The past few days have been full of some fun surprises. First, Gerald Henderson took a minute to shoot back a rebuttal to my calling Larry Bird’s steal against the Pistons in 1987 “The best play in Celtics history“
While all three were great plays that can lay claim to the top spot, I’m going to stick to my original assertion that Bird’s play was better.
Why it’s better than “Havlicek Stole the Ball!”
It was a great play, no doubt. And it comes with a CLASSIC Johnny Most exultation.
“Havlicek stole the ball!”
While it might be the most famous call in Celtics history, it’s not quite better than Bird’s.
First, the Celtics had the lead. There’s no telling what could have happened with those last five seconds. Sure, Keith Olbermann had a point when he said the Celtics would have been eliminated IF Wilt Chamberlain got the ball and dunked it. That doesn’t take into account the best shot blocker in NBA history, Bill Russell, who was still in the game, and still defending Wilt.
If Havlicek didn’t steal it, a Russell block of Wilt is as conceivable a scenario as a Wilt dunk. If Havlicek didn’t steal it, Philadelphia still could have missed a shot or turned the ball over.
It did help clinch a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, which did send the Celtics to the NBA Finals where they beat the Lakers and won their seventh straight title. If we’re ranking these plays, it’s riiiiiiiiiiight there with the other two. But it doesn’t surpass them.
Why it’s better than Henderson’s steal
Henderson’s steal was great. It came in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals and it saved the C’s from going down 2-0 to the Lakers. Magic Johnson, in perhaps his greatest Finals failure, never got a shot off after Henderson tied it, and the Celtics would win in OT.
But if we’re being nit-picky (and yes, this is very nit-picky, but we’re looking to break a tie here, so that’s what has to happen), Henderson stole a lazy, cross-court lob pass while the Celtics were in a full-court press. I don’t know why Worthy never gave the ball back to Magic, who broke free of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale after giving the ball up.
Stupid play by Worthy, but still, a great defensive play by Henderson to see it coming and not only steal it, but lay it up too. Still, that only tied the game, and the Lakers had the ball with a chance to win. It took a brain-fart by one of the greatest players in NBA history to send it to OT, and then the Celtics needed to out-perform the Lakers for five more minutes to take Game 2.
Bird’s play, however, has things these two plays don’t:
1: The Celtics were down one with five seconds left and about to go down 3-2 in the ECF to the Pistons. His play turned a loss into a win as opposed to tying the game up or protecting a lead.
2: He made up for someone’s mistake in a blink. He left the guy he was guarding on the right elbow to rush to the un-guarded guy on the left block. The Celtics were woefully out of position, but he covered everyone’s ass.
3: He controlled the ball, unlike Havlicek. Unlike Henderson, who had a clear lane for his own layup (there was a late attempt to contest by Worthy, but he was mostly in the clear), Bird had to spin and find the man cutting to the hoop… which he did… while off-balance and somehow staying in-bounds… and the pass was perfect.
As an added cherry on top of this best play sundae, it came with its own iconic Johnny Most call
“aaaaand… there’s a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ and he lays it in!”
On top of it, you have the amazing reaction shots of Bill Walton and DJ calling Bird over to hug him for being so great.
I don’t want to belittle these other players or plays. You are well within your rights, Gerald and Keith, to argue for them to be the best ever. And trust me, I’m happy that you’ve both participated in this debate.
But the fact still remains that Bird’s play was better than both, if by just a smidge. On my scorecard, it remains the best play in Celtics history.