for good when Kareem clearly knocked the ball out of the cylinder.
Jabbar obviousy goal-tended the McHale tip shot that was sitting softly inside the rim (and nearly in the basket), definitely poised to drop in. But with the play in front of the LA bench the refs, especially the shaky Hugh Evans, were influenced by the protestations of the Laker coaches and Kareem. Somehow, Evans instead called the Celtics for offensive goaltending!
In his book, which basically starts out recounting this momentous game, Strom even admitted that "on this particular play, we blew the call." Again, it was Evans who missed it completely. As the referee under the basket it was his call to make, and the two refs met at the foul line to discuss the call.
Evans convinced Strom, who didn't think McHale was part of the play, that Big Mac had knocked the ball out of the cylinder. TV replays clearly showed that Jabbar had knocked it out as the ball was dobviously about to drop in. As Strom waved the basket off, the incredulous crowd immediately exploded in a roar of righteous disbelief.
They had been on the edge of their seats all night, knowing how important the game was. Ainge, who had been listening in to the refs' conversation, put his hands on his head also in disbelief while his jaw dropped all the way open when he saw they were calling Boston, not LA, for basket interference.
As Strom later wrote, "the instant replay that was shown to all the million of viewers watching the Finals clearly showed Kareem had hit the ball. The only person in the place who had it wrong was my partner, who had the responsibility to make the call...Had he come up to me and discussed it, we would have been able to straighten it out."
But they didn't. Evans was somehow sure, despite the fact Jabbar obviously goal-tended the ball. It is also interesting to note that on ESPN Classic re-plays of this epic game, the missed goaltending call has been EDITED OUT. Perhaps it was just a way to make the game fit into a two-hour window, but one wonders.
In fact, Evans was so far off on the play that shortly thereafter during a break he apologized to Strom for blowing the call. Strom, expecting his partner to admit Jabbar had goaltended, instead was surprised to hear Evans say he should have called McHale for a LOOSE BALL FOUL instead of goaltending.
Even then he was doubly wrong, as Strom noted, "oh my God. The goaltending would have superseded...it would have been two for Boston."
Strom called McHale a "good guy who usually doesn't say much to me, so when he does I tend to listen. Kevin just kept shaking his head and saying he never touched the ball. I had to be inclined to believe him. But I also had to support Hugh at this point..."
It was a grossly erroneous call, an obvious one that almost everyone in the Garden saw when it happened. It cost Boston two points that would prove precious in the final outcome, not to mention in the way possessions were played down the stretch.
Cooper blocked a DJ jumper and stopped the Celtic run with a triple off a Thompson kick-out pass on the following fast break, a harbinger of a huge play to come later.
A few moments later, Bird gave a fake pass near the left elbow and lost the ball in a crowd, and it trickled out of bounds. The normally non-demonstrative Bird gestured with his arms and angrily claimed he was fouled to Strom, who noted in his book that "Bird is very smart at picking his spots. Generally he has his say and it's over. He is a throwback to the old players, he doesn't harp and harp."
This time an angry Bird continued to harp at Strom, and their back-and-forth language became quite salty with the Celtic superstar dropping a few f bombs Strom's way, who told Bird twice to "get off my ass."
This uncharacteristic harping by Bird probably did not do anything to curry favor from the veteran contrarian ref. And probably showed the stress even a fatigued Bird - as well as Earl - was feeling.
Seconds later after Bird missed on a floating jumper to his right from 17 feet, Cooper sped upcourt with the ball. He penetrated and passed out to a cutting Worthy. Yet as James drove in close for a likely deuce, Bird angled in quickly from the left side and stripped Worthy from behind with a quick left arm swipe from the side as the Laker forward elevated toward the hoop.
The North Carolina standout never saw Bird coming and paid the price. Bird grabbed the ball and as he hurried to outlet a pass to a streaking Ainge to avoid an intentional foul, he was grabbed from behind.
Ainge was headed for an uncontested breakaway layup and Strom, the lead official out in front, was going to let it go for an easy two. But Evans whistled the foul and took a sure basket away from the Celtics, as Heinsohn duly noted.
The questionable Evans intentional holding foul call denied a sure Ainge deuce, while Strom was content to let the play flow ("keep the game moving and reward good play" was his officiating motto.)
Nevertheless, Parish grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a dunk in the face of a flailing Thompson. But at the other end, LA isolated Worthy on McHale along the left wing, and he quickly drove baseline past the hobbled big man with a lightning fast crossover that led to a resounding one-handed stuff shot.
Bird, already tiring and standing straight up, then misread Parish, who didn't pop out off a screen, and threw the ball away toward midcourt, leading to a four-on-one LA fast break that culminated with Thompson tallying an easy fast break dunk with 57 ticks left in the third period.
Larry was so tired, and probably disgusted with himself, that for once he didn't hustle back on defense after his error.
Trying to make up for the miscue when Boston entered the attacking zone on the next play, he fired from the deep right corner, but it bounced out long to trigger another break, and tempers flared again in the tense contest.
Off the ensuing Laker fast break, Scott drove the right baseline. Bird hustled back downcourt and positioned himself perfectly on the baseline to stop the lethal LA transition game.
As Scott drove, Bird jumped straight up and avoided contact as he let Scott glide by. He then hung in the air and blocked the shot cleanly, swiping it away from behind over the head of the Laker guard with his right hand, and amazingly, even grabbed the ball with both hands as he yanked it away - only to have a foul called by Evans.
Bird calmly walked away toward the bench in disgust while palming the ball in his right hand.
At the same time another scrum, this one more minor, erupted. Scott, angry at having been pilfered, shoved McHale. The very aggressive Green, whose father was a boxer, also jumped in to escalate the fray and push the long-armed Celt, who had simply walked into the burgeoning fracas.
McHale had been the target of Laker anger numerous times in their trilogy of title showdowns due to residual anger from his 1984 clothesline of Rambis, and also because of frustration in dealing with his ungainly but unstoppable offensive game.
The Lakers, arrogantly refusing to see the larger reasons why they lost that Finals ("we're better athletes" as Mychal Thompson said later in the summer of 1987 on an interview by Roy Firestone on his ESPN talk show), convinced themselves that the McHale/Rambis clothesline had changed the series, and rationalized it was the reason they lost.
LA conveniently forgot that the dogged Celtic offensive rebounding, all-around play of Bird and belated switch of DJ onto Magic - who played poorly in the clutch - were the bigger reasons for the loss. Accordingly, they used a free-floating anger from the 1984 loss, which so many had mis-labeled as luck of the Irish or another classic Celtic "steal," to play rougher and more aggressively.
And importantly, the league and its referees, consciously or unconsciously, allowed LA to play far more aggressively in 1985 and 1987 as a way of "evening things up."
Indeed over 20 years later, Jabbar noted before game three of the 2008 Finals between Boston and LA, "We were very, very upset about losing in 1984 to the Celtics," Kareem recalled. "The incident with Kevin McHale tackling Kurt Rambis was very fresh in our minds.
"They thought they could increase the rough play and push us off our game, which they did in 1984," he continued. "So in 1985, we were ready for that and did what we needed to do to win, and we had to deal with the rough play," he rationalized.
And a few months later, Earvin Johnson finally admitted the truth, that LA was far more physical than portrayed. While interviewed by Nancy Lieberman during a December 10, 2008 game on ESPN between the Lakers and Phoenix, Johnson was criticizing the current Laker team for not playing good enough defense, and related it to his 1980s LA teams.
"We had a reputation of not being physical, but we were," Johnson boasted. "We never let you (opposing players) run in a straight line. We would hold you, grab you, bump you." The admission was 21 years late, but accurate.
Cooper, despite being skinny, was exceptionally feisty and in your face defensively, always ready to square off, and the Lakers were the tallest team in the NBA. With his belated boasting admission, Johnson must have figured the statute of limitations on that sort of manipulation had finally expired.
Meanwhile, Bird had stopped to ponder how Evans could have whistled him for a body foul when he had clearly kept his torso several inches from Scott. He simply ambled away to the Boston bench in disbelief over the call as the Celtic crowd chanted "bullsh-t, bullsh-t."
Double technicals were again assessed to Scott and McHale - an ineffective, no-fault appeasement ruling/warning designed to not give either side an advantage, but also without penalizing the superseding perpetrator to the semi-fight, who was clearly Scott.
While other players milled about following the semi-melee Bird wandered over to the foul lane and gave the ball to Evans. He then stood directly in front of the referee and stared into his dark eyes without saying a word (how could you call that, it was ALL BALL he seemed to be saying).
Knowing he was wrong, the jaded official still would not even look in the Celtic great's welkin blue eyes. Instead he turned his head slightly away from Larry as he stood at the foul line, left leg bent in momentary repose amid the intense heat. The black-clad Claggart was simply enforcing his authority, and would not be moved by anything or anyone, from his depraved ruling.
The veteran captain of the officiating crew, Strom, did not intervene or overrule. In this case after meeting secretly with his fellow official, the normally fearless skipper agreed to simply abide by his law, leaning on expediency and political correctness to avoid further mutiny and a potentially much nastier outcome. He had to restore, or maintain, order.
His blonde mane wet with sweat, the innocent Bird put his hands on his hips in silent protest and lingered a moment to continue looking at the court judge. He thought for a moment and made no physical protest, shook his head and simply walked away, arms at his side. There were no rights for him in this most crucial game.
Again, Evans had been one of the referees in the game six 1985 title-clinching win for the Lakers in Boston along with Strom - a sign close Celtic observers had to take note of ominously when game four began.
Going back as far as 1966, Strom had worked the seventh game of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers in Boston, which the hosts won 95-93 back when greats like Russell, West, Havlicek and Baylor roamed the parquet. Now such luminaries as Bird, Jabbar, Johnson and McHale were following in their place.
Bird walked away from Evans, but unable to get the bad call out of his mind, mouthed a cuss word as he glared back at Evans out of the corner of his eyes while number 33 lined up along the foul lane for Scott's foul shots.
Adding insult to injury, the Laker guard hit two free throws from the "foul" he never should have been awarded. Strom had told Scott to "knock it off" and he was pushed away by a teammate, but it was clear the Laker guard's anger was unjustified from the play. If anything, he should have been grateful for the break he was given after being stripped clean.
It wasn't the first time Evans had blown a ridiculous whistle on a Celtic at a critical time in the Finals...
In his autobiography Strom noted that Evans, in his 10th year as an NBA referee, was "a pretty competent official, but tended to get a little nervous."
In fact, Evans had called a phantom sixth foul on McHale with five minutes left in game six of the 1985 NBA Finals, stopping a late comeback with Boston down just 95-90 and trailing three games to two.
Driving left, Kurt Rambis jumped and forced his body INTO a retreating McHale, and threw up a LEFT-handed prayer from about 12 feet that banked harmlessly off the glass. Yet Evans somehow saw fit to bail him out and call a foul on the hottest Celtic weapon, someone the Lakers (and every other team) had no answer for.
This, even though McHale had not initiated contact on a shot that also virtually had no chance to go in as a desperation heave. It was his fourth foul of the period, and with Bird struggling to score 26 points and the rest of the Celtics missing open jumpers and numerous layups, the disqualification all but sealed Boston's doom.
Big Mac had been unstoppable, scoring 32 of his team's 90 points to that juncture, and had yanked down 16 rebounds, many on the offensive glass. Incredulous and angry with the whistle, McHale vociferously argued the call as he reluctantly left the court, shaking his head and repeatedly yelling that the foul was "BS."
Perhaps it was a carry-over from his hard foul on Rambis the previous season, and payback for his penchant to complain on bad calls. Nevertheless, it was a costly and inexcusably bad whistle. And "make-up calls" never really work, especially a year later.
Ainge also complained heartily about the call, while Bird consoled his forward tandem mate non-verbally with a sardonic smile that immediately communicated his awareness that, "you got screwed."
On the bench moments later, McHale was almost in tears at having been robbed of a chance to defend their title at the most important juncture in the Garden. Teams play 82 games over six months to get homecourt advantage, and Boston had earned it with 63 regular season wins, one more than LA.
What's more, it had been the best playoff game of Kevin's career, at least to that time, and his continued presence could very well have changed the outcome.
But if the Celtics couldn't push it to a seventh game without McHale, there would be no homecourt edge for Boston to lean on as each team had enjoyed three home contests through the first six in the Finals...
Minutes later, Bird missed a key corner trey that would have cut the deficit to four, but when Ainge and DJ collided bringing down the rebound, Evans strangely called Ainge for a foul. McHale, now on his knees in disbelief in front of the Boston bench, angrily screamed toward Evans again, calling him an "as-hole."
As much as the bad calls though in that game, dreadfully awful outside shooting by the starting Boston guards (three-for-16 by Ainge and three-for-15 by DJ) really cost them against the sagging zone defense of LA.
Clearly, the refs were trying to control the crucial fourth game and the crowd in 1987, but the close calls were all going against Boston - IN THE GARDEN, no less. Something else seemed afoot.
Evans had made the mistake of anticipating a foul on Bird's clean block and steal of Scott's drive, possibly due to preconceived notions about Bird and his supposed lack of leaping ability.
There is no way Bird could jump that high, hang in the air and block Byron's shot...right?
But he had. Never a great jumper, Bird nonetheless always leaped better than given credit for until his back and foot injuries sidelined him finally late in 1988 and limited his mobility thereafter.
He had become expert in allowing his opponent to get a quarter or half-step past him, thinking they were home free, then swiping or stripping the ball away from the side or behind - which is a very frustrating thing for the offensive player who thinks he is in the clear and past the suckering defender. Three times Bird performed this feat in the game.
After many years of enduring abuse from Red Auerbach and the Garden crowd, the contrarian in Strom wasn't about to step in and correct a colleague's call, whether he even saw it or not.
Maybe it was finally restitution time for all the calls of the past that had gone Boston's way at home, the times when the Garden clock operator held it a second or two to aid the home team, or let it run too long to hurt the opposition, or hard-fouled a foe with a bruiser like Loscutoff, or had seen Auerbach badger and intimidate a referee. But how did penalizing this Celtic team, this group of players for sins of a distant past, make things right? Answer - it didn't.
And it wasn't over yet. The calls against Boston also seemed to make their defense less aggressive while they also empowered and energized the rallying Lakers.
Thus a revived and determined Los Angeles kept coming, but Boston had the answers, for a while.
Having been bottled up for the first half, Bird began to shake loose. He hit a tough fadeaway, then buried an 18-footer from in front of the LA bench to bring the crowd to life. Riley wisely called a timeout to halt the momentum before Boston regained complete control - and Bird continued his roll - and thus LA crept back in it.
The 16-point lead had dwindled down to 83-76 with 37 seconds left in the third period. With the shot clock then running out, Bird was double-teamed and hit the open with a pass. Daye head faked the Laker defense out of the way, got a screen from Parish, penetrated and swished a clutch 12-foot pull-up shot at the shot-clock horn to provide the first Boston bench basket of the game.
At the other end, Cooper gave Ainge a head fake on a long corner shot, and the Celtic guard flew by as Cooper leaned toward him and stuck out his right leg slightly, causing minimal contact without ever even releasing a shot.
Strom anticipated a collision though and whistled a two-shot foul on a disbelieving Ainge, who started to complain, then covered his mouth and nose with both hands.
Cooper made both foul shots followed to bring LA within 85-78 with five ticks remaining.
Stockton presciently noted on CBS that the much-maligned Celtic reserves had played just a total of 13 minutes heading into the fourth period, and that the lack of rest could make a difference down the stretch of the hard-fought game.
"The ironman Celtics have blown bigger leads than seven at the end of games this year," Heinsohn ominously warned.
After an invisible first half scoring-wise, Bird netted a dozen third period points as Boston shot 60 percent and LA 57 percent.
The miked-up Strom made a point of invading both team huddles before the fourth quarter, and warned each club to halt the physical play or more stiff penalties would be assessed.
To the Lakers he warned them, "before ya start, let me say something. The next guy that gets into somebody's face, I am going to throw their ass out of here."
He then ambled over to the Celtic bench and said, "Excuse me K.C., I just told those guys and I'm tellin' you guys, we're going to stop the f—kin' bullsh-t and we're gonna play ball...the next guy who gets in somebody's face I'm gonna throw his f—in' ass out. Now you can talk."
Somehow, LA possessed the momentum being only seven down after being dominated for most of the stanza. The opportunistic Riley and the Lakers had learned to interrupt another team's fine play with extra-curricular activity. In doing so they lost any self-righteous claim to being the victim as they had in 1984.
Worthy buried a 15-footer over the shorter Daye on a left side isolation play to start the furious final quarter, which would go down as one of the most dramatic in NBA Finals history.
Sichting drilled a 20-footer off a DJ assist for his lone basket, but Green drove the lane cautiously and canned a one-footed, hanging lane banker between Bird and DJ to make it 87-82.
The teams then traded punches, with the younger, more rested Ali now becoming the aggressor against a tiring Frazier, who had almost punched himself out against the rope-a-dope tactics.
McHale took a pass from Sichting, twisted his body and then swished a fine 15-foot fade at the shot clock horn.
In turn, Worthy isolated on McHale, who forced him to miss a tough, spinning left-handed hook in the lane. But Thompson grabbed the rebound over Kite, who had inside position yet had gotten too low under the basket, and Mychal banked in a short stickback to answer right back. It was LA's 14th offensive rebound of the game, compared to eight by Boston.
Bird was guarded by Johnson on a switch, and he immediately tried to score on his rival. But he missed a pull-up jumper going to his right on the baseline, which Thompson rebounded. He quickly outletted to Cooper, who hurriedly turned to head upcourt without looking ahead.
Sichting cleverly anticipated Cooper's move upcourt, positioned himself to get run over and drew a charging foul on the unsuspecting Laker sixth man as he tried to start their lethal fast break.
Riley was incensed by the call, but Sichting had given the leggy Cooper room to turn and step before running into him. It was another example of the feisty 6-1 Purdue guard making a smart play sacrificing his body, and a reason why he should have been given more minutes. In addition to his deadly (and more consistent outside shooting than Ainge), he was a very good passer and ballhandler rarely prone to turnovers, and a scrappy defender.
Moving Ainge to the sixth man role with all the injuries would have been a clever move to give Boston more punch off the pines. The shorter Sichting would have given up a height advantage as a starter, but Ainge would have benefited from playing with some of the second unit more as he could have been more aggressive offensively.
As the fifth option in the star-studded Celtic starting lineup, he was stifled and often neglected, and in response Danny occasionally forced bad shots.
On the ensuing possession, Bird had Cooper isolated on a post-up, but a hustling Worthy deflected DJ's tired entry pass out of bounds, taking away almost a certain basket. The precise Celtic halfcourt offense was starting to show signs of fatigue and cracks.
DJ then hit Bird with a nice pass inside as he cut through the lane off a Parish backscreen, but Johnson came over to help and as he banged knees with Bird, stripped him of the ball with a hard two-handed downswipe. Larry recovered the loose sphere on the floor, yet as he laid under the hoop looking to pass, he was called out of bounds for crossing the endline with his right shoulder.
Meanwhile, E. Johnson was holding his knee in pain and went out briefly with a terribly anguished look on his face. However, he was back in shortly. Bird showed no ill effects from the collision.
Worthy hit a spinning lefty shot in the lane to cut the deficit to three at 89-86. Bird gave a fake pass to freeze the defense, then fed Parish inside. His turnaround jumper was well-defended by Jabbar and missed, but McHale rebounded the Chief miss with an acrobatic left-handed grab back behind and across his body.
He then gathered himself and hit a short hook, his 10th successful field goal in his last 11 attempts, and drew a foul on the play. But he missed the free throw to keep the margin at five with 8:35 left to play.
The diminutive Sichting then sneaked in from behind Kareem from the baseline and stole the ball from behind the 7-2 Jabbar on a double team. But Johnson, back in and showing no ill effects from the knee-banging incident moments before, hustled back on defense to break up the ensuing fast break, preventing a certain Parish stuff.
However, on the following play Ainge took a quick touch pass from Bird and fooled Johnson with a good head fake behind the arc. With the Laker guard having passed him by, he dribbled in closer and drilled a 17-footer over the rotating Thompson.
Jabbar was double-teamed by Bird, who appeared to have him stymied as he turned to this right for the hook. But he tried to do too much to prevent the lethal hook shot, reaching in at the last moment and was called for a touch foul. Kareem then made two foul shots for a 93-88 count. LA was barely hanging in there, yet they also just wouldn't go away.
Boston worked the ball around the perimeter, but Bird never touched the ball on the next possession. Thompson muscled McHale out of position and after a DJ miss, LA rebounded and pushed the ball downcourt fast.
Thompson took a pass on the left wing, drove and simply threw himself into Parish to draw his fourth foul on yet another questionable whistle, making one of two shots. Aggressive LA defense forced the Celts to eat up much of the 24-second clock on the next possession, but Bird crisply snapped a pass to an open DJ on the right wing.
For some reason, probably fatigue, he was not ready to shoot and hesitated, something the normally clutch guard would not do. On a balanced team of clutch players and stars, shots were like gold and he usually devoured such opportunities, but this time he curiously didn't even look to shoot.
By the time he held the ball, then dribbled to his left and finally lobbed a belated pass to Parish posting up inside, DJ had eaten up six precious seconds, and a 24-second violation occurred before the Chief could squeeze off a short jumper. The Boston blunder gave rallying LA even more confidence and aggression on defense, as well as hope and some adrenaline.
Parish was called for his fifth foul after bodying Kareem down low quite lightly on a sky hook from 11 feet, and two Jabbar foul shots cut it to 93-91. Kite came in for the stoic Chief, and Heinsohn rightly criticized his too-late insertion to the contest.
Cooper slapped a Bird driving left-handed shot out of his hands and out of bounds, avenging a similar overhead swat by Larry in the first half, with 6:45 to go.
DJ then penetrated to his right out of a double tream and pulled up, only to miss a short lane fade shot off the back iron. The 32-year old guard had little offensive game left in his legs in his 21st playoff game at 42 minutes a contest since Jones did not use his backcourt reserves.
McHale then appeared to block an inside shot by Thompson, but Strom called the fourth foul on the complaining Celtic forward. The two Thompson foul shots tied it at 93-all with 6:14 left.
Ainge jab faked twice to his left, and then stopped the 7-0 LA run with a 19-footer over Johnson off a good Kite screen when Jabbar failed to hedge out far enough. However, Jabbar answered with a right baseline sky hook from a dozen feet out over Kite.
At the other end, DJ dribbled patiently out top, waiting for Bird to pop open. After reading an elbow screen correctly for a flare cut at the 5:20 mark, Bird lost a caught-in-no-man's-land Worthy, took a skip pass from DJ and coolly swished a 20-foot from the right baseline over Jabbar, who came over too late to help. The precise execution had given Bird plenty of time to cock and fire over the 7-2 center's reach.
Bird had quickly and naturally calculated how far he had to flare out toward the corner to get enough room to squeeze off the open shot. He shot it with the knowledge that he had accomplished his task, as even the taller Jabbar and his reach were no bother, as they usually were.
Cooper missed a three-point try with Bird and DJ contesting him, and Larry anticipated the long rebound before anyone else and used his good positioning to snare the loose ball.
After one dribble, he quickly tossed a two-handed, angled 37-foot chest outlet pass to DJ right in stride. Johnson drove in hard and scored a difficult wrong-footed, right-handed layup from the left side, just releasing the ball over the high-flying Cooper's attempted shot block. The ball hit the front rim softly, and his momentum carried it in to cap a key opportunity fast break.
Defended well by Kite, Jabbar then airballed a baseline hook, and Ainge corralled the loose ball off the rare bad misfire. The lone Boston speedster, the Celtic guard pushed it hard upcourt at full speed. He went right at Johnson, who moved out of the way but took a last-ditch swipe at the ball.
But Ainge protected the ball well off to his right side, hung in the air and made the fast break layup as a hustling Kite ran the floor hard and flew in for the possible tip had the shot missed.
It was Danny's fourth consecutive successful field goal try and gave Boston a six-point edge. The frustrated Lakers called timeout with 4:22 left, down 101-95.
A hyped-up Ainge next harassed Johnson into a miss, and McHale rebounded. Boston ran the clock down, looking to go up eight while milking the time off. Bird handed off to Ainge beyond the top of the key and Danny missed a desperation trey badly, his shot launched as the shot clock expired.
But McHale came up big with the long rebound and was fouled hard by Cooper while coming down to give the Celts a reprieve as he crashed to floor, perilously off balance while straining for the important loose ball. But somehow LA was not in the penalty foul phase yet.
Rubbing Worthy off on a Kite screen, Bird flashed to the circle and took a pass from DJ. Doubled by Johnson and Jabbar, he did a reverse spin dribble near the right elbow away from the duo, and swished a gorgeous fadeaway 17-footer over Kareem for an eight-point Celtic lead with 3:30 left.
It looked like Boston had weathered the Laker storm with an 8-0 spurt, and if they simply held onto the ball and played smart, with any luck the series would be tied at 2-2 with one more game upcoming at the Garden. The series momentum would definitely swing in their favor.
But luck would go against them. The legendary leprechaun was being stepped on and suppressed.
Jabbar wheeled to his left into the lane and was fouled by Kite, who went out at the 3:19 mark for Parish. The 7-2 Laker missed the first free toss, then narrowly made the second foul shot with a fortuitous bounce to cut the LA deficit to 101-94.
And then came another questionable call. DJ's entry pass to Bird was slightly tipped by Cooper out of bounds, but the refs disagreed on the ruling and settled on a jump ball. The ball appeared to have been kicked by Cooper, which should have made it a dead ball automatically and a new shot clock, before it had possibly touched Bird's index finger on its way past the baseline.
Instead of having a chance to augment a seven-point lead, or at the very least run off precious clock, the Celtics had to go to a jump ball between Cooper and DJ with 3:05 left. The tip at the Celtic foul line between the two premier defenders of the time was flicked back toward midcourt.
Ainge dove between Cooper and Johnson on the floor and corraled the loose ball off the tip, but Evans, perhaps trying to avoid another scrum, blew another jump ball whistle very prematurely when neither Laker was even close to having possession of the ball at all.
In fact, the ball had been loosened from a prone Ainge by the two purple-clad guards and had rolled toward midcourt, where DJ picked it up with no Laker near him.
With the height advantage over Ainge, Cooper then controlled this second tip by stealing it just a tad early to Jabbar, who batted it back to the Laker sixth man, making the prolonged possession essentially a Boston turnover.
Back on offense, a tired Kareem shot a left-handed hook well short, but he snared the carom with the aid of a nudge in the back to Parish. However, later in the extended possession Jabbar was called for traveling.
As he spun into the lane McHale double-teamed him, anticipating correctly that Kareem would drive to his right for the patented hook, forcing the walk at the 2:28 mark.
Bird had a chance to bury LA when he came open on the left wing off a screen, and he made a fake pass to freeze the defense and give himself time for a clear shot. But feeling slightly rushed, he didn't quite re-load his shooting motion to its normal complete rhythm.
As a result, he missed a leaning, open 21-footer from in front of the LA bench, a shot that he normally would make if he weren't so tired and constantly harassed into speeding up his shot.
The swarming Laker defense had rattled even Bird into altering and quickening his normal motion, shooting just a half-second too soon in order to get his shot off cleanly. As a result, he was slightly out of synch, his body leaning instead of going straight up and slightly forward on the release. Johnson rebounded the crucial miss and with 2:09 left, the Lakers called timeout.
After Thompson blew a bunny right in front of the hoop off a snap pass from Johnson, Evans bailed him out with yet another iffy foul call as Mychal squeezed between the two Celtic forwards virtually untouched on the miss. He made one of two foul shots to cut it to 103-97.
Then came a pair of huge plays by LA. Boston was starting to play the clock instead of the game, and threw a questionable pass to Parish in a spot outside his range. Never known as a good ballhandler or decision-maker far out on the floor, the Chief hesitated, then brought the ball down to belt level.
The veteran Jabbar came up with a big momentum-shifting play when he and Cooper double-teamed Parish. Kareem alertly stole the ball right out of Parish's hands at the 1:40 mark when the Celtic center inexplicably brought the ball down instead of keeping it high, especially in traffic.
He had beaten Thompson with the same move earlier in the half, but this time he foolishly did it with Cooper and Jabbar all over him. Sensing the chance to strike and change the game, LA quickly leaked out on the break, Johnson penetrated and instead of taking it all the way to the hoop against the retreating defense, he cagily threw the ball BACK out to Cooper.
It was a play that changed the entire tenor of the game.
The crowd grew deathly silent, then let out a loud "AHH" in fear as they saw Cooper step back for an open right wing trey off the break, a gutsy shot.
It was a calculated risk by a team knowing it had to take chances to win, but he had been making them all series. So again he calibrated it, let fly and hit from long distance to cut the deficit in half at 103-100 with 1:32 to go.
Suddenly, the game had completely changed as the gutsy, cold-blooded shot hit the back rim and rifled through the basket like the sound of a muffled gunshot, and with the effect of a punch to the stomach that doubled over Boston and knocked their wind out.
The Celtics had gone from having the ball and a six-point lead with 1:45 left to up only three with 90 seconds still to go. Thus, the pressure on them multiplied exponentially in a hurry as the gravity of the situation hit them in the gut. An almost certain 2-2 series tie was now in doubt, and a 3-1 deficit would be like a death knell. No team had ever rallied from 1-3 down in the Finals to win the championship.
No timeout was called to settle down, rest or regroup. The game had changed so quickly on an unexpected chain of events that Boston seemed frozen, shocked and on its heels, while the Lakers, who looked like certain losers just moments before, smelled blood in the water.
Then came another huge mistake. Boston decided to finally go to its best option inside with McHale. But a tiring Bird threw a low entry pass from a poor angle to McHale, who had made 10 of his last 11 shots yet hadn't taken a field goal attempt in over seven minutes - and that shot had come via an offensive rebound.
The forced pass whizzed near his knees too hard, and skittered out of bounds almost untouched at the 1:19 juncture. It was a pass a more-rested Bird would never had thrown. Not expecting the pass to be thrown to him at that time as he was jockeying for position, a weary Kevin was also being nudged in the back by Thompson and he barely got the fingers of his right hand on the ball before it sailed out of bounds. The Celtics were clearly unraveling and appeared ripe to fall.
LA marched upcourt and isolated Worthy on the right side against the injured McHale. The Laker forward wheeled into the lane for a nine-footer over Kevin and Parish, who came over to help too late, and his turnaround shot nestled into the hoop after rimming around slightly.
The lead was just one slim point now, 103-102, with 58 ticks to go. The momentum had suddenly and unexpectedly, jarringly, swung clearly back to LA now as they threw all they had into one final push. Ali was making his final flurry of punches to impress the judges at the end of the 15th round.
It's likely that after such a fierce late run, had there been more time to regroup for Boston, they would have been able to come back against a spent LA squad. But the aggressive visitors played the clock just right and unapologetically took advantage of the breaks.
Bird was determined to keep Boston back out in front himself, and dribbled to the corner away from Worthy on a spin move, trying to will his fading team to victory.
Great confidence in his ability to make the big shot led Larry to try a very difficult shot as Jabbar smartly switched right out on him to contest him, fully aware that Bird was the man most likely to take and make the big shot to clinch the game. And in this case, put a tourniquet on the severe Boston bleeding.
Bird pushed off the 7-2 center slightly with his left forearm and stepped back to clear space, but Jabbar's length and tenacity forced him to miss the rushed 20-foot baseline fadeaway, which was uncharacteristically off line to the right all the way. It was not a good shot selection, and Kareem had cleverly anticipated the shot to get maximum pressure on the low percentage launch.
Thompson rebounded the errant shot and a newly-confident Johnson dribbled upcourt purposefully, ready to seize the lead, clearly on its toes as opposed to a backpedaling Boston.
Ainge was guarding Earvin yet backed off him too far, allowing Johnson to set up and call the play without any pressure. Johnson calmly pointed out the position others needed to be in as the play unfolded, without Danny doing anything to disrupt him or hinder his clear view of the floor. It was symbolic of how Boston had played much of the series - back on its heels, reacting late.
Cooper then set a back screen on Parish amid a crowded lane, and the reeling, tired Celts did not communicate the pick. With his back to the play, DJ failed to call it out and Cooper screened Parish from behind, freeing Kareem. Earvin Johnson then hit Jabbar for a perfectly executed alley-oop dunk over the 6-4 DJ, who had switched late onto the 7-2 Kareem, to give LA its first lead since the third minute of play.
The comeback was complete and there were only 29 seconds left now. By playing Johnson so softly on the perimeter, the normally hyper-competitive Ainge seemed almost mesmerized. Or just too tired to exert the pressure needed to disrupt the much bigger guard.
Boston finally called timeout and an angry DJ quickly stalked to the Boston bench first. Bird broke first from the huddle, wiping his face off with a towel. He looked tired. He then went and gave Ainge some instructions before he and DJ walked toward midcourt to in-bound the ball.
Larry threw the ball into Dennis, who then dribbled to the right side as Bird ran to the low left box area alongside McHale. Ainge ran the baseline and came out on top of the left side off a Bird/McHale double screen.
As DJ dribbled to his right, the Celtics were setting up a misdirection play for Bird, who was still waiting patiently on the left baseline, literally held by the jersey in Worthy's desperately clasping hands. The Laker forward was nearly ripping Larry's shirt off as he held him in check on the backside of the thinly-veiled LA zone.
Kareem switched out hard onto Dennis, and he lofted the ball patiently in to Parish on the right block as he was guarded by Magic. The Chief passed back out to DJ. The ball was now being swung around the perimeter from right to left in Bird's direction.
Ainge popped open out top to the left of the circle, and was open briefly from 20 feet as DJ tossed him the ball. Afraid Danny might shoot an open shot, Worthy panicked and erroneously left Larry to rush out and defend Ainge at the behest of Thompson, who was guarding McHale near Bird on the baseline.
The former Blazer big man pointed at Ainge as he caught the pass, and as Worthy sprinted out to harass the Celtic guard, Earvin Johnson also rotated over toward Ainge out of his zone. It was almost like James didn't want to cover Bird, afraid of getting burned.
With Worthy and Johnson rushing out at him, Danny knew what to do before the duo even got to him. He deftly rifled a no-look pass leftward to the suddenly open Bird at just the right time.
After spending the entire possession standing on the baseline literally in Worthy's grip, Larry had backed up into the corner to create as much space as possible, anticipating Ainge's swing pass. Just as players are taught to do but too often don't, Bird crouched with hands spread apart waiting for the pass so he could shoot as quickly as possible against the fast-recovering, rangy LA defense.
As he caught the ball directly in front of the end of the Laker bench, rookie reserve Billy Thompson was kneeling on the floor. He screamed out "NOOOOO" and put his head down, fearing the worst for his team. Johnson, rotating over from the top of the LA zone, started hustling toward Bird but slowed up, realizing he couldn't get to him in time and that any more expenditure of energy was futile.
Bird turned slightly and efficiently released his shot as the long-armed Thompson frantically flew out to the corner toward him, just launching the missile in time to get it over the 6-10 Bahaman's long left arm. The preparation time Bird had spent in getting ready to shoot allowed him to get the shot off just over the Laker big man.
"He was cold, lifeless...like a shark," recalled Thompson in "When the Game Was Ours" 22 years later.
As the shot arched toward the rim, Bird took a step forward with arms extended for body English, not quite sure it was good. Having suffered through a tough shooting night, he wasn't feeling his normal confidence.
However, the shot went straight in after hitting the back rim lightly, giving Boston a 106-104 lead. The Garden crowd exploded with 12 seconds left, as it appeared that against all odds, order had been restored to the NBA universe, or at least their version of it.
"Larry Bird, with a big three-point bomb, has given the Celtics the lead," exclaimed normally-staid CBS announcer Dick Stockton.
Walton, relegated to being "Bird's valet" as he liked to say, high-tenned Kite in unbridled glee on the Boston bench, and patted Bird on the back as the Legend reached the huddle. A few weeks before he had celebrated with child-like glee when Bird had stolen a floating Isiah Thomas pass in the final seconds to win game five against Detroit.
It appeared he had done the same thing at the most crucial time once more.
Before being seated, Larry then turned to his left and looked down to the Laker bench to gauge their reaction - and also as if to say "ok, it's your turn now." Not quite the, "let's see what you've got" challenge from Bird in their famous Converse commercial of a few years earlier, but close, telepathically.
An angry Johnson berated his teammates. "How could you leave him alone?" he asked his club in their huddle, as reported in WTGWO. "Everyone in the building knew he was taking that shot. Did any of you actually doubt he could hit it?"
Then Johnson smartly changed his tone from critical to encouraging. "Come on fellas, plenty of time," he enthused. It was a prescient move that a less mature Johnson would not have been able to make in 1984, when his gaffes helped cost LA a thrilling seven-game championship series loss to the Celtics and Larry Legend.
Not only had Bird given Boston the lead, his planning and guts made it a two-point bulge with his memorable trey. Now only a three-point play could beat the Celtics, and the worst their fans expected was overtime. Referee Strom even commented to Bird as he walked by him that, "you have got some balls to take that shot."
Worthy recalled years later, "I was holding onto his jersey, doing everything I could do, but once he shot it, I knew it was going in." Years later, Worthy would admit to "sleepless nights" before playing Boston and guarding Bird. "I would much rather guard Michael Jordan than Larry Bird," said Worthy. "To guard Bird you have to play the game as a thinker...you have to get inside his mind."
On the ensuing play, Johnson passed in to a posting Jabbar on the left block. He wheeled right into the lane for a hook, and McHale was called for a foul on the double team as he split through Parish and Big Mac. But there was very little, if any, contact, as Jabbar simply threw up an off-balance shot that clanged off the glass with eight ticks remaining.
Jabbar made the first free throw to pull LA within one point, and the center eyed the 14th Laker foul shot of the final period (Boston had shot just one free throw, McHale's miss on the hook putback at the 8:35 juncture).
As the Garden crowd howled its loudest and the fans behind the basket went crazy to distract Jabbar, the second free throw was just short and thus went in and out, spinning off to the right. Parish had sealed out Johnson on the left box (why wasn't he matched up with the taller Thompson? - while McHale battled his former Minnesota teammate, and Bird boxed out the shooter).
On the rebound, Thompson shoved McHale under the hoop, and gave him an extra push with his right arm as the ball went in and then kicked out toward them. Playing with the bad feet and unable to hold his position, McHale had gotten too low in trying to fend off the more muscular Thompson.
Parish went up for the ball with McHale as both had inside position, and Kevin appeared to have his left hand on it as his body was moved forward from the Thompson push. Thompson then hit McHale's hand to knock the ball out of his grasp and out of bounds to the left.
But to the casual eye, the ball appeared to be knocked out by McHale, especially due to the direction the ball caromed out of bounds from.
Evans was stationed on the right end of the baseline, far from where the ball went out, but not far from where McHale had been pushed.
The Celtics screamed for a foul, or at least possession. Strom was positioned outside, diagonally away from the play, and Evans walked down the baseline toward the ball initially without making a call. McHale, DJ and Ainge all pointed in Boston's direction for possession, waiting for a decision.
But the closer Johnson immediately clapped and acted decisively like it was definitely LA's ball, and the hesitant Evans pointed the Lakers' way.
"It's off white, Lakers' ball," Evans finally said. "Hugh made the call and it looked right to me," Strom added as Auerbach fumed in the stands, hands over his head as if trying to pull down the rebound himself. Fellow owner Harry Mangurian stood with his hands on his hips and glared toward the court at the officials in anger and disbelief.
McHale pleaded in Evans' face, saying, "he hit the ball out" meaning Thompson, but to no avail.
It was a critical decision lightly made by a pair of tired officials in such a monumentally decisive play. Strom was almost 60 and had spent half his life running up and down NBA courts officiating big games, while Evans just seemed overwhelmed by the situation, the heat, the clamoring crowd and the intensity of the pivotal championship contest.
Had Boston gotten the call, they would have held the ball, been fouled and almost certainly won the game to tie the series 2-2. Their chances of winning the title would have been 50-50 at least, and NBA history might have been written much differently.
Usually in such situations, if it is unclear who hit the ball out of play off a missed free throw, the referees almost always tend to give the ball to the defense. Or at least call a jump ball, as they had on the missed Cooper kick ball call. Or how about a pushing foul on Thompson, who had been getting with shoving all night?
But none of the three rulings that would have helped the Celtics retain their hard-fought lead was forthcoming on the critical play. Instead, the worst scenario for Boston took place - a possible three-point possession to lose the game instead of at the very worst, going to overtime had Jabbar made both free throws. The Celtics would have been much better off if Jabbar had made the second foul shot to tie it.
Like a prisoner on basketball's death row given a last-minute reprieve from the commisioner, LA had another new life and got the ball out of bounds in excellent position under the basket. Riley called timeout and set up a last play with seven ticks, plenty of time, to go in the epic battle.
When the teams came back onto the floor, Bird sensed the play was going to be run for Magic, and warned his fellow defenders against leaving Johnson open. He shook his head and pointed, warning whomever was guarding his nemesis to "don't leave him, don't leave him."
Only seven seconds remained. Ainge was guarding Scott, and Parish shadowed Jabbar. Bird guarded Cooper on the in-bounds pass to the left side under the basket, but also shaded to his right towards the basket, hugging the baseline to protect against an easy layup off a back cut.
But amidst a crowd in the middle of the lane, Magic set a back screen on McHale, forcing DJ to switch onto Worthy while the hobbled McHale had to switch onto Johnson.
The Laker guard caught the ball on the left wing 20 feet out, and looked at Kareem posting up Parish with his right arm half-heartedly in the air, calling for the ball. But Johnson was not going to give up the ball, particularly with the switch of a hurt McHale onto him instead of DJ.
He gave the hobbled Kevin a hesitation move, then accelerated to gain a half-step as he dribbled to his right into the lane. McHale and Boston should have shaded him to his weaker left side toward the baseline for a tougher angle shot, but in the heat of the tense seesaw battle, only Bird or DJ would have been prescient enough to do so.
Ainge, stationed near the foul line, could have helped out and forced a Johnson pass had he slid to his right to slow down or stymie Johnson, but instead he anticipated a pass out to Scott and was nowhere near helping out on the driving Laker point guard.
His defensive mistake opened a cavernous hole for Johnson to drive into with his strong hand. It was a lethal mistake by a smart player nonetheless inclined to get over-excited and make mental mistakes in the crunch.
In one of the most famous and endlessly replayed shots in Finals history, Johnson dribbled twice to get a shoulder past the hobbled McHale. He picked up his dribble, took two big steps (traveling?) and then took ANOTHER half-step to decelerate while getting his rhythm, his steps down and his body in balance to shoot a right-handed runner going to his left.
As Johnson reached the center of the green lane, he jumped off his left foot and launched a running 11-foot hook. A slightly hesitant to leap Parish came over to help out, and he and McHale's hands briefly hit Johnson's after he released the shot.
In the right spot as usual, DJ was the lone Celtic to box out under the basket, having the 6-9 Worthy screened away under the hoop on the baseline effectively despite giving up five inches in height.
Bird had come over to the lane to help at the last second, also from Johnson's right, but his presence did not affect the hook as the Laker star's eyes were glued to the rim that was to his left at an angle as he entered the lane.
Larry tried to distract Johnson with a hard two-footed jump stop fake, but Johnson wasn't buying it. He was determined to take this potential winning shot. Three years ago in the Finals, a less mature Johnson would have missed or thrown the ball away.
The running junior hook shot, a move he had added to his repertoire in workouts the previous summer with his college coach Jud Heathcote, floated through the air and swished right through cleanly.
Even if he had missed, LA might have scored since Jabbar was left alone by the rotating Parish and Kareem flew in for the potential offensive board untouched, hands up ready to grab or tip it in had the shot kicked out to the left off the rim (failing to prepare is preparing to fail, as his college coach John Wooden often said).
Ironically, an almost identical play had ensued a few months earlier in overtime of the 1987 All-Star Game. McHale had switched off from Tom Chambers on a pick-and-roll play to guard Johnson as the Laker guard drove to his right into the lane for a short running hook shot.
But this time when McHale's feet were healthy and he was spry, the Celtic big man was able to move laterally with Johnson and leap high enough with his great wingspan to force Earvin to miss. (Rolling after the pick to the basket unguarded, Chambers followed the miss in off the glass).
But about four months later with McHale fatigued and badly hampered with injuries to both feet, he was not able to stay in front of Johnson or get up high enough to make him miss.
Two seconds remained and Boston immediately called timeout for one last, fateful chance. But back then, scoreboard clocks did not register tenths of seconds, so there was likely as little as 1.1 seconds to go since the Garden clock had been stuck on :02 for a moment after the Johnson shot. A quick timeout was immediately signaled by DJ and Bird just after the hook swished through the net.
The timeout advanced the ball just past halfcourt, and DJ went to take the ball out near the midcourt stripe on the side of both benches near the scorer's table. LA assigned the 6-10, long-armed Thompson to guard him, affecting the pass and his vision.
Bird lined up in front of the Laker bench on the same sideline as Dennis, with Worthy standing between he and the Celtic trigger man. Bent over with his back to DJ, Bird looked ready to set a back screen for McHale, who was stationed near the baseline under the basket facing out toward midcourt.
Would Boston go to the hot hand in McHale, or their clutch leader?
Riley was standing on the sideline nearby in a crouched position, almost ready to defend himself, as he barked out orders firmly but in control. Cooper shadowed Ainge, while Jabbar played behind McHale and Johnson covered Parish on the far right elbow of the foul line.
"That's why I play basketball, for moments like that, where I can control everything on the court," Bird has said...
Bird cleverly faked the screen, spun and took a few hard steps out toward DJ, then retreated toward the left corner to create an opening for just an instant.
"Big Game James" bit on the fake briefly, and the almost parallel pass from DJ looped in nicely around Thompson's flailing right arm and over Worthy's head to Bird right into his left hand. The excellent pass led him toward the baseline.
It was LA and Riley's worst nightmare in this situation. The Laker coach and ex defensive ace put both arms on his hips, bracing himself...
Without taking a dribble to create any rhythm, Larry turned his body, and all in one motion due to a lack of time and the fast-recovering Worthy defense, rushed his potential winning shot ever so slightly.
Because of this his body was not squared up on the release, even though his shoulders were. This would keep the shot straight and on line, despite being off balance. Bird was a master of making such off balance shots, but not from so far out.
Larry came to a hard two-footed jump stop, using his momentum to elevate and shoot from far out on the side. He released the ball and faded slightly to his left as the madly-scrambling 6-9 Worthy flew by in front of him, desperately trying to get back and affect the shot in a panicked, last-ditch lunge.
Had Bird seen him, he could have leaned forward and almost certainly drawn a shooting foul as a panicked Worthy streaked by in front of him, fearing the worst. But Larry's eyes were locked on the rim, and time was running short.
Bird quickly flicked his last thorny shot off the right side of his head toward the final outcome. Indeed, perhaps too quickly. Knowing that the Lakers had a non-shooting foul to give before entering the penalty phase with so little time left - for even though the clock showed two seconds, in the days before tenths were added to all scoreboard clocks it could have been as little as 1.1 seconds to go - Bird may have rushed the shot just a bit to avoid getting fouled by the desperately recovering Worthy.
After all he had accomplished, he lived for these moments, had practiced alone for countless hours just for such crises, and this was one of the biggest shots he had ever taken.
Immediately after Bird released the off-balance 22-footer, the shot appeared true, the ultimate NBA Zen archer calmly shooting right on line at the biggest moment.
"Oh God, it's in," Johnson thought. "He's going to do it to us again."
However, right after he let go and followed through, Bird sensed the shot was straight but a bit long. The shooter always knows...He backed up quickly into the Laker bench, trying to will and contort the ball into going a tad bit shorter with body English one more time.
Although Bird was home amid an ocean of Garden green, he was now surrounded by an enemy island of purple-clad foes trying to influence the crowd and shot their way, both sides beseeching the basketball gods for a last miracle in their favor. The crowd screamed...
As the ball hung in the air and arched toward the hoop, the loud crowd quieted down somewhat, like the prayerful in church at a time of judgement (I promise I will never do that again Lord if you let this shot go in for an instant), hoping their savior would come through yet again.
Bird had sacrificed so much for them, the team, the league, carried them all on his back - given up his body, basically his life - but how much did number 33 have left to pull out yet another miracle in this season and post-season of endless challenges?
Then the ball dropped down, down, down toward that final impartial arbiter hanging 10 feet in the air, that hard, unsparing circle of iron. The shot looked good as it descended into the ring, but continued to sail just long and off the back rim from whence Bird had fired perfectly straight, but only an inch or so too far.
The ball bounded high up in the air and for an instant, the disbelieving crowd thought it might come back down through the net as the throng collectively caught its breath.
A few feet to the right of the hoop Kareem turned toward the basket, shoulders slightly slumped and looking as if he expected the shot to go in. As the long shot neared the rim and appeared on line, he lifted his right arm up as if to fend off the fallout from a winning shot going in.
But instead, since it had hit the inner side of the rim farthest from the shooter, the ball caromed back toward the marksman, and fell harmlessly to the floor.
In fact as the basketball bounced back toward Bird, surrounded by Lakers, stared at the sphere in disbelief. Then realization of grim reality and betrayal, as if to say "how could you not go in after all the times I practiced that shot and live for that moment?"
"It had perfect rotation," said Bird. "I was sure I had it...Riley was lucky. I guarantee you he thought that shot was dropping."
"I thought it was in," admitted Riley in ‘When the Game Was Ours.' "We were lucky."
The final buzzer sounded for several extra seconds, as if the Garden timer could not believe that the shot missed. In despair, or shock, he had forgotten to turn off the annoyingly loud and grating buzzer of the 59-year old Boston Garden.
The guttural sound of the horn sounded a sense of finality, a "yes" that the Celtics had somehow blown a huge second half lead and the series was all but over. The air collectively whooshed out of the raucous Garden crowd and their faithful.
The buzzer droned on, taunting and antagonizing the fans. Many dazed fans stayed in their seats long after the loss, trying to make sense of how it happened, unable to believe it or that Bird's last shot had missed.
Yet the grating sound of the buzzer harshly affirmed the game was over, and that somehow they had lost at home.
"I really hated to see a good, tight game come to an end," wrote Strom. "I always wanted the games to go on forever...I was never as happy as when I was refereeing."
A furious Red Auerbach stormed after Strom to the official's room to protest the many bad calls after the game, but Earl would not answer the door. Instead, he yelled out to Auerbach that he "was showing all the class I know you've had throughout the years."
But Auerback had good reason to fume. In addition to all the bad calls, in the fourth quarter LA had shot 14 free throws to one by the Celtics. 14 to 1! In Boston!
Something died in the Garden that night.
An angry Celtic team, determined not to lose the title at home, dominated LA in game five at the Garden to pull within 3-2. Back in the Forum for game six, the Celtics executed their precision halfcourt offense flawlessly to build a precarious 56-51 halftime lead.
But then the wheels came completely off as LA blew a weary and hobbled Celtic club out 30-12 in the decisive third period, and went on to post a title-clinching 106-93 win. The highly questionable game four loss had completely changed the complexion of the series.
If you wish to contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This game is available to watch on line to verify the many highly questionable calls detailed herein.