How’s this for a coincidence:
The last time the Celtics earned a berth in the NBA Finals was exactly 21 years ago tonight.
The team they beat to get there? The Pistons.
The team they faced in the Finals? The Lakers.
Boston took out the Pistons in seven games in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, putting Detroit away for good with a 117-114 victory at the Garden (back when the Garden was The Garden).
We dug deep in the archive to find Leigh Montville’s account of the game, which was published in the May 31, 1987 editions of the Boston Globe. Check it out … along with this photo of Danny Ainge taken earlier in the series (Photo by Frank O’Brien, Globe Staff). As a side note, the Celtics went on to lose to the Lakers in the Finals in six games.
Boston had the last dance
By Leigh Montville, Globe Staff
Sunday, May 31, 1987
(Frank O’Brien / Globe File Photo)
Danny Ainge was the first of the Boston Celtics players to start dancing. There were 4 seconds left on the digital clock atop the blast-furnace old arena and he came close to Dennis Rodman of the Detroit Pistons and he started . . . started . . . what?
He did not seem to know the exact steps to do.
“Is this how you do it?” he seemed to ask the Pistons’ rookie as the time ran down on the Celtics’ 117-114 win in this final, ferocious seventh game at the Garden to capture the NBA Eastern championship and send the world champions into the finals this week against the Los Angeles Lakers. “One finger in the air. Isn’t that it? Right index finger. How about the feet? Is this the right way to do the feet?”
Danny Ainge danced and then Dennis Johnson danced and Kevin McHale danced and half the people in the packed, hot building danced. No one really knew how to dance the way Dennis Rodman had danced in those three Pistons wins in Pontiac, Mich., but somehow that did not matter. The dancers all looked out-of-step, out-of-synch lovely.
“That dance was something I planned to do from the beginning of this series,” Danny Ainge said. “That was the Dennis Rodman dance. It was geared right for him.”
One more time in this march with clenched teeth through the agonies of the basketball spring this team survived. One more time there was a younger team, a faster team, most importantly a healthier team poised to move ahead on the route the Celtics have traveled so many times in the past. One more time the younger team somehow — defying basketball logic — was going home earlier than the Celtics for the summer.
“We’re the better team,” Isiah Thomas had said on Friday, the series tied at three games apiece and his confidence brimming. “America knows we’re the better team. Even if we lose the final game, America knows we’re the better team.”
Yes, well, not exactly. Not really. No. The better team is the team that scores more points and wins more games. Style does not count. The numbers on the wall count. The Pistons can think forever they had the better team — and in many, many ways they did — but if they were the better team they would have won one of the four games they lost inside this building with the funny-looking floor.
“The crowd was great,” Celtics star Larry Bird reported about this final game on this hot, hot day. “I’ve always said that if the crowd is the way it was today, it takes away a lot of the hurts and helps you play.”
How about the crowd, stuffed together, hanging over the court, making the most noise imaginable? How about Larry Bird, 37 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, never sitting down, taking the hard shots again and again and again? How about Ainge, hitting the three-point jumper with three minutes left to give the Celts a lead they never lost? How about Ainge, again, from the corner with 25 seconds left to give the Celtics a three-point lead? How about Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish and Kevin McHale and the rest?
How about the Celtics?
“I sort of wish this was the end,” Larry Bird said. “But I’m glad that we’re going on to the finals. It’s a shame that someone will have to lose. If anything, I think we’ve already proved that we’re a team that will keep working, keep trying, no matter what. I don’t think anyone can criticize our effort.”
How about the Celtics? If you looked at them, each guy, walking back and forth to the bench, you noticed how loosely each uniform seemed to fit. How hard has this team played in the past month of basketball? Every uniform seemed to sag and bag. You looked at Bird. You looked at Parish. They seemed to be wearing someone else’s clothes. They were. They were the clothes of the someone else they used to be, long ago in the middle of the season.
“We’ll just stay here as long as we have to stay,” these guys seemed to say. “We’re locked in a steam bath and we’ll stay as long as the Pistons stay, as long as anyone else will stay. Turn up the heat. We’ll stay here. The other guys have to go home sometime. We’ll be the ones to shut off the lights as we leave.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before with the injuries,” Celtics coach K.C. Jones, returning for this game from the funeral of his mother in San Francisco, said. “We’ve had that kind of year. When I watched the sixth game from San Francisco I’d see Larry and Kevin and those guys dragging their legs. But somehow we keep going.”
The Pistons were terrific. They had a team that pushed the Celtics to the farthest wall, who scared the faithful out to the nearest ledge. There is a feeling that Vinnie Johnson could walk to any basket in the country tomorrow and hit any shot he wanted to take. Isiah Thomas was magic. Bill Laimbeer stood up to the nagging of an entire city and still performed. The Pistons were terrific . . . but not terrific enough.
The final day one more time belonged to the team that somehow does this stuff again and again. How? No one really can say. Adrian Dantley, the Pistons’ power forward, is carried from the floor on a stretcher. The crowd noise is turned higher. The heat is turned higher. Larry Bird somehow is turned higher. How? Somehow.
The final dance arrives and it is the Celtics who are doing the steps one more time. Even if the Celtics are not exactly sure how to do them.
“Why weren’t you dancing?” Larry Bird was asked.
“I’d played 48 minutes,” the Celtics star replied. “I thought about it — we’d talked about it a few days ago on the bus, Danny and DJ and Kevin and me, but I just didn’t do it.”
“I can’t high-step like that,” Larry Bird said. “I’d probably sprain both ankles if I tried.”
Never matter. The show moves to California.