During the early 1950s, the Minneapolis Lakers dominated the NBA, capturing three straight titles. With George Mikan retiring and the Celtics drafting Bill Russell in 1956, the NBA saw Boston establish itself as the franchise to which every dynasty in professional sports would be compared to, by wining an unprecedented 11 championships in 13 seasons. Once Russell retired however, no team was able to win the title in consecutive years for 18 straight seasons.
Thus, the idea that a squad could repeat the feat from the previous season almost became laughable. The league had too many stars and too many great teams for one particular franchise to flex its muscles and conquer all would be challengers two years in a row.
Many felt that the 1985-86 Boston Celtics would have an opportunity to not only defend their title but also win the Larry O’Brien trophy in 1987; however with Bill Walton getting injured and an already strong Los Angeles Lakers team adding Mychal Thompson to their roster, those dreams vanished when Magic Johnson led his Lakers to the mountaintop in 1987 by defeating these same Celtics.
And then, the unthinkable happened a few days later at the championship parade when Pat Riley uttered these famous words:
“There aren’t anymore people in this world that deserve a world championship again more than the people in Inglewood here. And I’m guaranteeing everybody here, next year, we’re gonna win it again…”
Riley put the league on notice and essentially set the gauntlet for his team.
Who did this guy think he was? Did he just think the rest of the league would bow down, roll out the red carpet and escort the Lakers to the title in June 1988?
For better or worse, Riley agitated the world with his comments but he also challenged his team to be part of history. It would be up to them to oblige.
With the bulls-eye on their back, the Los Angeles Lakers started off the season with a 26-6 record, highlighted by a thriller at the Boston Garden where Magic Johnson banked in a long distance runner at the buzzer to give his team the win.
The Lakers looked to be on their way to dominating the regular season when a key injury struck in Chicago: Magic pulled his groin muscle.
Johnson would miss 10 games and the Lakers would lose six of those contests. Magic eventually recovered and came back but the team still needed to get back in sync. Nonetheless, he would help the Lakers finish with the best overall record in the league at 62-20.
Los Angeles would open up the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs and sweep them. The second round would pit them against a scrappy Utah Jazz team that forced them to go seven games. Ultimately, the Lakers experience and the home court would prove decisive in the seventh game as they would go on to win 109-98.
In the Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles would have to face a good Dallas Mavericks team that matched up perfectly against them. Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman would prove to be a difficult backcourt to handle while Mark Aguirre was a tough physical scoring forward that gave their frontcourt fits. Dallas would put some pressure on the Lakers but ultimately they would falter against a superior opponent in seven games.
The Lakers outlasted the Mavericks and found an unfamiliar foe waiting for them in the NBA Finals in the Detroit Pistons. Most felt that the Eastern Conference champs would prove to be formidable opponents but that they would ultimately succumb to the Lakers experience and talent much like their previous opponents.
The purple and gold would get a rude awakening in Game 1 of the 1988 Finals as the Pistons would steal the home court. The Lakers would rebound to win Game 2 and then Game 3 on the road but would lose the next two games and go back home facing a 3-2 series deficit.
Game 6 proved to be quite a scare for the Lakers as Detroit dominated the hustle stats by forcing turnovers and crashing the glass. Making matters worse, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was completely ineffective throughout the game, shooting a mere 3-for-14 from the field.
Los Angeles would take a seven-point lead going into the half but Detroit would prove to be the more physical team, imposing their will on their opponent. In addition, despite badly spraining his ankle, Isiah Thomas became so hot that one expected smoke to come out of his ears during the second half as he finished the game with 43 points and eight assists (with 25 of those points coming in the third quarter).
The Lakers turned things around by becoming a little more physical defensively in the paint. They would contest shots and limit the damage done by Detroit on the offensive boards. The change allowed for Magic to get out in transition and score or feed the likes of James Worthy and Byron Scott.
Thomas’ hot shooting would help his team take a 102-99 lead with a minute left in the game, but the Lakers had something the Pistons did not: Magic. The superstar guard would finish with 22 points and 19 assists, but more importantly, he would make all the important plays down the stretch to win the game. He got Scott a wide open jump shot to cut the deficit to one point and then ran a pick and roll with James Worthy to get the defense scattered and then the ball went to Abdul-Jabbar who managed to get fouled and converted his free throws to give the Lakers the win.
L.A. had avoided elimination and forced Game 7.
Detroit would start off the decisive game missing close range shots, a sure sign of nervousness but would eventually get into the flow of the game and once again win the hustle stats. The Lakers would toughen up once again in the second quarter and fly down the court for transition opportunities to take a 52-47 halftime lead.
The Lakers would raise the intensity in the third quarter thanks in large part to their half court trap that essentially became a zone once the Pistons crossed midcourt. Granted, zones were outlawed in the NBA at the time and thus the Lakers were not allowed to play zone; but they were able to get away with it by using a smart wrinkle: they would use their most athletic players (A.C. Green, Mychal Thompson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper and Magic Johnson or Byron Scott) to essentially trap in the corners and then rotate and recover (they would also double team Adrian Dantley at the wing or in the post). The end result was that Detroit technically had mismatches at every position, but the Los Angeles players were all tall and strong enough to hold their own against the Pistons.
The Lakers defense blocked shots, forced turnovers, rebounded the ball and got out in transition to score and take a 10-point lead by the end of the third quarter. The Pistons rallied in the fourth but would ultimately fell short as the Lakers emerged victorious thanks in large part to James Worthy’s 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
Pat Riley would prove to be prophetic as his team would repeat as champions and become the team of the 1980s.
Many more teams would go on to win back-to-back titles after the Lakers repeated in 1988. Here is the list:
- 1988-89 and 1989-90 Detroit Pistons
- 1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93 Chicago Bulls (3-peat)
- 1993-94 and 1994-95 Houston Rockets
- 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98 Chicago Bulls (3-peat)
- 1999-00, 2000-01 and 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers (3-peat)
- 2008-09 and 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
Winning two titles in a row may have become a little more common in the late 1980s, but let’s not forget which team restarted the trend. Riley made a bold statement and helped the franchise become one of the league’s greatest dynasties.
By the way, not that anyone is keeping score; but the last franchise to repeat? That would be the Los Angeles Lakers. Perhaps Riley knew something we didn’t…