Either the Los Angeles Lakers let the 1984 NBA Finals get away, or the Boston Celtics stole the championship. The Lakers dominated the early portion of the series, but a Gerald Henderson steal in Game 2 proved to be the turning point for the Celtics. The Lakers, however, believed Boston had a little more assistance away from the basketball court that helped swing things in the Celtics’ favor.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics played in a heat wave during the 1984 NBA Finals
Henderson’s steal turned out to be the biggest moment of the 1984 NBA Finals. There was also Kevin McHale’s clotheslining of Kurt Rambis that also swung momentum in Game 4. After getting completely outplayed through four games, the Celtics somehow found themselves heading back to Boston with the series tied at two games apiece.
On June 8, 1984, the day of Game 5, the city of Boston was slapped with a heat wave. CBS announced the game-time temperature was 97 degrees. The Boston Garden was an old arena with no air conditioning. The Celtics were used to playing in the heat and didn’t do a whole lot to make things more comfortable for the Lakers.
Lakers star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a rough go that night, shooting 28% from the floor and struggled to get up and down the court. He took in oxygen during timeouts. The Celtics won convincingly, 121-103 to take a 3-2 series lead.
“I suggest you go to the local steam bath with all your clothes on,” Abdul-Jabbar said after the game, according to The Boston Globe. “First, try to do 100 push-ups. Then run back and forth for 48 minutes.”
The Lakers believed there was more going on in the 1984 NBA Finals than just the lack of air conditioning
Before Larry Bird arrived in Boston, the Celtics were awful. During the 1978-79 season, they went 29-53. The year before, they were 32-50. The Boston Garden wasn’t a problem for opponents then. Bird turned things around, but former Lakers player Mitch Kupchak often wondered what else was going on at the Garden.
“When I first came into the league (with the Washington Bullets), Boston Garden was just a place where you could win,” Kupchak told Sports Illustrated in 2015.
“Then Bird came along. I got to the Lakers (in ’81), then 1984 happened and, suddenly, you were aware of the demons. The frustrations that Jerry (West) went through. The bolts on the parquet that didn’t go all the way down, the dead spots on the floor, the showers that mysteriously didn’t work, all the little things you didn’t notice when you were beating them.”
Lakers coach Pat Riley went even further.
“That place was always a nightmare,” said Riley. “As soon as we’d start our off-day practices, the chain saws would come out. The workers were all around, and the security guys would show up. I’m not sure anybody was doing anything except watching us.
“In 1984, it was so hot we could barely breathe in our locker room, while they had these big machines that blew cool air. It got to the point that we brought our own beverages to the Garden because we couldn’t trust their water, and we covered all the cameras during practices because we didn’t know who was watching.”
Larry Bird and the Celtics capitalized on that true homecourt advantage
The heat in Game 5 did not affect Bird, who made 15 of 20 shots from the floor and finished with 34 points and 17 rebounds.
“I play in this stuff all the time back home, ” Bird said to The Boston Globe. “It’s like this all summer.”
“I’ve never seen him as intense as he was tonight,” said teammate Kevin McHale. “Never.”
After the game, even Riley acknowledged Bird, not the heat, was the difference in that pivotal Game 5.
“The man who made the difference was Bird,” he said. “He was just awesome, and he made everything work. He was the catalyst, and that’s what happens when great players come to the front.”
Bird and the Celtics dropped Game 6 in LA but returned to that non-air-conditioned, antiquated Garden to post a 111-102 series-clinching Game 7 victory.