Debunking the Myths of the 1984 Finals - How Boston Won the Greatest Championship Series Ever
|Most think of this play when they think of the 1984 Finals, but there was so much more to that victory.|
By Cort Reynolds
The 1984 NBA championship series is arguably the greatest Finals in league history.
Definitely the best I have ever seen, and it had everything: great play from all-time great players, drama, controversy, thrilling finishes, multiple overtimes, strategy, conspiracy theories, many thrust-and-parry adjustments, racial tension, more twists and turns than a soap opera, a dramatic finish and more.
In their fifth season, arch-rivals Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson finally met in the title round for the first of three epic championship showdowns. In their first four seasons one or the other had been in the Finals, but never at the same time.
The Celtic/Laker rivalry was the defining sports rivalry of the decade that transcended the game, and captured a nation's imagination with its many-layered subplots, headlined by the Bird-Johnson duel, with undeniable racial overtones.
In 1982 Boston appeared headed for repeat titles and a date with the Lakers after blowing out the 76ers 121-81 in game one of their eastern finals series, their third straight meeting in the conference final and fourth win in succession over Philly in the playoffs.
But then Nate Archibald separated his shoulder when he was tripped and the 76ers took a 3-1 lead before the Celtics rallied to tie it and force a seventh game for a second year in a row.
Yet this time Philly escaped the ignominy of blowing a 3-1 series for the second consecutive spring and won, but as usual they had little left for the coasting Lakers in the Finals, who had a relatively easy annual road through a very weak west.
But in 1984 the stars aligned and the Finals everyone – the league, CBS and hoop fans the world over - wanted to see since the Indiana State/Michigan State 1979 NCAA title game was at hand. That the two antagonists, supposed opposites who went to the Celtics and Lakers, the most storied and ring-laden franchises in NBA history, was central casting that ultimately came together to produce easily the best Finals of the last 35 years.
Boston, by virtue of having the best record by eight games over the Lakers (62 wins to 54) despite playing in a much tougher division and conference, had the important homecourt advantage, yet was somehow considered the underdog by the time the series began.
Even though Boston nearly swept a strong Milwaukee squad in the east finals while LA struggled to beat a 41-41 Phoenix team in the west finals 4-2, including only by a 99-97 count in the sixth game, Los Angeles was perceived to be better.
LA was looking to win its first series against Boston in eight tries. The major media painted the series as the hard-hat, smart Celtics against the talented, smooth Lakers, relying on familiar stereotypes to pigeon-hole the teams and make the series more palatable to the casual fan tuning in to the Finals in large numbers for the first time in years.
But this of course belittles the considerable talent the Celtics possessed and the basketball smarts the Lakers boasted too.
Yet finally we had the first Laker/Celtic Finals since 1969, with all the romance and lore of that fabled rivalry, the great players and the great drama. It was Athens vs. Sparta circa 1984, East vs. west, an intellectual and blue-collar hub vs. glitz, glamour and Hollywood. Gang Green vs. Purple Rain. Showtime vs. Slowtime. Payback for Bird over Johnson for the NCAA finals, when Michigan State had double and triple-teamed Larry and ruined his undefeated season.
Six players on the combatants made the NBA 50 Greatest list in 1997, three from each team, plus two other Hall of Famers, a Finals MVP and several more future or past other All-Stars as well as special award winners dotted the rosters. The individual matchups were just as delicious as the anticipation and the actual seven-course meal.
Bird vs. Johnson, even though the main protagonists guarded one another only on switches or in transition. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Robert Parish at center. James Worthy vs. Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale at forward. Ace Celtic defender Dennis Johnson against his Laker namesake, and LA defensive stopper Michael Cooper on Bird, the man Larry said “guarded me better than anyone.”
And the matchups extended to the front office, Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach vs. ex-Laker great Jerry West, who had played brilliantly in six Finals losses to the Celtics, even being named playoff MVP in 1969 despite losing another ring by two points in a gut-wrenching seventh game loss. This time he and Red faced off with Jerry as the Laker GM/architect.
Even West, who had a 42-13-12 triple-double in the 1969 108-106 HOME loss, says that defeat (clinched by Don Nelson's fortunate high-bounce-off-the-back-rim basket from the foul line late in the game) haunted him more than other, because he truly felt that was the one year LA was definitely better than the aging Celtics, with Russell and Sam Jones playing their final contest.
And so after all the hype and anticipation, it began on May 27, 1984, much to the joy of basketball purists everywhere. The Lakers came out strong on the parquet and made a shocking statement at the very outset of game one, running out literally to a 34-22 lead after the first period.
The Celtics crept within 92-88 after three quarters, but LA held on to win the opener in a convincing but close contest, 115-109. Jabbar dominated a seemingly intimidated Parish, making 12 of 17 shots en route to outscoring the Chief, 32 to 13.
McHale led the Celtics with 25 points (10-16 Fgs). Bird netted 24 points and yanked down a game-high 14 rebounds while dishing out a team-best five assists.
Boston, which needed to control the boards to slow down the vaunted Laker running game, held a slight 47-42 edge on the glass. But LA shot far better from the field and foul line as Johnson paced the victors with 18 points and 10 assists, leading the Laker running game to a lot of easy shots and a 1-0 series lead.
Game two, an excruciatingly four days later (due to CBS scheduling) thus turned out to be a virtual must win for Boston, who couldn't afford to go to the LA Forum down 0-2. The impressive Laker opening game win had many series followers whispering about the possibility of a sweep, exemplified by LA super fan Jack Nicholson. Jack was seen seated in the upper reaches of the Boston Garden, miming brushing movements off each shoulder as a Joker-esque smile danced on his lips implying sweep.
Fired-up Boston came out and seized a 36-26 lead after the first stanza of game two, but the Lakers pulled within 61-59 at the half. The Celts inched to a 90-87 edge after three, but with Worthy shooting 11-12 from the field (mostly on short shots and dunks) Los Angeles seemed poised to go up 2-0.
After Worthy scooped up a bad Laker pass late in the fourth period, he drove and dunked over Maxwell while Cornbread tried in vain to take a charge, completing a three-point play to give the visitors the lead.
Moments later, LA had the ball with a two-point edge and less than 20 seconds to go. Worthy in-bounded the ball in the backcourt along the sideline, got it back and tossed a soft crosscourt pass against a desperate Celtic fullcourt press. Presses rarely work in the NBA because the players are too good and poised to lose the ball typically, but in this case the situation caught up to LA.
Speedy Celtic guard Gerald Henderson anticipated the ill-advised pass, batted it away and laid in a right-handed layup off glass from the left side just over a scrambling Worthy as the Garden roared.
Was it the leprechauns or the ghosts of “Havlicek steals the ball” past who made the big play? The banners above the parquet floor? No, it was simply a tight youngseter playing in his first playoffs who was not a good ballhandler making a tentative, poor pass and Henderson taking advantage to make a great play.
But the game wasn't over. Tied 113-all, the Lakers had the ball and a last chance to win. But Earvin Johnson, in the first of many gaffes he made in those dramatic Finals, inexplicably dribbled the last 15 seconds out almost completely while Jabbar called for the ball in vain.
Finally Johnson passed to ex-Celtic sharpshooter Bob McAdoo, whose 22-footer was too late and was swatted anyway, nay swallowed up wholely, by a flying McHale, to force overtime.
No one could believe Johnson had made such a basic error. Rumors of a fixed series began to swirl. Yet LA took a four-point OT lead and after a Henderson charging foul, appeared in command.
But Boston battled back when Henderson converted a clutch three-point play in transition after a Johnson foul. After LA missed, rebounded and missed again, Boston had the ball trailing 121-120 in the final minute.
The Celtics calmly worked the ball from corner to corner against the thinly-veiled Laker zone in a textbook display of ball movement. Bird passed up a shot and Boston worked the ball to the left sideline and corner sharpshooter Scott Wedman.
A former All-Star in Kansas City who had seen his minutes drastically cut due to the deep Celtic frontline despite having many good years left, Wedman was the preeminent baseline shooter in the NBA, hungry to show he still had it.
And Scott rose up to cleanly drain the 16-footer that put the Celtics in front, 122-121. At the other end, LA had a chance at redemption but missed.
Yet when Maxwell rebounded and passed the ball away like a hot potato dangerously to an unsuspecting Bird, who was under the Laker basket, LA got yet another reprieve when Johnson knocked the pass off Bird's foot and out of bounds.
Bird gave Maxwell a pained look as he knelt on the floor, knowing that an essential series-tying win was now back in question. LA in-bounded to McAdoo deep in the left corner, guarded by Parish. Sensing a speed advantage against the tightly-guarding Chief, the 6-9 McAdoo tried to blow by the 7-footer on the baseline, even though jump-shooting was Big Mac's clear strength.
But Parish snaked his hand in quickly and poked the unprotected ball loose, crucially recovering it before it could go out of bounds. He then passed to Bird, who dribbled over halfcourt, drew a foul in the final seconds and clinched the classic 124-121 win with two free throws.
Boston took a huge sigh of relief, tied 1-1.
The game was immediately called “the one LA let get away” or the one “Boston (Henderson) stole.” But the truth was, the Celtics led most of the game and earned the victory. Henderson did joke afterward that he thought for a minute he could hear legendary Celtic broadcaster Johnny Most in the rafters yelling “Henderson steals the ball,” but Boston came by the victory fair and square.
Bird led EIGHT Celtics in double figures with 27 points, and added 13 rebounds. Worthy topped all scorers with 29 points, but the 6-9 jumping jack grabbed only three rebounds in 43 minutes. Big Game James was more concerned about leaking out on the break for easy baskets than he was about doing the dirty work of hitting the glass.
Boston out-rebounded LA 50-42 and outscored them by nine at the foul line to offset sparkling 57 percent Laker field goal shooting.
So the teams switched coasts to Los Angeles all knotted up for games three and four, back when the Finals format was 2-2-1-1-1 for the last time. On Sunday, June 3, the vengeful Lakers simply blew Boston out with a devastating running game as the Forum faithful screamed for more green blood.
LA led by 11 at the half and then put up an astounding 47 – 47! points in the third period to bury the beleaguered Celtics. As Bird and the rest of the haggard Celtics watched the layup and dunk-fest from the bench that continued in the fourth period, LA openly celebrated a 137-104 win in taunting fashion.
Bird scored 30 and Wedman netted 16 off the bench, but no one else in green topped 12. Jabbar led seven Lakers in double digits with 24 points, but perhaps as or more importantly, the hosts out-rebounded the Celtics 63-44.
LA also outscored Boston by 10 at the foul line, shot 52 percent from the field and held the Celts to just 40 percent as they completely dominated. They out-pointed Boston 108-78 over the final three periods, including 47-33 in the third stanza, a common halftime-type score of many offensively-challenged games today.
An angry Bird came out in the press and said his team played like, “sissies...we have a lot of great players on this team but not the right heart” after basically giving up, allowing the Lakers to laugh at them while converting one fancy fast break after another in the second half.
With almost everyone preparing their obituary, a grim tone was set for game four, one of Gang Green against the world. Three days later, the two arch-rival teams played one of the great games in Finals history. Team emotional leader M.L. Carr led the team single file onto the Forum floor amid boos, claiming it was “not the March of Dimes, this is the march on to victory.”
LA edged in front with a big second quarter at intermission, 68-58. The Celtics were in trouble. But Boston dug down and clawed within 90-88.
Along the way, the simmering series of racial and historical overtones exploded into a dramatic battle of tempers, lost poise and physicality that changed the entire outlook.
Yet behind the scenes it was another defensive switch that also changed the course of the Finals more substantially.
For the first three and a half games, Celtic coach KC Jones had inexplicably used 6-1 defensive ballhawk Gerald Henderson to guard the 6-8.5 Earvin Johnson, giving up 50-60 pounds as well as much height. Maybe Henderson reminded Jones, a great Celtic defensive guard, of himself with his size, speed and tenacity. But he was simply too small to bother the much bigger Johnson, who had clear sight lines to pass easily over Gerald, as well as a big advantage under the boards.
K.C.'s strange assignment was even stranger considering the fact that before the season Boston had acquired the NBA's premier defensive guard in 6-4 Dennis Johnson in a trade for just such matchups. They also had another physical, excellent defender in powerful and smart 6-3 Quinn Buckner off the bench.
The belated switch of the longer, taller and tenacious DJ onto his Laker namesake kept Earvin from getting easy looks over the defense and at the basket. The clever, experienced DJ made him work for everything, wore him down and openly frustrated him.
Much has been made of the McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis on the fast break in the second half of game four as the turning point of the series.
But revisionist history likes to make things simple and is also frequently wrong when seen through the lens of much time passed. Almost all the Lakers, so-called experts and fans to this day erroneously point to this “bullying” tactic as the switch that put Boston in control, and it has become accepted myth/fact that the rough play was what helped the Celtics win it all - and in no uncertain terms, thus in unfair fashion.
But of course no one play dictates such a topsy-turvy seven-game series that featured dozens of huge plays and momentum changes. Today's penchant for oversimplification to a single “key” and under-analysis, especially when it comes to basketball – think of all the relative OVER-analyzing done in football and baseball by observers - lends itself to this sort of stunted, easy categorizing.
But the DJ switch onto Earvin Johnson was the biggest tactical turning point of game four. The Laker guards on-court miscues may have been the biggest on court turning points, along with a couple big shots by Bird and a lost temper by the normally composed Jabbar.
People also forget that the physical, no-layup tone that McHale is usually blamed for inciting was already put in place by the Knicks and Hubie Brown in the eastern semifinals vs. Boston that spring.
After Boston blew away the outmanned Knicks in the first two games of that series, Brown instituted a no-layup rule to slow down the Celtics. Ernie Grunfeld took down McHale, Bernard King tried to start a fight with Kevin, and then a very ugly incident that made the Rambis takedown look almost tame in comparison took place.
Late in game six at New York, the Knicks trailed the series 3-2 but led the contest by 11 midway through the fourth period. Bird darted into the passing lanes and picked off a Knick pass, then rambled full-speed up the left side of the floor toward the basket with two NY guards in hot pursuit.
As Bird neared the hoop, Ray Williams came up on his left side and tried to grab him around the shoulders for a two-handed takedown. His hands slipped off Bird but Rory Sparrow, who was coming up hard on Bird's right, swung a hard forearm and elbow to the side of Larry's head as he went down.
The force of the collision sent Bird flying into the stanchion under the basket. A flagrant two-shot foul was called, and Sparrow was immediately ejected by referee Earl Strom as the Garden crowd howled.
Knick reserve Trent Tucker tried to restrain the protesting Sparrow, and then-New York assistant Rick Pitino helped escort him out. Bird sustained a cut to the back of his neck for his troubles, but never uttered a word of complaint or made any gestures or antics toward the offenders or the refs. He simply got up, sank both free throws and led Boston on a comeback that fell just short 106-104 as the fired-up Celtics finished the game on an 13-2 run.
They rode that anger and momentum into game seven and blew out the Knicks 121-104 as Bird turned in perhaps the best playoff performance of his career with a 39-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece. But the norm for very hard playoff fouls had already been set.
And most people forget or don't know that a few plays before McHale took down Rambis, Jabbar made multiple dangerous, physical plays that escalated the physicality. First he threw an elbow into Maxwell and knocked him down and out of bounds, with no foul called. Then very shortly after, Henderson reached in and stole the ball from Kareem, who threw an elbow toward the head of Gerald but missed as he ducked. Jabbar stood in the backcourt complaining and throwing his arms up and down angrily while Bird went up to shoot and instead found Parish, who had far outrun the lagging Jabbar, for a layup.
Then an angry Worthy found himself on the lane engaged in a loose ball tie-up on the floor, and threw several elbows around in a childish temper tantrum. Tempers were clearly close to erupting, but it was the Lakers doing the elbow throwing. In disingenuous fashion ever since, they have never admitted these incidents, preferring instead to play the fake victim role to curry sympathy, make excuses and distract followers from seeing the truth, that Boston simply beat LA.
But the McHale foul is what gets remembered as the supposed turning point. Ironically, when Rambis got up to go after McHale, Worthy shoved Rambis back over the photographers under the basket and Bird ended up pulling Kurt up. Moments later, Jabbar grabbed an offensive rebound and nailed Bird in the cheekbone with an intentional elbow via his backswing on the way down.
Bird grabbed his cheek to make sure it was still in place, shook his head and voiced his displeasure in close quarters to Jabbar, but without being physically threatening. An incredibly incensed Jabbar swore at Bird, nose to nose, with the F word clearly being used, and pointed and threw his finger toward him to punctuate his foul language.
Kareem had blown his cool, and pushed away BOTH REFEREES and a teammate who tried to restrain him as he backed away from the fray while Bird continued to calmly plead his case. Yet no technical was called. LA still held on to a close lead, but the mood had changed. Boston had become the hunted instead of the hunter, and would close the game on a 67-53 charge.
With 45 seconds to go, LA led 113-108. Things looked dim for the Celtics, but their desire carried them through. DJ drove the lane and missed. A tip by McHale missed. Parish grabbed the board and missed a baseline shot.
But the Chief grabbed his miss, and on their fourth try tossed in a short shot and was fouled with 39 seconds left. His clutch foul shot cut the deficit to 113-111 and the collective collars of the Lakers began tightening.
The hosts still had a chance to put it away, and Cooper dribbled away much of the clock before missing a 15-footer, with Johnson not touching the ball the entire possession. Parish rebounded but in a crowd under the basket jockeying for the rebound, Bird was clearly shoved in the back out of bounds and Jabbar was called for pushing off, a double-whammy for the Lakers.
For not only had they put the deadly Bird on the foul line for two potential tying free throws, Jabbar had fouled out, even though it was unclear in the mass of bodies under the hoop if Kareem, Rambis or Worthy had shoved Larry. At the other end, Bird stepped to the line with 16 ticks remaining for the two biggest foul shots of his NBA career to that point.
Because if Bird missed now, the league's premier pressure player would be seen as having choked. His first shot went straight in to bring the deficit to one. A nervous Larry set his feet and let the second shot fly. It hit the front, rimmed to the back and up into the air tantalizingly as Bird leaned forward to body English it in before backspin brought the ball back down through the net to tie it.
Again though, like in game two, LA still had a chance to win. And again Johnson flat-out choked. As he dribbled away 10 seconds with the ball near the right sideline in front of the Boston bench looking for Worthy, Parish fronted James over his right shoulder and picked off an errant Johnson pass with one hand to force overtime. Just like in game two late in OT, Parish had come up with a potential game-saving steal.
In the extra session, DJ hit a jumper and then made an incredible tip-in. Parish fouled out trying to block a Swen Nater shot. Worthy hit a tough baseline turnaround with Bird all over him, then made an off-balance three-point play in the lane to put LA up 123-121. Bird answered by posting up Cooper and scoring inside over the stopper to tie it with 1:20 left.
And then Johnson once again folded. With the score tied at 123, the Laker guard was fouled with 34 seconds left, but missed BOTH foul shots long. BOTH. Bird rebounded the second miss and Boston called timeout.
In the huddle, a rejuvenated Bird and the Celtics smelled Laker blood in the nearby Pacfic waters. Jones called a play for Bird, who muscled through a fallen Cooper in the lane which forced none other than Johnson to switch onto him in the mid-block area on the left side of the lane.
Bird wiped his right hand off on Sctt Wedman's towel on the bench right before he prepared to throw the ball in bounds, tipping off that he expected to shoot.
Larry aggressively called for the ball as he jockeyed for position before pinning his nemesis on his back. He took the pass, spun and lofted a clutch 13-foot fallaway that swished through the cords to give Boston the lead for good with 16 seconds left in OT.
Carr met Bird at the bench with a high-ten. LA was not yet done, but with Jabbar fouled out their anchor was gone. Worthy was fouled with 10 seconds to go and had a chance to tie, but bricked the first free throw well short as Maxwell raised both arms and gave the choke sign toward the booing Laker crowd while switching spots across the lane. Jabbar buried his face in his arms on the bench, unable to watch. Worthy bounced in the second shot.
DJ was fouled immediately and swished two clutch free throws to give him eight huge points in the extra session. Still, the Lakers had one last chance to tie with a three. They were down 127-124 and had the ball out of bounds at midcourt.
Puzzlingly, they chose Worthy to throw the pass in, and again he made a bad one. This time it was Carr who slammed the door on the Lakers. He suckered James into throwing over his head toward Johnson and “Not Yet Big Game James” floated an underthrown pass that wobbled toward midcourt.
Carr deflected it with both hands, chased the loose ball down and, flew in to the hoop ahead of the stunned Worthy and threw down an emphatic slam to put the finishing touches on the epic 129-125 OT win. Another huge steal on a Worthy pass. An excited Carr high-fived everyone in the vicinity after the final buzzer.
“I told you we'd be back, I told you,” yelled a jubilant Carr toward the taunting Laker fans and disbelievers into the CBS cameras as the happy Celtics left the floor. An angry Laker fan threw beer into Carr's eyes as he exited the floor, but he and Boston were just happy to be going back home tied 2-2 with the momentum now in their court.
Bird, despite an off-shooting night, scored 29 points and pulled down a series-best 21 rebounds.
And for the first time in the series, Parish played without fear against Jabbar, scoring 25 points and grabbing 12 caroms. DJ added 22 markers. Kareem scored 32 points and Worthy was unstoppable again inside with 30 points on 14-17 shooting. Johnson recorded a 20-11-17 triple-double, but made the two huge mistakes to again cost his team a chance at victory at the end of regulation and led to another overtime defeat.
Asked afterward if his teammates played like sissies in game four, Bird responded with a politically incorrect psychological ploy, stating “we can play a lot harder. We played like a bunch of women tonight.”
After winning two must-win tense, OT games with the aid of costly Johnson late-game errors, there was the growing sense now among players and fans that the Celtics were mentally and physically tougher and thus more able to win the close games.
LA had found a way to lose at home somehow despite shooting 59 percent. Twenty turnovers didn't help, nor did their comparatively poor foul shooting (Boston shot 84%, LA 64%). Plus the Celtics played with the desperate urgency of a team not wanting to fall behind 3-1, a deficit no team had ever overcome in the Finals to win.
Now is where the old 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format helped the Celtics. The next year under the new 2-3-2 format, it would cost them. But back home in the non-air conditioned, 59-year old Boston Garden, the Lakers would wilt under the 97-degree heat and humidity two days later.
With Jabbar gulping down oxygen from a mask and only Bird looking “fresh as a daisy” as Riley put it, the gasping Lakers managed to stay within 55-53 at the half. But then Boston and Larry legend took over in the second half.
The supposedly slow Bird drove by the Lakers for a three-point layup. He hit jumpers, putbacks, post-ups, three-pointers. He head-faked two flying Laker defenders off their feet, calmly re-positioned himself as the crowd screamed for him to shoot as the third period ran down, then drained a huge trifecta to give the Celtics an 88-77 lead as the heated Garden reached a frenzy pitch.
Bird then showed rare emotion by raising and holding his right arm straight up as he went to the Celtic bench, accepting high-fives along the way. In the fourth period Boston continued to pull away for a 121-103 blowout win, their first decisive victory of the series. Despite not having played that well the first three-plus games, the opportunistic Celtics now held a 3-2 lead.
Bird played probably the best Finals game of his 31-game championship series contests. Playing in what Riley called a steambath and Buckner termed a sauna, he shot 15 for 20 from the field, canned both three-pointers he shot, scored 34 points and pulled down 17 rebounds.
DJ had played well with 22 points and his strong defense on Johnson, but it was Bird's game, make no mistake. Jabbar, literally sucking wind, struggled to make only seven of 25 shots.
“The difference tonight was Mr. Bird,” said Riley, whose entire defense all series had been aimed at doubling and running at Larry in an attempt to disrupt and confuse the game's smartest player.
“Aw hell, I play in hotter weather back home in French Lick in the summer,” downplayed Bird.
Two days later in LA on a Sunday, the Celtics were poised to knock out the reeling Lakers. Boston carefully built a 65-59 halftime lead as the Forum crowd was now uneasy, expecting another Laker letdown vs. their arch-nemesis.
The Celtics led by 11 with 3:59 left in the third period before LA began to rally. Searching for answers, Riley dug into his bench and tabbed rookie Byron Scott, and the explosive 6-4 guard who shot much better at home than at the Garden came up with 11 big points to pace the comeback.
His steal and left-handed fast break reverse layup gave LA its first lead since early in the game 89-87 as they went on a decisive 18-3 run.
When Bird tied it at 93-all with a pretty left-handed reverse in traffic, Scott answered with a left corner trey that gave LA the lead for good midway through the fourth stanza. Jabbar then kept Boston at bay down the stretch with a barrage of hooks.
And another under-reported and little remembered incident happened where the Lakers answered the McHale clothesline. With Boston on a fast break midway through the first period up 17-16, DJ fed Maxwell in the middle of the lane with a behind the back feed as Cornbread steamed down the middle.
Just as Maxwell elevated for a layup, Worthy (whose idol growing up in North Carolina was none other than Maxwell, who led unheralded North Carolina-Charlotte to the 1977 Final Four) shoved him hard from behind with two hands into the side of the basket support and he rebounded off it onto the floor, very hard. Worthy then turned his back immediately after the push and walked away with no remorse as the Laker crowd cheered derisively at the retaliation move.
Max leaped up in anger after the cheap shot and was met by Rambis as both teams squared off for the umpteenth time in the series.
Bird clapped his hands near Maxwell to keep morale up. The Celtics were grizzled veterans of the physical wars in the rugged east as compared to the wide-open, run and gun-oriented west and thrived in such battles.
Boston used the shot as motivation to help them outscore LA by 10 points over the next two quarters, but faltered late to lose. Los Angeles outscored Boston 36-21 in the final period to win by 11.
More controversy arose the day after the late Laker comeback. A story broke in The Boston Globe that new NBA commissioner David Stern had told a fan that the NBA needed a seven-game series to make more money and have higher ratings, implying that game six was rigged for LA to win down the stretch after trailing much of the game.
When Bird heard this, he publicly questioned Stern's integrity.
“He's the commissioner and he shouldn't be saying anything like that,” said Bird in the June 11, 1984 article by Globe reporter Dan Shaughnessy. “The NBA wanted a seventh game because they wanted to make more money and they got their wish...Maybe he said it in jest. But I am trying to make a living and win a championship...When the commissioner makes a statement like that, you know it's going to be tough” (to win game six).
Stern refused to address Bird's comments directly, and when the commissioner was asked to comment his office reported that he was “unreachable.” But NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said Stern called Bird's comments “ridiculous. Like every fan he is looking forward to a game seven. It's a dream matchup and everybody has wanted to see a seven-game series from day one,” explained McIntyre.
Interestingly, when Henderson made a baseline-driving shot and apparent three-point play that would have pulled Boston within 99-97 with 4:52 left, he was called for a charge when clearly no contact had been initiated by the Celtic guard. LA continued on a 7-0 run to seal the verdict before Bird ended the spurt with a three-point play, ending a Boston drought of just two made field goals in almost 13 minutes.
Bird, who took only 11 official shots and made eight, added 12-13 foul shooting to pace Boston with 28 points. Larry added 14 boards and eight assists while Henderson netted a series-high 22 points and DJ contributed 20. But the Celtic bench added only 10 markers.
Jabbar bounced back from his game five disaster with 30 points and 10 caroms while Cooper added 23 markers. LA out-rebounded Boston 44-41. A frustrated Bird said afterward that the Celtics had missed their chance to finish it but still had the chance to go home and win it all.
“I thought we shoulda swep' 'em,” he told reporters, keeping up the air of supreme confidence for the press and his teammates even though most had tabbed them as serious underdogs.
Tuesday, June 12. The fourth game seven between Boston and LA, the third in Boston. Celtic record in the prior game seven's: 3-0. Margin of victory: 110-107 in OT in 1962, 95-93 in 1965 and 108-106 in 1969 at the Forum.
And after a long eight-month season and playoffs, it all came down to one game in the highest-rated NBA TV broadcast ever. Key seventh men for both teams, McAdoo and Wedman, were out with injuries. This was the biggest organized winner-take-all basketball game in America since, well, the 1979 NCAA title bout between Indiana State and Michigan State.
The teams battled to a 30-30 tie after one period. Boston edged in front 58-52 at the half before a raucous crowd. Then with Bird on the bench for a rare rest, the Celtics surged in front. It was if they wanted to do it for Larry, or maybe the Lakers were so designed on defense to contain Bird that they didn't know what to do in the few moments he was sitting on the pines.
Amid rumors that he was going to be let go as a free agent after the season, third-year guard Danny Ainge came up huge with 10 big points, including a pair of outside jumpers with Bird resting.
Maxwell used his array of unorthodox inside moves to score and draw fouls, some on fine post entry feeds from Bird, and made 14 of 17 foul shots en route to 24 points. DJ came up big. The inside offense of Jabbar and Worthy, with 29 and 21 points respectively, kept LA close.
With Larry cheering them on from the pines and waving his towel in M.L fashion, Boston pulled away to a 91-78 lead after three stanzas. The Garden scoreboard flashed “12 minutes until banner number 15” as the crowd roared. DJ reminded his celebrating teammates to get serious and into the huddle since the game was far from over. And he was very right.
The Celtics started to play a little tentative, milking the clock on their possessions. LA sensed an opening and Rambis kept a tip alive two times before LA put it back in. Maxwell missed some rare foul shots and the Lakers crept closer. They pulled within 105-102 in the final minute on a Worthy 14-footer in transition.
Bird went for the jugular but barely missed a foul line fadeaway when Jabbar switched out and made him arch it just an extra inch too long off the back iron. Johnson rushed upcourt and drove into the lane, but DJ picked him clean and rushed up the floor for what would be the clincher.
Meanwhile, Johnson had comically continued his move into the paint without the ball, hoping for a call but getting none while Boston raced the other direction.
But Cooper raced back, blocked his shot and LA got the ball back to Johnson. Again he forced penetration into the lane hoping for a gift foul, but the tall tandem of Parish and McHale each rose up and stuffed him simultaneously – while keeping their bodies away from Johnson, whose method of drawing cheap fouls was to throw his body into the defense, yell and fall down.
There was no foul this time either. Again DJ came up with the ball, drove hard and drew a foul. Johnson nailed two clutch foul shots to give him 22 points and a perfect 12-12 from the foul line. Interestingly, after K.C. switched Dennis onto Magic, DJ also picked up his offense and scored over 20 points in each of the last four games after starting the series slowly.
The guard who had shot 0-14 in game seven of the 1978 Finals as his Sonics lost a close battle and the title to the Bullets, then rebounded to win the playoff MVP the next year for Seattle, redeemed himself as a great pressure player again.
Back in the final moments LA missed, Bird rebounded and was fouled. After making the first foul shot, a drunk Celtic fan ran the length of the floor to congratulate Larry. Bird shook his hand, shook his hand and retreated almost to halfcourt to regain his concentration.
Bird stepped back to the charity stripe and cleanly made the shot again to make it 109-102 with less than 30 seconds to go. LA missed a long shot, Bird got the ball and refused to give it up, dribbling until he was fouled, and only then giving the sphere to DJ, who had been begging for the ball in front of the Celtic bench.
With the long-awaited title and revenge over his nemesis almost complete, Bird toed the line and nailed his seventh free throw in as many attempts. He turned away from the line, clapped his hands in self-congratulations as if to say “that's it” and looked up at the scoreboard above the parquet to make sure of the time and score.
Number 33 then went back to the stripe and hit his eighth consecutive foul shot to seal the verdict with under a half-minute to go, 111-102. Somehow a bunch of powder got thrown onto the floor, and play was stopped for several minutes, prolonging the Laker agony.
“Oh, does it hurt when you know it's not going to be your year,” said TV analyst and former Celtics great/coach Tom Heinsohn on CBS as the camera zoomed in on a beaten Earvin Johnson.
On the bench, Maxwell and Carr mocked Earvin Johnson's gun-type point and wink style of congratulating himself and teammates. Behind the Celtic locker room doors, they called him “Cheesy” for his fake smile. McHale called him “Tragic” after his lethal mistakes. DJ and Bird refused to join in the name-calling and finger-pointing, however.
Celtic players came onto the floor to tell excited fans, now ringing the aged parquet floor, to back up. Finally play resumed, and Cooper missed a trey, the ball bounded out and the buzzer sounded as hundreds of delirious fans dressed in summer gear stormed the court.
Bird and his teammates literally fought their way to the victorious locker room. A dazed Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes mistakenly started to enter the Celtic locker room after leaving the court, then exited quickly.
Once there, the reticent Bird was eventually interviewed by CBS announcer Brent Musburger and told him he had been named as series Most Valuable Player – adding that had the Lakers won, Larry would still likely have been the MVP.
Ever the curious reporter, Brent asked Larry if this epic win got him “even with Johnson after what happened all those years ago,” in college (only five years actually).
Bird, never letting his true emotions and feelings show publicly, ran his left hand through his blonde hair wet with sweat and beer. He answered evasively but tellingly, between the lines, “Well we don't talk about that, we're professionals now...but I won this one for Terre Haute.”
“You sure did,” said an admiring Musburger. “Thank you, Larry.” It wasn't apparent if he was thanking Bird for the interview, or for the performance he had given, or most likely, both.
Yet later on, deep into the night of celebration, Bird told his brief Indiana University 1974 teammate Buckner privately in reference to Johnson, “I got him. I got him.”
Lost in all the talk of the clothesline, the Henderson steal, the “Tragic” Johnson gaffes, the overtime classics, the game five steambath, Larry's quotes, the revenge hit in game 6 and another Celtic seventh game win over LA was another key to the series.
Jones at times utilized a huge lineup to counter-act the Laker size and to pound LA on the board, especially the offensive glass to limit their running game. Boston knew they would almost certainly win if it boiled down to a halfcourt game of execution and nerves, and needed to keep the Lakers from fast breaking.
So at times the Celtics used a lineup with the 6-4 DJ and the 6-8.5 Maxwell at guard, along with Bird, McHale and Parish. Max guarded Earvin Johnson some and frustrated him with his equal size and very long arms, and also took the defensively-challenged Johnson to the hoop inside at the other end for a team-high 24 points in the clutch.
Bird contributed 20 points and a dozen rebounds, while Parish scored 14 markers and yanked down 16 caroms. Boston won the key battle of the boards by a major 52-33 margin, paving the way to the win. 52-33. Their desire to win, symbolized by Bird's burning drive to beat Johnson, pulled them through. And a 25-point advantage at the foul line didn't hurt either, where Boston made a whopping 43 of 51. Some might wonder if this was in answer to the game six Laker turnaround and Stern's curious, ill-advised comments, but it was mostly the result of LA fouling too much.
Earvin Johnson scored 16 points but made only five of 14 shots from the field and committed seven costly turnovers, including two in a row in the final minute when the Lakers had rallied within three.
Worthy added 21 points but snared only four rebounds in 40 minutes. Rambis led LA in boards with nine despite playing just 26 minutes.
Bird averaged 27.4 points, 14 rebounds and 3.6 assists a game in the grueling series despite being barraged by the Laker defense throughout. He accepted every challenge they threw at him and kept coming, like Rocky, until he and the Celtics were the ones left standing, not the somehow-favored Lakers.
The Celtics, needing any advantage over the years to keep motivation high to win titles again and again, learned to always seek a new edge to beat back talented and hungry challengers, even if it made them look worse – like wearing black shoes which make players appear slower.
Or letting opponents complain about the lack of air conditioning and dead spots and bad showers and locker rooms at the Garden – things the Celtics also endured as tenants of building owned by the NHL Bruins.
Years later Parish was asked by long-time Knicks announcer John Andariese on his NBA TV show “Johnny Hoops” about how the leprechauns and the ghosts of Boston Garden affected the opposition and helped the Celtics win.
The Chief, stoic as ever, simply replied that it wasn't those things that won it; it was the players, he noted.
Not cold showers, hot gyms, dead spots, (things both teams endured), all the banners hanging from the rafters, nor referees, luck or cheap shots – those make for a good story, but it was the players who did it.
So when someone tells you the turning point of the 1984 Finals, probably the best championship series ever, was the hard McHale foul on Rambis, tell them the real truth, not over-simplified and false revisionist history, is a lot more complex than that.
It was all about the Celtic players; their heart, the skill, the will to not be beaten or told you can't do something, which won it, mostly embodied in Bird.
“Hang high another banner for the Boston Garden, the Celtics have done it,” summed up Musburger after the post-game celebration.
Cort Reynolds is a free-lance writer with 17 years of experience as a sports editor, newspaper editor, and sports writer. He also was a college sports information director at his alma mater for five years and is a lifelong player, student and historian of the game. You can contact him at email@example.com. He has recently written a long book of basketball history and the Bird Celtic dynasty focusing on the 1986-87 Celtics called “The Greatest Team That Should Have Been” that can be acquired by contacting him.