Larry Bird’s Steal, Assist Stuns Pistons and Swings Eastern Conference Finals Momentum: Boston Celtics Championship History Moment No. 8

The steal gets all the credit, but the assist was pretty impressive, too. Nobody in the Boston Garden ever thought the Boston Celtics had a prayer in the waning seconds of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. Then Larry Bird literally stole the show.

With the series tied at two games apiece, the Pistons held a one-point lead and had the ball with five seconds left. It seemed Detroit was going to take a 3-2 series lead and head back home to close things out. Bird didn’t let it happen.

In honor of the Boston Celtics’ 17 championships, we’re highlighting 17 signature moments, both good and bad, that took the Celtics from a woeful 22-38 BAA debut in 1946-47 to the current iteration of the longtime powerhouse franchise that’s now coming off an NBA Finals appearance. The 17-part series on the Celtics’ championship history will run through the summer and take us to the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season, one Boston hopes ends with Banner No. 18.

Larry Bird shocks the Pistons and the Boston Garden with his late steal and assist

Larry Bird literally stole Game 5 from the Detroit Pistons in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. | Getty Images

The visiting Pistons held a 107-106 lead and looked to seal the deal after gaining possession after the ball went out of bounds off a Celtics player on the sideline with five seconds to go. Instead of looking at his bench, where head coach Chuck Daly wanted a timeout, Pistons guard Isiah Thomas hurried to get the ball in bounds. Thomas’ teammate Rick Mahorn said he was the one who usually inbounded the ball and had no idea what Thomas was doing.

“I’m looking at the bench,” Mahorn said during a 2020 episode of The Cedric Maxwell Podcast, “and I’m looking at Chuck Daly, and Daly’s calling timeout. Isiah ran. I’m usually the one taking it out, but he ran and had a brain fart. He threw it in, and I was like hell no. Why you taking the ball out? That’s my job.”

Thomas attempted to lob the ball to center Bill Laimbeer, but Bird raced in and intercepted the pass. His momentum nearly carried him out of bounds near the baseline. Bird turned quickly and flipped a pass to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who laid it in for the game-winning basket in Boston’s improbable 108-107 victory.

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

While John Havlicek’s famous steal against the Philadelphia 76ers in 1965 gets much more attention, Bird’s was much more impressive. Havlicek tapped the ball to teammate Sam Jones with his team already leading. Bird picked off the pass and still managed to flip it to DJ for the game-winner.

Bird’s play changed the momentum of the series

If Bird doesn’t make the steal, the Celtics probably don’t get to their fourth straight NBA Finals. The Pistons won Game 6 at home, but the Celtics bounced back and closed out the series with a 117-114 Game 7 victory.

If not for the steal, the Pistons may have ended Boston’s Eastern Conference reign a year sooner.

“This is probably one of the most incredible plays that’s ever happened against me and probably one I’ve ever witnessed from an athletic standpoint, two people being in sync,” Thomas said during a 2018 interview on Open Court. “Bird just planned every second, and that’s what the Celtics taught us – to play every second. Not to play 47-and-a-half minutes, but to play a full 48.”

Thomas remembered how it went down in his eyes.

“So I take the ball from the referee, Laimbeer’s a good foul shooter, and I’ve never taken the ball out. It’s not my thing. I throw it up, Bird sneaks in, and I didn’t even see him. The thing I remember most is that joker caught the ball, and in my mind, he’s going out of bounds. But that dude got on his toes. The baseline was right under his toes. Then D.J., they are so in tune, so in sync, catches the ball and laid it up.”

The Celtics failed to win back-to-back championships after knocking off the Houston Rockets in 1986. In 1987, the Los Angeles Lakers beat Boston in six games.

Bird’s steal was a thing of beauty, especially for Celtics fans. In five seconds, he showed everything — defense, smarts, quick thinking, and passing — that helped make him an NBA legend.

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