J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site,Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been doing excellent work at FB&G and continues those efforts today . You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.
In the spring of 1985, the Los Angeles Lakers faced off against the Boston Celtics for the ninth time in the history of both franchises with the championship on the line. It was said that Boston had history on their side given that they were undefeated in the playoffs against the purple and gold. Most observers believed that the Lakers could not and would not vanquish the Celtics’ Curse. Indeed, for fear of upsetting the balance after the Lakers took a 3-2 series lead; Jerry West refused to travel to Boston with the team for Game 6 because of his fear that he would bring back to life the ghosts of Celtics past.
Much to the chagrin of the Boston faithful, Los Angeles was victorious and finally had the opportunity to celebrate a title at the expense of the Celtics (in Boston no less). The following season, many expected that the Lakers would face off against their foes in the NBA Finals once again but it was not to be.
Magic Johnson and his teammates were eliminated in five games by the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals and watched as the 1986 Boston Celtics won the NBA championship and were anointed by many outsiders as possibly the greatest team ever assembled.
Thus, the 1986-87 season would be special in Los Angeles because it would give them the opportunity to not only get back to the Finals, but also to prove that they could take down the wildly popular Celtics.
The Lakers would mostly coast during the regular season, going 65-17 and claiming the best record in the league. The team featured Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Michael Cooper and Byron Scott; but the big acquisition would come in February 1987, as the Lakers acquired Mychal Thompson in a trade from the San Antonio Spurs.
The Thompson move was a big one because not only could he play both the center and power forward positions (he made the Lakers much quicker racing down the court when he played center alongside A.C. Green), but because he was Kevin McHale’s former college teammate and thus could defend him better than anybody else in the league.
This Lakers team might have had the same core, but they were not the team from previous seasons. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still the team’s low post option, but now this had become Magic Johnson’s team. No longer would he take a backseat to anyone. He would become the primary scoring option all the while maintaining his playmaking responsibilities. His performance would earn him MVP honors at the conclusion of the campaign.
And so after breezing through the regular season, Los Angeles looked even more dominant in Western Conference play during the playoffs. Indeed, they swept the Denver Nuggets, dispatched the Golden State Warriors in five games (losing only the Sleepy Floyd game) and swept the Seattle Supersonics.
The Finals would have the Lakers play the Celtics once again with bragging rights on the line for the next 21 years (this would be the last time the teams would play until they met again in the 2008 Finals).
At home, Los Angeles took care of Boston, winning the first two games by a combined 32 points. The Celtics would come back on their home floor in Game 3 and win by six points, setting up a monumental Game 4 in Boston that would allow the Celtics to either tie the series or face a 3-1 deficit.
The Lakers started Game 4 by feeding Abdul-Jabbar on every trip as they tried to get him going early to set up their half court offense. However, Kareem struggled to hit his skyhook over the outstretched arms of Robert Parish and thus the purple and gold struggled to score early in the game. Complicating matters for the team, the Celtics did a great job of getting back in transition and limiting the Lakers fast break.
Struggling to hit shots, Los Angeles hit the offensive boards. But once that failed, Magic Johnson abandoned his role of point guard and instead became a scorer. And boy did he score. Magic hit the offensive glass for put backs, attacked the lane for lay ups and floaters and even posted up his defender and hit a series of right and left handed hook shots. At the half, the Lakers trailed by eight with Johnson leading the charge with 19 points.
The Lakers fell in a rut in the third quarter as they tried once again to feed Abdul-Jabbar who was unsuccessful in his scoring attempts. Then they switched strategies and went to Worthy who did a good job of scoring but Los Angeles’ defense got exposed. Indeed, Bird and Parish regularly ran pick and rolls that left Kareem guarding Larry Legend (I believe the term used to describe this would be mismatch).
The switching defense meant that not only did Bird get a lot of opportunities to put up points, but even when he missed; the Celtics were able to get second chance opportunities. And thus, with 5:08 left in the third quarter, Boston was up 77-61 with the Lakers slowly unraveling. Magic tried to bring them back with his scoring but just could not put a dent into the lead. With the Lakers needing a spark; Pat Riley made the adjustment of the game and sent in his athletes.
With Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, James Worthy, A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson on the court, Los Angeles went to a half court zone trap. The strategy caused the Celtics to become impatient and fire ill-advised shots; also they started to turn the ball over which sped up the tempo. By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers were down a mere seven points.
The Lakers brought back most of their starters in the fourth but kept Thompson and Cooper on the floor with them. Worthy carried most of the scoring duties in the fourth but Boston maintained their lead late into the fourth quarter.
With 2:09 left in the game, the Celtics seemed like they were well on their way to tying up the series at two games apiece with a 103-96 lead. Here’s what happened the rest of the game from that moment on:
- Magic feeds Thompson at the basket and he gets fouled. Makes one of two free throws. Boston leads 103-97.
- Parish is double teamed in the high post and coughs up the ball. Magic runs the break and finds Cooper for a three-pointer. Boston leads 103-100 with 1:32 left.
- Bird tries to feed McHale and throws the ball out of bounds. The Lakers come back and isolate Worthy against McHale on the right wing and he makes into the lane where he fakes the post up and turns for a fade away jumper that goes all net. Boston leads 103-102 with 58 seconds left (the Boston Garden crowd starts to quiet down like the Utah crowd in the 1998 NBA Finals).
- Bird runs a pick and roll with Parish and gets matched up with Kareem (because of the switch) and dribbles towards the baseline where he fires a contested jumper. The Lakers rebound and Magic brings ball up on the right side of court and sends Cooper into the post against Dennis Johnson as a set up play. Cooper then leaves the area and goes across the lane to set a screen on the left block for Kareem who becomes free for an alley-oop score. Lakers lead 104-103 with 29 seconds left.
- Celtics come back and feed a wide open Bird (Worthy had to rotate to an open Danny Ainge) who scores a killer baseline three-point shot. Boston leads 106-104 with 12 seconds left.
- On ensuing possession (after a Laker timeout), the ball goes to Kareem in the post where he is fouled on the shot. He makes the first attempt but misses the second one as Kevin McHale tips the ball out of bounds. Boston leads 106-105 Celtics with 7 seconds left.
- Lakers inbound the ball to Magic on the left baseline where Parish jumps at him and retreats so that McHale (Dennis Johnson switched on screen and picked up Worthy) can come to pick him up. Magic head fakes and stutter steps off the dribble, goes to the middle of the lane and scores on a beautiful junior skyhook with McHale getting a piece of the ball. Lakers lead 107-106 with 2 seconds left.
- Larry Bird misses a three-point shot at the buzzer. Game blouses. Lakers grab a 3-1 lead.
The Los Angeles Lakers would go on to lose Game 5 but would travel back to Los Angeles for Game 6 and win the title at the Forum. Magic Johnson would earn the NBA Finals MVP after averaging 26.2 points, 13.0 assists, eight rebounds and 2.3 steals per game on 54.1 percent field goal shooting in his six games in the Finals.
In his book The Show; Roland Lazenby was able to get this quote from the former Spartan:
“See everybody thought I couldn’t score. I had said, ‘You know, I’m just gonna go along, and one of these days it’s gonna be my show.’ That shot proved it to everybody, and that was the year I won the MVP. That’s the year Pat said, ‘Okay, Earvin, I want you to take over.’ And that’s what happened. After that, people said, ‘It is Larry and Magic,’ instead of ‘Larry can do this, and Magic can’t do that.’ You always had to fight that.”
If not for Magic’s shot, the series might have taken a completely different turn, and the Celtics could have well won the 1987 NBA title. But that’s the thing with basketball legends; they tend to come through when needed and Magic Johnson did just that with his junior skyhook….
A moment frozen in time forever.