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On 25th anniversary, looking back at Larry Bird’s famous steal vs. Pistons

05.25.12 at 10:37 am ET

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of not only one of the greatest plays in Boston sports history, but one of the most memorable moments in NBA history.

In Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals at the Boston Garden against the Pistons, Celtics forward Larry Bird added on to his legend, turning an almost sure defeat in a pivotal game into a stunning victory in the matter of seconds.

With the C’s trailing by a point in the closing seconds, Bird drove the lane and had his shot blocked by Dennis Rodman. With the ball heading out of bounds, Celtics guard Jerry Sichting tried to save it, but it was knocked off his body and the Pistons received possession, setting up the theatrics. With five seconds left, Isiah Thomas hurriedly tried to inbound the ball and lobbed a pass to Bill Laimbeer, who was standing on the baseline near the Celtics basket.

What Thomas didn’t see was Bird, who timed the pass perfectly and flew in from his position at the top of the key to steal the ball, a remarkable play that gave the Celtics sudden life with the final seconds winding down.

“Isiah’s pass just hung up there,” Bird recalled in a 2009 ESPN story about the play. “It seemed to take forever to get to Laimbeer. [After stealing the pass], I was thinking about shooting, but the ball was going the other way and so was my momentum.”

Narrowly avoiding falling out of bounds, Bird found Dennis Johnson streaking down the lane and sent him the pass. Johnson grabbed it and without hesitation laid the ball off the backboard and in as the Celtics took an improbable 108-107 lead with one second left.

“To make the steal was great enough,” Celtics forward Kevin McHale said after the game. “But to then have the presence of mind to make a perfect pass to D.J. … Amazing.”

The Celtics went on to take Game 5 before dropping Game 6 in Detroit. In Game 7 at the Garden, Bird put together a legendary performance, recording 37 points, nine rebounds and nine assists as he led the Celtics to victory and a berth in the NBA finals. It also led to controversial remarks made by Rodman and Thomas following the series.

“Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas,” Rodman said. “I don’t think he’s the greatest player. He’s way overrated.

“Why does he get so much publicity? Because he’s white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest.”

Added Thomas: “I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player, an exceptional talent. But I’d have to agree with Rodman. If he was black, he’d be just another good guy.”

Now, 25 years later, three of the game’s key figures were back in the news recently.

Last year, the controversial Rodman was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He continues to have personal and legal issues.

Thomas this year was fired as coach at Florida International.

Bird, the team president of the Pacers, this week was named NBA Executive of the Year, becoming the first person to be named NBA MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.

Read More: Bill Laimbeer, Celtics, Dennis Johnson, Dennis Rodman
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