Boston Celtics Classic Playoff Moment: Kevin McHale Fulfilled a Promise, and the Detroit Pistons Paid the Price

It was May 1988, and the Boston Celtics hoped for one last hurrah. They had been to the NBA Finals the last four years, but they were aging. Not only were Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish getting up there in years, but the Detroit Pistons were prime candidates to take over as top dog in the Eastern Conference.

At the beginning of the season, McHale made a promise. During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Celtics and the Pistons, he delivered on it, and it proved costly to the Pistons.

The Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons had some heated playoff battles

A referee moves to step in between Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale, left, and Milwaukee’s Alton Lister during Game 2 of the second round of the 1983 NBA playoffs between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks at the Boston Garden on April 29, 1983. | Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

In the mid-1980s, the Pistons strived to be the Celtics. By the end of the decade, they did it.

The Celtics eliminated the Pistons from the postseason in 1985 in the Eastern Conference semis and outlasted them in seven games in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

Those Celtics/Pistons meetings in 1987 were as physical as they come. There were fights, ejections, and flat-out bloodbath in that seven-game series. The Celtics and those Bad Boys from Detroit simply didn’t like each other.

During Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Bill Laimbeer, perhaps the most hated player by the Celtics, got downright dirty. With his team trailing 2-0 in the series, the Pistons center took down Bird with a hard foul that led to Bird throwing the ball at Laimbeer. Both were ejected, and the Pistons went on to win handily, 122-104.

In Game 5, with the series knotted at two games apiece, Parish flat-out lost his cool with Laimbeer while going for a rebound and took him to the floor with a couple of punches. No foul was called. The Celtics miraculously pulled out the game when Bird stole an inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas and flipped it to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who laid it in for the game-winning basket in a 108-107 victory.

The Pistons took Game 6, but the Celtics won the series after earning a 117-114 victory at home in Game 7.

Kevin McHale made good on a promise for the Boston Celtics in 1988

The Pistons were ready for revenge in 1988, and they got off to a great start by stealing Game 1 in Boston 104-96.

Game 2 was nearly a disaster for the Celtics until McHale fulfilled a promise he made to his teammates before the season began.

Boston trailed 109-106 with five seconds left in regulation as the Pistons prepared to pounce on a 2-0 series advantage. That’s when McHale did the unthinkable by hitting a game-tying three-pointer. His basket sent the game into overtime, and the Celtics eventually pulled out a 119-115 double-OT victory.

McHale hadn’t hit a three-pointer all year. In fact, it was his first attempt.

“I promised some guys that I’d hit a 3-pointer this year,” McHale said after the game, per United Press International. “But I thought it would be in some meaningless game at the end of the regular season.”

The play certainly wasn’t designed for the big man. McHale, standing at the top of the key, gathered a ball that deflected off Bird’s fingers. He quickly turned and threw it up at the buzzer. That was the second three-pointer made in 17 tries for McHale in his NBA career.

“I didn’t even think,” said McHale. “That’s the key to my basketball success — never thinking.”

The Pistons thought they were cursed after McHale’s basket

The loss rekindled a painful memory for the Pistons. Some of the players reflected on Bird’s steal from the previous year that shifted momentum in the series.

“They’ve got to have a leprechaun,” Detroit’s John Salley said. “McHale’s shot was ridiculous. There’s something here. Something doesn’t want us to win, and I don’t know what it is.”

Pistons coach Chuck Daly felt the same way, saying, “the leprechaun got ’em today.”

Things were even more painful for the Pistons when several players believed McHale’s foot was on the line when he took his shot.

“Adrian Dantley and someone else said they saw his foot on the line,” Daly said. “But the rules say the officials can’t use the television replays, though I’m told they show his foot was on it. They made the call, and we have to live with it.”

McHale responded.

“I’m standing out there in no man’s land with the ball. I’m not looking down at my feet, wondering whether to back up a step,” he said. “I just turned around and flung it. I knew it was good when it left my hand.”

The Pistons rebounded from the tough loss and defeated the Celtics in six games.

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