If the definition of a great game is one that is decided in the last seconds by a great play, being made by a great player, under near impossible odds, then few games rival the legendary Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. A conference championship that many felt would signal the changing of the guard, the series was between the young and upcoming Detroit Pistons and the battle weary, aging Boston Celtics. Packed into the last seconds of the game were moments that offered every possible thrill that a basketball fan can hope to experience in the course of a game.
For every Celtics fan and for many fans of the game itself, it easily ranks among the greatest playoff victories ever. There are few playoff games in the annals of NBA Playoff history that compare when it comes to the range of emotions evoked by the events that led to an improbable Celtic victory. Before the end, the fans of both teams took a ride from the heights of euphoria to the depths of despair with little pause to savor or dwell on the experiences until the game was finally over.
Being down by a point with possession of the ball and winning a game with the final shot as time runs out is a always a special moment for basketball players and fans alike. Winning a game when you're down by one with 3 seconds remaining and you don't have the basketball... well that's the kind of win that dreams are made of. These are often the games that forever have a special place in NBA history.
It is said that if you want to see the best of a basketball game you only need to see the last 2 minutes. Fans of the game know better. Great plays by the teams and players take place from start to finish. Great athletic moves that are thrilling to watch can happen at any time. These moments are exciting regardless of the score. The back and forth of momentum, the hits and misses and possession changes makes for a fast paced ebb and flow during a game. Big leads can disappear fast. Close games are always thrilling and the last two minutes is where the myth is founded.
In a close game, the last minute can be both exciting and excruciating, with all the emotional highs and lows that can take place. Big plays and even bigger mistakes are always possible and leads can change quickly... and often several times. In a short span of game time that often takes forever to be played out in real time, there is often a collection of great plays and memorable moments that can happen in quick succession.
In the game between the Celtics and the Pistons, the combination of a great player's instinct and another great player's poor judgment; a great play and a terrible pass; experienced veteran moves and some rookie mistakes, set the stage for what has to be one of the greatest last second victories in NBA playoff history
Down by 1 point and with the ball in their hands, the Celtics needed a basket to avoid going back to Detroit down 3 games to 2 to the upstart Pistons. During a timeout they setup a play to try for a last second shot. The ball was inbounded and the play went off as hoped except for one thing. Bird's shot rolled off the rim and was batted around before going out of bounds off the Celtics at their end of the court. Under the circumstances the game was obviously over... it was Detroit's ball and game. All they had to do was call a time out. They could then inbound the ball at half court and the game was theirs. It's something a High School player knows to do. It's fundamental. But sometimes even pros forget what they learned in school.
Everyone watching knew the game was over; everyone who knew anything about basketball knew there was no hope; everyone on the Celtics team and in the Boston garden hung their heads and felt the pain of a heartbreaking defeat; Everyone except Larry Bird.
Dennis Johnson later remarked that even though he knew it was over, after years of playing beside Bird he knew another thing, the game was never really over until Bird said so. He had shared too many improbable victories with Larry Bird to hang his head until the final buzzer sounded.
Knowing there was still time... which meant there was still hope, Larry Bird never took his eyes off the basketball and DJ never took his eyes off Bird
The ref signaled that the ball was to be inbounded at the far of the sideline near the baseline at the Celtics end of the court. The ref ran to the sideline and signaled to Isiah Thomas to take the ball.
The Detroit bench and players were cheering wildly. Pistons Coach Chuck Daly frantically signaled for his team to call time out, but his signal was ignored in the frenzy.
Rookie forward Dennis Rodman, convinced the game was over, was running along the sidelines with his arms raised taunting the Boston crowd that had fallen deathly quiet, paying no attention to the rest of the players on the floor.
Bill Laimbeer stood at the baseline just short of the Celtics basket alone while DJ was at the top of the key guarded by one lone defender.
Larry Bird, watching the ref hand the ball to Isiah Thomas, crouched slightly and hid from Isiah's line of sight behind the ref. He seemed to sense what was going to happen before anyone else. Rather than call the timeout, as everyone expected he would, Isiah quickly passed the ball towards what he saw as a wide open Bill Laimbeer. But Laimbeer, instead of coming to the ball as he should, was backing away from the ball as it came toward him.
Once the ball was passed, Bird slashed between Laimbeer and stole the ball out of Laimbeer's outstretched hands. With his feet barely in bounds and his momentum ready to carry him out of bounds... he turned to look for help.
When DJ saw Bird make his move, he made one of his own. Getting between the man guarding him and Bird, DJ headed for the basket. Bird turned and fired a perfect pass right to the cutting DJ. In one superb move that wasted no effort DJ caught it and laid the ball into the basket with 1 second left on the clock. Before anyone even knew what had happened the scoreboard changed. The Celtics had taken the lead by one.
The Boston Garden crowd erupted into raucous bedlam that threatened to bring the old building down around the crowd as they roared and stomped their feet as few crowds have ever done. Bird and DJ embraced under the basket in a moment captured by photographers that remains symbolic of the bond between two great athletes who shared a unique connection as teammates. Always knowing what the other was thinking and about to do before it happened.
The Pistons were shocked and confused and the incredible look of despair and disbelief on their faces is still vivid in my mind today. They finally called the timeout they should have called when the ball went out of bounds, but it was too late. Whatever chance they had was gone. Their last gasp effort with one second fell short and a bitter Pistons team headed to the locker room, defeated as much by their own inexperience as by Bird's veteran savvy.
When great games are decided by great plays made by great players, there is no more thrilling experience in sports. And nowhere in the sports world does it happen better than in the NBA