The 1984 NBA Finals is the best championship series I have ever seen. It had everything: high drama, controversies, two overtime classics, key coaching adjustments, fights, great play, clutch shots, epic gaffes, Hall of Famers and All-Stars all over the court, great one-on one-battles and more in a seven-game thriller that pitted the league’s two most storied rivals.
At the center of it all was the compelling Larry Bird vs. Earvin Johnson rivalry with unmistakable racial undertones adding to the narrative and intensity. The series divided and riveted sports fans across the nation for over two weeks in late May and early June.
Five years after their storied NCAA championship showdown, the two foes finally met in the Finals after each superstar’s team had played other clubs in each of the previous four championship series.
Larry Bird was deservedly named the regular season MVP AND the 1984 Finals MVP after averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds a game in the classic series, this despite the fact that Pat Riley’s Lakers defense was completely designed to contain the league’s best all-around player.
However, without several clutch plays made by his less heralded teammates - some of which are remembered and some of which have been all but forgotten - Bird may not have been able to avenge his NCAA title game loss at the hands of his sworn enemy.
Leading the list of unsung key Celtics in that epic series was 6’1 guard Gerald Henderson. A backup to Nate Archibald for most of his first four seasons, he was known for his strong defense, quickness, and very springy legs. He was not known as a particularly good perimeter shooter, especially for a guard.
When former Celtics defensive ace K.C. Jones took over as head coach for Bill Fitch in 1983, he probably saw a lot of himself in Henderson. He inserted Gerald into the starting lineup, where he started all 100 games he played in that championship season and averaged a then career-best 11.6 ppg.
Jones was about the same height as Gerald but stockier and an even more erratic shooter. However, both were very speedy, athletic, and tenacious defensively. Both also followed flashy Hall of Fame point guards; Jones replaced the legendary Bob Cousy while Henderson followed Archibald.
Jones was such a good athlete that the Rams drafted the San Francisco grad as a potential defensive back in the NFL. K.C. thought so much of the wiry 175-pound Henderson’s athleticism and defensive ability that he actually assigned him to cover the 6’9, 230-pound Earvin Johnson in the 1984 Finals - despite having all-time defensive great Dennis Johnson on the roster in his first season as a Celtic.
However, Jones finally realized he needed to put the 6’4, long-armed DJ onto Johnson midway through the fourth game of the series. That simple adjustment - not the McHale clothesline of Rambis - turned Game 4 and the series around in Boston’s favor. Of the last 15 periods of the series, Boston won 10, lost three and tied two. Two of the periods they lost were by just two and four points. But without some key plays from Henderson and swingman reserve Scott Wedman in Game 2, they may never have been in position to even the series.
Trailing 1-0, Boston led much of Game 2 but a three-point play by James Worthy helped LA gain a 113-111 lead in the final minute. Henderson missed an open 15-footer that would have tied it, but McHale rebounded and was fouled. Kevin missed both shots and the Lakers rebounded with 18 seconds to go. The situation looked very dire after a timeout. From the backcourt, Worthy threw the ball in against a Celtic full court press to Earvin Johnson. About to be double-teamed by Bird and McHale, he quickly passed back to Worthy.
Big Game James panicked and threw a floating pass cross court intended for Byron Scott with 16 seconds to go. The speedy Henderson deflected the errant pass with his left hand near the three-point line toward the basket. He corralled the loose ball and with one dribble drove to lay in a left-side layup over the scrambling 6’9 Worthy to tie it as the Boston Garden erupted.
“The leprechaun at work in Boston Garden,” bellowed then CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn from his courtside seat. “A steal right when you need it...fabled things have happened here, and this will be one of them if the Celts win this game.”
After another LA timeout, the Lakers set up for a last shot to try and win it. While being guarded by Cedric Maxwell, Laker playmaker Johnson inexplicably dribbled out all but the final second of the clock before hurriedly passing to Bob McAdoo, whose jumper was cleanly stuffed by Kevin McHale just after time expired.
In overtime, the Lakers pulled ahead by three points. Jabbar then missed his trademark right baseline hook. Bird rebounded and fired a 50-foot outlet pass strike to Henderson, who drove in for a crucial three-point play to tie it 118-118 with 2:15 to go.
“Gerald Henderson has been an 11th hour hero,” said CBS broadcaster Dick Stockton.
A McHale basket then gave the Celtics a 120-119 lead, but McAdoo hit a jumper to put the visitors back in front. Jabbar missed another key hook with 25 seconds left, yet LA still led 121-120. On the ensuing possession the Lakers double-teamed Bird, so he passed to Henderson as they patiently worked the ball around the perimeter against the thinly-veiled LA zone defense.
Wedman, the league’s best baseline jump shooter and a two-time All-Star with the Kings before being traded to Boston, came around a Parish screen and waited for the ball to swing to him on the left baseline. When Wedman received a crisp pass from Henderson, without hesitation he swished a 17-footer over the flailing Johnson to give Boston the lead for good with just 14 ticks remaining, 122-121.
Parish then stole the ball away from a driving McAdoo with a gambling poke-away in the left corner and passed to Bird, who was fouled with two seconds to go. The Chief’s clutch steal has been lost to history amid the big plays of the series, but it was a critical and unusual swipe by the big man.
Larry sank both foul shots to extend the lead to 124-121. With no timeouts left, LA had to go the length of the court and McAdoo’s long pass sailed out of bounds. Bird then threw it in to Maxwell, who dribbled out the clock.
Bird led eight Celtics in double figures with 27 points and added 13 rebounds. Henderson scored 16 big points in the vital victory. Wedman added 10 key points in just 18 minutes.
Instead of being down 0-2, Henderson’s steal and Wedman’s clutch corner jumper helped Boston tie the series 1-1 before heading cross country to LA. The Lakers won Game 3 in a blowout, making Game 4 a near must-win for Boston.
That fourth game turned out to be one of the greatest in Finals history. Down 68-58 at halftime and with their backs to the wall, the Celtics made a critical stand.
A testy Jabbar elbowed Henderson as he doubled down on the big man. Worthy swung his elbows in a loose ball scrum on the floor. McHale clotheslined Rambis in the contentious third period as Boston pulled within two.
Moments later, Kareem elbowed Bird in the face on a backswing as they jockeyed for a rebound. Larry took exception to the shot and said something to Jabbar, who blew his top and began screaming and swearing at Bird as they went nose-to-nose.
As players from both teams separated the two #33 superstars, an incensed Kareem pushed everyone away and stalked off, probably aware he had acted wrongly but unable to admit it. Even his teammates looked dismayed at Kareem’s uncalled for outburst.
The normally languid Lakers had lost his cool, following their captain’s lead. Henderson made another key steal to stop a fast break (one of his four swipes in the game) but Boston was still down five points in the final 40 seconds.
Parish then followed in a missed shot with a critical three-point play that cut the lead to two. When LA missed, a frustrated Jabbar shoved Bird in the back on the rebound and fouled out.
With 16 seconds to go, Bird stepped to the line for two of the biggest free throws of his career. After making the first one, the second shot rimmed around before falling through.
Johnson then threw the ball to a denying Parish trying to force it into Worthy, and the game went into overtime at 113-113, the same score as the end of regulation in Game 2.
With the score tied 123-123, Johnson clanked two foul shots. Boston looked for Bird, who moved furiously without the ball to elude Michael Cooper. When Cooper fell down Johnson switched onto Larry.
With his rival on him Bird eagerly and immediately went into the mid-post, caught a pass and launched a 13-foot fadeaway over his nemesis. The shot swished through to give Boston the lead for good.
Moments later with Boston up 127-124, reserve M.L. Carr came up with yet another huge Celtics steal. Once again Worthy was the victim. He threw an ill-advised in-bounds pass from the midcourt sideline that Carr anticipated and picked off. The 6-6 swingman swooped toward the hoop and slammed down an emphatic dunk to put the game out of reach.
“I told you we’ll be back, we’ll be back,” yelled the never-bashful Carr at the CBS cameras after the final buzzer went off to the dismay of the Laker crowd. His comments meant that Boston would be back for a sixth game instead of losing in five as many Lakers fans had predicted.
Bird led Boston with 29 points and a whopping 21 rebounds. Henderson added 13 points, while Carr scored six in just three minutes.
But Wedman wasn’t so fortunate. He suffered a hairline fracture of the left fibula and was lost for the last three games of the series. The muscular 6-7 sharpshooter had contributed 9.3 points a game over just 18 minutes over the first four games in a key reserve role.
Bird authored a 34-point, 17-rebound masterpiece in the infamous Sauna Game back in Boston to give the Celtics a 3-2 lead with a 121-103 romp. Larry Legend sank 15 of 20 shots from the field to lead the victors in 97-degree, high humidity conditions at the aged Garden.
For the first time in the rollercoaster-ride series, Boston led and was in control. They looked poised to eliminate the demoralized Lakers in LA for Game 6.
The Celtics led by 12 points in the second half at the Forum. They were on the verge of clinching the series, but suddenly the game turned as Boston inexplicably went away from Bird, who took just 11 shots yet scored 28 points and grabbed 14 caroms.
LA rallied to win behind a 36-21 fourth quarter and evened the series 3-3. Henderson scored a series-high 22 points, but the Boston bench managed just 10 markers.
Back in a raucous Boston Garden for the decisive seventh game, Maxwell came up with his best game of the series with 24 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. He sank 14 of 17 free throws to throw off the Bird-watching Lakers defense.
The Celtics built a 58-52 halftime lead yet the Lakers came out strong in the third quarter, pulling within a basket, but then Henderson, who tallied all nine of his points in the third period, stepped up big.
He drove to the left baseline and sank a tough hanging 13-footer from almost behind the backboard over Rambis to put Boston ahead by four. Left open by the LA defense on three consecutive possessions, Henderson drained three straight outside jumpers and sank a free throw to help the Celtics seize a 71-66 lead.
“Largely overlooked, he has made some big plays,” said Stockton of Henderson.
Amazingly, with Bird resting on the bench Boston increased its lead with a 10-2 run to end the period. A Henderson assist to Parish for a three-point hook shot inside extended the lead to nine.
The 6’1 Gerald soared above everyone to rebound a long missed hook by Jabbar, then pushed the fast break and zipped a long pass to McHale. Kevin was fouled on a layup with two ticks left and made both shots to give Boston a commanding 91-78 lead after three quarters of play. From the bench, a (rarely) smiling Bird waved a towel and cheered on his teammates and congratulated them with high fives as they came to the sidelines.
The swarming Lakers defense, which was so completely geared to stop Larry, seemed confused without Bird on the floor. Henderson’s nine points led Boston to a 33-26 edge in the decisive third quarter.
When a well-rested Larry came back in to play, he came up with several key rebounds and a few steals. With LA rallying in the final period, Ainge buried two clutch 17-footers to keep the purple gang at bay. In the final game, Danny tallied 10 clutch points off the bench in 19 minutes.
Still, the Celtics started playing too cautiously by running clock instead of attacking on offense. The Lakers rallied within 105-102 with over a minute left with a last-ditch comeback. Bird launched a difficult foul line fade away over Jabbar which was on line but short.
LA rebounded and Johnson drove the lane. He left his feet prematurely, looking to draw contact. But Parish and McHale anticipated his maneuver and smartly backed away from the Laker guard, knowing his M.O. for getting cheap fouls. The duo simultaneously stuffed and stripped Johnson of the ball cleanly to provide a title-saving stop with 51 seconds remaining.
DJ grabbed the loose ball and steamed up court while a whining Earvin Johnson stood and pleaded with the referee for a foul call to no avail.
Cooper blocked DJ’s shot but he was whistled for a foul. Dennis sank both shots to extend the lead to five with 45 seconds to go. LA was unable to score again and fittingly, Bird put the finishing touches on the series by draining four straight free throws to provide the final winning margin of 111-102.
DJ, who shot just 39.5 percent from the field in the intense series, netted 22 points on perfect 12-12 foul shooting in the decider. Bird scored 20 points (8-8 FTs) and grabbed 12 boards.
Parish yanked down a game-high 16 caroms as Boston crushed LA on the glass 52-33, including 23 offensive boards. Magic Johnson committed seven costly turnovers, including two in a row at the end, to help seal their fate.
For the series Henderson averaged 12.3 points, four assists and 1.4 steals per game in 25.6 minutes. He shot a solid 47 percent from the floor.
In the victorious Celtic locker room, Brent Musburger interviewed a vindicated Henderson. The veteran CBS announcer noted, “I have to go back to Game 2. I think your moment when you stole the ball and tied that game may have been the single biggest moment of the series.”
“We had to have that game and it proved to be a vital one for us because that carried us right into this game,” agreed Henderson.
“They talk about our back court all year long, about how we can’t shoot from the outside, but we make things happen, and we made it happen tonight,” he added, standing tall.
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