Magic’s Forgotten Finals

J.M. Poulard —  November 25, 2011

One of the worst kept secrets in NBA basketball is that the presence of superstars on a roster can help build a championship team. A truly great player can propel a team not only to titles, but also help boost the value of a franchise. For instance, LeBron James helped the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the 2007 NBA Finals and turned the team into the hottest ticket in town. The team may never have won a title with James; but his play in a Cavaliers jersey certainly helped turn around the franchise.

The end result is that superstars often get the lion’s share of the credit when they win but they also get most of the blame directed towards them when they lose. Is it fair? Hardly. But those are the expectations that come along with being The Man and being paid like it.

But what often gets lost in the process is how underrated some superstars are.

Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest player the game has ever seen, and yet his performance in the 1991 NBA Finals is rarely mentioned amongst the greatest in the league’s history. For a variety of reasons, it seems almost forgotten but it was still impressive nonetheless.

In the same breath, the 1991 NBA Finals pitted Michael Jordan versus Magic Johnson; a match up that would eventually be viewed as a passing of the torch.

Jordan was a superstar that had captured the world’s attention with his impressive scoring ability as well as his surreal athletic gifts. He had not yet been to the mountaintop, and was hoping to finally be crowned as a champion at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Magic Johnson on the other hand was 31 years old, a five-time NBA champion and the proud owner of three MVP awards. Gone were the trademark goatee as well as some of his speed and quickness; but he was still Magic.

The Chicago Bulls won the 1991 NBA title in five games against the Los Angeles Lakers, but Magic Johnson played that series much like he did his entire career: as the greatest point guard the game has ever seen.

The Bulls were younger, faster, more athletic and quicker to the ball; but the one thing they failed to do was shut down Magic.

During the 1991 Finals, Chicago had Scottie Pippen hound Magic Johnson in the backcourt while he brought the ball up and also had Michael Jordan alternate and do the same in order to get the Lakers point guard to exert a lot of energy. In addition, they sent Horace Grant to double-team him before he crossed half court with the hope that the added pressure would disrupt the Lakers’ rhythm. And just for good measure, the Bulls alternated their half court defense against Magic, hoping to keep him guessing.

Phil Jackson had his team trap the Lakers’ superstar in the pick and roll on occasion, other times they would just make a hard hedge to disrupt his timing or they would simply go underneath screens and dare Magic to beat them from deep. Also, the Bulls were smart enough to defend the 6’9 point guard with only one defender when he went down to the low block; in an effort to force Johnson to score instead of allowing him to get his teammates involved.

The Bulls won the series thanks in large part to their crisp offensive execution as well as their smothering defense; but not because they shut down Johnson.

Magic was his usual self against Chicago (albeit the Bulls made him work hard for everything); rebounding the ball, getting out in transition, scoring, dishing and throwing out high fives to his teammates. He directed traffic beautifully and set up the likes of Terry Teagle, A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Sam Perkins for easy scores. Showtime may have looked a little different during the 1980s, but this team with Magic was definitely a carbon copy of the Showtime Lakers, and Johnson was the one responsible for that.

Although Magic’s performance in the 1991 Finals was not the best of his career (his play in the 1987 and also the 1988 Finals have to be up there in the top performances ever in the title round), had any other point guard played as well as he had in that series; many would have been raced to say that it had been one of the best performances by a player on a Finals losing team. But because we had seen Magic do it before, it barely generated any publicity.

Furthermore, less than five months later, the Lakers superstar would announce his retirement from basketball because he was HIV positive, and just like that his basketball talent stopped being a topic of conversation.

Many will remember and even look up the footage of the three-time league MVP’s play during the 1980s, but it’s worth noting that he was still at the top of his game when he retired in November 1991.

Magic Johnson won championships in high school, college, the NBA and also captured a gold medal during the Olympics. In other words, he is a proven winner.

In his 13 NBA seasons, Johnson’s teams made it to the Finals nine times; and in his last Finals appearance (against the Bulls), he averaged 18.6 points, 12.4 assists, 8.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game on 43.1 percent field goal shooting (he also had two triple doubles in the series).

The Los Angeles Lakers did not win the title during the 1990-91 season, but Magic Johnson certainly was not the reason. He played like a Hall of Fame type player and yet was completely underrated while doing so.

That Lakers postseason run may have been forgotten by many, but at least the player is and will continue to be remembered.

J.M. Poulard

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15 responses to Magic’s Forgotten Finals

  1. When the finals started, Jordan was the main defender on Magic, and I recall Magic having his way with Jordan, especially in the post. The Lakers looked like the better team until Worthy got injured, which allowed Phil to switch Pippen onto Magic. The series completely changed from that point forward. Pippen was awesome defensively, harassing Magic all over the court, while Jordan was free to concentrate on offense.

    IMO, Pippen was the MVP of that series….. And the Lakers win that series if Worthy had not been injured.

  2. As noted in #1, James Worthy was hurt in the series and so was Byron Scott.

    I don’t think the Lakers had enough talent that year to beat the Bulls even at full strength, but with Scott and Worthy down it was all over.

  3. I wanted to be the first on here to announce the lockout is over. I almost cried. Now let’s hope the new deal favors the Lakers.

  4. Was that the year that both Scott and Worthy were injured in practice, or am I thinking of when Riley was coach and both Magic and Scott got injured in a practice before a major series? I just remember Byron being mad at the coach for the very hard practices they were having, hence the injuries.
    Anyway, Magic played hard and was at the top of his game until he left in retirement.

  5. Lockout what? I think what will be the most-overused word in the coming days will be “FINALLY!”

  6. Warren,

    Get your deal making cap on.

    Darius,

    See! You got that Christmas present I promised.

  7. hallelujah!!!111one

  8. Awesome news. I wasn’t looking forward to reading feature articles on Sun Yue, Anthony Peeler, Terry Teagle, Kermit Washington, etc.

    The 16-game hiatus might favor the veteran teams like the Lakers…

  9. Actually, I think the condensed schedule may hurt the Lakers. We will have plenty of time to discuss it.

    But at the moment, I don’t care. Just glad that it appears the game is back.

  10. Darius, we just came back from vacation and forgot to greet you last Thanksgiving. It is not too late to say that you are doing a great job for your family, among Laker fans for keeping this site with rich insights, more engaging as a forum than just a vehicle for more advertising dollars.

    News today lockout is over. Is this really a fresh news? Eventually, they will agree when both camps’ bank accounts are depleting. As a fan, I really hate being ignored with pleas of reconciliation from July to this date. Suddenly, they come to their senses and would like to exploit our Christmas by asserting their traditional presence. Bah humbug to David, the Scrooge of 2011 and head of the greedy bunch.

  11. Better to have a schedule that hurts the Lakers than having no schedule and no Lakers at all.

  12. Good article. I think Pippen did a decent job slowing down Magic, but slowing is not stopping, which is how the master narrative usually plays out. Magic’s real genius in the Chicago series was getting the young Vlade to totally overachieve. He understood that the Bulls’ weakness was in the middle and masterfully orchestrated the Divac menace to exploit it.

    As others have pointed out, Chicago’s D benefited by barely having to guard Worthy, who twisted his ankle during Game 5 against Portland. Let’s put it this way, Worthy was guarded successfully by Cliff Levingston, which I’m pretty sure is the only time in the history of mankind that sentence has ever been typed. If nothing else, a healthy-ish Worthy has to be guarded by Pippen, which opens up the lane for Magic.

    The only problem with losing Byron was that it didn’t happen sooner. He was TERRIBLE in this series, long before he got injured. And it wasn’t just MJ shutting him down, I remember Paxson playing Scott plenty. Just check Byron’s stats from Game 3, the OT loss to the Bulls. Then check Worthy’s stats (playing on one leg) and Vlade’s stats (rookie, Vlade), then check Byron’s again. Painful.

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/199106070LAL.html

    A healthy Worthy changes the outcome of this Series only in that I think it goes at least 6 games, maybe 7. As much as the Magic/Lakers fan in me wants to say otherwise, I think Chicago was too good and their time had deservedly come.

  13. Mike in Santa Monica November 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I agree if Worthy isn’t hurt, the Lakers win the series. I felt the same way back then and always wanted to ask Phil Jackson that question, i.e. how much he felt Worthy’s injury affected the series. What the injury meant was that Worthy stayed outside and didn’t drive, and took a lot of jump shots. As a result, that pushed the whole Lakers offense further from the basket, and hence the whole Bulls defense, making it easier to defend Magic further from the basket. Of course as a Laker fan, we’ve been to the Finals 16 out of the last 31 years and that is what happens when you are good enough to go that many times – sometimes you end up getting there and are no longer full-strength. I’d rather have 16 finals with a few years injured (also the 1989 vs. Detroit with Magic & Scott and 2004 vs. Detriot with Malone & Grant). In all of those series, I think we win at full strength. Pero asi son las cosas de la vida.