Taking the 4th: The Top Four Boston/LA Game 4 Playoff Showdowns
By Cort Reynolds
It may not have the same allure, glamour and lore of a seventh game playoff, but the fourth game quite often has been the very best contest in the 12 NBA Finals showdown series between the league’s two most storied franchises, the Celtics and the Lakers.
Boston leads their classic playoff series 9-3 and dominated it in the early years, winning the first eight meetings. Yet four of those initial eight title round matchups went the distance, with the Celtics winning by a combined total of seven points over the first three of those epic seventh contests.
Los Angeles finally broke through to beat Boston in 1985 and then got by an injury-decimated Celtic squad in 1987 before the rivalry took a 21-year championship series hiatus.
The rivalry was renewed in 2008, when Boston won its first title since 1986 in six after a great rally in game four. Two years later, the bitter foes hooked up again in a seven-game classic, with the Lakers again holding on to beat a Celtic club hampered by injury.
In nine of those 12 title series, the winner of the usually dramatic fourth game went on to take the championship, with the lone exceptions being in 1968, 1985 and 2010.
The two foes have played 74 Finals contests, with Boston holding a 43-31 edge in games. Boston possesses a 4-1 edge in seventh games, with the total combined points separating the two foes in those contests being plus 12 for the Celtics.
Let’s take an in-depth look at my four best fourth game classics between arguably North American pro sport’s greatest championship team rivalry, the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers.
#4) 1987: Boston held a 16-point lead in the second half at home and appeared headed to a 2-2 series tie despite injuries to five of its top eight players. But then fatigue set in due to starter overuse, along with bad luck and some downright outrageously bad calls by the officiating duo of Hugh Evans and Earl Strom.
In the third period, Evans blew an obvious goaltending by Jabbar on a McHale follow shot, and somehow missed the call so badly that he whistled McHALE for the infraction when Kareem had literally knocked the ball out of the net. Everyone in the Garden and on TV saw the obvious call except the two refs. In his autobiography “Calling the Shots” Strom later admitted they blew the call. But being the outside ref, he ceded the call to Evans.
As the Celtics grew more tired and played the clock, the Lakers sensed their weakness and turned up the heat to play more aggressively, fueling their rally.
Larry Bird made a trademark classic block shot from behind of a Byron Scott fast break drive, yet was called for a foul despite the block being clean. As chaos ensued, the Lakers played the victim card as Scott and AC Green took the opportunity to pick a fight with Kevin McHale.
Meanwhile in the middle of the melee Bird simply picked up the ball, strode calmly into the face of Evans at the foul line and stared him in the eye for several seconds. After silently expressing his disapproval at the bad call, Bird shook his head and walked away.
Another bad call for LA took place when Michael Cooper kicked a Celtic pass out of bounds yet a jump ball was whistled when neither ref saw the play for sure. On the jump ball, Ainge dove and recovered it near midcourt, but the refs (eager to avoid a third fracas in the wild game) called another held ball when in reality no Laker had tied him up. LA then won the ensuing jump ball, in effect a Boston turnover when a basket or even running of the clock would have likely won the game for the Celtics.
At the end of the first half, James Worthy was fouled hard by Dennis Johnson while going in for a fast break layup, and third string center Greg Kite also bumped the Laker forward slightly on his way down. Worthy came up swinging at Kite, yet was not ejected, even though Greg did not foul him. A toothless double technical was whistled instead to appease the Lakers.
In the second half, LA continued to whittle away at the big Celtic lead. A key play happened in the final minutes when Boston held a six-point edge but Parish had the ball wrestled away from him by Jabbar when he made the mistake of bringing the ball down to his waist.
LA sped out on a break but instead of driving in, Johnson threw a pass back to a trailing Cooper to trick the Celtic transition defense. Cooper, who killed Boston all series with dagger trifectas, took two steps back (traveling) behind the arc on the right wing as the Garden crowd gasped “nooo” in dismay, and had their worst fears realized when the Laker sixth man drilled a clutch trey that cut the lead in half.
After a tired Bird entry pass to the hobbled McHale sailed low and out of bounds, the Lakers took a 104-103 lead on an alley-oop dunk via a back screen. With under 30 seconds left, the Celtics appeared dead.
But then Bird came up big. With the Lakers playing a thinly-veiled zone, Boston patiently swung the ball from the right side of the court to the left side, where Larry Legend was literally being held by the jersey in the two-handed clutch of Worthy.
When Worthy ran out to contest Danny Ainge, he rifled a pass to Bird just as Larry retreated to the deep left corner in front of the LA bench, hands out and crouched perfectly to accept the pass in order to shoot quickly.
Mychal Thompson, the 6-10 Laker seventh man, flew out at Larry but was an instant too late. His flailing arm hit Bird’s hand after he let go, and the Laker bench could be seen screaming “noo!” when they saw Larry get the shot off.
Despite the protests from the LA pines, Larry’s triple went cleanly through the net to give Boston the lead back 106-104 and a likely 2-2 series tie.
“You’ve got some balls to take that shot,” said Strom to Bird after it went in.
With game five in the Garden as well, the Celtics looked to somehow be in decent position to miraculously win the series – even without Walton, Wedman and Len Bias, and with McHale valiantly playing on a broken foot and sprained ankle. Meanwhile Parish was playing on two multiply sprained ankles in the playoffs, and Ainge was coming off a sprained knee.
The Lakers predictably went to Jabbar for a sky hook, but Bird fouled him first. Kareem made the first free throw to cut the lead to one, but missed the second. McHale appeared in position for the rebound, but Thompson shoved him in the back and then knocked the ball out of his grasping hand out of bounds.
Evans was on the wrong side of the baseline to see the play and hesitated while Earvin Johnson tried to influence the call by jumping, clapping and pointing the Laker way. Usually if there is a question on such plays, the ball is typically awarded to the defense, or a jump ball at worst is called.
But Evans called the ball out to LA with seven seconds left. When it looked like the worst Boston could have come away with was a tie when Jabbar went to the line seconds earlier, now there was a chance they could lose on a late shot. All the breaks were going against Boston.
Bird yelled at Ainge to “don’t leave” Johnson but on a switch, McHale was forced onto the Laker guard along the left wing. Normally when healthy, the length, smarts and fine lateral movement of the 6-10 McHale could have negated Johnson.
But this time, knowing Kevin was hurt, Johnson quickly drove hard to his right into the lane. The 6-8.5 LA guard took two giant steps into the heart of the defense, then another as he leaped into the air (traveling again).
Parish came over to double him while Bird faked a double team and retreated to his man, expecting a pass. But Johnson launched a running hook over the Celtic duo and it went right in with two seconds left. Jabbar was in perfect position for a tip-in had it come off the rim to the left, while DJ desperately boxed out Worthy on the right side.
Yet Boston still had one last small chance. After advancing the ball to halfcourt following a timeout, they designed a play with Dennis throwing the ball in-bounds on the left side of the court. Bird set up on the same left side about 20 feet from DJ with his back to him, appearing ready to set a backscreen for McHale, who had made 10 of his 14 shots that game.
But Larry instead turned and took a hard step or two toward DJ, then retreated along the sideline in front of the Laker bench. Worthy bit on the fake while Dennis lofted a perfect pass over him into Bird’s left hand. Worthy desperately tried to recover and flew by number 33 as Larry used his momentum to come to a hard two-footed jump stop and let fly quickly from 23 feet.
In retrospect, he may have shot a tad too quickly. Although with the older non-tenths-showing clocks back then, the two seconds left on the clock may have been as many 2.9 seconds or as few as 1.1, with it likely leaning toward the latter. Or he could have head faked Worthy and easily caused body contact with him as he flew right by him in a mad rush.
But Bird got a clean look and it was right on line. After he let go, Larry sensed it may have been a tad long so he tried to body English the shot in by backing into the Laker bench. Under the hoop Jabbar’s shoulders slumped slightly as he seemed to expect the shot to go in. On the sidelines Riley crouched with both hands on his hips, as if playing defense.
The shot reached its apex and then headed straight down toward the circle of iron. It still looked good, but then it kept sailing a half inch too long and hit the far side of the rim.
As the buzzer sounded the ball rebounded up into the air, and on TV it was impossible to tell the angle. Might it fall back in the basket at the buzzer to give Boston the most dramatic of wins in the biggest contest of the rubber game of their titanic Finals showdowns?
No, the ball bounced back toward Bird and fell harmlessly to the parquet. The Lakers, knowing they got away with one in many ways, celebrated and ran off the court with arms in the air, almost in disbelief. The buzzer grated on for several seconds, the scoreboard operator likely in stunned despair.
“I thought it was in,” Bird would say later. “I looked at Riley as if to say, how could you leave me so open?”
Bird never changed expression or made excuses, though, despite being surrounded by excited Lakers. He wiped his face briefly and made the long walk toward the Boston locker room, knowing they had let this one get away and that down 3-1 and grossly short-handed, the Celtics were in deep, deep, trouble.
A policeman briefly touched Bird’s side while the LA team doctor, a Massachusetts native, looked into Bird’s face as if to see some emotion, but Bird would not allow it. Dozens of fans stayed in their seats after the loss, dazed and unable to comprehend how it happened.
Their beloved Celtics had lost only four home games in the Garden over the previous to seasons, and rarely if ever had they lost such a big lead at the most crucial time.
An angry Boston came out firing in game five and blew out the Lakers in game five. But back in LA for game six, the Lakers rallied from a halftime deficit with a 30-12 third period blitz over beleaguered Boston and went on to claim the crown. The Celtics had played 23 games that post-season as a weary Bird ground his way through a record 1,015 post-season minutes. On the left coast, rested and healthy LA played five less games as they faced two sub-.500 teams and one 42-40 squad in reaching the Finals, where they had eight days off after sweeping an upstart 39-43 Seattle squad in the Western Finals.
Meanwhile, the Celtics were enduring a seven-game bloodbath with the Bad Boy Pistons played in a mere 12-day span (imagine that today?) in the ECF, yet made no excuses despite all the injuries, grueling back to back seven-game series with the Bucks and Detroit in just 26 days, and the bad calls.
They were true champions.
But if one thing or one call had gone differently in Boston’s favor down the stretch of game four, it might have been a different outcome, which would have given the Celtics a fourth title in seven years, one more than the Lakers in the decade to that point.
Somehow a limping McHale led Boston with 25 points and 13 rebounds despite his painful broken foot, an injury he still suffers with to this day. Ainge fired in 23 points, Bird tallied 21 with 10 boards, Parish scored 18 and DJ contributed 15 with 14 assists. But the under-used Celtic bench scored just four points as the Boston starters averaged 43 minutes each.
Johnson topped LA with 29 points, including the biggest basket of his career, and Worthy added 21.
An incensed Red Auerbach chased Strom toward the referee locker room after the game, calling it the worst-officiated game he had ever seen.
Somehow in the Garden, with LA clawing to come back behind aggressive pressure defense, the Lakers had shot 14 free throws in the fourth period to outscore the Celtics 29-21, while Boston shot just one foul shot.
#3) 1985: For the second year in a row, Boston found itself down 2-1 and playing a near must-win game four in a hostile Fabulous Forum at Los Angeles. After all, a team has never rallied from a 1-3 deficit to win an NBA Finals series. And only the 1966 Lakers had even been able to force a seventh game once down 1-3, and that time they lost to the Celtics in seven.
In a battle of haymakers being thrown throughout, LA held a 90-83 lead in the third period when Bird took over with one of the greatest three-minute spans of all-around play ever seen in a championship series contest.
First he blocked a jump shot by Bob McAdoo, then went to the floor to grab the loose ball and force a jump ball, which he won. “He is getting that mean look,” observed CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn of Bird.
At the other end, he sprung open on the right wing and drained a high-arching 22-footer.
Larry then suckered Jabbar into passing the ball to a cutting Johnson in the lane and then stole the pass. At the other end, Bird hustled into rebounding position, grabbed a teammate’s miss and tossed it back in with his left hand while being fouled. He completed the three-point play.
After an LA miss, Bird drove left into the lane and swished a gorgeous scoop shot but it was waved off by a Laker illegal defense technical. Bird drilled the foul shot, then snared another offensive board. But his overhead reverse layup try rolled in and out.
At the other end he ran back to cover Jabbar, and after taking a forearm to the back of the head from the frustrated Laker center, deflected his kick-out pass to a teammate. Bird later ran out on the break, caught a pass on the left wing and collected himself before swishing a 20-foot jumper.
His incredible flurry of eight points had gotten Boston back in the game when it was teetering on the edge of near-elimination. In that almost-perfect span he cleanly drained two long jumpers, made a three-point putback with his off hand, stole two passes from Jabbar, canned two free throws, blocked a shot and narrowly missed another reverse no-look stickback.
The much-needed spurt woke Boston up and spearheaded them into a late lead. With the Laker defense keying on him, Bird assisted Ainge on two long, late crucial jumpers as the shot clock ticked down to give the Celtics a 105-103 lead.
Jabbar then missed a long right baseline hook but Earvin Johnson emerged from a crowd with the rebound and made his only basket of the fourth period on a short putback to tie it in the final seconds.
Boston set up a last play for Bird to walk through a double screen along the baseline and curl toward the foul line while DJ dribbled out top. Bird caught the pass from Dennis and penetrated the circle but drew a double team.
Calmly, he split the double and avoided an attempted swipe at a steal by the doubling Earvin Johnson, then made him pay by passing out to DJ, 20 feet from the basket. A wide-open DJ stepped into the shot and let fly, and it swished cleanly through the net just before the buzzer to tie the series, 2-2.
Bird and the Celtics celebrated wildly at midcourt in front of the stunned Forum crowd, but they may have expended too much emotion. In addition, it was the first year the NBA had instituted the 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals, so LA would have the next game at home to help recover.
A year earlier Boston won an overtime thriller in LA to knot the series 2-2, then went back to the Garden to take control of the series with a 121-103 pounding of the Lakers in the heat game, where Bird shot 15-20, scored 34 points and yanked down 17 rebounds. The wins catapulted Boston to the title.
Yet in 1985, LA was able to stay home for game five, lick their wounds and win a classic battle, setting them up for their first championship over Boston in nine tries.
But in the epic fourth game Boston victory, McHale scored 28 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. DJ tallied 27 and dished out a dozen assists while Bird added 26 points, 11 boards and five assists with three steals. Johnson paced six Lakers in double figures with 20 points, 12 assists and 11 caroms.
#2) 1969: For the first time in their rivalry, the Lakers enjoyed the homecourt advantage in the Finals. They had added Wilt Chamberlain in an off-season trade to go with superstars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, and were the favorites to win it after the aging Celtics squeaked into the final playoff spot in the East at 48-34.
LA rolled to wins in the first two games at the Forum, and Boston stayed in contention by taking game three back home. The creaky Celtics were led by a young John Havlicek while greats Bill Russell and Sam Jones, each in their mid-30s, enjoyed their final seasons.
Perhaps both teams were feeling the pressure that April 29 as the first quarter score was just 16-15. Boston eased in front 49-41 by halftime, yet the Lakers clawed back in it with a 29-18 third quarter to take a 70-67 edge. If they could win game four, they would almost certainly win the series and their first championship, with games five and seven, if necessary, at home.
The Lakers clung to an 88-87 lead in the final seconds and Boston missed a potential winning shot. As the ball caromed toward the sidelines, all LA had to do was corral the rebound. But as Baylor attempted to save the ball back in bounds to run the clock out, the all-time great forward stepped on the sideline to give Boston one last chance, stopping the clock.
The Celtics ran a double screen for clutch shooter Sam Jones near the top of the key. The bank-shooting expert caught the ball in an awkward position and immediately lofted a shot from 19 feet away off one foot, and his wrong foot to boot.
The attempt hit the front rim and bounced toward the backboard as Celtic forward Bailey Howell soared up for a possible tip-in at the buzzer. But he pulled his hands back and the ball nestled into the basket to give Boston a series-saving 89-88 miracle win.
West led all scorers with 40 points on 15 baskets and perfect 10-10 foul shooting. But Baylor scored a mere five points on two field goals and 1-6 foul shooting, while Wilt tallied just eight points and missed nine of his 11 foul shots. The incredibly bad combined 3-17 foul shooting by the two stars certainly played a major role in the Laker loss.
Hondo topped Boston with 21 points and college pal Larry Siegfried contributed 20. Jones and Howell each added 16 while Russell was held to six.
Both teams held serve at home in games five and six. At the Forum in game seven, the Celtics improbably reversed the trend of the host winning each contest as they pulled off a 108-106 road upset with the aid of Don Nelson’s 16-footer that bounced high off the rim and in the final minutes.
West became the first and only player in NBA history to earn Finals MVP in a losing cause. He posted a 42-12-13 triple double in the finale despite a strained hamstring, and after Wilt benched himself in the final moments with a jammed knee, Jerry led a Lakers rally from a 91-76 deficit within one.
When Chamberlain asked back into the game, coach Butch Van Breda Kolff refused, saying the Lakers were playing better with former Celtic Mel Counts playing in his spot. Yet Russell blocked a Counts reverse layup in the final minute to help preserve the victory in his swansong.
Havlicek led Boston with 26 points while Jones netted 24 in his final game. In nine career seventh games, the clutch Jones averaged 27 points and never lost once.
“Sam is the real Mr. Clutch,” crowed Russell, who later publicly criticized Wilt heavily for taking himself out of the final game. “Anything less than a broken leg in that situation isn’t enough,” he observed, straining their friendship for years.
Baylor scored 20 and Wilt added 18 despite making just four of 13 from the charity stripe. Russell netted six in his final game.
Boston’s 11th crown in 13 years was made even sweeter as the Celtics beat their three biggest rivals to win the playoffs: they beat the 76ers 4-1 in the first round, knocked off the rising Knicks 4-2 in the Eastern finals, and upset the Lakers 4-3 in the Finals, to send Russell and Sam out in grand style.
#1) 1984: After blowing out Boston in game three, the Lakers led the series 2-1 and felt they should have been up 3-0, going for a sweep. Bird challenged his teammates’ heart publicly after LA celebrated openly at Gang Green’s expense during their 137-104 layup and dunk fest.
In game four with its backs against the proverbial wall, Boston answered Bird’s call to battle. LA came out strong and led 68-58 at the half, but the determined Celtics began to close the gap in the crucial third quarter as they outscored the Lakers 30-22.
In this physical game, elbows by Jabbar and Worthy preceded the notorious McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis on a fast break in that momentum-changing period.
However, it was the puzzlingly long-delayed switch of long-armed 6-4 defensive standout of Dennis Johnson onto Earvin Johnson in place of the quick but woefully undersized 6-1, 175-pound Gerald Henderson that really changed the course of the series, not the hard foul by McHale, as lazy revisionist history has often suggested.
Moments later, Jabbar caught Bird with an elbow to the face on the backswing of a rebound, and the two superstar number 33’s jawed nose to nose with Kareem clearing losing his poise.
Playing with fire fueled by anger and desperation, the Celtics hung close despite the incredibly hostile atmosphere as most of the 17,505 on hand rooted lustily for the hometown team.
The Lakers led by five in the final minute when Parish grabbed his own miss and made a layup while being fouled to cut the deficit to two. Suddenly, the Celtics were alive and LA felt the pressure.
At the other end as Bird went to rebound a McAdoo miss, an overheated Jabbar pushed him out of bounds in the back and was whistled for his sixth foul.
With 16 seconds left, Bird stepped to the foul line for two huge free throws. After making the first shot, his second toss rimmed around before falling through to tie it up, 113-all.
At the other end, Johnson picked up his dribble along the right sideline in front of the Boston bench, trying to pass into Worthy. But his belated pass to James was telegraphed and easily picked off by Parish in the final seconds to send the game to overtime.
With Jabbar out, Boston had the edge. Late in the tense OT, Earvin Johnson was fouled with the score tied. He choked both shots and Bird rebounded the second miss as the Celtics called timeout. Sensing blood, Boston worked to get the ball to Bird, who moved furiously without the ball to get the leather as defensive ace Cooper fell to the floor trying to contain him.
When his nemesis Johnson switched onto him Larry caught a pass in the mid-post area, turned and swished a perfect 13-foot fallaway right over him to give Boston a 125-123 lead in the final minute.
Worthy badly missed one of two foul shots at the other end as his boyhood idol growing up in North Carolina, UNC-Charlotte standout Cedric Maxwell, gave the choke sign to a booing crowd. DJ was fouled and canned two clutch foul shots, yet LA had one last chance from halfcourt to tie on a trey, down just three.
But M.L. Carr anticipated the in-bounds pass that floated out toward halfcourt, batted it into the backcourt and picked up the loose ball. He swooped toward the basket past the stunned Lakers and slammed home an emphatic dunk (and the door) on the purple and gold to put the finishing touches on an epic 129-125 OT triumph that knotted the series while putting Uncle Mo clearly in Boston’s court
Ironically, a year before at LA in a regular season game Carr had made almost the exact same steal near halfcourt to preserve a Boston win on the road. In 1984 after the much-bigger Finals win, he thrust his arms into the air after the clinching slammer and yelled “I told you we’d be back, we’ll be back” into the CBS TV cameras, as the victory ensured Boston’s return to Laker-land for a sixth game that so many doubters had predicted would not even be needed.
The thrilling comeback win propelled Boston to a seven-game series triumph, their eighth win in as many tries over the rival Lakers in the Finals.
Bird topped Boston with 29 points and a whopping 21 rebounds in 49 grueling minutes. DJ played 50 of a possible 53 minutes and scored 22 while dishing out 14 assists. Parish tallied 25 points and grabbed a dozen rebounds.
Jabbar scored 32 points before fouling out, while Worthy netted 30 on 14-17 shooting accuracy, most from close range. Johnson scored 20 and was credited with 17 assists, but missed the two crucial foul shots and made the costly turnover at the end of regulation, reminiscent of his inexplicable dribbling out the clock mishap at the end of game two.
After arguably the greatest Finals in NBA history was over, Carr said, “We went through the toughest of the tough, we beat the Lakers; nobody, nobody but us thought we could win it,” said Carr later.
When asked during the locker room celebration if the win got him even with Johnson for the loss to Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA finals, series MVP Bird slyly offered, “I don’t think about that, we’re professionals now…but I won this one for Terre Haute” (home of Indiana State).
But the epic win would not have been possible without for the clutch game four victory. The uber-dramatic contest had it all: huge plays by superstars, clutch backs to the wall basketball, passion, arguments, anger and violence, controversy, tragic gaffes and a spectacular late play by an overlooked supporting actor that capped a surprising denouement.
And that is what narrowly makes it the best fourth game of all in the storied Boston/LA championship series rivalry.
Special mention: 2008-Boston 97, LA 91 (Celtics rally from 21-point first period deficit to win on the road behind 57-33 2nd half flurry as Bryant shoots just 6 of 19 from the field). Boston took a 3-1 lead and went on to win in six games.
Honorable mention: 2010-Boston 96, LA 89 (Paul Pierce leads six Celtics in double figures with 19 points while Kobe Bryant scores 33). Boston outscored LA 36-27 in the final period to pull off the win and tie the series, 2-2. LA won in seven, however.
1966-Boston 122, LA 117 (West 45 points, Havlicek 32, Russell 25) as Celtics grab 3-1 lead en route to 4-3 series win.
1963-Boston 108, LA 105 (Heinsohn 35 points, Baylor 31) as Celtics take 3-1 lead en route to 4-2 series win. Lakers rally from 15-point deficit in fourth period but come up just short.
1959-Boston 118, Minneapolis 113 (Bill Sharman 29 points) as Boston sweeps Lakers in their first-ever championship round meeting.