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Larry Bird Said Dennis Johnson Was the Best He Ever Played With, and DJ Fired Back With His Share of Bird Compliments
By Mike Thomas,
Larry Bird once paid former Boston Celtics teammate Dennis Johnson the biggest compliment when he said DJ was the best player he ever played with. The two teamed up in the mid-1980s and won a pair of championships together. They also teamed up for one of the most iconic plays in Celtics history during the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. While Bird paid Johnson the highest of compliments, DJ had quite a few to throw back at Bird.
Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson won a title in their first year together
The Boston Celtics needed some help. After winning a championship in 1981, they were ousted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1982 playoffs, and then the Milwaukee Bucks swept them in the 1983 postseason. The Celtics went out and acquired Johnson from the Phoenix Suns in an attempt to beef up the guard position. Andrew Toney of the 76ers and Sidney Moncrief of the Bucks gave Boston fits during the postseason run.
With DJ on board, the Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in 1984. It was the first of four straight trips to the championship round for Boston.
Although DJ struggled in the first three games of the 1984 NBA Finals, he turned out to be a difference-maker in Boston’s championship against the rival Los Angeles Lakers. At halftime of Game 4 of the series, Celtics coach K.C. Jones made a defensive switch, putting DJ on Magic Johnson. He hoped that focusing on stopping the Lakers playmaker would take pressure off DJ’s offensive game. Not only did he contain Magic, but he scored 22, 22, 20, and 22 points in the final four games of the series, three being Celtics wins.
Bird and Johnson teamed up for one of the most impressive plays in Celtics history during the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. In Game 5 and the series tied at two games apiece, the Pistons had a one-point lead and the ball with five seconds left. Pistons guard Isiah Thomas lobbed an inbounds pass in the direction of Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, who was set up in the paint under the Celtics basket.
Bird intercepted the pass and quickly flipped the ball to a cutting Johnson. DJ drove the lane and hit the game-winning layup to secure an improbable Celtics win. Boston won the series in seven games.
When his career was over, Bird admitted that Johnson was the best player he ever played with. The two had great chemistry on and off the court. Johnson had a few complimentary things to say about the Celtics star.
“Larry was a special player, one of the best ever,” Johnson once told Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation. “What made him so great was his drive. He practiced the way he played the game, going full-speed all of the time. Larry never took a practice off.
“You hear sportswriters talk about how he would dive for loose balls during games, but he did that stuff in practice, too. It wasn’t for show. Larry wasn’t a big talker. Practices were his way of making a statement. He was one who always led by example, and he never let you know how bad he was hurting. That was the real Larry Bird that you saw on the court.”
In Game 4 of the 1985 NBA Finals, Johnson hit a crucial basket to help the Celtics beat the Lakers. Although he got all the credit for that shot, he said the biggest moment of his career was teaming up with Bird for that steal against the Pistons.
“That play ranks as the greatest that I’ve ever been a part of,” Johnson told McClellan. “The shot I hit to beat the Lakers in Game 4 of the (1985) Finals was huge, but being involved with Larry’s steal is my all-time favorite.
“Had we lost that game, the Pistons would have gone back to Detroit up 3–2 in the series. We were so hard to beat at home, and anytime you have Larry on your team you feel like you’ve got a chance, no matter how bad the outlook. Larry made a great play, and I reacted to it.”
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