The Boston Celtics Nearly Followed the ‘Memorial Day Massacre’ With One of the Greatest Playoff Comebacks

There were a lot of “if only” moments during Game 2 of the 1985 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. If only the Celtics didn’t dig themselves a deep hole. If only Michael Cooper’s questionable shot didn’t count. The Celtics could have positioned themselves much better if only they had followed up the ‘Memorial Day Massacre’ with one of the NBA’s greatest playoff comebacks.

Instead, the Lakers did what they had to do. They brushed off the 34-point loss in Game 1. They stole homecourt from the Celtics with a 109-102 victory in Game 2, thwarting an impressive comeback attempt by the Celtics and setting the stage for their first championship over the Celtics in nine attempts.

The Boston Celtics seemed ready for a repeat in 1985

Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird during break at 1985 NBA Finals between Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, June 2, 1985, in Inglewood, California. | Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images.

The 1984 NBA Finals was a strange one. It’s tough to say the team that played best won that series. Larry Bird called his team “lucky” after the Lakers dominated most of the series but came up short in seven games.

The Lakers used the loss in the 1984 Finals as motivation. It stung. It hurt. But it also paid off.

“You can’t look at 1985 without looking at 1984,” Magic Johnson said to Sports Illustrated in 2015. “We all thought we should’ve won. It was the ultimate motivator.”

While they were motivated, they were also blown out in Game 1 of the ’85 Finals. The Celtics appeared to be on the road to a repeat.

Boston’s 148-114 victory is known as the Memorial Day Massacre, and it’s a game the Lakers wanted to quickly forget. After the Celtics put up 79 points in the first half and held a 79-49 lead at the break, the Lakers knew they needed to focus on Game 2. A loss by 50 or a loss by one was still only one loss. If they managed to steal Game 2, they’d head back home to LA with the advantage.

“I guarantee you, if we get a split Thursday (in Game 2), everybody will forget about this game,” Lakers coach Pat Riley said after Game 1, per Boston.com.

The Lakers got their split, but it wasn’t easy.

The Celtics nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback in Game 2

Three days after the Memorial Day Massacre, the Celtics found themselves on the wrong end of a blowout during Game 2. The Lakers quickly turned the tables and held a 64-46 halftime lead on the road. Boston, however, wasn’t dead. That 18-point lead dwindled in the second half.

With less than two minutes remaining, the Celtics were closing in on a playoff miracle. They cut the deficit to 104-100. Cooper then made a shot as the 24-second buzzer sounded. Many called for a shot-clock violation, but the basket counted.

“I fired it up and didn’t know how much time was left until I hit the shot,” said Cooper after the game, per United Press International. “Then everyone started screaming for a violation. I’m glad I didn’t know (the time), I might have thrown up a brick.”

Although Cooper’s shot was the dagger for the Celtics, Larry Bird said there was no turning point in the game. He gave all the credit to the Lakers, who led from start to finish.

“They were in control from the first second until the last,’ said Bird, who called his team “lazy.” “I would have liked to have been in their shoes. They just hit every key shot.”

Cooper thwarted the potential Celtics comeback. Although Boston stole Game 4 in Los Angeles, the Lakers won Game 5 at home in the new 2-3-2 format to take a 3-2 series lead. LA then closed out the deal in Boston, winning a championship in Boston for the first time ever. That victory still makes Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar smile.

“That’s awesome,” he said of the win in a 2020 video put out by NBA History & Legends on CLNS. “That made my career. It was that good to me. I enjoyed 1985, and I’m still enjoying it.”

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