Perhaps the most famous Boston Celtics steal of all time — aside from taking Larry Bird sixth overall in the 1978 NBA Draft — was John Havlicek’s during Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals. With Boston up 110-109 with five seconds left, Havlicek tipped the Philadelphia 76ers’ inbounds pass to teammate Sam Jones, who ran out the clock. Legendary Celtics announcer Johnny Most’s “Havlicek stole the ball” call is just as iconic.
The Celtics also had two drama-filled steals during the postseason in the ’80s. In 1987, Bird picked off an Isiah Thomas inbounds pass with five seconds left in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals and turned it into a game-winning Dennis Johnson layup. Gerald Henderson intercepted a James Worthy pass in the waning seconds of Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals that significantly shifted the series momentum. Which of those two steals was the most impressive?
Larry Bird completely changed the 1987 series against the Detroit Pistons with his steal and assist in Game 5
There was no way the Pistons should’ve let this one get away. The ’87 Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons was already drama-filled. In Game 3, Bird and Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer were ejected for fighting, and Robert Parish punched Laimbeer earlier in Game 5. It was the non-confrontational drama at the end of that fifth game that turned the tide in the series.
With the series even at two games apiece, the Celtics trailing 107-106, and the Pistons having possession of the ball with five seconds left, it appeared Detroit was about to head back home with a 3-2 series lead. Instead, Bird took charge.
Thomas looked to inbound the ball from the side of the Celtics basket with five ticks left. He lobbed a pass intended for Laimbeer, but Bird raced in front and picked it off. As his momentum nearly carried him out of bounds near the baseline, he flipped a pass to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who converted it into the game-winning layup with one second left. Boston won 108-107 and took a 3-2 series lead. The Celtics won in seven games, advancing to the NBA Finals.
Gerald Henderson saved the Boston Celtics with a Game 2 steal in the 1984 NBA Finals against the Lakers
In the ’80s, either the Celtics or the Lakers reached the NBA Finals every year. On three occasions, they faced each other. It was the first of those meetings in 1984 when Henderson came up with a steal that prevented a Celtics disaster.
Boston held homecourt advantage and saw it ripped from them in Game 1 when the Lakers escaped with a 115-109 victory. Game 2 also looked bleak for Boston until the waning seconds when Henderson sparked the team with his late steal.
With 18 seconds remaining and the Lakers in front 113-111, Henderson intercepted Worthy’s pass intended for Byron Scott. He drove in for a layup to tie the score with 13 seconds remaining. The Lakers failed to get off a final shot, and the Celtics eventually won in overtime.
According to NBA.com, Bird believed if Henderson had not made that steal, the Celtics would have been swept in the series. After getting blown out in the third game, the Celtics battled back and outlasted the Lakers in seven games.
Which of the Celtics’ steals was more impressive?
Both steals had series-changing effects. Bird’s helped the Celtics claim a pivotal Game 5 win. Boston went on to defeat the Pistons in seven games and advance to the NBA Finals for the fifth time in the decade and fourth straight overall. They lost to the Lakers in six games.
Henderson’s came early in the series but helped stop the bleeding. After the Lakers won Game 1 on the road, Boston couldn’t afford to drop the first two at home. It certainly appeared that would be the case. While the Lakers were playing keep-away from the Celtics in Game 2, hoping to run out the final 18 seconds, Henderson swooped in and changed the series.
It’s tough to pull out a victory when your team is down a point, and the opponent has possession with five seconds left, but Bird made it happen with his 1987 steal. Like Henderson, he anticipated well before tight-roping to stay in bounds. Without breaking stride, he hit a cutting Johnson in stride for the game-winning layup.
Henderson’s steal may have been more important as it led to a championship, but Bird gets the edge in the impressive department.