Boston Celtics Classic Playoff Moment: Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge Dominated Game 5 of ’87 NBA Finals vs. the Lakers

The Boston Celtics faced an uphill battle as the 1987 NBA Finals wore on. The Los Angeles Lakers easily won the first two games at home, and the Celtics found themselves trailing 3-1 after a devastating one-point loss at home in Game 4.

Playing their last game of the series at home under the 2-3-2 format, the Celtics desperately needed a win. They had to look no further than their backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, who came up big and helped send the series back to LA.

The Boston Celtics dropped a heartbreaker in Game 4

The Celtics’ Dennis Johnson helps the Lakers’ Magic Johnson up after a first half tumble during the NBA Finals on June 4, 1987. | Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The Celtics were in control all the way until the very end. Boston led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter of Game 4. The Celtics held an eight-point lead with 3:30 left in the game. The Lakers, however, scored 12 of the game’s final 15 points en route to a 107-106 victory that crushed the defending champions.

“We’ve gotten beat here before, but the way we let that one go really hurts,” said Celtics star Larry Bird before a practice prepping for Game 5, per United Press International. “Our mental toughness is just not what it used to be.”

Bird wasn’t the only one demoralized after that loss.

“If we lose this series, that’s the game we’ll always remember,” said Ainge.

The Celtics were underdogs in every game. Had they won Game 4 with Game 5 right in their backyard, the series might’ve looked a whole lot different.

“I really liked our chances (for the series) last night,” Bird said. “If we could have just got that one, it would have been a different series. I wanted to win all three at home and go out there for two games because I know we could win one. But winning two …”

Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge came up big for the Boston Celtics in Game 5

The road ahead was daunting for the Celtics. For the days leading up to Game 5, they were left thinking about what could have been.

“It takes the night and most of the next day to realize what you did to yourself,” Johnson said then about Boston’s Game 4 collapse. “Now we have to win three straight, which is hard, and against the Lakers, it’s probably three or four times harder.”

Johnson made it look much easier than he anticipated, at least in Game 5. He finished team-highs in both points (25) and assists (11). Ainge added 21 points as he connected on five of six from three-point land. It was, by far, the best game by the Celtics backcourt.

“The 3-point shot is devastating,” Ainge said, according to UPI. “If you are open, the three-pointer is not that difficult. I think they were so concerned with Larry and our inside game, which left me open.”

Each time the Lakers made a run, Ainge made them pay with a three. He even hit a 40-footer at the halftime buzzer that gave Boston a 63-48 lead.

“That was just a lucky shot,” he said. “You take those all the time and that one just went in.”

The Celtics cut the series deficit to 3-2 with a 123-108 victory.

DJ stayed hot, Ainge did not in Game 6 loss

The Celtics had to win the next two games away from the Boston Garden to claim their second straight championship. The Lakers were motivated by playing the Celtics and returning to the Finals after getting knocked out by the Houston Rockets the previous year.

Johnson continued to have the hot hand for the Celtics in Game 6. The Celtics led 32-25 after one quarter and held a 56-51 lead at the break.

The Lakers figured things out at halftime and put the game away by outscoring Boston 30-12 in the third quarter. They closed out the series with a 106-93 victory.

Despite the loss, Johnson led Boston in scoring again with 33 points. He made 11 of 22 shots from the floor and went 11-for-11 from the free-throw line. Ainge, however, failed to repeat his Game 5 shooting touch. He went 1-for-9 from the floor and finished with two points.

Bird also had an off night, finishing with 16 points on 6-for-16 shooting.

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