Larry Bird and a New Pair of Skates Helped Wayne Gretzky Hit Playoff Milestone
Who knew a Boston Celtics playoff victory over the Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the day would help Wayne Gretzky snap out of a scoring slump? More specifically, it was Larry Bird’s fourth-quarter output, combined with a new pair of skates, that inspired Gretzky. That inspiration led to a milestone goal and a victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup for the Edmonton Oilers in 1987.
Larry Bird came up big in Game 7 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Bird was no stranger to the bright lights. The Celtics needed their star to shine, especially down the stretch, during Game 7 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Semifinal meeting with the visiting Bucks. Looking for a title repeat, the Celtics played the Bucks in a winner-take-all matchup that earned the victor a matchup with the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals.
The Bucks held a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter before Bird took charge. He scored 13 of his 31 points in the final 12 minutes as the Celtics pulled away for a 119-113 victory.
Along with his 31 points, Bird collected 10 rebounds and added eight assists. He went 13-for-13 from the free-throw line and played all 48 minutes.
The Celtics went on to face the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was in Game 5 when Bird made his series-turning steal of an Isiah Thomas pass and turned it into a Dennis Johnson layup as time expired. The Celtics won 108-107 to take a 3-2 series lead. Boston went on to defeat the Pistons in seven games.
The Celtics fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Larry Bird’s performance helped inspire Wayne Gretzky
After the Celtics defeated the Bucks in Game 7, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers took place. Fans in Edmonton were fired up as 17,502 showed up for the game, the team’s first sellout during that year’s playoffs.
Gretzky entered the game in a scoring slump. He had been limited to just two assists in the previous series, but he also hadn’t scored in the last five games. It took less than five minutes for Gretzky to get his team on the board. The Great One rifled a 10-footer past Ron Hextall to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead with 15:06 left in the opening period.
Edmonton went on to post a 4-2 victory. After the game, Gretzky credited Bird and a new pair of skates.
“I was watching Larry Bird,” he said after the game, per United Press International. “When the game went into the fourth quarter, they gave some stats on what he had been doing in the fourth period. Then he took charge. I came to the rink feeling inspired.”
He also said he felt stronger after changing up his skates.
“Skates are so funny,” he said. “You like to have them as tight as possible, and they’ve been a little floppy.”
Gretzky’s goal was his 200th playoff point and tied him for 4th place all-time on postseason goal-scoring list
Gretzky finished the game with a goal and assist. His goal tied him with the legendary Gordie Howe for fourth place on the all-time list with 68. At the time, he trailed Mike Bossy (85), Maurice Richard (82), and Jean Beliveau (79) for most career playoff goals.
“I just threw it upstairs,” Gretzky said of his first-period goal. “I’ve forgotten where the net is recently, so I didn’t think about doing much with it.”
Today, Gretzky is the all-time leading goal scorer in playoff history by a wide margin. He finished his career with 122. His former teammate, Mark Messier, is second with 109. Third on the list is Jari Kurri with 106.
Gretzky can thank Bird for getting him back on the right track.