This Date in Celtics Playoff History: May 26, 1987

Man of Steal

Bird goes for the steal.
(Photo by Steve Lipofsky)

"Now it's Move Over, Hondo. All John Havlicek did on that April night 22 years ago was preserve a one-point lead."
-- Bob Ryan in the May 27, 1987 edition of the Boston Globe

While Havlicek's game-saving steal of Hal Greer's inbounds pass in the 1965 playoffs stands as one of the greatest moments in NBA history, the above statement speaks to the magnitude of the event that occurred at the Boston Garden 15 years ago today.

What Ryan, countless other scribes, and the 14,890 in attendance saw at the old barn on Causeway Street that night still resonates in the heads of Celtics fans everywhere, just as it probably burns in the mind of anyone who watched on TV from the state of Michigan.

Leading 107-106 with five seconds left on the clock in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals, all the Pistons had to do was run out the clock. All Isiah Thomas had to do was inbound the ball. All the intended receiver -- Bill Laimbeer -- had to do was catch and wrap his arms and trunk around it.

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If they had done this, then surely everything would have been all right with the Pistons. They would hold a 3-2 lead in the series over the three-time defending conference champs. They would head back head to Detroit for Game Six with a full-head of steam with the opportunity to deliver the knock-out punch.

After all, nothing was going right for the Celtics. Just seconds before, they had a potential go-ahead basket blocked, which then hit off their own man and went out of bounds. Some luck.

They would certainly lose Robert Parish for the next contest, as he was ejected earlier in the game for attempting a few of his own knockout blows on Laimbeer.

To make matters worse, Head Coach K.C. Jones lost his mother the night before and would fly home to attend the funeral the next day.

"All I wanted to do was run those five seconds off the clock," said Thomas after the game.

"It was not a single play, but a number of tiny ones culminating in a lay up, and a lot of extraneous noise in North Station."
-- Charlie Pierce in the Boston Herald
He got the ball, the whistle blew and the five count in which he needed to inbounds the ball began. From just in front of the Pistons bench, just a few yards from the vomitory in which his team would use to escape the Garden, Thomas looked for a way to get the ball in.

When sure-handedness and fluidity were mandatory, Thomas hesitated. Joe Dumars, on the far side of the lane, was not an option. Neither was Dennis Rodman, who circled near mid-court. Instead of using his team's last timeout, Thomas softly tossed the ball to Laimbeer.

Enter Larry Bird.

The Celtics captain left his man, Adrian Dantley, just inside the free throw line and moved in for the kill. He swiped Thomas' lazy pass with his right hand, gained enough balance on one foot to not only stay in-bounds but to also to hit a streaking Dennis Johnson, who swooped in from midcourt and was on his way to the hoop.

The Celtics and the Garden celebrate.
(Photo by Steve Lipofsky)
"I was going to foul (Laimbeer)," said Bird after the game. "I thought that if I fouled him right away, there would only be four seconds left and even if he made the shots, we'd still have a chance to tie the game."

"The ball just hung up there. It seemed to take forever to get to Laimbeer. I kept going and I was thinking about shooting, but the ball was going the other way."

"I started counting four seconds in my head. Then I saw Dennis going to the basket. I wish I could say I planned it. It was a lucky play. That was all it was."

Johnson laid the ball off the glass and in and the Garden went delirious. Many say at this moment, the building got louder than it ever had been. Louder than the day more than two decades before when Havlicek stole the ball on the opposite side of the court.

That day, the Sixers went home shaking their heads. On this day, it was the Pistons.

"I don't believe it," said Dantley after the game. "This is ... this is the worst. The worst of my career. The worst in my life."

"Never," echoed Rodman. "Never been anything like that. Basketball or nothing. Never had anything like that. This is the only place where that happens. The only place."

Click Here for's Q&A with Dennis "D.J." Johnson
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