The Boston Celtics Had 3 Significant Steals in History, but Which Was Most Meaningful?

During the 76-year history of the Boston Celtics, the franchise has had its share of signature moments. There have been at least memorable steal that have determined the outcome of a crucial game or even a series.

In 1965, John Havlicek famously stole the ball in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. In the 1984 NBA Finals, Gerald Henderson’s Game 2 theft of a James Worthy pass prevented the Celtics from going down 2-0 in the series. During the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the rival Detroit Pistons, Larry Bird intercepted an Isiah Thomas pass and turned it into a Dennis Johnson layup and an improbable Celtics win.

All three of the steals have a firm place in Celtics lore, but which one was most important to the Celtics? We’ll take a deeper look into each of them.

John Havlicek secured a Boston Celtics trip to the 1965 NBA Finals with his steal

Havlicek’s steal came during a time when the Celtics had a run of eight straight NBA championships.

Clinging to a 110-109 lead with five seconds left, the Sixers had the ball under their own basket. Boston saw an 11-point lead quickly disappear as Wilt Chamberlain took over with a late scoring surge. Hall Greer looked to inbound the ball to the Sixers center, but Bill Russell’s defense wouldn’t allow it.

With a five-second violation looming, Greer lobbed the ball deep with a pass intended for Chet Walker. Havlicek anticipated well and tipped the ball to teammate Sam Jones, who ran out the clock to preserve the win.

The play prompted what many call the most iconic radio call in basketball history by Boston’s legendary announcer Johnny Most.

“Havlicek stole the ball,” Most excitedly yelled. “It’s all over. It’s all over. Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans. It’s all over. Johnny Havlicek stole the ball.”

While Havlicek’s steal may be the most memorable, it’s the least important of the three as far as basketball goes. Yes, it secured the win, but the Celtics already had the lead. It’s one heck of a play, but it’s also hyped up by Most’s call.

Larry Bird stole the show and the game for the Celtics in 1987

Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics looks to drive on Bobby Jones of the Philadelphia 76ers during an NBA basketball game circa 1984 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

There’s no way the Celtics should’ve beaten the Pistons in Game 5 of the 1987 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. At the Boston Garden, with the series tied at two games apiece, the Pistons appeared to be on the verge of stealing homecourt from the Celtics.

Detroit held a one-point lead and had the ball with five seconds remaining. As soon as the Pistons took possession out of bounds to the side of the Celtics basket, Thomas hurriedly called for the ball from the referee and attempted to lob a pass into center Bill Laimbeer.

That’s when Bird raced in front of Laimbeer and picked off the pass. While managing to keep his momentum from carrying him out of bounds, he turned and flipped the ball to a cutting Johnson, whose driving layup gave the Celtics a 108-107 victory and a 3-2 series lead.

The Celtics won the series in seven games and returned to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. They came up short against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Henderson’s steal gets the least amount of credit but is the most meaningful

Maybe Henderson’s steal in the 1984 NBA Finals doesn’t get nearly the credit as the other two because he’s not as big a name as Havlicek or Bird. Henderson’s steal in Game 2 is the most important of the three. Without it, there’s no 1984 banner hanging in Boston.

The Lakers stole Game 1 of the series on Boston’s court and were about to do the same in Game 2. The Lakers held a 113-11 lead with 18 seconds left and had the ball. It seemed the Celtics needed to foul, but like Havlicek, Henderson anticipated well.

The Celtics guard jumped in front of Byron Scott, intercepting a James Worthy pass and driving in for a game-tying layup with 13 seconds left. The Lakers never even managed to get off a shot in regulation. Boston outscored LA 11-8 in overtime to even the series.

The Lakers outplayed the Celtics in those first two games and then dominated Game 3, winning 137-104.

Without Henderson’s steal, the Celtics go down 3-0 in the series and there are likely only 16 banners hanging from the Boston rafters.

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