In a career like Larry Bird’s, with the wealth of historic single-game production that comes with it, it’s easy for some deserving games to get lost in the shuffle for historic recognition. Amidst the Laker playoffs matchups, the Hawks games where he battled Dominique or made his opponents fall off the bench, and the ECSF Game 7 when he put 43 on Bernard King’s Knicks, the game that might be Larry’s best ever has been comparatively unrecognized. (More specifically, it was left off of this blogger’s top ten list of Larry Bird games, which for some reason I feel is enough evidence to make a sweeping generalization like that and to write 1000 words about it.)
The game I want to talk about is the last of Larry Bird’s 69 triple-doubles, and statistically also his most productive. 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists at home against the Blazers on March 15th, 1992. But that line doesn’t tell anything approximating the story of this game. Here’s the box:
The Celtics were in the midst of a three-game losing streak within a disappointing season, at 36-29 positioned to fall somewhere around the 5th seed in the East. The Original Big Three were still intact, but all of them had declined enough to make that something of a misnomer, and Reggie Lewis had emerged as the team’s best player. Bird was hurting worst of all, having missed 29 of the team’s first 65 games. After this game, he would only play 14 more for his career. The back injury he first sustained lifting gravel while inexplicably taking it upon himself to build a driveway for his mother was about to take him out of the game forever, but it didn’t stop him this night in March.
That’s what makes this one special, in this fan’s estimation; it’s the closest thing Celtics fans have to Ted’s last shot. Bird would say much later that he should have retired in 1989. But three years after that hypothetical retirement, he was still capable of doing what he did against Portland. It was his proverbial last hurrah, and it happened at home, and it combined staggering offensive production with almost excessive theatrics. Seriously, if this game, and this shot, took place in a sports movie you would probably roll your eyes.
Okay, let’s set the stage. The Blazers (among them former Celtic Danny Ainge and eventual Celtic Alaa Abdelnaby) would ride Clyde Drexler to the Finals that season, and Drexler torched a largely ineffective Lewis for most of the evening to build a 118-111 Portland lead with 20 seconds to go. And then the following transpired:
That video box is largely symbolic, because I can’t embed the video so you have to go watch it on the site. The whole fourth quarter and (spoiler) both overtimes are on Youtube, but if you don’t have 75 free minutes, here’s what happens: Bird storms down the baseline and hits a very difficult reverse layup from under the basket. 16 seconds left. Buck Williams gets fouled and hits two free throws. John Bagley takes the ball the length of the court and hits Bird with a nice bounce pass, which Bird powerfully takes to the hoop on one dribble for a layup. That gives Bird 40, his season high. Then the C’s foul Jerome Kersey and he clanks both. Then just about the craziest thing ever happens, and this one I’m pleased to say I can embed:
Bird barely gets in the air, jumping mostly laterally to get the bump, but still somehow keeps both feet outside the line, gets the shot off in time, and sinks it one-handed. That shot should have a name. The Prayer? The Huck? The Accident? Why does Gar Heard get “The Shot?” That one sent the game into overtime, and the Suns didn’t even win. Can we reassign “The Shot?”
In any case, Bird hit the last iconic shot of his career and one of his craziest, sending the game into OT even though he easily could have gotten a whistle there and shot a free throw for the win. I actually think his hitting the shot might have been largely incidental, because Bird really seemed to be trying to get to the line.
But the Celtics pulled it out two overtimes later, with Bird contributing nine more points, four more rebounds, and five more assists and Rick Adelman totally losing his mind. At 54 minutes played, it’s the most floor time Larry Bird ever got, and it was probably when he was least physically capable of playing that much. Since 1986, when we have access to this data, only one player has played more minutes and shot more than Larry’s 35 attempts: Paul Pierce in February 2006, when he dropped 50 on Lebron’s Cavs in double OT with 54 minutes and 36 shots. But returning to Bird’s farewell, here’s footage of the final seconds of double overtime:
Again, that’s a symbolic video box, but go to Youtube and watch at 4:00 as the game ends. The crowd is on the verge of spontaneous combustion, but Bird walks off without a smile or a glance upwards. This was his last big game. Does “gods do not answer letters” ring a bell?
P.S. You may or may not have recognized in the above videos the vaguely Pat Morita-esque Chris Ford, Celtics coach for four seasons but probably most famous for making the NBA’s first three-point shot on October 12th, 1979 in Boston Garden. That game was also Larry Bird’s debut. How often do you think Larry has regret pangs because he wasn’t the one to hit the first three? Daily? Maybe only weekly at this point in his life? He must have really hated Chris Ford at the time.
P.P.S. Only seven other Celtics have recorded triple-doubles since record-keeping began in 1979: Walker had 13, Rondo has 11, Pierce 7, and the following have just one: Parish, DJ, Kevin Gamble, Gomes. Gomes!