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Throughout his career, Larry Bird had developed a knack for delivering big plays at just the right time, and the Celtics definitely benefited from this attribute in their star player. One of the most memorable plays by bird came during game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons on May 26, 1987. With the Celtics trailing the Pistons by one point with five seconds left in the game, Bird ghosted into the passing lane to intercept a Pistons inbounds pass and set up Dennis Johnson for a game-winning layup.
Buildup to the Bird’s Steal
During the late 80s, the Celtics were beginning to fade as perennial title contenders, with a host of teams led by the Lakers shoving for a shot at the throne. The Celtics had defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs and then the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Pistons on their part had beaten the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks respectively to earn their matchup with Boston. This was a rematch of the 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals when the Celtics had prevailed in six games. The Celtics and Pistons traded wins during the first four games, with Detroit winning by heavy margins in game three and four. It was therefore felt that the Pistons had the edge going into game 5 in Detroit.
The Steal and its Aftermath
With a few seconds left in the game and the Pistons leading 107-106, Larry Bird dribbled from the left side and as he tried went for a shot, Dennis Rodman came out of nowhere with a massive block which was then pushed out of bounds apparently by a Pistons player. There was palpable frustration and despair on the Celtics bench when the referee called for a Detroit inbounds play.
With just five seconds left, all the Pistons had to do was to make the inbounds pass and see the seconds out. Usually, teams in this situation will take a timeout to calm their nerves and plan their play perfectly. However, ignoring Coach Chuck Daly’s futile screams to call a timeout, Isaiah Thomas got ready to inbound the ball.
As Thomas made the inbounds pass to Bill Laimbeer, disaster struck. As soon as the ball left Thomas’s hands, Bird sprang into action and with an outstretched arm, got hold of the ball in front of a stunned Laimbeer. The momentum almost pushed him and the ball out of bounds but somehow he managed to stop a fraction of a millimeter from the line and pass the ball to Dennis Johnson, who was breaking to the basket unmarked.
Johnson received Bird’s pass and made a layup, which gave the Celtics the lead. Only one second remained and the Pistons finally called timeout. It was too little too late, as the Celtics won the game 108-107. Against all odds, the quest for the championship had turned in the Celtics’ favor.
A lesser incident also happened during game five. Celtic Bob Parish became so incensed by the dirty play of Laimbeer- one of the league’s most controversial players- when he fouled Bird, that he pummeled him a few feet away from the referee. Although Parish was not ejected from the game, the Celtics only learned of his suspension for game 6 when they landed on Detroit on game-day.
The Pistons would win that game but the Celtics prevailed in game 7 back in Boston. In the NBA finals, the Celtics met the Lakers and lost in six games. Over the next four years, the Pistons and the Celtics would meet three times in the playoffs, with the Pistons prevailing on all three occasions. On all those occasions, Detroit made it to the NBA Finals, winning in 1989 and 1990.