It is seldom that any player - no matter how great - can single-handedly take over the fourth quarter of a backs-to-the-wall, hotly-contested NBA Finals game. Especially on the road and when seven of the 10 players on the floor are Hall of Famers, and the other three are All-Star caliber.
But that is what Larry Bird did in the fourth quarter of Game 4 in the storied 1985 NBA Finals showdown between arch-rivals Boston and Los Angeles.
After absorbing a 148-114 shellacking in Game 1 in Boston in the Memorial Day Massacre, the Lakers regrouped to win the next two games. On a roll and playing at home, Los Angeles was looking to take a stranglehold on the series with a third straight win that would all but decide the coveted title.
The league had changed the Finals homecourt schedule to the 2-3-2 format that year, allowing the team with the lesser record (LA) to host the middle three games. The rules shift was a big factor in determining the championship. In 1984, Boston had been in the exact same position, down 2-1 at LA before a hostile Forum crowd.
But Bird authored a 29-point, 21-rebound effort to lift the Celtics to an overtime win that tied the series 2-2. His two clutch free throws in the waning seconds forced OT, and then he hit the game-winning shot in extra time on a fadeaway over nemesis Earvin Johnson after he switched onto Bird.
Buoyed by that huge series-tying win, the Celtics flew back home and consolidated the triumph with a 121-103 blowout in the infamous “Sauna Game.” Bird shot 15-20, scored 34 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead the Celtics to the pivotal victory.
That memorable homecourt triumph, on the heels of the momentum-changing OT win in Game 4, put Boston ahead for the first time in the series, and they went on to win the title in seven classic games.
But in 1985 the pressure was greater for the defending champion Celtics to even the series 2-2 at LA in Game 4, since a fifth game at the Forum and potential elimination was staring them right in the face.
With just under 10 minutes left in the fourth period of Game 4, Boston was precariously behind 90-83, but Bird rose up and simply took over the contest in every phase of the game by dominating a floor full of Hall of Famers.
CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn wisely observed that Bird was “getting that mean look on his face. He loves the fourth quarter,” as he embarked on his epic solo run.
First off, Larry was being posted up by 6’9” Bob McAdoo but deftly came around him from behind to pick off a Johnson pass, going to the floor to tie up the former MVP.
On the next Celtic possession, he burst off a down screen and took a pass from Dennis Johnson. Bird squared up and buried a high-arching 22-footer from the right wing to make it 90-85 and ignite his personal flurry.
Bird then blocked a shot from the side of three-time former scoring champion McAdoo. “He can’t out-jump you, but he can out-think you,” noted Heinsohn.
After a Laker basket restored their lead to seven, Bird rattled in a technical free throw when LA was called for an illegal zone defense.
Isolated against James Worthy on the right side, Bird then drove left into the lane and made a gorgeous backhanded scoop shot that was disallowed by a foul call on Worthy. Today that play would almost certainly be ruled a three-point continuation shot, especially for a superstar.
But an angry Bird was not to be denied. He muscled his way into weakside rebounding position and snagged a missed mid-lane turnaround jumper by Robert Parish.
The ambidextrous Bird then tossed in a left-handed putback off glass while being fouled and banged by McAdoo and Worthy.
“That’s the type of toughness that Bird leads with,” said Heinsohn.
Larry swished the foul shot to complete the three-point play and cut the deficit to 92-89 with 8:38 remaining. He had scored four points on the possession - actually six including the disallowed basket.
Johnson then dribbled up court, tossed an entry pass to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and cut through the lane. Bird cleverly baited Jabbar by foot-faking him on defense into a bad pass intended for Johnson. He then retreated into the lane and picked off the pass with his left hand.
“Bird suckered Kareem into throwing that pass,” explained Heinsohn, surprised that someone as smart and as good a passer as the Laker center was fooled. “He jab stepped out, then retreated and picked it off.”
Parish then missed another short jumper, this one from the right baseline. Again Bird anticipated earlier than anyone else, maneuvered into perfect weakside rebounding position and snared the carom.
He then made the only “mistake” of his epic run by attempting a blind, over the head putback that rolled softly around the rim and out.
Had he made that almost no-look putback, it would have highlighted the absolute perfect one-man spurt. LA rebounded his stickback try, but Michael Cooper missed a fast break pull-up jumper.
DJ grabbed the loose ball and passed ahead up the left sideline to an open Bird. Larry set his feet, patiently cocked and fired a 20-footer off the left baseline that swished perfectly through the netting to bring Boston within a point at the 7:51 mark.
“Larry Bird is on a roll,” exclaimed normally muted CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton. A Red Sox announcer who had also broadcast Celtic games locally, Stockton frequently went out of his way to not show favoritism by toning down his excitement when Boston did well.
There was also considerable national criticism of Heinsohn, the ex-Celtic great and coach, for supposedly favoring Boston in his analysis, making Stockton even more aware and sensitive to not sound pro-Celtic on national TV.
But after Bird’s eighth straight point capped his personal scoring outburst, the even-tempered Stockton couldn’t hold it in.
“Larry Bird has scored the last eight Celtic points,” Stockton excitedly pointed out.
After his 20-foot swisher, Bird hustled back down court and fronted Jabbar in the low post while waiting for Parish to get back on defense. He received a Kareem forearm to the back of the neck for his troubles, which probably raised his ire.
Thus when Johnson lobbed an entry pass into Kareem, Bird doubled down on Jabbar and deflected his kick-out pass to DJ for a steal.
“I tell you, Larry Bird is doing everything,” said an admiring Heinsohn.
Bird was open running the right wing as he called for the ball in transition, but DJ instead drove the lane and drew a foul. He made both free throws to give Boston the lead, 93-92.
Larry’s incredible stretch almost single-handedly willed a game-changing 10-2 run that gave Boston, which had been on the brink of losing, the lead late in the fourth period of a must win.
During his personal tour de force, Bird put all of his unique and wide-ranging talents, competitiveness and basketball smarts on full display. He sank two long jumpers and a southpaw putback, grabbed two offensive rebounds, made two steals, blocked a shot, sank two of two foul shots and hit one disallowed scoop shot to pace a furious rally. It is unlikely any player has ever done more over a short span in the late, critical stages of a Finals contest, especially without preferential star calls.
A bit later with 4:47 left and Boston clinging to a 97-96 edge, Bird switched onto a rattled Johnson and picked off his rival’s underthrown pass near the Lakers foul line.
The teams battled down the stretch to a 105-105 tie. With 19 seconds left, the Celtics had the last possession to win it or force overtime. The entire Forum crowd and millions watching on TV worldwide knew Bird would likely get the ball to take the last shot.
When Larry walked through a baseline double screen, he rubbed off Worthy and popped out to take a pass from Dennis with five seconds left. He was 20 feet from the basket on the right wing, foul line extended, with McAdoo having switched onto him.
He gave a ball fake to confuse or freeze the defense briefly, and McAdoo crowded him as he then drove into the circle. Earvin Johnson sloughed off DJ to double Bird as he jumped off one foot into the air. Would he shoot a difficult 17-foot runner or pass? After all, he was well-known for taking - and making - off-balance shots in crunch time.
The Laker guard swiped at the ball but Bird pulled it away and tossed the sphere back to a wide-open DJ. The fear of Larry Legend making the last shot had made Earvin feel he had to double him, and thus leave his man open. It was the lesser of two evils, in his mind, the better gamble to take.
But Dennis unhesitatingly stepped into it and let fly a 21-footer which swished through the net as time expired to give Boston an epic 107-105, series-tying victory. Most superstars would have forced a shot in that spot, but the prescient Bird wisely made the right pass when doubled and delivered a perfect feed to the clutch DJ for the game-winner.
In a rare show of emotion, an excited Bird high-fived Greg Kite as he rushed the floor near midcourt, and Larry pumped both fists. The Boston bench ran onto center court of the Forum to celebrate wildly and congratulate Dennis for making his big shot.
“The Boston Celtics are acting like they won a championship, and Tommy for them perhaps it has been as important as winning a championship. 2-2 is the series,” Stockton observed.
As the happy Celtics started off the Forum floor, Bird high-tenned McHale, high-fived Scott Wedman and even high-fived a gleeful Celtic fan who had ventured onto the court.
Stockton pointed out DJ had scored 27 points and played “marvelously.” But Heinsohn quickly noted it was Larry who made the right decision and perfect pass. “Bird drew the double-team to himself,” explained Heinsohn of the last play. Yet without his heroic fourth period all-around stint earlier, the last play would not have even been possible.
McHale led all players with 28 points and 12 rebounds. DJ added 12 assists to his 27 points.
Bird scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth period, and collected 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals (all in the fourth period). He also had one blocked shot and just one turnover in 43 intense minutes. He made eight of his mere 16 shots from the field and canned 10-12 from the foul line, without even attempting a single three-pointer. How the game has changed.
He did not achieve those stats by jumping over defenders, or running exceptionally fast. He did it with superior skills, basketball smarts, positioning, anticipation and great hand-eye coordination.
Unfortunately, Boston was unable to capitalize on the momentum of the buzzer-beating Game 4 win and lost the next contest at LA to fall behind 3-2.
Back home two days after that, a weary Celtic club shot poorly and fell to the Lakers for the first time in nine Finals meetings. DJ (3-15), Parish (5-14) and Danny Ainge (3-16) combined to shoot just 11 for 45 from the field in that crushing Game 6 defeat.
But before that the epic fourth period all-around display Bird put on in Game 4 - under great pressure on the road to even a fierce championship series - was as good a performance as any in NBA Finals history.
To email the author, you can contact Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.