Larry Bird has always said Dennis Johnson was the best player he ever played with. The two won a pair of championships together in Boston and were part of arguably the greatest starting five in NBA history. Johnson always had a knack for coming up big in the postseason, and Bird joked it wasn’t by design.
Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson teamed up for Boston Celtics championships in 1984 and 1986
The Celtics acquired Johnson from the Phoenix Suns after the 1982-83 season for Rick Roby and draft picks. In his three seasons with the Suns, Johnson averaged 17.5 points, but it was his defensive game that intrigued the Celtics. The Celtics already had Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish to provide the scoring. Johnson proved he could score if needed, but Boston wanted him as a lockdown defender.
In his first season with the Celtics, Johnson helped them win their second NBA title of the decade. It was during the 1984 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers when Johnson really stepped up. He struggled early in the series, but Celtics coach K.C. Jones made a defensive switch by having D.J. guard Magic Johnson in Game 4.
That switch allowed him to stop pressing on offense. During a Game 3 blowout in Los Angeles when the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead, Johnson finished with four points. When his focus was on stopping Magic beginning with Game 4, D..J saw his own offense take off.
He scored 22 points in that fourth game that was highlighted by McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis and changing the momentum. Boston went on to win the game and then outlasted the Lakers in seven games. In the final three games, Johnson had 22, 20, and 22 points.
Johnson and Bird returned to the NBA Finals in 1985 but were beaten by those same Lakers. The duo did win another championship in 1986 when the Celtics knocked off the Houston Rockets.
Larry Bird joked that Dennis Johnson had a plan for the playoffs
During the 1984 NBA Finals, Johnson was frustrated by his performance in Game 3. He scored four points, making two of eight shots from the floor in 14 minutes. The Lakers embarrassed the Celtics 137-104.
“I thought I was into the game, but the first game in L.A. (Game 3) convinced me that I wasn’t,” said D.J., according to Sports Illustrated in 1984. “Even K.C. had to come over to ask if something was wrong. I told him that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be there again. I had been missing jump shots since January, and I knew why, but I never took the time to adjust. It was just a case of getting mentally and physically aggressive.”
It was D.J.’s postseason offensive outburst, combined with his defense on Magic, that propelled the Celtics to their ’84 championship.
Bird joked that there was a different reason for Johnson stepping things up offensively in the postseason. He said D.J. had a special plan.
“D.J. goes all season long, missing shots so they won’t guard him in the playoffs, so then he can open it up,” Bird said during the 1987 NBA Finals, per United Press International.
Bird and Johnson teamed up for one of the most memorable plays in NBA history
It was Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Boston Celtics were hosting the Detroit Pistons. The series was tied, and the Pistons appeared on their way to a 3-2 series lead as they held a 107-106 lead and had the ball with five seconds left.
Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas was ready to inbound the ball on the sideline near the Celtics basket. As he threw the ball in play, Bird stepped in front of Pistons center Bill Laimbeer and intercepted the pass. Bird’s momentum nearly carried him out of bounds, but he quickly flipped the ball to a cutting Johnson, who drove in for the game-winning layup.
The Celtics pulled off the improbable comeback, winning 108-107. Boston lost Game 6 in Detroit but outlasted the Pistons back in Boston in Game 7 to advance to the 1987 NBA Finals.
After that Game 5 win over the Pistons, D.J. spoke of the chemistry he and Bird had.
“Larry would tell you, I’ve worked very, very well with Larry,” Johnson said postgame. “Lary works very, very well with me. “He can find me and I can find him in any type of situation. This was probably one of the best situations we needed to find each other.”