Jerry West. Sam Jones. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant.
All great clutch shooters who loved taking and making the last-second shot. Who made the most game-winners? Hard to say, although Jordan and Bryant probably attempted the most buzzer-beaters.
But no NBA player ever made more outrageous, difficult game winners than Larry Bird. “I am into degree of difficulty,” Bird once said. “And if there’s going to be a last-second shot, I want to be the one to take it.”
One of my favorite Bird stories from the hyperbolic Walton illustrates K.C. Jones’ underrated psychological skills and his player-friendly, low-ego approach. It also displays Bird’s confidence and pride, his burning desire to win and be the player who makes the last-second shot, applying the coup de grace, the dagger.
Walton said that often during last-play situations in the Celtic huddle, K.C. would start out by diagramming a play for Dennis Johnson. Although he was not nearly the marksman Bird was, DJ was a great clutch shooter who had hit a three-pointer to beat Boston on Super Bowl Sunday at the Garden during Bird’s rookie season.
In response to being snubbed, an incensed Bird would say, “I’m Larry Bird. Give me the ball.” M.L. Carr added that Bird would often say that “if you want to win, give me the ball and get out of the way.”
Not exactly Jimmy Chitwood saying “I’ll make it” before hitting the last-second shot in the 1954 Indiana State Finals from the movie “Hoosiers”, but pretty close.
Anyway, K.C. would glare at the willful Bird and say, “Shut up, I am the coach of this team.” Then after a second of silence, K.C. would go to his clipbard to draw up a play and say, “Ok, let’s get Larry the ball here...”
That story always makes me laugh. Lengthy preamble aside, I will proceed to rank and recall my take on Bird’s best buzzer-beating shots.
1) Down 115-113 at Dallas on March 10, 1986, Bird took a cross-court pass in transition from Danny Ainge and buried a pull-up right wing triple with four seconds left to beat the Mavericks by a point.
The three-point swisher gave Bird 50 points and Boston a 50-13 record on their way to a 16th NBA title. It was Bird’s third straight MVP regular season, and he would win a second Finals MVP in an unsurpassed three-season run from 1984-86.
Following the dagger trey a happy, mischievously-smiling Bird gave a mini-travel sign and then a short right fist punch in triumph as he back-pedaled on defense.
Mavs forward Mark Aguirre, victimized seven years earlier by Bird’s 16-for-19, 35-point, 16-rebound, nine-assist masterpiece in the 1979 NCAA Final Four (a 76-74 DePaul loss to Indiana State), relived the pain. He grimaced and and rubbed his head with a pained expression etched on his face, struggling to understand how Bird had done it yet again.
”Imagine the wonderful arrogance of the man who needs two to tie or three to win, and says, “lets rolls the dice,’” said admiring Dallas announcer Norm Hitzges.
2) Since I am focusing on shots made in games, Bird’s dramatic three-point shootout win on All-Star Weekend in 1988 at Chicago Stadium is relegated to honorable mention.
After a slow start in the final round against Seattle swingman Dale Ellis, Bird got rolling late. Ellis went first so Bird knew what score was needed to win. Larry even kept his green Celtic warmup jacket on, so confident was he of victory.
Yet on the last rack in the left corner, a trailing Bird still had to make the final three shots to win. He swished the next two to tie Ellis, then reached for the ABA money ball and aimed for the win as time wound down to a 60-second rendition of the theme from “Miami Vice.”
After he let fly on the last three before the shot clock expired, Bird stuck his gnarled right index finger in the air in triumph. He started walking toward the winner circle even as the red, white and blue ball rotated through the air toward the hoop.
The shot rattled through the net to give Bird his third straight shootout title. The crowd roared its appreciation for the master, who had come through under pressure again.
Danny Ainge, who also competed in the 1988 shootout and All-Star Game, later said he felt Bird was bored and just upping the drama before totally concentrating at the end.
Larry won the inaugural event in 1986 at Dallas and the 1987 shootout crown in Seattle over Detlef Schrempf in the last round. But the third and final win at Chicago was the most dramatic.
The clutch wins just added to Bird’s aura of invincibility, and to the notion that he could at will raise his level as high as needed to win. Some of his teammates had been playfully chiding him for weeks that he would not win, knowing it would motivate him further. So Larry practiced extra hard to get that first victory.
Unlike Celtic sharpshooters Ainge and Scott Wedman, Kevin McHale believed all along that the frugal Bird would walk away with first place. “When I heard Larry could win $10,000 just for shooting three-pointers, I knew it was over,” he explained.
When Bird got to the locker room before the Saturday night event, he psyched out the other seven shooters by asking them “which one of you is going to finish second?”
When eventual runner-up Craig Hodges complained that the balls for the event felt slick, Bird commiserated, hoping to gain another edge. After draining 11 treys in a row at one point to beat Hodges in the final round, Larry smiled broadly as he held up the giant winner’s check while being interviewed by Craig Sager.
And upon winning the very first All-Star shootout, Bird displayed his unique brand of hubris and humility. ”That check has had my name on it all week,” he boasted initially. Then he caught himself and added, “Well really I lucked out.”
#3) Down 113-110 in overtime on April 12, 1985 at home vs. the Bucks, Larry inbounded the ball near half court and got the return pass. He took a one-footed three-pointer from the left wing (only he could get away with such outrageous shots), but this time the triple rimmed out.
Yet Boston got the long rebound as the ball kicked out to free agent signee Ray Williams. He spotted Bird frantically calling for the ball with his left hand to get up another tying trey try.
Williams swung the ball back cross court to Larry, who was not about to miss two in a row in that situation. This time his triple shot back across his body while running to the left right in front of the Buck bench and coach/former Celtic Don Nelson - went in with five seconds left to tie it, 113 apiece.
Milwaukee actually went on to win 115-113 in overtime, but the ridiculous running three that tied it was so incredible it has to be one of his best.
10) On December 30, 1987, the Celtics were playing in front of a sellout crowd at Seattle. With the score tied 102-102, Boston called timeout to set up its last play. Guarded by future Celtic Xavier McDaniel, Bird told him what was coming next, as X recalled years later.
”There was under 10 seconds left and Larry said ‘X, I am going to get it right here and shoot it right in your (blanking) face.’”
”I will be right here waiting on you,” answered the contentious X, ready for the challenge.
When play began former Sonic great Dennis Johnson dribbled down the clock out top, then passed to Bird at the appointed spot. Larry gave a subtle push off to clear just enough space and time to get his shot off over McDaniel, then drained an 18-footer from the right wing over X AND another desperately double-teaming Seattle defender - from right where he said he would deliver.
Two seconds remained on the clock.
”He hit it and he looked at me and said ‘damn, I didn’t mean to leave nothing on the clock,’” McDaniel recounted.
”I just looked at him and said, ‘conceited bastard,’” continued McDaniel. The last of Bird’s 27 points gave Boston a 104-102 win.
9) Playing aginst Philly in Hartford on November 14, 1989, the early season game at Boston’s home away from home vs. the rival 76ers was tied 94-94 as time wound down.
Celtic playmaker John Bagley dribbled on the right wing as Bird jostled with and posted up a desperate Charles Barkley in the final seconds along the right baseline. Barkley shoved Bird in the back as he tried to establish position. Sir Charles then went for the steal and missed. Bird took the entry pass from Bagley and as he regained his balance, made the play possible with two quick escape dribbles to gain rhythm, right his body, and discard the flailing Barkley.
He then drained a 13-footer with just half a second left to beat the Sixers, 96-94. Even though he scored just 10 points in the win, it was Bird’s second game-winner in 11 days during the first month of his comeback season of 1989-90 following double Achilles surgery.
8) On December 2, 1981 against Detroit at the Garden, Boston trailed 114-113 with nine seconds left.
Larry threw the pass in bounds in the back court, then ran up court against the tight defense of 6’7 jumping jack forward, Terry Tyler. He was not going to let Bird get his hands on that ball for a last-second winner if he could help it.
Yet the determined Bird shook free.
Larry took a short pass from Cedric Maxwell and dribbled toward the right sideline full bore. He jammed on the brakes, gave Tyler a severe head fake, re-gathered himself and drained a heavily-contested 20-footer from the right corner with two seconds left.
Bird’s 25th point gave the defending champion Celtics a 115-114 win and a 14-3 record.
7) In another mid-1980’s “home” game at the Hartford Civic Center, Bird found himself guarded by former Indiana All-American center Kent Benson.
A vengeful Bird has said Benson was one of the upperclassmen who hazed him during his short tenure at Indiana in the fall of 1974, and he always enjoyed doling out payback against the former Indiana Mr. Basketball, the number one overall pick in the 1977 NBA draft.
Benson won the 1976 NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award as he helped Indiana win what is still the last undefeated men’s national crown. A frustrated Bird had to watch Benson and his former teammates celebrate a perfect 32-0 title season while he waited on the sidelines to become eligible at Indiana State.
A decade later, Bird took out some of that frustration. He caught the inbounds from DJ pass along the left sideline and quickly blew by the 6’10 Benson on the dribble. Larry then pulled up and shot a 12-foot baseline runner over another Piston defender. The shot rolled around the rim twice tantalizingly before falling in at the buzzer.
A happy Bird let his emotions show and overflow. He spun around twice like a top and twirled his arms in helicopter mode, index fingers pointed out as he smiled widely. Bird high-fived McHale, then Robert Parish. A smiling DJ shook his head in admiration. “Larry had unshakeable confidence,” said the Chief.
Of all the Bird buzzer-beaters, Larry allowed himself to enjoy this one the most on-court, at least outwardly.
6) On Valentine’s Day of 1986 at Portland (one of his favorite and most frequent victims), Bird gave the Blazer fans a show and their players a memorable kiss-off.
Playing the first half mostly left-handed, Bird scored 20 of his 47 points southpaw. At the end of regulation he drilled a last-second, pull-up shot from the foul line to force overtime.
Then at the end of OT, Boston trailed 119-118. Bird drove to his right against the tight defense of Jerome Kersey, pulled up at the left elbow and buried a 15-foot jumper to put Gang Green ahead 120-119.
Larry then helped force a last-second Blazer miss and tipped the defensive rebound out as time expired to finish it at both ends.
5) In game #2 of his comeback season from double Achilles surgery on November 4, 1989, Bird and Boston played the surging young Bulls in Chicago Stadium. The game was tied 100-100 in the final seconds.
Posting up defensive ace Scottie Pippen on the left side of the lane, Bird got position and took an entry pass from John Bagley over John Paxson. He turned to shoot and found himself double-teamed by another long-armed defender named Michael Jordan.
Jordan flailed in a vain attempt to block the shot. Twisting his body away from the double-team to his right, Bird was able to arch the 13-footer over both defenders high into the air. The shot dropped cleanly through the net for his 27th point to give Boston a 102-100 lead with 3.6 seconds left. McHale then blocked a last-second Jordan three-point try at the buzzer to preserve the win.
After missing all but the first six games of the 1988-89 season, Larry Bird was officially back.
4) In mid-March of 1992, Larry was 35, late in his last season and racked by constant back pain. The team with the best record in the NBA, 46-18 Portland, came to the Garden for a Sunday afternoon, NBC-televised national game on March 15.
It turned out to be the last truly great game of Bird’s waning NBA career.
With the young and bruising Blazers up by three with 7.2 seconds left in regulation, Reggie Lewis threw the ball over half court to Bird for one last miracle. Could he save the Celtics one more time as he had so often in his younger, healthier days?
With fellow 1992 Dream Teamer Clyde Drexler draped all over him, determined not to give Larry any kind of good look, Bird spun and took off on one foot behind the three-point line on the left wing.
He leaned into Clyde and prepared to release an unlikely runner as he was floating past the three-point line in midair, sort of in long jump mode. It looked as if he was almost walking on air toward the hoop, suspended in time.
As the clock ran down, the final shot would either tie the game or lose it. In the end Bird simply willed that low-slung, line-drive shot off his shoulder into the basket with two seconds left, tying the game 122-122.
As the Blazers argued in vain that it was not a three-pointer, the referees disagreed and Bird gave the “it counts” sign as the crowd cheered loudly for one last piece of shotmaking heroics by the Legend.
Dutifully inspired by their aging leader, Boston eventually prevailed over the Blazers 152-148 in double OT. Bird’s incredible stat line? Only 49 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists. Until recently, it was the HIGHEST-SCORING triple-double in NBA HISTORY.
And he had authored it at the end of his career, beset by injury against an excellent team that would lose to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Amazing.
3) In game #2 of the 1987-88 season, Boston rolled into Washington to play the Bullets and old Bird/Celtic foe, Moses Malone.
McHale would miss the first 21 games of that season following foot surgery (after valiantly playing the 1987 Playoffs with a broken foot, sprained ankle and the flu). Bird had to carry the Celtics, and that he did. Responding to ridiculous Washington criticism that he was only an “average” player after the gut-wrenching Celtic loss in the 1987 Finals, he made the Bullets pay for their lack of respect.
Bernard King, Darrell Walker, and Malone traded haymaker baskets with Bird before the Bullets took the lead on a Moses shot in the final seconds. But Bird appeared to have made his revenge complete when he nailed a running three-pointer from beyond the top of the key to give Boston a one-point win.
Only one thing was wrong. Celtic coach K.C. Jones had signaled for timeout just before Bird hit the winning shot. A discouraged Bird sank to the floor, hands and then head on the court briefly almost in a prayerful position, knowing that the shot he had just authored was almost unrepeatable.
As Chris Ford and K.C. later recounted, Bird got back up, determined to win, and told Washington that he was going to do it again. When play resumed with just one tick left, Bird took the inbounds pass from Danny Ainge along the right sideline near the Bullet bench. Turning on his left foot past Bullet defender Charles Jones (brother of ex-76er seven-footer Caldwell Jones), in one motion he spun and launced a 24-footer as the buzzer sounded.
As Moses and Jeff Malone stood under the basket waiting for the rebound that would not come, the ball arc downward and went straight through the hoop to give Boston a spectacular 140-139 double OT win.
Even the normally inscrutable Moses Malone, in disbelief, turned and took a look at Bird over his right shoulder, then shook his head before walking off the court. Jeff Malone grabbed the ball and walked away quickly without ever looking back, one great shooter knowing he had been one-upped by an even greater marksman.
Meanwhile Conner Henry, Darre Daye, Brad Lohaus, and Jerry Sichting mobbed Bird, who then walked off the court and slapped hands with admiring Bullet fans as he filed off to the locker room.
”Boy this is something else,” gushed Bullet color analyst Dave Bing, a D.C. native Hall of Fame guard with the Pistons, Bullets and Celtics. “If that’s average, I don’t know...”
”Incredible...Bird wins it at the buzzer,” raved Bullet play-by-play announcer Mel Proctor. “He’s the best in that situation, maybe the best ever.”
In 53 minutes, the “average” Bird torched Washington for a mere 53 points.
2) On a January 27, 1985 Sunday afternoon vs. visiting Portland (again), Bird pulled off one of his greatest shots.
Boston trailed 127-126 with just a few seconds left. A first inbounds pass to Bird was knocked out of bounds, giving the Celtics one last chance to re-set near the left corner.
Larry had already scored 46 points and was the obvious go-to guy; every Blazer and fan knew was going to get the last shot, yet he was still basically unstoppable. Buried deep in the left corner, he took the inbounds pass from DJ and gave a head fake to clear space from frequent victim, Kersey. Larry then leaned back and launched a FADEAWAY 22-footer partly from behind the backboard as time expired.
The improbable shot arched through the thick Garden air and somehow dropped through the net to give Boston a thrilling 128-127 victory. A true game-winning buzzer beater.
”Ah-hall right!” exclaimed long-time Celtic announcer Mike Gorman at the time. Years later, his recollection of the shot was still fresh.
”It was just an impossible shot; when you looked at it, he was behind the backboard,” an admiring Gorman recalled. “It just had no business getting to the rim, let alone going in.”
A jubiliant Quinn Buckner sprinted off the bench and gave Bird a high five, hugging the Legend along with M.L. Carr. “Larry, how do you make all those shots,” asked Buckner.
”I do all that all the time,” Bird calmly replied, although it was not clear if he meant in his imagination, in practice, shooting by himself or in games or most likely, all of the above.
Respected Boston Globe reporter Dan Shaughnessy called it the greatest Bird buzzer beater, recounting with a smile that it was “just wonderful, like the Celtics had won the championship” in late January. One could certainly argue it was the best of Bird’s very best. But I think there was one just a tiny bit better.
1) On February 26, 1983 at Phoenix, Boston found themselvies behind the Suns 101-100 with just a second left.
After an uncharacteristic Bird fourth quarter swoon, Larry was determined to make up for it. The Suns bench, led by future Celtic David Thirdkill, was riding Bird hard - never a good idea.
As Mychal Thompson once said, “You never fail to pay your taxes, and you never want to make Larry Bird mad.” That was an unwritten rule around the NBA. Because once riled up, the determined Bird would simply refuse to be beaten.
In this instance, Bird took the half court inbounds pass from Cedric Maxwell. Much like the buzzer-beater at Washington in 1987, Bird would spin and launch a three from in front of the opposing bench, only this time with an even higher arch.
The shot was so perfectly lofted that it came straight down (seemingly from the rafters, or maybe it was the heavens?) through the net. So perfectly placed was this outrageous shot that it barely rippled the net cords as it splashed through clean as a whistle.
A validated Bird, answering the Phoenix bench jibes and cementing his position as the NBA’s greatest clutch shotmaker, laughed as he pointed at the stunned Thirdkill on the Suns bench. He then raised both arms in a still pose of triumph. Maxwell ran toward Bird and gave him a joyous high-ten.
”You could have heard a mouse pee on cotton in that building,” Maxwell recalled, “it got that quiet all of a sudden. As soon as Larry let it go, he virtually turned to their bench (as if to say), hey you should have had more than one guy on me.”
As the shot splashed through the net under the hoop Phoenix guard Kyle Macy, a Hoosier sharpshooter of note himself, stood frozen and stared at Bird in amazed admiration. So did Phoenix All-Star center, Alvan Adams, one 6’9 number 33 to another, so stunning was the game-winner.
Even Dennis Johnson, then a Sun guard and a player known for making huge clutch shots, gave Bird a disbelieving look, then stalked off the court.
The last three of his game-high 38 points had once again done in an opponent in spectacular fashion at the final horn. Parish, Rick Robey, and several Celtics congratulated Bird on the game-winner with high-fives.
Then in an overlooked bit of sportsmanhip, Larry reached over and humbly shook Thirdkill’s hand, making the shot, and its build-up/aftermath that much greater.
To contact the author directly, email Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.