Part 2: The conclusion of the Top 10 Larry Bird NBA Finals performances. Find 10-6 here.
By Cort Reynolds
With the NBA championship series in full swing and talk about Tim Duncan's place among the game's all-time greats being bandied about, it seems a good time to review the top 10 Finals contests in the storied career of Celtic legend Larry Bird.
5) Game 4, 1985 Finals. In an extremely hostile Forum atmosphere, Boston trailed 2-1 and faced a must-win situation due to the new implementation of the 2-3-2 format which promised a potential clinching fifth game in LA on the horizon.
The Celtics trailed 90-83 when Larry put on perhaps the greatest three-minute display of all-around brilliance in Finals history to single-handedly will Boston back from the brink of elimination.
First he blocked a Bob McAdoo jumper from the side and forced a jump ball, which he won. He then buried a 22-footer from the right wing. Larry then grabbed an offensive rebound, put in a left-handed follow and was fouled, completing the old-fashioned three-point play at the line.
He then stole a backdoor feed from Jabbar by baiting the clever center into throwing a pass to Earvin Johnson with a jab step and retreat move to easily intercept the dish to the cutting Laker guard.
Larry then faked a pass, drove left into the lane and swished a pretty double-clutch scoop, but the gorgeous shot was waved off due to an illegal defense Laker technical foul call.
Bird calmly canned the foul shot that he had forced with his fake pass. He then anticipated a teammate miss and muscled into perfect rebounding position. He hauled down yet another offensive rebound and tried his patented over the head reverse layin for the stickback, but the spectacular shot rolled around the rim and out for his only "misplay" during the run where he took over the game.
At the other end, Larry hustled back and fronted Jabbar in the post. After taking a forearm to the back of the head from Kareem, he deflected the 7-2 center's kickout pass for another steal.
He then sprinted out, took a long pass, lined up an open 17-footer along the left side in front of the LA bench, and swished the jumper.
His incredible display got Boston back in the game for the stretch run and completely changed the momentum as the Celtics snagged a slim lead.
Eight points on two long jumpers, a three-point play, and a foul shot, plus two offensive boards, two great steals, and a blocked shot all in a short time span. Whew.
The teams trade haymakers the rest of the way, with Danny Ainge nailing two huge long jumpers on passes from Bird to help tie the score at 105-105 in the final seconds. All eyes in the Forum and millions worldwide watching on TV were on Bird to take the final shot.
As Dennis Johnson dribbled out top, Larry curled around a double screen on the low right block, took a pass and drove into the circle as the Lakers desperately doubled him to prevent a last-second winner by the game's best clutch shooter.
Earvin Johnson swiped at the ball as he came over to help, yet Larry smartly anticipated this maneuver and protected the ball well with both hands as he split the defense above the foul line.
But instead of forcing a tough off balance shot as most superstars migh thave done in an attmept to be THE hero, he kept his poise and kicked the ball out to his left to an open Dennis Johnson, whom the Laker guard had abandoned to double Bird.
DJ let fly from 20 feet and his shot swished through the net just before the final buzzer sounded to tie the series in dramatic fashion, 107-105. Bird and the Celtics celebrated wildly before a Laker crowd stunned into silence at midcourt, having narrowly avoided a 3-1 deficit and almost certain defeat.
Larry made half of his mere 16 field tries and canned 10 of 12 from the charity stripe to tally 26 points. Dogged all over the court by the thinly-veiled Laker zone defense, he refused to be baited into forcing bad shots and instead spread the floor with spacing, shooting and deft passing.
Few great players would be able to show the discipline needed under such pressure to not make mistakes and force shots and passes when the entire offense was predicated on Larry making plays.
In addition, he also imposed his will on the game by grabbing 11 rebounds. He doled out five assists (including the game-winner), made three steals and added a block, all while making just one turnover in 43 fierce minutes under great pressure.
4) Game 1, 1981 Finals. In the very first game of his Finals career, Bird and Boston took on the upstart Rockets, led by rebounding machine Moses Malone. Houston had upset the defending champion Lakers in the first round while Boston had come from 3-1 down to beat the rival 76ers in a conference finals for the ages. Suffering from a physical and emotional hangover when the 40-42 Rockets came to town two days later, the sluggish Celtics trailed much of the game.
Then Bird made the play of the series that woke up the crowd and Gang Green. He shot a 16-footer from the right elbow and immediately sensed it was off to the right. Bird instinctively went to the spot along the right baseline where he anticipated the long rebound and caught the rebound in midair. While suspended off the ground, he switched the ball to his left hand and tossed in a soft southpaw nine-footer as he floated out of bounds behind the basket.
The crowd roared its appreciation and the team got a huge shot in the arm. Red Auerbach called it the greatest play he had ever seen after the game. Courtside on CBS, Bill Russell also called it a truly great play.
Only a basketball savant with great ambidexterity, body control and touch like Bird could have pulled off such an amazing play. Just to get the rebound and anticipate the bounce was impressive. To finish it off by making a left-handed floater was a once-in-a-lifetime play, considering the circumstances and what was at stake.
Larry's high-flying defensive rebound and long outlet to Cedrix Maxwell for a fast break dunk put Boston ahead 96-91 in the final minutes.
Moments later in the close contest, Boston was clinging to a 96-95 lead in the final 25 seconds. Robert Parish missed a left baseline jumper and Bird out-tipped the bigger Malone for the weakside rebound, his 20th carom of the game. Malone fouled him as he went up for the putback, but no call was made. Yet Larry doggedly stayed with it, grabbed another offensive rebound, then gave a head fake to freeze the multiple defenders forming a crowd around the hoop.
He then patiently took a dribble along the baseline, emerged on the other side and banked in a pretty left-handed reverse layup for his 18th point with 15 seconds to go that clinched the final outcome, 98-95. Once again, great poise under pressure.
"I want the ball in them situations," explained Larry in his southern Indiana accent. Indeed.
3) Game 6, 1986 Finals. The Boston Garden was ready to draw Houston blood after 7-4 Ralph Sampson punched diminutive Jerry Sichting in the prior contest to set off a bench-clearing brawl. As Bird told his teammates in the locker room before the tip-off, "if we don't give them (Rocket) blood they will want ours." The Celtics came out so fired-up that they missed several foul shots early. An intimidated Sampson did not make a field goal until the second half and was a non-factor, scoring eight incidental points in 38 minutes.
Meanwhile, a pumped-up Bird pieced together a 29-point, 11-rebound, 12-assist triple double effort. Chief among the most memorable plays was when he scooped up a mistimed Walton pass while cutting across the side of the lane, dribbled out behind the three-point line in serpentine fashion and buried a left corner trey.
On another play he outfought the Rockets for an offensive rebound directly under the basket, turned and while falling out of bounds fed Kevin McHale for a layup.
As Walton later recalled Bird's all-around tour de force display, he said number 33 had gone out and "painted the perfect Larry Bird masterpiece." He added three steals to his stat line and sank two of three three-pointers, as well as 11 of 12 foul shots.
Bird himself later said his heart was pounding harder than it ever had before a game that day, and he never reached that same level of excited anticipation before a contest again.
After the series, Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon called Finals MVP Bird the "best all-around player I have ever seen." On the heels of his third consecutive regular season MVP and his second Finals MVP in three years, it seemed more than an appropriate, if not a patently obvious statement. But a telling and well-deserved admission, nonetheless, from a fierce and great opponent.
2) Game 6, 1981 Finals. Boston led a surprisingly tough championship series 3-2 when they headed to Houston for game six at the end of Bird's second season in search of their first title since 1976. Larry had struggled to score in the three prior outings against the tough defense of the slowdown Rockets and 6-8 defensive ace Robert Reid, and was catching some media criticism, despite his great contributions in other areas.
But in this contest Bird busted out in superstar fashion. His eight third period points helped break open a close game. The Celtics held a seemingly safe 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, but a big late run by the hometown Rockets sliced the deficit to just three as the Summit stadium rocked to its core.
Larry then drilled three straight jump shots to quiet the crowd and stem the Rocket rally. With feisty Houston buoyed by its partisan crowd they still managed to hang within striking distance. With a scrambling Houston down just three with 90 seconds left, Bird then put the final stake in their heart when he took a swing pass from Chris Ford and swished a left corner trey to double the lead.
Boston went on to win 102-91 to clinch the first championship of the Bird era, and their first crown since the days of John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and JoJo White.
Later, a grinning Larry took the cigar out of a happy Red Auerbach's mouth and puffed on it in the victorious locker room. He had scored a game-high 27 points, including nine of the team's 11 in the decisive late run, and answered his critics emphatically.
When Houston guard Mike Dunleavy missed a corner three in the final half minute, it was the sure-handed Bird who came down with the defensive board amid a crowd to seal the outcome, the last of his 13 rebounds. And per usual, he passed beautifully as well, including a behind the back dish to Parish for an open jumper.
1) Game 5, 1984 Finals. This was clearly Bird's best individual game out of his 31 Finals outings. With the titanic series tied 2-2 after a pair of overtime classic wins by the Celtics, both teams went into the pivotal fifth game amid stifling 97-degree Boston Garden heat and humidity, without air conditioning.
While the Lakers were huffing and puffing and Jabbar was sucking on an oxygen mask, Bird was "looking fresh as a daisy", said Laker coach Pat Riley after the impressive 121-103 Celtic victory. The blowout win signaled a clear turn in the seesaw series to the Celtics, and they would control the last 3.5 games of the Finals after defensive ace DJ finally switched to guard Earvin Johnson.
Perhaps the oppressive warmth inside the ancient Garden served to loosen up the tightly-driven Bird. Years later Celtic reserve guard Quinn Buckner recalled the extreme heat made worse by having over 15,000 people pressed together in the 56-year old facility by admitting, "I've lived in Texas, and I never felt heat like I felt that day."
All Larry did in his dominating game five showing was shoot an astounding 15 of 20 from the field, nail both of his triple tries, score 34 points, and grab 17 rebounds, both easily game-best totals.
He scored by posting up inside, hitting from outside, from mid-range, on putbacks and from all angles. His three-pointer as the shot clock ended near the close of the third period put the hosts ahead 88-77 and was a classic Bird gutpunch that lifted the Boston crowd to a frenzied pitch.
As he went triumphantly to the bench, Bird uncharacteristically kept his right arm extended wellover his head for multiple high fives, sending the beaten Lakers a message that he was now confident Boston was in charge of the series. He also contributed two steals and a blocked shot.
"Aw hell, I play in hotter weather back home in Indiana in the summer," said Bird when asked about the heat, probably a true statement but also a psychological ploy aginst the tiring Lakers.
"The difference tonight was Mr. Bird," Riley said succinctly.
"He's like a coal miner, he goes down and does the dirty work," said Celtic coach K.C. Jones, pointing up Bird's impressive 14.0 series rebound average per game.
Bird enjoyed many more fine performances in his 21 other Finals contests, but the above were the 10 best, in my opinion.
Of course, had his career begun in 1999 instead of 1979, he would probably have appeared in twice as many championship series and won close to two hands full of rings against the much weaker competition that Duncan, James and other supposed all-time greats have feasted upon.
Yet it would be remiss here not to mention perhaps his greatest moment, winning game seven of the classic 1984 Finals over the Lakers before a raucous Garden crowd.
Larry tallied a solid 20 points and 12 rebounds in the finale, including four free throws in a row in the waning seconds to clinch a hard-fought 111-102 victory. Long-time CBS announcer Brent Musburger informed Bird during the locker room post-game ceremonies that he would have likely been named MVP even if Boston had lost.
In their post-game interview, Musburger asked Larry if the series triumph "got him even with Magic Johnson after all these years," a reference to the gut-wrenching 1979 NCAA finals defeat suffered by Bird and his 33-0 Indiana State team to Michigan State that still gnaws at him to this day. Indeed, Bird has never watched that game on tape since it took place 34 March Madnesses ago.
As usual, Bird played it close to the vest but reading between the lines, one could sense a deeper answer to Musburger's probing query. "We don't talk about that, we're professionals now...but I won this one for Terre Haute," he said, referring to the home campus of ISU. "You sure did," beamed an admiring Musburger. Much later that night though, deep into the celebration, Bird confided to his brief former Indiana teammate Buckner these telling words about the titanic win over his nemesis Johnson: "I got him, I finally got him."
While game seven in 1984 wasn't one of his very best championship series performances, it was probably Larry Bird's most gratifying.
Michael Saver 6/12/2013 08:00:00 AM Tweet Edit