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The 1984 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers had several turning points. The Celtics were lucky to only be down 2-1 in the series heading into Game 4. After getting blown out and then chewed out by Larry Bird in an ugly Game 3, the Celtics needed to take a stand. Kevin McHale did just that.

McHale’s infamous clotheslining of Lakers forward Kurt Rambis shot some life into the Celtics, who escaped with a 129-125 win on the road. McHale’s play on Rambis should be credited with an assist from teammate Danny Ainge.

The Boston Celtics were a steal away from being down 3-0 to the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals

Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale celebrates the team’s NBA championship in the locker room after Game 7 of the NBA Finals outside of the Boston Garden in Boston on June 12, 1984. | John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Celtics and Lakers squared off in the 1984 NBA Finals. The Celtics had won the title in ’81, and the Lakers claimed it in ’82. The teams faced each other three times for the championship in the ’80s, but their first meeting of the decade was in ’84. Boston held homecourt advantage after posting the league’s best record at 62-20.

The Lakers quickly wiped away that advantage as they earned a 115-109 victory at the Boston Garden. Boston struggled in Game 2 as well. If not for a late steal by Gerald Henderson with his team trailing by two points, the Celtics would have found themselves down 2-0. Instead, Henderson’s steal sent the game into overtime where the Celtics pulled out a 124-121 win.

The Lakers blew out Boston in Game 3, winning 137-104. After the game, Bird blasted his teammates by calling them soft.

“I remember Larry saying something to the media about how soft the team is,” Ainge said during the Locked On Celtics podcast last year. “But every single person that was watching that film was completely embarrassed and humiliated by our effort in Game 3 in Los Angeles.”

Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis in Game 4 as Danny Ainge played a small role in the hard foul

The Celtics players vowed to come out with more energy in Game 4. Before the game, Ainge even spoke to McHale about getting a little more physical in his play.

“We get blown out in Game 1, we are so lucky to win Game 2,” Ainge recalled. “We’re probably in the one percentile of winning that game, and then in Game 3 we get crushed again and it’s just a dunk fest.

“I remember Kevin, we’re going out to stretch for practice the next day, and Kevin saying, ‘We’ve gotta take guys out. We gotta make some hard fouls.’ And I said, ‘Kevin, I get booed in every arena because I take hard fouls. Why don’t you foul somebody hard one time?'”

McHale took Ainge’s advice. When Rambis collected a pass from James Worthy on a fast break, McHale leveled him with a forearm to the neck, taking Rambis down with the Lakers ahead 76-70. The benches emptied. Play stopped as referees sorted things out.

The play lit a fire under the Celtics, who rallied to win 129-125 in another overtime thriller. The teams headed back to Boston locked at two games apiece.

Ainge called the Kevin McHale foul ‘inspirational’


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Until McHale leveled Rambis, the Lakers had dominated play throughout the series. McHale’s hard foul on Rambis, dirty or not, brought the Celtics back to life. Ainge believed that McHale was the right man to provide the spark.

“The fact that it was Kevin who took Rambis down with a clothesline, in my opinion, I think was even way more exciting than if Larry had done it,” Ainge said. “And the fact that Kevin had done that, that was exciting for his teammates.

“That was inspirational play for us to see Kevin, like ‘Wow, that’s what we’re talking about. You talked the talk now you did it.’ I loved that. That was one of my favorite Kevin plays ever.”

Boston won Game 5 at home, lost on the road in Game 6, but closed out the series with a 111-102 win at home. If not for the Henderson steal and the McHale hard foul, assisted by Ainge, the Celtics likely would not have a championship banner from 1984.