Editor’s note: Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and Pistons (May 26, 1987), remembered forever in Boston for Larry Bird’s last-second steal (video above) and Johnny Most’s legendary call: “Now there’s a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ, lays it in!”. Reporter Peter May was at that game and shares his memories below. And for the other side, check out this Pistons fan’s take of what was a heart-wrenching moment.
The one lasting memory I have of the game is that it was over for the Celtics. They were finished, both in the series with the Detroit Pistons and as a viable championship contender in the years ahead. One play by Dennis Rodman drove home that feeling: a coming-from-nowhere block of a Larry Bird drive, with the Celtics losing the ball out of bounds.
There were only a few seconds left. The Celtics trailed by one. They were about to go down 3-2 to the Pistons with Game 6 back in Detroit. They had lost the previous two games there by margins of 18 and 25 points. So it was over. All the Pistons had to do was make a simple inbounds play, get fouled, make their free throws and go back home with a chance to eliminate the Celtics in six games.
That’s exactly what I was planning to write when Larry Bird stepped in to steal Isiah Thomas’ lazy inbounds pass. Two things come to mind in retrospect: While Bird’s steal was undeniably clutch, just as clutch was Dennis Johnson’s lickety-split decision to break to the basket, where he would receive Bird’s pass and make the game-winning layup past Joe Dumars. That sometimes gets lost in the discussion. It wasn’t a one-man play.
And there also was the sight of Pistons coach Chuck Daly futilely screaming for Thomas to call a timeout before inbounding the ball, a call that, again in retrospect, seems like a no-brainer. What on earth was Isiah thinking?
The Pistons did finally call time, but only after Johnson’s basket. The Celtics somehow escaped to take a 108-107 victory and they now had a chance to eliminate the Pistons in Game 6 instead of the other way around.
One of the lost stories from Game 5 was Robert Parish getting so sick and tired of Bill Laimbeer’s antics that he stopped and pummeled him, right in front of referee Jess Kersey. Parish was not ejected from the game.
But when the Celtics landed in Detroit for Game 6, they discovered that the league had suspended Parish for Game 6, which led to one of the all-time great comments, courtesy of Celtics general manager Jan Volk. Lamenting the absence of Parish, Volk noted, “The consummate provocateur is still roaming the hardwood.” He was speaking, of course, about the annoying Laimbeer.
The Pistons may have been devastated by the end of Game 5, but they won Game 6 at home to force an epic Game 7, a game they might well have won had not Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson collided and cracked heads.
My initial instinct before the Bird steal was half right. No, the Celtics weren’t done in the series. But as it turned out, they were done as a viable NBA championship contender. They extended a better, healthier Lakers team to six games in the 1987 NBA Finals and then disappeared from the NBA’s Grand Stage for 21 years.