clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

History week: The anatomy of Larry Bird's legendary steal to beat Detroit in 1987 East Finals

New, comments

Epic Bird swipe and assist snatched victory from jaws of defeat vs. hated Pistons in final seconds of one of basketball’s most heated contests.

Larry Bird

The setting: Boston Garden, Wednesday, May 26, 1987

Game 5 Eastern Conference Finals (series tied 2-2)

Detroit 107, Boston 106: Five seconds left to play, Piston ball in backcourt along left sideline.

Isiah Thomas had just drained a 17-footer to give Detroit a 107-106 lead in the final seconds.

After driving past Rick Mahorn along the left baseline, reigning three-time NBA MVP Larry Bird had his baseline-driving double-clutch layup blocked from the weakside by high-flying Dennis Rodman.

The block caromed out toward the left sideline, where Mahorn hit the ball off the leg of Jerry Sichting and out of bounds, giving possession to the Pistons. Cocky rookie Rodman celebrated as if the Pistons had won.

The Celtic bench was pensive, seeing defeat and fearing the worst, while assistant coach Chris Ford screamed “foul, foul, foul” to the Boston players.

But thankfully his advice was drowned out by all the noise.

Thomas quickly motioned for official Jess Kersey to give him the ball so he could in-bound it in a hurry while the Celtics were still seemingly stunned, in disarray.

At the other end of the floor, veteran Piston coach Chuck Daly was calling for a timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt, but the headstrong Thomas disregarded or did not see him.

Hall of Famer Thomas then made the mistake of his career. He hurried a soft, lofting pass to center Bill Laimbeer, who also failed to come to the ball, not seeing Bird flashing toward the ball from his left...

Long-time Celtic announcer Johnny Most’s call of Bird’s game-saving steal in the 1987 playoffs at the end of Game 5 in the Eastern Conference finals vs. Detroit: “Aaaaaaand now there’s a steal by Bird, underneath to DEE-Jay, he lays it in…and Boston has a one-point lead right with one second to go… What a play by Bird!...Oh my this place is goin’ crazy!”

Danny Ainge recalled later in the NBA TV show "Larry Bird's 50 Greatest Moments" in 2006, “They should have won but the Pistons forgot about Larry Bird. Almost anyone else would have quit in that situation, but Larry Bird didn’t quit. I think it is the single greatest play of Larry’s career. It is just another sign that his career was a combination of destiny and determination.”

How could Detroit forget about the game’s most dangerous clutch player? Or did they force a pass in too quickly because they were inexperienced and too anxious to close out a veteran championship team in the Boston Garden?

The versatile Bird was known mostly for his shooting, passing, rebounding and intelligent style of play. But he made perhaps the most famous play of his highlight-laden career with a defensive gem, arguably the greatest in NBA playoff history.

After the steal, amid all the chaos in the Garden, perhaps one person, more than any other, remained calm and focused after the ball was awarded to Detroit. A focused Bird ran back on defense to prevent a potential winning play, while Dennis Johnson jammed the in-bounds passer.

Let's go back 30 years and dissect the steal.

After his shot was blocked out of bounds off Sichting, Bird was lying on the floor, having fallen to the parquet and slid on his backside toward the Celtic bench, seemingly out of the ensuing play.

He got up and seeing Thomas preparing to throw the ball in, initially darted to his left toward Piston guard Joe Dumars near the foul line. But Bird then realized Thomas was looking to in-bound the ball to Laimbeer, standing to the right of the Piston guard about 15 feet away, near the low block on the foul lane.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-1 Sichting put pressure on Thomas throwing the ball in bounds, forcing him to loft the ball higher than needed.

Thomas has gotten beaten up for the bad pass over the years, and indeed, it WAS a very poor pass. Perhaps he had seen Bird do the same thing late in game seven of the 1987 Eastern semifinals.

DJ had knocked the ball out of bounds off his former Sonic title teammate Jack Sikma while hurtling over the Milwaukee bench in the final minutes to earn a key possession for rallying Boston.

After the save, Bird gesticulated with his hands at the refs to get him the ball quickly so he could in-bound it to keep the momentum and clock going as the Celtics looked to close out the pesky Bucks—and of course they did, to advance to the conference finals for the fourth year in a row.

About 10 days later in a similar situation, seventh-year veteran Thomas got the ball and, with unexpected victory suddenly passing before his eyes, hurriedly lofted his pass too high and without enough zip.

He had to pick out the best teammate to shoot a clutch free throw following the inevitable foul to come. Rodman and Mahorn were ruled out. In truth, he probably would want to take the shots but instead found himself trying to throw the ball in quickly to run out the clock.

He grabbed for the ball to put it in play before the Celtics were ready, and referee Kersey pulled the ball away from him. When Thomas asked for it again, this time Kersey gave it to him.

Isiah was the man in charge, and he was going to finish off the Celtics—the team he ironically had always pictured himself playing for while growing up on the mean streets of Chicago—in Boston.

When he tossed the ball in, Thomas chose the open Laimbeer over backcourt mate Dumars.

On the pass, Laimbeer also violated a cardinal rule—he did not come to the ball. At first Bird said he was simply going to foul the Piston center, but when he saw the pass float up over Sichting’s head, he knew he had a chance to break up the play.

Laimbeer did not see Bird darting in from his left as he stood flat-footed, and actually, backed up slightly as the ball floated toward him - waiting for the soft pass that seemed to hang in the air forever to Piston fans. It was almost as if he did not want the ball...

In a key bit of preparatory deception, Bird did a sort of short crow hop to start his run from Dumars toward Laimbeer—but without giving away his intention to try and steal the ball or even head toward Big Bad Bill. It appeared Larry still lingered close to Dumars, but he was poised to pounce on the pass.

Thomas, with his eyes locked on the Piston center, never saw Bird, who was now poised to make his burst toward Laimbeer.

Larry leaned forward toward Laimbeer like a runner beginning a race, took a short step to propel himself, then decisively took two long strides to cover the 15 feet or so that separated the two Pistons.

Not known for his foot speed but quicker than given credit for, he accelerated with the speed of desperation to his right toward the floating pass.

Larry lunged for the ball with his right arm fully extended. In the blink of an eye, he flashed in front of a startled Laimbeer and tipped it away toward the baseline with his right hand. He was able to grab the loose ball just before it went out of bounds and turned toward the court in one motion.

At this point Bird also had to do a high wire act, keeping his feet in bounds as he corralled the ball and turned back to face the court. He stood inches from the baseline, his heels slightly raised to avoid the line.

For a moment Thomas—as well as time in the Garden—seemed to freeze. Bird had captured the tipped pass but was not in great position to finish the play. He had the ball with his back to the baseline almost out of bounds, about 16 feet from the rim and partly behind the basket, with the 6-foot-11 Laimbeer looming toward him to cut off any drive.

Plus, Boston was still down one as the clock ticked down to four seconds left.

Bird was well-known for making difficult winning shots at the buzzer (including a mid-game over the backboard shot vs. Houston in an oft-shown mid-1980s “NBA Action is Fan-tastic” commercial) but this one would have been the topper. In fact, he did consider shooting the ball as the clocked ticked down toward three.

Meanwhile Dennis Johnson, another great clutch player Bird called the best teammate he ever played with, was caught defending midway between Dumars, Laimbeer and Mahorn on the play in no man’s land, 28 feet from the basket.

But when he saw Bird lunging toward Laimbeer, he instinctively started to move toward the Boston basket, anticipating a possible steal. He was behind the three-point line on the left wing when Larry deflected the pass.

Years later, DJ recounted his recollection of “the steal” in an interview for Celtics.com.

Dennis Johnson: For me, it is easily the greatest play I was ever involved in, and I have been involved in some great ones…from a last second shot in L.A. (Game 4, 1985 Finals) to some key steals throughout my career, but that play ranks right up there at the top.

Celtics.com: Things were not going well leading up to that play. KC Jones had lost his mother, Robert Parish had been ejected, and the Pistons looked like they would take a 3-2 advantage in the series. What was the team feeling like at that time?

DJ: I think we always believed that at home we were going to win. No matter what was happening. We always had that feeling that we had an advantage. We may not have always won, but with that building, that crowd, and that city, we always felt we could win any game at any moment. (Detroit had not won at the Boston Garden since December 19, 1982). When Larry Bird caught the ball he was up on his toes trying to keep himself in-bounds!

Then I just happened to make a cut to the rim. I didn't really have a lane, but I just went to the rim. Joe Dumars made a swipe at it, and then I thought I might have spun it too hard off the board. But it went in.

It was just a reaction play. You see any kind of alley and you go to the basket. If I got fouled, then I am pretty confident that I am going to make those, too. I was kind of surprised when they didn't foul me.

Johnson took several quick steps to the basket as Dumars belatedly raced over to try and cut him off. But he was a bit too late.

With great patience, Bird waited for an opening. Most players would have panicked in that position with time running out, but not the calm yet alert Larry, playing in a Zen-like state. He prepared for, lived for just these type of moments.

He was seeing the play in slow motion as he often did when his concentration and desire were at their highest.

As always Bird calmly hit the always reliable, clutch Dennis with a pass at the right velocity and in stride, while a startled Dumars angled over in an attempt to defend, as the clock started to tick below three.

Thomas, stopped in his tracks for the slightest moment in horror and surprise by his gaffe (how could this happen to him, one of the game’s greatest and best clutch players, the favored baby of his mother’s brood of 13, he of the child-like smile and innocence, the MVP of the 1981 NCAA tournament, a champion at every level despite being only 6-1).

And then DJ made the more underrated half of the play with a tough right-handed layup that he scooped high off the glass from the left side. Two seconds left as he let go.

Isiah hurried in from the sideline past Sichting, his former Big 10 backcourt foe in the heated Indiana/Purdue rivalry, and leaped high toward the rim to get the rebound, pulling his arms back and kicking up his legs as the ball danced inside the rim briefly, tantalizingly.

But to his everlasting dismay the ball never rebounded out and instead dropped through the net.

Only one second remained. The ancient Garden scoreboard read Boston 108, Detroit 107.

As the 15,320 in the Garden went absolutely berserk, two competitors known for their clutch play and intense concentration kept their composure. The heady DJ jammed the Piston in-bounds passer with harassing defense and Bird, at once focused tranquilly in the moment yet seeing the floor amid the maelstrom, was coolly calculating what else was needed to finish the job and win.

While the others celebrated or were frozen by the improbable events that had just transpired, he sprinted back on defense to prevent any chance at a last-second easy basket by Detroit.

But the Pistons were too stunned by the steal and layup to even try to score, lacking the experience and presence of mind that Bird and DJ possessed. It was classic Bird to be prepared for any eventuality. The young Pistons hadn’t been through the hoop wars yet and weren’t quite ready to do all it took to win down to the final buzzer, to finish the deal despite any eventuality, just yet.

The Pistons now called a timeout, which Thomas had eschewed before, to advance the ball past halfcourt for a last shot.

With a tick still left, the deflated Detroiters still had a chance with the ball now past halfcourt after the belated timeout was finally called, but it seemed slim to none after what had just transpired.

Yet once more Bird rose to the occasion when Boston forced a high and somewhat errant sideline inbounds pass from Dantley to Laimbeer. The good-shooting Piston center was open briefly on the left wing, 26 feet from the basket behind the three-point arc in front of the Piston bench.

But Bird, as usual, anticipated the play and was in perfect position to defend. As Laker rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in his autobiography “Giant Steps” he knew Bird must be hurt when he saw Larry out of position shortly before both his Achilles gave out six games into the 1988-89 season. Because as Jabbar noted, Bird was NEVER out of position before.

Larry smothered Laimbeer and forced the ball out of bounds off the Detroit center as the clock ticked down. The Pistons never even got a shot off as time expired.

The Laimbeer/Rodman game-three takedown burned into his memory from just days before, Bird avenged the flagrant (and potentially career-ending) foul with the restraint, determination and discipline the young Pistons lacked, biding his time for the right opening. He hadn’t had to wait long for his chance for revenge.

The normally restrained Larry raised his arms briefly in triumph, then walked into the tunnel toward the locker room deeper into NBA playoff lore. He tallied 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists while playing almost the entire game under great defensive duress against fresher, younger foes in the suffocating heat of the air-conditioning-less, ancient Garden of late May.

As usual, on and off the court, Larry Bird had gotten in the last word. In a seesaw game of great plays, he had trumped all with the proverbial ace up his sleeve.

Boston had escaped again, due mainly to another Bird miracle. But it was also a price that had been paid by him due to study, suffering, persistence and sheer competitive drive and will not to be beaten especially after having his shot blocked—it was not magic, even if it seemed that way.

Through character borne from a lifetime of suffering and basketball discipline, he bounced back from adversity as well as anyone in league annals.

The WTBS TV cameras that focused on a sad and injured Walton, in uniform and sweat suit but benched by his foot again, showed over and over the big redhead’s face turning from dejection to jubilation as he watched the ball go out of bounds off Sichting, then to Bird’s steal and DJ’s basket.

At the time of the Bird miss, the injured redhead had his head in his hands, already envisioning a 2-3 deficit after the home loss of the series. Seconds later, his arms were raised in triumph and elation after Larry (and DJ) had saved the day.

After a shocked Detroit called timeout Bird, not known for public displays of emotion no matter what the situation, was summoned into the arms of DJ in front of the Boston bench by the Celtic guard.

Dennis motioned for Larry to “come here” with both hands and two of the NBA’s greatest and most intense competitors both let their guard down briefly, for once, with a shared hug as their bodies met.

But Bird’s face never changed expression, out of fatigue and years of hiding his emotions. His stoicism came naturally by then, despite the Garden crowd bellowing as loud as it ever had. “Oh my, this place is going crazy!” yelled Most, high above the din.

During the Piston timeout after the steal, the crowd kept cheering louder and louder as it dawned on them how special and unlikely the play really was—and that somehow, their favorite son had been the one to make the saving steal and assist.

The Garden crowd had seldom, if ever, bellowed any louder as the Celts snatched victory away from what looked like a devastating loss to the hated Pistons. Their epic 1980s playoff battles with the 76ers and Lakers were incredibly heated, but in those series, there was respect between the foes.

With the impudent Pistons, their physical tactics and lack of respect for anyone, especially the champs, it was different—it was simply pure hate.

Didn’t Detroit know or care that there might not have been a league for them in 1987 if it had not been for Bird and Johnson and Dr. J saving the mightily struggling league less than a decade before? The hate turned to pure joy when the win was finally secured, especially in such dramatic fashion by their favorite adopted son.

Even better, it came at the expense of a hated team. In that last-gasp situation, especially with the caliber of players involved, such a steal and score was a one in a thousand type-chance play, the basketball equivalent of a Hail Mary bomb pass.

Yet the unlikely-looking Bird, who made his career a habit of doing the seemingly impossible and proving all the doubters wrong time and time again, did it again in understated yet spectacularly memorable fashion.

When it was needed most, he reached down and did the unthinkable.

There were no histrionics or celebrating, look at me antics after the incredibly timely and difficult play and win, like there are today in a mid-season game after a mere dunk or good play. Then again, maybe he was too tired to celebrate, but Larry Bird was not one to do that anyway.

Larry had played the first 40 minutes and 47 out of a possible 48 in the fiercely fought contest. Later, Thomas would say he didn’t see Bird when he threw the pass, as his eyes were filled with victory.

Bird's all-around stat line: 12-25 FGs, 12-12 FTs, 0-2 3s, game-high 36 points, 12 rebounds (11 defensive), 9 assists, one block, and ONE HUGE STEAL.

In the 2014 ESPN Films 30 for 30 film “Bad Boys” 27 years later, Thomas finally admitted he had made a mistake. Perhaps seeing Bird quickly in-bound the ball late in game seven vs. Milwaukee had influenced him to make a hasty pass. Maybe the Pistons just were not mature enough yet to beat a veteran, great team on the road.

“I panicked,” he said on the ESPN show, nearly three decades after the fateful play. “Bird came from out of nowhere like a streak of lightning…and it was done.”

Sitting in his dorm room at UCLA, Bruin senior sharpshooter Reggie Miller, who later played for coach Larry Bird with the fine Pacer teams of 1997-2000, watched the play unfold with intensity. An LA native and Laker fan, he remembered the play with a combination of exasperation and admiration, likely the sentiments of many minority American basketball fans and Celtic-haters everywhere.

“It’s one of those plays where you remember where you were when it happened,” said Miller in the ESPN documentary, likening it to a basketball version of the John F. Kennedy assassination in terms of hoops impact.

“The Pistons were at the apex, ready to get over the hump, and to do that you had to beat the Celtics,” he said. “Isiah tried to get it in quick, which was a good play,” he qualified, “and then HE made that steal. It was like ‘oh no he didn’t! - DAMN’,” Miller recalled.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.