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The series was tanking quickly for the Boston Celtics. They had already lost home-court advantage when the rival Los Angeles Lakers stole Game 1 of the 1984 NBA Finals at the Boston Garden with a 115-109 victory.

Game 2 didn’t seem promising, either. The Lakers held a 113-111 lead with 18 seconds remaining and had possession of the ball. The Celtics were in danger of dropping the first two at home and heading to LA for the next two.

Enter Gerald Henderson.

The Celtics are a team with multiple historic postseason steals. While others have gotten more notoriety, Henderson’s theft of a James Worthy pass in Game 2 may be the one that meant the most.

In honor of the Boston Celtics’ 17 championships, we’re highlighting 17 signature moments, both good and bad, that took the Celtics from a woeful 22-38 BAA debut in 1946-47 to the current iteration of the longtime powerhouse franchise that’s now coming off an NBA Finals appearance. The 17-part series on the Celtics’ championship history will run through the summer and take us to the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season, one Boston hopes ends will with Banner No. 18.

Gerald Henderson stole the show in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals

Boston Celtics guard Gerald Henderson celebrates after winning the 1984 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
| John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

With 18 seconds left and the Lakers holding a two-point lead and the ball, the Celtics seemingly had to foul. Henderson had other ideas.

The Boston guard anticipated well, picking off a lazy Worthy pass intended for Byron Scott and turning it into a game-tying layup with 13 seconds remaining as the Celtics and the Boston Garden fans got new life. The scoreboard read 113-113, but the Celtics weren’t out of the woods. The Lakers still had plenty of time to regain the lead but never managed to even get off a shot in those final 13 seconds as the game went into overtime.

Boston outscored LA 11-8 in the extra period, pulling off a miraculous, series-tying win. Henderson’s steal not only won Game 2 but may have also broken the spirit of the Lakers.

“If we don’t get that steal and win that Game 2 in Boston, we probably don’t win the series,” Celtics guard Danny Ainge said in April 2020 on the Locked On Celtics podcast. “That was one of the huge plays in Celtics history that I think goes underrated, but that was a great play by Henderson.”

“We had 18 seconds, and that’s a lot of time,” Henderson told Brian Scalabrine in a video put out by the Boston Celtics in 2020. “We didn’t have to foul at the time. When you’re working that kind of pressure defense, you have to wait on the rotations. If you rotate properly, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Not to say anybody else would have made that steal, but that’s what you do. You rotate.

“When the ball was up in the air, I had to knock the ball toward the basket to make the layup. If I would have just tapped the ball to the left, James Worthy would have had time to block the shot. I tapped it toward the basket, and he was a little late getting there.”

Without Henderson’s steal, the Celtics may have been swept

Not only did Henderson’s steal save the game and the series, but it may also have prevented an embarrassing sweep. It also might be the most under-the-radar play in Celtics history.

In Game 3, the Lakers blew out the Celtics, 137-104. After that game, Celtics star Larry Bird called his teammates “sissies” for their soft play. In Game 4, the Celtics trailed 76-70 in the third quarter before Kevin McHale took Bird’s words to heart.

The Celtics forward clotheslined Kurt Rambis, who was heading in for a layup that would have given LA an eight-point lead. Instead, both benches cleared, momentum changed, and the Celtics went on to win another game in overtime.

The Celtics outlasted the Lakers in seven games. Worthy spoke about his errant pass during an October episode of Off the Dribble: The Byron Scott Podcast. He said he still cringes when he thinks about what could have been.

“Magic Johnson grabbed it and threw it to me. I was nervous as a scarecrow because here we are 13 seconds away from winning Game 2. I’m in the backcourt, but I need to get rid of it. I didn’t even look nor think. I just tried to throw… (it was) an errant pass to you. You were way out of the play.”

James Worthy, speaking to former Lakers teammate Byron Scott

“Gerald Henderson was just licking his chops. Man, to this day, I wake up at night with sweat because he went for that layup, and I can still feel that leather just go from my hand. That was our fourth championship. I’ll always say that was our fourth championship but just came up short.”

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The 1984 Boston Celtics Were Fueled by James Worthy’s Attempt at Retaliation