Underneath to DJ

Game 5, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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Favorite game? Well, after the Celtics broadcasts on their recent West Coast swing, it's tempting to say any one in which Bill Walton has a microphone. Beyond that, it's tempting to say any one in which Bill Walton played, because for Celtics fans of my generation and older, he symbolizes that unfiltered basketball heaven of the 1985-86 season. The only disappointment from that season is that the Showtime Lakers didn't live up to their end of the bargain, losing to the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. It would have been pure joy to watch the Celtics command their stage.

That digression out of the way, a favorite game . . . I mean, how does a Celtics fan who was 10 years old when Larry Bird made his NBA debut choose just one? Given the task of considering this a couple of days ago, and with the help of some vintage video on YouTube, we bounced around a few obvious options in our mind. The Bird-Nique shootout . . . Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis and changing the tenor of the '84 Finals . . . DJ's buzzer beater in Game 4 of the '85 Finals . . . a half-dozen others . . . and the classic we eventually chose:

Game 5, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Six seconds left, Celtics trailing the despicable Pistons by a point, Isiah Thomas inbounding for Detroit in the Celtics' end. Take it away, Johnny Most.

"Now there's a steal by Bird! Underneath to DJ, who lays it in! Right at one second left! What a play by Bird!! Bird stole the inbound pass, laid it up to DJ, and DJ laid it up and in, and Boston has a one-point lead with one second left! Oh, my, this place is going ca-razy!

Chills? Oh, yeah. Chills. Still. They never fade, all these years later.

Now, maybe my choice for a favorite game is a bit of a cliche -- the ending is among the, what, five most memorable moments in NBA history? But my reason for loving it may not be the typical one. The Bird steal was a moment of basketball brilliance even by his standards, luring that smiling assassin Isiah into a lazy pass, then swiping it and pivoting on like the world's tallest, palest flamingo, trying desperately not to fall out of bounds while glancing for a cutter . . .

And my goodness, there was a cutter. Dennis Johnson, DJ, had been hovering on defense near the top of the 3-point line when Bird lunged and snared the ball. The instant -- well, if not the very instant, them the tiniest fraction of a fraction of a second later -- that Bird got his mitt on the ball, DJ burst down the lane directly to the hoop.

His presence of mind and instinct in such a pressurized situation remains mesmerizing to this day, and that's without taking into account the high degree of difficulty of his shot, a backhanded layup contested by four-time First-Team All-Defense selection Joe Dumars. With all the elements that went into it, not to mention the stakes, it may be the greatest single play in the history of the NBA.

(Watching how fast all of this unfolded, from Bird's shot on the previous possession being blocked to the ref quickly handing the ball to Isiah to the steal and the delirious aftermath, you can't help but think that nowadays it would be interrupted by at least one lengthy timeout.)

It was appropriate that the collaborators on the heist were Bird and DJ. Bird famously called him the best teammate he ever had, and I can't think of two athletes in any sport who had better chemistry, bordering on ESP. If you're skeptical, you either forgot about DJ's oh-so-casual bullet passes from just inside half court that would find Bird sneaking along the baseline for a cheap two. Or you weren't fortunate enough to see them in the first place.

Which reminds me of my favorite part of the play. It's not the steal, or the cut, or the layup. It's the reaction afterward. DJ hustling to guard the inbounder, the demoralized Pistons calling time out, the Garden rocking and rejoicing . . . and then, in front of the Celtics bench, DJ tapping his chest, not even a suggestion of what he'd just done on his face, and giving Bird a quick hug before heading to the bench, as if that's just the way they drew it up, that's the way they expected it to go, and no other outcome had been considered.

In their moment, they left the celebrating to the others. Which brings me to a smaller reason to love that play. Leading the rejoicing from the Celtics bench? Good 'ol Bill Walton. Like the rest of us who were going ca-razy, he appreciated basketball heaven when he saw it.

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