Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, it was one of the most thrilling steals in NBA history or one of the most heartbreaking. During the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, Larry Bird had an improbable steal and assist within the final seconds in one of the NBA’s biggest momentum swingers of all time. Isiah Thomas was on the wrong end of the steal that helped the Celtics rally for the 108-107 victory over the Detroit Pistons. The win gave the Celts the 3-2 series edge and the push that allowed them to reach the NBA Finals. Thomas took a look back when Bird picked off his inbounds pass and turned the tide in the crucial Game 5 Celtics win.
The Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons rivalry
Between 1985-1991, the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons met five times in the postseason and many of those series were heated. The Celtics/Pistons rivalry was intense as the Celtics featured NBA legends Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, while the Pistons were the Bad Boys with Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, and Bill Laimbeer.
Bird and Laimbeer had a strong dislike for each other and many of the Celtics/Pistons game wound up with punches being thrown and benches being cleared. The Celtics defeated the Pistons in the 1985 and 1987 playoff series. The Pistons then won three straight matchups between 1988-1990 en route to three straight berths in the NBA Finals.
In the 1985 Eastern Conference semis, the experienced Celtics eliminated the Pistons in six games. When the teams next met in the 1987 postseason, Detroit was a much different team. A young Rodman was now a member of the team as was Rick Mahorn, a 6-foot-10 inside presence, was added to the team after a trade with the Washington Bullets. The Bad Boys were built and that set the stage for a wild 1987 Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the rival Celtics.
The 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
The Detroit Pistons were a very physical group and tried to intimidate their opponents with their physical style of play. Some called the Pistons dirty and that led to many on-court confrontations, especially with the Celtics. During Game 3 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer were both ejected for fighting. In the second quarter of Game 5, Boston’s center Robert Parish was ejected for punching Laimbeer and was forced to miss Game 6.
With the series tied at two games apiece, the Celtics were on the verge of going down 3-2 heading into a Game 6 in Detroit. The Celtics were trailing 107-106 with five seconds left and the Pistons were taking the ball out of bounds on the sideline near the Celtics basket. Isiah Thomas threw the ball in play and Bird intercepted a pass intended for Laimbeer.
As Bird’s momentum was about to carry him out of bounds, he flipped a pass to Dennis Johnson, who was cutting to the basket. Johnson laid in the basket with one second remaining, giving the Celtics the improbable victory and a 3-2 series lead. Although the Pistons won Game 6, the Celtics won the series-clinching Game 7 117-114.
Isiah Thomas reminisces about Game 5
“Before I threw the ball away, I had made the game-winning shot,” said Isiah Thomas in an interview with Ernie Johnson that also included Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal. “When the ball went out of bounds, everything went in slow motion. Jess Kersey is standing there and he starts to count. I run over, look at the bench, no timeouts -nothing. I run over and grab the ball.
“This is probably one of the most incredible plays that’s ever happened against me and probably one I’ve ever witnessed from an athletic standpoint, two people being in sync,” Thomas continued. “Bird just planned every second and that’s what the Celtics taught us – to play every second. Not to play 47-and-a-half minutes, but to play a full 48.
“So I take the ball from the referee, Laimbeer’s a good foul shooter, and I’ve never taken the ball out. It’s not my thing. I throw it up, Bird sneaks in and I didn’t even seem him. The thing I remember most is that joker caught the ball, and in my mind, he’s going out of bounds. But that dude got on his toes. The baseline was right under his toes. Then D.J., they are so in tune, so in sync, catches the ball and laid it up.”