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