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For years, Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics dominated the Eastern Conference in the 1980s. Bird became only the third NBA player to win three straight MVPs, earning the honor each year between 1984 and 1986. The Celtics reached the NBA Finals four straight times between 1984 and 1987 before the Detroit Pistons dethroned them in 1988. When the Pistons finally took charge, Bird and the Celtics accepted reality.

Larry Bird did the impossible when the Detroit Pistons sought to dethrone the Boston Celtics in 1987

The Boston Celtics nearly saw their Eastern Conference reign end a year earlier when they squared off against the Detroit Pistons in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Larry Bird wouldn’t let it happen.

The Celtics trailed the Pistons 107-106 with five seconds left at home in Game 5 of the conference finals. The Pistons had possession of the ball after the ball deflected off Celtics guard Jerry Sichting’s leg. Instead of calling a timeout, Detroit’s All-Star guard Isiah Thomas hurriedly tossed the ball into play.

Thomas lobbed a pass intended for center Bill Laimbeer, who was positioned near the paint under the Celtics basket. Bird anticipated the pass, picked it off, managed to keep himself from falling out of bounds at the baseline, and then fired a perfect pass to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who laid it in for the game-winning basket and gave the Celtics an improbable 3-2 series lead.

“Larry’s mind takes an instant picture of the whole court,” said Bill Fitch, Bird’s first coach with the Celtics, per “He sees creative possibilities.”

Although the Celtics lost to Detroit in Game 6, they came back to Boston and outlasted the Pistons in Game 7 to advance to their fourth straight championship round.

It all ended for the Celtics in 1988

The Celtics were getting older. The Pistons were getting better. That mix proved to be the end of the Celtics dynasty. Detroit knocked off the Celtics in six games in the 1988 conference finals, ending Boston’s magical run. Bird had a rough game in Game 6, shooting 4-for-17 from the floor, but Detroit’s plan was to hound him all night.

“I’ve watched Bird carefully for a lot of years,” Detroit Coach Chuck Daly said after the series clincher, per United Press International. “I’ve always said, if you’re going to beat the Boston Celtics, you’re going to have to control him at least part of the game. We watched a lot of film. We were always running one, two, or three people at him, trying to disrupt his shot.”

Bird said the Celtics missed a golden opportunity when they lost at home in Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece. Detroit won 102-96 to take a 3-2 series lead back home.

“I’ve always said that Game 5 is the most important game in any series when you’ve got the home court,” Bird said, per UPI. “You’ve got to win it. We didn’t.”

After the series finale, the Celtics faced a harsh reality — they were no longer the best team in the East.

“It’s tough to lose,” Boston guard Danny Ainge said. “When you lose to Detroit, that’s even worse. But at the same time, we can hold our heads up. We gave it a good effort.

“Do I think Detroit’s better? Yeah, I do. They’ve proved it. We got beat. They beat us. They flat-out beat us.”

The Celtics never recovered. Injuries to Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish caught up to them. It took 21 years before the Celtics reached the NBA Finals again.


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