Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics Missed Chance at 4th NBA Title After Demoralizing, Series-Altering Loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1987 Finals

Larry Bird called out the Boston Celtics for their lack of mental toughness during the 1987 NBA Finals against the rival Los Angeles Lakers. Boston just squandered a golden opportunity in Game 4 that would have evened the series at two games apiece. Instead, the Celtics were left to wonder what could have been as the Lakers prevented them from a repeat.

Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics sought their fourth NBA title in the 1980s

Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics shoots over Mychal Thompson of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA basketball game circa 1987 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In just his second year in the NBA, Bird guided the Celtics to a championship, defeating the Houston Rockets in the 1981 Finals. Boston then returned to the championship round four consecutive seasons from 1984-87, winning titles in ’84 and ’86. In the 1987 Finals, the Celtics matched up with the Lakers, the team they beat in ’84 and lost to in ’85.

Despite dropping the first two games on the road, the Celtics felt confident coming home, especially under the 2-3-2 format.

Boston suffered double-digit losses in each of the two games in LA but bounced back in Game 3. Bird and Magic Johnson battled it out before the Celtics escaped with a 109-103 victory to cut Boston’s series deficit to 2-1. Bird finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds. Johnson led all scorers with 32 points. He also added 11 rebounds and nine assists.

It was Game 4, however, that demoralized Bird and the Celtics.

Larry Bird: ‘Our mental toughness is just not what it used to be’

After securing Game 3, the Celtics felt pretty good about themselves. With two more games at home, the Celtics felt they could grab the series lead and have to win just one game in LA.

The Celtics appeared well on their way to tying up the series, leading the Lakers by 16 points in the third quarter. Then things fell apart.

The Lakers made a nice run to close the third quarter to pull within seven points as the Celtics led 85-78 after three. Boston maintained a comfortable lead for most of the final quarter and led by eight with 3:30 to go. The visitors, however, scored 12 of the game’s 15 points and handed Boston a gut-wrenching 107-106 loss, capped by Johnson’s famous baby skyhook.

“We’ve gotten beat here before, but the way we let that one go really hurts,” Bird said before practice for Game 5, per United Press International. “Our mental toughness is just not what it used to be.”

Bird wasn’t alone in realizing how badly the Celtics self-destructed.

“If we lose this series, that’s the game we’ll always remember,” Celtics guard Danny Ainge said.

“It takes the night and most of the next day to realize what you did to yourself,” said Celtics guard Dennis Johnson. “Now we have to win three straight, which is hard, and against the Lakers, it’s probably three or four times harder.”

That Game 4 loss played with the Celtics’ psyche

After the Game 4 devastation, Bird spoke about how difficult it would be for the Celtics to come back and win the series.

“I really liked our chances (for the series) last night,” Bird said. “If we could have just got that one, it would have been a different series. I wanted to win all three at home and go out there for two games because I know we could win one. But winning two …

“If we could have walked out of here with a win, you would have seen a lot of different people taking different shots. Things change when it gets tied up, and you’re playing on the road. You would have seen Magic take a lot more big shots and seen me take a lot more shots. It says a lot about our teams and the way we lead them.”

The Celtics won the final game at home, blowing out the Lakers 123-108 and carrying a 3-2 series deficit on the road.

The Lakers took care of business in Game 6, winning 106-93, securing the championship, and leaving the Celtics to reflect on their Game 4 collapse.

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