The purpose of a Classic Box Score, according to scholars, is to look back on happier days as your basketball franchise is experiencing struggles. So today, let’s venture back to 1988, the last year the Celtics won the Eastern Conference in the Bird Era. On Tuesday, April 19th of that year, the Celtics played the Detroit Pistons in the fourth-to-last game of the season. The Pistons were three games back of the East-leading Celtics, and a Detroit victory would make the final three Celtics games, against the Bulls, Hawks, and Bulls, must-wins.
But the Celtics won. They beat Isiah, Laimbeer, Dumars, old man Adrian Dantley, Mahorn, and Hall of Famer Worm Rodman to clinch the top seed in the Conference. McHale had 33 and rookie Reggie Lewis scored a basket.
But that’s not the game we’re going to talk about. Classic Box Score fakeout!
The game we want to talk about was two days later against eventual MVP Michael Jordan at the Garden. The Celtics had clinched, so they didn’t have to hustle this game out. But Bird, an insane person, played to prove that he could still take Jordan head-to-head. The date was April 21st, 1988, one year to the day before the Tiananmen Square protests. Coincidence? Yes.
All thanks to Basketball-Reference. I ran this box score through the CelticsHub Visualization Engine to produce a video of the game below. Every moment of this clip is awesome and fun, in large part because it’s peppered with vintage Mike and Tommy. This Tommy is a much quieter Tommy, before he realized ten years later that he could say whatever he wanted at any volume with no consequences, but it’s an enjoyable Tommy nonetheless. After the jump are the highlights, as well as some highlights of the highlights if you don’t have five minutes and want to just drag the button around.
0:10 – Jordan tips away a McHale layup at the absolute peak of his and the ball’s elevation.
0:25 – Bird somehow finds Robert Parish with a leaping over-the-head scoop.
1:07 – Bird, from six feet out, puts it off the glass with his left hand for funsies.
1:48 – Jordan uses his skinny butt to seal off Dennis Johnson in the post, allowing Jordan to grab an entry pass and dunk. It’s clips like these that remind you there was actually nothing Jordan couldn’t do.
3:02 – Jordan with a 360 lefty floater. My goodness.
3:25 – Bird yoinks an inbounds pass out of Scottie Pippen’s hands and takes it in for a layup. The pass is actually in Pippen’s grasp by the time Bird gets to it, but Bird plucks it away like it’s floating in midair. Of course then Jordan pulls up at the other end and hits the longest possible two at the buzzer.
4:27 – Jordan gets knocked over in midair and, almost horizontal, finds (I think) Dave Corzine all alone underneath.
5:02 – Nice slow-mo clip of Jordan going past Dennis Johnson as if he were composed of mist, then double-pumping a reverse layup under Robert Parish’s arms. Sometimes your best is not enough.
The last play on this clip is Jordan making his way from the arc to the basket in about .7 seconds for a dunk. But the Celtics took this game, and Bird, not Jordan, was the show. Bird went 19 for 29 to Jordan’s 17 for 33, and added 10 boards to tie Parish for the team lead.
But pretty much everyone was gathering stats on this night, because the pace was nuts. The Bulls ended up with an exhausting 97 attempts, good for third-highest total in the NBA this season in a non-overtime game. They were battling for the 3rd seed with the Hawks, and Jordan was making absolutely sure that his MVP candidacy wasn’t in doubt.
Jordan ended up with both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, one of four guys to have done that along with Olajuwon, Robinson, and your Kevin Garnett. Years later John Hollinger would point out that Jordan’s 1987-1988 was the greatest PER season in history. It wasn’t nothing to go up against Jordan this season and win, especially with no relevance to the standings, but Bird did it anyway.
When the Celtics played the Bulls again on the last game of the season, somebody locked Bird in his hotel room to get him to sit out and Jordan got 46. But one can safely assume that game didn’t do much for Jordan’s bloodlust, because he didn’t get another chance at Bird.