Years later, Larry Bird still seems disgusted. Bird had just given the Boston Celtics a one-point lead over the rival Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals with 12 seconds left. It was a typical long-range Bird shot from the left corner that swooshed through the net. Boston needed the victory to even the series at two games apiece.
Ten seconds later, Magic Johnson stole a page from teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s playbook. He ran across the lane and threw up what he later described as his “junior, junior, junior skyhook” that regained the lead for the visitors with two seconds left.
All eyes were then on Bird.
Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics looked to repeat as champions in 1987
Bird and the Celtics won their third title of the decade when they knocked off the Houston Rockets in 1986. The Rockets stunned the Lakers on Ralph Sampson’s last-second shot that eliminated LA from the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers had been to the championship round the last four years and were motivated when they returned in 1987. LA had homecourt advantage and made things look easy, winning Game 1 by 13 points and Game 2 by 19. The Celtics won the first one in Boston and appeared to be on their way to tying the series in Game 4.
The Celtics led by 16 points in the third quarter and held a 103-95 lead before committing three straight turnovers. The Lakers capitalized by scoring the next nine points. Bird’s shot with 12 seconds left put Boston in front 106-105. Magic responded with his running hook shot.
“My man switched to Kareem, and Kevin McHale jumped out to me,” Johnson said on ESPN’s Best of Enemies series. “Soon as I saw Kevin, I said, ‘Ohh, I’m taking him.”
Johnson drove across the lane and hit that “junior, junior, junior skyhook,” he referred to, per Sports Illustrated. He gave the Lakers a 107-106 lead with two seconds left. With Bird on the other side, it wasn’t a done deal for the Lakers.
Bird missed the final shot, and the Celtics were clearly done for the series
It shouldn’t have come down to a last-second shot. The Celtics squandered a golden opportunity but still had one last gasp. All eyes were on Bird, and he nearly pulled off a miracle. It came down to an inbounds play with two ticks left.
“We had done it before,” said Bird, who still seemed bothered by the loss, in the ESPN documentary. “Clear everybody out, go to the ball, break to the corner.”
Dennis Johnson fired a pass to Bird, who caught it and spun to his right all in one move. He launched a shot that bounced off the rim and sent the Lakers players into celebration mode.
“I had a wide-open look. Couldn’t believe it.”Larry Bird, on his last-second shot in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals
The Lakers held a 3-1 lead in the 2-3-2 format, but everyone knew the series was over.
“I know that when I’m up 3-1, I say it’s over,” Bird said after the game, per Sports Illustrated.
Boston won Game 5 in Boston, but the Lakers closed out the series in Game 6.
In the series finale, the Celtics had another meltdown. They led 56-51 at the break, but the Lakers outscored them 30-12 in the third quarter to break the game open.
“I’ve said all year that when we have breakdowns, we have major breakdowns,” Bird said.