Larry Bird's Top 10 NBA Finals Performances: Part 1
Over the next couple days Cort Reynolds will take a look at the top NBA Finals performances by Larry Bird. Presented here are numbers 10-6. Stay tuned for the final five.
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.
Bird played in 31 championship series games over five series, leading the Celtics to three crowns and a 16-15 overall record. Other than the 1984 seven-game classic over the Lakers, the other four Finals he played in all went six contests, with two being injury-plagued losses to the hated Los Angelenos.
With all due respect to Duncan, the talk of him being a top 10 player all time is just not valid. San Antonio has never beaten a great or even very good team in the Finals during its four trips previous to 2013. And the NBA is severely watered down now compared to the far superior teams that roamed the hardwoods in the 1980s and early '90s.
SA beat an eighth-seeded Knick team 4-1 in 1999, whipped a mediocre Net squad 4-2 in 2003, and swept a really weak Cleveland team in 2007 (4-0). Those three teams are among the worst to ever represent the East in a Finals, along with the 2001 76ers.
In the Bird era, Boston had to beat great teams like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and later Detroit just to REACH the Finals, before usually facing a healthier and rested Laker team.
The only truly good team the Spurs beat in a title series was the 2005 Detroit Piston squad, but that was not a great team, merely a very good one dominating a weak East in an expansion-diluted era. Their guards were quite good but Tayshaun Prince was not a quality starter on a title-caliber team, and center Ben Wallace was offensively-challenged, to say the least.
One could argue that the Spurs would not have won a title in the decade of the 1980s nor the early '90s, or one at most.
They were not as good as any of the Celtic, Laker of 76er teams that won nine of the 10 rings in that star-studded decade. Only the 1989 Pistons might have fallen to the Spurs, and even they were very likely superior.
In addition, Duncan has not faced many or any good big men in his Finals forays. Had he played in the 1980s, he would have faced off against a host of Hall of Fame big men (Jabbar, Malone, Lanier, Gilmore, Cowens, Walton, Unseld, Hayes, Olajuwon, Parish, Ewing) and other All-Stars like Jack Sikma, Alvan Adams, Bill Laimbeer or even Bill Cartwright, any of whom could and most likely would have negated or outplayed him.
For Duncan has always struggled against good players of size, particularly Kevin Garnett and Shaq. His mechanincal, methodical moves are slow to develop, he doesn't jump overly well, and he just doesn't play with the passion or intensity of the greatest players.
He really doesn't have that many post moves, and his signature play is a simple left-side bank shot. Kevin McHale and Olajuwon possessed far more inside game, better footwork and imagination or creativity. But a lack of quality big man competition aided his romp to four rings so far. Duncan never even had to face one of the best center defenders of his early career in athletic 7-1 David Robinson since they were teammates!
Plus Timmy has long been a mediocre foul shooter, and not overly clutch. However, since he is a very fine player with four rings and behaves well, he gets a pass as a "nice guy."
Anyway, I digress. This is about Larry Bird's best Finals games. With the defenses always geared up to stop him and Larry not benefiting from a big size and reach advantage a la Jabbar, Duncan and Earvin Johnson, Bird occasionally suffered through some scoring struggles, by his lofty standards, in a few Finals contests.
But what set him apart was his ability to beat you in other ways if his shot wasn't as deadly as usual. Larry could beat you with rebounds (21 in game one of the 1981 Finals, a series where he averaged 15.8 caroms an outing, and 21 again in game 4 in 1984), great passing, tremendous shooting from all angles and the foul line, sheer scoring creativity, and just incredible smarts and will/determination.
Someone like Duncan, who is strictly a low-post player without shooting range and doesn't possess a basketball IQ, the intensity and passing skills anywhere near Bird's level, can't even begin to beat you as many ways as Larry Legend could, and did.
10) Game 4, 1984 Finals. Shooting-wise, Larry did not enjoy one of his best games, going just nine for 24 from the floor. But he did convert all 10 of his foul shots and one of three from three-point land for 29 points, and his last shot was arguably the biggest single basket of his Finals career.
With the game knotted 123-123 in a tense overtime battle after Earvin Johnson bloew a pair of foul shots, Bird rebounded. At the other end he moved furiously without the ball, leaving a fallen Michael Cooper in his wake. Johnson picked up Bird on a switch, and the hungry Larry sensed the perfect opportunity to burn his nemesis.
Bird took Johnson into the mid-post area, called for the ball and then swished a perfect 13-foot fallaway over a helpless Johnson to give Boston the lead for good. Their dramatic 129-125 OT road win tied the series 2-2 and was the turning point in the 4-3 Celtic series victory, a Finals many (including me) think was the best ever.
Oh, and Bird also pulled down a series-best 21 rebounds, nine more than any player on either team, in 49 grueling minutes of play. At 6-9 in a series featuring several taller or as tall players and better leapers, that displays his sheer determination and great positioning.
9) Game 1, 1987 Finals. Even though the Celtics were beaten 126-113, Bird turned in one of the best shooting nights of his Finals career. Larry sank 14 of 25 shots from the floor and all four of his free throws for 32 points, the second-most of his championship series tapestry. In one stretch, he made 11 consecutive shots in a desperate yet ultimately futile attempt to keep his weary and beaten-up Boston mates in the game. Bird added seven rebounds, six assists and a steal in the defeat.
8) Game 3, 1987 Finals. With the injury-plagued Celtics down 2-0 to a younger and healthy LA hungry to regain the title from Boston, much of the media talk surrounding the series was not of a possible Celtic comeback but of a potential Laker sweep. But Celtic pride would not allow such a thing, especially on the hallowed parquet.
Bird began the crucial contest by missing his first six shots from the field, as well as his first foul shot, as LA ran out to an early lead of 29-22.
But then Larry warmed up in the second period, drilling his next six shots. After the slow start he canned 10 for 18 from the floor and 10-10 at the foul line for 30 points. He also yanked down a game-high dozen rebounds and pased out four assists as the Celtics, with a career game from unlikely hero Greg Kite, stayed alive with a must-have 109-103 victory.
|Larry Bird in the 1986 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets|
With Houston right on their heels in the final minutes, K.C. Jones inserted sixth man Bill Walton into the game at a key time. The big redhead converted a huge offensive rebound reverse layup to make him a perfect 5-5 shooting on the game.
But perhaps his biggest play came when he attracted a double team and tossed a perfectly timed one-handed pass to Bird spotting up behind the three-point line on the wing. An open Larry launched a clinching trey that swished through the nets so perfectly that it barely rippled the nets.
As he had done five years earlier at the same half of the Summit floor, Bird hit a backbreaking triple at Houston to put away the Rockets. He loved to shut up a visiting crowd with a big shot, and his dagger three gave Boston a 106-103 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead, paving the way to their 16th banner days later.
Larry scored 21 points on nine of 17 shooting to help lead a balanced Boston attack. With his superb court vision, he dished out a game-high 10 assists and also grabbed nine rebounds to just miss a triple-double.
6) Game 2, 1986 Finals. In a 117-95 whipping of the Rockets at Boston, Bird put on a magnificent all-around display. All Larry did was drain 12 of 19 shots from the field, splash three of five beyond the arc, and can all four of his foul shots for a game-high 31 points.
Bird also grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists, made four steals and blocked a pair of shots. In perhaps his best pass, he faked a behind the back dish to completely fool the rotating Rocket defense, then whipped a pass to an open Jerry Sichting for a baseline jumper.
Another time he faked an open three-pointer, and in the same motion tossed a perfect alley-oop to Robert Parish for an easy basket.
Boston crushed Houston 63-39 over the middle quarters to break open a close game against his former coach and future Hall of Fame co-presenter, Bill Fitch.