The Boston Celtics hold a 2-0 series edge over the Brooklyn Nets after a pair of thrilling games, including a buzzer-beater by Jayson Tatum in the series opener. While that game was a nail-biter, it’s not the Celtics vs. Nets game that made its way into the top five epic Celtics playoff games of all time.
With 17 banners and a rich basketball history, the Celtics have had a ton of postseason basketball. We’ve sorted through some of the most epic Celtics playoff games and narrowed it down to the top five. We’ll start with a Celtics vs. Nets game from 20 years ago.
5. Celtics vs. Nets, Game 3 2002 Eastern Conference Finals
The Celtics did what they needed to do early in the series — steal a game away from home. Led by Antoine Walker’s 26 points, the Celtics knocked off the New Jersey Nets on the road in Game 2 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. The victory got Boston even in the series.
The Nets looked like they were on their way to reclaiming homecourt advantage when they led by as many as 26 points in Game 3. The Celtics trailed 74-53 after three quarters. Then they pulled off the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in playoff history.
Boston outscored New Jersey 41-16 in the final quarter for an improbable 94-90 victory. Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, who had missed 12 of his first 14 shots of the game, finished with a game-high 28.
“At the start of the fourth quarter we just wanted to fight and make a statement for the next game that we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with,” Pierce said after the game, per ESPN. “I think we did more than make a statement.”
The celebration was short-lived in Boston as the Nets pulled out a 94-92 win in Game 4 and then won the next two to close out the series in six games.
4. Celtics vs. Lakers, Game 2 1984 NBA Finals
The favored Celtics dropped the series opener against the Lakers in the first of their three NBA Finals meetings of the decade. They were in serious danger of losing their second straight, trailing by two with 18 seconds left and the Lakers in possession of the ball.
Instead of taking the foul, the Lakers decided to play keep-away, and Boston’s Gerald Henderson intercepted a James Worthy pass intended for Byron Scott. With 13 ticks left, Henderson drove in for the game-tying layup.
The Lakers failed to get off a shot at the end of regulation, and the game went to overtime. Boston outscored LA 11-8 in the extra session, winning 124-121.
The Lakers outplayed the Celtics much of that series, but Boston won their second title of the ’80s, defeating the Lakers in seven games.
3. Celtics vs. Pistons, Game 5 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
It was another game the Celtics shouldn’t have won. Boston trailed the Detroit Pistons by a point with five seconds left in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The series was knotted at two games apiece.
Detroit’s veteran point guard Isiah Thomas attempted to lob an inbounds pass to center Bill Laimbeer. Before he got his hands on the ball, Larry Bird picked it off. As Bird’s momentum began to carry him out of bounds, he flipped a pass to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who laid it in for the game-winning basket.
The Celtics pulled out a miraculous 108-107 victory and took a 3-2 series lead. Although the Celtics lost Game 6 in Detroit, they reached the NBA Finals once again by knocking off the Pistons 117-114.
The Celtics lost to the Lakers in the Finals.
2. Celtics vs. Nationals, Game 2 1953 Eastern Division Semifinals
In one of the highest-scoring games of its era, the Celtics vs. Syracuse Nationals game went four overtimes before the Celtics pulled out a 111-105 victory. The Celtics swept the Nationals in the best-of-three series, led by Bob Cousy.
The game, however, was far from fast-paced. Cousy scored 50 points, including going 30-for-32 from the free-throw line in a foul fest.
“The game was stagnant,” recalled Cousy, per NBA.com. “Teams literally started sitting on the ball in the third quarter. That was the way the game was played: get a lead and put the ball in the icebox, while the paying customers started reading the program. The whole game slowed up.”
Cousy played 66 minutes and made 10 of 22 shots from the floor. After three overtime periods, the Celtics broke free, outscoring the Nationals 12-6 in the fourth and final OT.
The Celtics lost to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Division Finals.
1. Celtics vs. Suns, Game 5 1976 NBA Finals
Many call this the greatest game ever played. The Celtics hosted the Suns in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, and it took three wild overtimes to declare a winner. During the first overtime, Boston’s Paul Silas called a timeout that his team didn’t have. It should’ve resulted in a technical foul, but the referees ignored Silas’ call.
The second OT was as wild as could be. Phoenix took a one-point lead with five seconds remaining, but John Havlicek raced the length of the court and banked in a running shot that appeared to give the Celtics the win. Fans came onto the court to celebrate.
“We actually went into the locker room,” Glenn McDonald, who wound up being the hero of the game, told Sportscasting this week. “They came in and brought us back out.”
Down one with one second left, Suns star Paul Westphal called a timeout, knowing his team didn’t have any left. He knew the Celtics would get a technical foul, but back then the team shooting the tech didn’t get the ball back. Instead, Phoenix trailed by two points but got the ball at midcourt.
“Westphal was a whole different individual,” McDonald said. “He studied everything. He knew the rules, and he purposely called that timeout. To this day, I haven’t seen anything like that.”
Garfield Heard’s catch-and-shoot went in, and the game went to a third overtime.
McDonald entered the game after Silas became the fourth Celtic to foul out. He scored six points in the final 1:35 as Boston went on to win 128-126.