Larry Bird’s lesser-known great Eastern Conference title-clinching steal

By Cort Reynolds

A familiar scene: seconds to go in game five of the Eastern Conference finals at Boston Garden, game on the line. Larry Bird makes a great steal from an All-Star guard and the Celtics hold on for a dramatic two-point win over a fierce playoff rival, clinching the series.

Ah yes, you might recall, “The Steal” in 1987 vs. Detroit, right?

Sorry, wrong year and opponent but very similar result. While most fans remember Larry’s legendary last-gasp steal of the Isiah Thomas in-bounds pass and subsequent feed to Dennis Johnson for the winning layup in Game 5 of the 1987 ECF, far fewer remember his nearly as great, series-ending swipe in Game 5 two years earlier.

Game five in 1985 was the fourth and final ECF meeting of the decade between the Celtics and their fierce but aging eastern arch-nemesis, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lost amid the storied Laker-Celtic championship rivalry is the fact that the Boston-Philly enmity ran even deeper due to proximity, the amount of times the enemies played, the classic individual matchups and being in the same division.

The fierce foes had met in five straight titanic playoff series from 1965-69 then again in 1977, plus four more in the 1980s, every time but two with a trip to the Finals on the line. Five times the foes battled through a seven-game series, with Boston taking three and Philly two.

Overall, the Celtics won eight of their 10 memorably rugged series from 1965-85, and each victor advanced to the Finals, with the survivor winning the crown seven times. In fact, the only time Boston did not win the title after vanquishing Philadelphia in the playoffs was in 1985.

Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain
The 76ers lost to Portland after beating Boston in seven in 1977, and then to LA in 1980 (4-1) and 1982 (4-3), having little left for the rested Lakers after knocking off the Celtics. In 1967, they did defeat the Warriors in six to cop the elusive championship after ending the incredible record Boston eight-year run of NBA titles from 1959-66.

The 1960s rivalry was headline by Wilt vs. Russell, and in the mid-70s it was revived briefly with Dave Cowens, JoJo White and John Havlicek vs. Dr. J, Doug Collins and George McGinnis.

Then in 1980 the fierce rivalry was rekindled brighter than ever, with the Bird vs. Erving duel as the marquee matchup. Also on the playbill were fascinating undercards like McHale and Maxwell vs. Jones and Barkley, parish vs. Moses or Daryl Dawkins, and DJ and Nate Archibald vs. Toney and Mo Cheeks.

“It’s one of the best rivalries in sports,” said McHale.

“No two teams in professional team sports want each other’s throats like these two; this is definitely the ultimate,” said Erving. “We got probably more respect for the 76ers than any other team in the league, period,” offered Carr, also getting in a psychological jab at the Lakers.

In 1980 Philly took out an inexperienced Celtic team in the ECF, 4-1. Boston returned the favor by coming from 3-1 down to win arguably the best series ever in 1981, repeating their 1968 feat of three in a row over Philly.

In 1982 it looked like Boston would come from 1-3 down again to deny the 76ers, but Philly surprised most and took game seven in the Garden. In 1983, Philly swept to the title after Milwaukee ousted the Celtics.

In 1984 Boston came back to win title number two of the Bird era over LA without having to face the defending champion Sixers, who were upset by the Nets. The rivalry was still heated but after two years of no playoff showdowns while the 76ers aged, it had started to lose a tad bit of steam.

In 1985 the two ancient foes finally met again for the fourth and last time in the decade for the East crown. Boston was in its heyday and bulled its way to a closer than it looked 3-1 lead over the fading but proud Sixers of Dr. J, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks, Billy Cunningham…and Andrew Toney. Toney, a sharpshooting 6-2.5 guard, had earned the nickname the Boston Strangler after burning the Celtics in 1982 and 1983, prompting Red Auerbach to make a deal for defensive ace Dennis Johnson to combat Andrew as well as the likes of Sidney Moncrief and Earvin Johnson.

As the latest in a long line of 76er shooting guards who had tortured Boston from Hal Greer in the 1960s to Lloyd Free and Doug Collins in the 1970s on to Toney in the ‘80s, the Celtics had no answer for the quick, good-shooting guard who excelled in one on one play from Southwestern Louisiana.

Andrew Toney being guarded by Larry Bird
In the game 76er seven upset at Boston in the 1982 ECF, Toney had burned Boston for 34 points as the Celts tried M.L. Carr, Gerald Henderson, Danny Ainge, Chris Ford and even Bird to try and stop Toney, all in vain.

But in game five three years later, the Celtics had managed to slow Toney down, holding him to just 13 points on five of 12 shooting in 34 minutes.

The Celtics had won the first three games fairly convincingly, but an 11-point 76er win in game four behind 20 boards from rookie Charles Barkley not only staved off a sweep, it gave them renewed confidence.

Cedric Maxwell fanned the flames of the aged rivalry, saying of the impending fifth game, “I think it is probably going to be a mercy killing; they are ready to die.”

In game five at Boston, the fired-up and proud 76ers battled the hosts tooth and nail the whole way. The Celtics did not want to go back to Philadelphia for a sixth game and the game turned into another Boston vs. Philly classic, capped by a
dramatic fourth period.

Boston held a precarious 56-51 lead at halftime of the tense physical battle, and was ahead 81-77 after three stanzas after two consecutive baskets by Maurice Cheeks halved the 76er deficit. Bird banked in a lucky shot from the top of the key over defensive ace Bobby Jones to give the Celtics an 83-79 edge. But Philly tied on four straight free throws.

Danny Ainge put Boston back on top by two by swishing a left side 18-footer. Danny then turned the ball over on an ill-advised baseline pass, but Dennis Johnson made a great steal on the ensuing outlet pass, drove hard to the hoop and scored off the glass for an 87-83 lead.

Cheeks canned a pair of foul shots as the first eight Sixer points all came at the charity stripe in the final stanza. Parish snared an offensive rebound and converted a finger roll.

DJ then picked Toney clean as he tried to drive, but Boston didn’t capitalize. Erving drained a 14-footer yet Ainge answered with a 17-footer from the right side to make it 91-87 with 7:22 remaining. Toney made a foul shot off an illegal defense technical, but Bird popped open off a good Ainge screen and drilled a 19-footer from the circle. Cheeks responded by swishing a 19-footer from the left side to cut the margin to 93-90 and give him 26 points.

After a Celtic miss, Toney nailed a 14-foot pull-up in transition and the Celtic lead was a single point. Moses Malone tied it by hitting a foul shot but couldn’t put the 76ers in front as he missed the second one. Dr. J went for a steal and paid dearly for it as he missed the pass and over-ran Larry, leaving Bird open to knock down a 17-foot leaner from the center of the circle.

Eighth-year Philly head coach and Hall of Fame player Cunningham took Erving out, Ainge stole the ball and McHale splashed two foul shots for a 97-93 lead with 3:44 to go.

Next, Parish stole the ball but then lost a long lead pass out of bounds when Jones hustled back and knocked the pass off his fingers. Jones , the most ambidextrous forward not named Bird in the NBA, followed by banking in a pretty left-handed reverse layup at the 3:05 mark.

McHale split a pair of free tosses a minute later, and Ainge made another big steal off a bad 76er entry pass. Two clutch DJ foul shots with 1:40 to go gave Boston a 100-95 advantage.

“Plenty of time, plenty of time,” cautioned Cunningham to his team from the Sixer bench.

But rookie Barkley, aka Boy Gorge and the Round Mound of Rebound, took a gutsy trifecta from out top and drained it to get the 76ers back in contention down just two with 90 seconds left. DJ continued his clutch shooting by sizing up an open shot from the top of the key, launching it and getting a good bounce off the rim, glass and in for a 102-98 lead.

Back in the game, the 35-year old Dr. J showed he could still soar as he swooped to his right into the lane for a flying finger roll that also bounced off the front iron and glass before nestling in the hoop.

Boston was clinging to a 102-100 lead and went to fourth period ace Bird for the knockout punch. Larry, who was shooting just 6 of-16 thus far, fired an 18- footer from the right wing over Erving which was on line yet a tad short. The ball bounded up into the air and it appeared perennial rebound leader Malone or Barkley would gobble up the carom.

But the wiry Ainge then made one of the biggest plays of the night, one that didn’t show up by his name in the boxscore.

The 6-4 guard surprised Philly by crashing the offensive glass in pursuit of the miss, and the feisty Ainge ripped the ball from the bruising 6-10 Malone’s grasp.

The ricocheting ball then bounced out of bounds off the burly Barkley, giving Boston the ball again with a fresh shot clock and only 33 seconds remaining. Gang Green held the ball as the clock wound down, with DJ dribbling far out top while patiently waiting for Bird to pop out of a double stack near the baseline, closely guarded by Erving as Barkley provided help.

Bird eventually got the ball on the right wing with 15 seconds to go and drove past Erving to his left into the lane. The good Doctor gave Larry a serious grab as he neared the right elbow, but there was no call, not in that situation. The hold set Bird off enough to make him miss an indecisive, wrong-footed runner from roughly 11 feet out.

The shot was on line but short, and the precious loose ball bounced to Erving, who desperately raced out in transition but bumped into Toney before regaining possession. The 76ers looked disorganized yet still had a chance to tie or even
win on a trey as the Celtics scrambled back on defense.

Bird sprinted back after his potential game-clinching miss, displaying underrated speed at crunch time and determined to make up for his late misses. DJ picked up Erving near the left sideline just past halfcourt, so Erving passed the ball ahead to Toney in the deep left corner directly in front of the Philly bench.

Bird, aware of how dangerous Andrew was, switched and ran straight to the quick guard, pinning him in the corner as the clock wound down. Not only did Larry crowd him aggressively in a perfectly crouched defensive stance, he had cleverly positioned himself near the sideline and baseline for extra help. As Toney hesitated briefly and Cunningham contemplated a timeout, the tension rose as play continued since the Sixers felt Toney might take advantage of the slower but bigger Bird.

Yet before Toney could even make a move of any kind, Bird quickly snaked his left hand in at the ball, pried it loose and grabbed the loose sphere out of the air all in one incredibly fast motion.

Three seconds remained. Toney inexplicably ran away from Bird upcourt instead of fouling, seemingly intimidated or unaware of time and score. Or maybe giving up.

Larry Legend then crouched low, dribbled out two seconds as Barkley ran toward him and threw a crosscourt pass to Ainge as time expired.

Series over, 4-1.

Larry smiled broadly, put both arms in the air briefly, pumped both fists and clapped his hands in self-congratulation as he headed to the Garden tunnel. An excited Maxwell ran up to Bird and high-tenned Larry as a sullen Malone passed by silently in front of them. Carr high-fived him and so did backup guard Rick Carlisle in streetclothes.

DJ, who led all five Boston starters in double figures with 23 points, went over and shook Cunningham’s hand warmly as the rival teams descended toward the locker rooms. It would be the last game Billy C coached in the NBA. Main combatants Bird, Malone, McHale and Erving eschewed post-series handshakes as the Sixers dejectedly went to their locker room while Boston celebrated. Kevin stretched his long arms skyward, seemingly almost high enough to touch the banners above the parquet floor.

Afterwards, Bird was philosophical. “It’s never easy against Philadelphia; there’s no greater time I have had in basketball than going out and beating the 76ers.”

Years later at Larry’s retirement press conference, he pointed out that the 76er battles in the 1980s were the most bitterly fought rivalry games of his storied career, even bigger than LA since they played Philly much more often.

Thus in 1985, the Celtics, in their prime, evened their 1980s ECF series with the rival 76ers at two series wins apiece, with each team winning 12 games during their 24 meetings in 1980-81-82-85.

Ironically, another legendary analogue of legendary two-fers like Marry’s great steals also had its predecessor mostly forgotten. Almost everyone remembers the 16-foot turnaround buzzer beater Christian Laettner swished at the buzzer of the epic Duke/Kentucky elite eight overtime battle in 1992 that gave the Devils a 104-103 win. But two years earlier - the same time frame difference as Bird’s biggest steals - he did almost the same exact thing. In Laettner’s sophomore season, Duke trailed UConn 78-77 in the 1990 NCAA elite eight with just a few seconds left.

After a timeout Laettner threw the ball in from halfcourt, received a return pass, took a dribble and nailed a difficult hanging, double-pump jumper from the left elbow to send Duke to the Final Four for the second of four straight times in his great career with a 79-78 victory.

Those two legendary baskets made him the only man to ever hit TWO ELITE 8 BUZZER BEATERS, and he is the only one who will ever be able to lay claim to that distinction. Precious few people make one buzzer beater to make the Final Four, but two? That’s astronomically unlikely to even be in position to be the man to take two of those, let alone make them both.

Yet the same could be said for Bird in 1985 and 1987. Two game five steals in the waning seconds of the East Finals off an All-Star guard against a fierce rival.

Two game winners. Too unbelievable?

Few people recall the 1990 buzzer-beater that beat UConn, much like few remember Larry’s steal from Toney. Laettner’s shot over Kentucky and Bird’s steal against Thomas and Detroit in 1987 are simply so iconic they overshadow the other heroics.

Of course Larry and Laettner were teammates on the Original Dream Team in 1992, Bird’s last hurrah and Christian’s introduction to pro ball before his rookie season. Larry often looked out for the lone collegian on the superstar-studded Olympic squad, frequently sitting by the awestruck 22-year old on the bus. But that was Larry Bird – looking out for his teammates and simply a great all-around player. Known best as a great shooter and scorer, two of his most memorable plays were clutch defensive plays. If he didn’t beat you with his shooting, he did it with passing, rebounding, hustle, smarts or some other wondrous improvisation. Thus even on a bad-shooting night, Mr. Clutch found a way to beat even the best of teams in the most crucial situations.

Just ask Mr. Toney and the 76ers.