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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Way We Were, Part I: Celtics-Lakers, 1984

This Thursday, the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers will begin writing another chapter in one of the most storied rivalries in sports history. However, because the previous chapter was completed in 1987, a large number of NBA fans were not even born the last time these teams met in the NBA Finals. The Celtics and Lakers combined to win eight championships in the 1980s and they faced each other in the Finals three times. Those matchups represented a revival of a great rivalry from the 1950s and 1960s, when Bill Russell's Celtics won 11 championships in 13 seasons--including a record eight in a row from 1959-66--and defeated the Lakers each of the seven times that they played them in the Finals. In 1969, Lakers legend Jerry West won the first ever Finals MVP and he remains the only player from the losing team to capture that award; his 42 point, 13 rebound, 12 assist effort in a 108-106 game seven loss to Boston was truly extraordinary but even though he went on to win a championship when his 1972 Lakers defeated the New York Knicks he still says that he never really got over the disappointment of losing to Boston so many times.

Over the next three days, I will take a look back at the 1980s version of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, focusing on their head to head duels in the 1984, 1985 and 1987 NBA Finals. Let's kick things off by setting the wayback machine to 1984:

Although nowadays people act as if Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dueled each other throughout the 1980s, the reality is that for the first four seasons of the decade they only played head to head twice a year in the regular season and did not meet in the playoffs. The big individual rivalry in the league at that time was Bird versus Julius Erving; they battled individually for recognition as not only the best forward but the best player in the NBA: Bird finished fourth, second, second and second in MVP voting from 1980-83, while Erving finished second, first, third and fifth in MVP voting during those seasons. Bird's Celtics played Erving's Philadelphia 76ers six times a year as they fought for Atlantic Division supremacy as a prelude to their annual showdowns in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Sixers sandwiched two victories over the Celtics (1980, 1982) around a heartbreaking 1981 loss in which they took a 3-1 series lead before losing the last three games by a combined total of five points. Bird's Celtics took full advantage of their first trip to the Finals by beating an upstart 40-42 Houston team, while Erving's Sixers twice lost to the Lakers in the Finals.

While Bird beat out Magic for the 1980 Rookie of the Year Award, immediately became a fixture on the All-NBA First Team and annually finished near the top of MVP voting, it could be argued that Magic was an underrated player in his first few seasons. Despite winning Finals MVPs in 1980 and 1982, Magic received no MVP votes in 1980, finished 10th in 1981 and ranked eighth in 1982 before moving up to third in 1983 and 1984. Magic's teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his record sixth MVP in 1980 and Magic did not overtake him as the team's scoring leader until the 1986-87 season, which could be part of the reason that MVP voters were slow to grant Magic much consideration. Still, Magic had a Finals performance for the ages in 1980--producing 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the game six clincher over Philadelphia when Abdul-Jabbar was unable to play due to a sprained ankle--and in the 1981-82 season he nearly averaged a triple double (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 9.5 apg) before wrapping up his second Finals MVP in his first three seasons with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in another game six clincher versus the 76ers.

In 1982-83, the Sixers acquired Moses Malone from Houston, stormed to a 65-17 record and swept the Lakers in the Finals; the Celtics were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so that was the first year that Bird and Erving did not face each other in the playoffs. That Sixers team is still one of the greatest single season squads of all-time but rather than the start of a dynasty that turned out to be the end of an era, capping off a seven year run during which Erving's Sixers won more games than any other NBA team, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals six times and advanced to the NBA Finals four times.

In retrospect, the 1983-84 season was a watershed moment for the NBA in many ways, both a passing of the torch and the start of the transformation of the league into a global sports juggernaut. For the first time since 1979, Erving did not make the All-NBA First Team and he finished out of the top five in MVP voting. His defending champion 76ers suffered a shocking first round playoff loss to the New Jersey Nets and that helped pave the way for Bird's Celtics to face Magic's Lakers in the Finals for the first time. Also, in February 1984, David Stern became the NBA Commissioner and his visionary leadership soon helped to guide the league into an era of unprecedented popularity and financial success.

The Celtics had a new coach--K.C. Jones replaced Bill Fitch--and a superstar with a new mindset; Bird was embarrassed by Boston's abbreviated 1983 playoff run and after the loss to Milwaukee he vowed to elevate his game to another level: "People say, 'As Larry goes, so go the Celtics.' So okay, next season I'll take on that pressure. I'll come back with more desire than ever. If it's got to start somewhere it might as well start here." Bird established career-highs (each of which he surpassed in subsequent seasons) in scoring (24.2 ppg), assists (6.6 apg) and free throw percentage (.888, best in the NBA) while leading the Celtics to a league-best 62 wins. He captured his first MVP in the official balloting conducted by the media, though he finished second to Bernard King in a poll of NBA players conducted by the Sporting News. Do you remember what a great three point shooter Bird was back then? If you said "Yes" then you either have a real bad memory or you are a liar: Bird shot 18-73 (.247) from three point range that season and the only time in his first five years in the league that he shot better than .300 (not .400, mind you, but .300) from three point range was his rookie season (58-143, .406). At that time, most teams only shot three pointers as last second heaves at the end of a quarter or in situations when they trailed late in a game; those half court flings and desperate shots lowered many players' percentages. The three pointer only gradually became a regular part of NBA offenses and the three point prowess for which Bird is legendary did not become a part of his game until 1984-85.

The Celtics beat the Washington Bullets 3-1 in the first round, survived a seven game battle with King's New York Knicks and gained revenge over the Bucks with a 4-1 victory in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Magic's Lakers posted the best record in the West (54-28) even though he missed 15 games, most of them due to an early season finger injury. Magic won the second of his four assists titles with a career-high 13.1 apg average and he shot a career-best .565 from the field while scoring 17.6 ppg, second on the team to Abdul-Jabbar's 21.5 ppg. The Lakers swept the Kansas City Kings 3-0, knocked off the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 and defeated the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals. At long last Bird and Magic had the opportunity to play a rematch of their 1979 NCAA Championship Game battle. Although the media understandably played up the Bird-Magic angle, the 1984 Finals featured a total of seven future Hall of Famers: Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. In addition, five other participants--Dennis Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman and Swen Nater (ABA)--made the All-Star team at least once during their careers. Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar and McAdoo each won at least one regular season MVP during their careers, while Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, Dennis Johnson and Cedric Maxwell each won at least one Finals MVP.

The Lakers seized home court advantage with a 115-109 game one win in Boston. Abdul-Jabbar led the way with 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and two steals. Magic contributed 19 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, while second year forward Worthy added 20 points and five rebounds. McHale led the Celtics with 25 points, while Bird had 24 points, 14 rebounds and five assists but he shot just 7-17 from the field and committed six turnovers.

The Celtics led 37-26 after the first quarter of game two but the Lakers rallied and eventually took the lead in the third quarter. It looked like Worthy would be the hero of the game; he finished with 29 points on 11-12 field goal shooting, converting an astonishing five three point plays as Boston's defenders struggled to deal with his lightning quick first step. With just 18 seconds left in what had been a back and forth second half, the Lakers led 115-113. McHale missed two free throws but a series of miscues cost the Lakers a chance to take a commanding 2-0 lead. After a timeout, Magic passed to Worthy, who looked like he was the last man on Earth who wanted to have the ball at that particular moment. Worthy lobbed a careless cross court pass that Gerald Henderson intercepted and converted into the tying layup. On the Lakers' next possession, Magic inexplicably dribbled the clock out, apparently unaware that the Lakers no longer had the lead. The Celtics took full advantage of their second chance and emerged with new life after a 124-121 overtime win. Bird had another subpar shooting game (8-22 from the field) but he led the Celtics with 27 points and 13 rebounds.

When you consider how that game ended--with gaffes committed by future Hall of Famers Magic and Worthy--it is amusing to hear commentators, many of whom played in the NBA and committed mistakes in big games, make sweeping declarations about what great players "always" or "never" do in clutch situations, as if great players always make the right play and never make mistakes. The reality is that over the course of his career, a great player will make many great plays and some not so great plays. No great player "always" comes through in the clutch and "always" makes the right play. Michael Jordan made a very profound point when he stated in a TV ad that he had failed thousands of times but that those failures were why he eventually succeeded; the great players learn from their mistakes, do not lose confidence and bounce back when they get another opportunity to perform in a critical moment.

If the Lakers were devastated by the sudden turn of events at the end of game two you sure could not tell based on how they played in game three; they routed the Celtics 137-104 as Magic set a Finals record with 21 assists. Seven Lakers scored at least 13 points, led by Abdul-Jabbar's 24. Bird scored a game-high 30 points on 9-16 field goal shooting but he took his most famous shot of the series right after the game, when he loaded up and fired with both barrels directed squarely at his teammates: "We played like a bunch of sissies. I know the heart and soul of this team and today the heart wasn't there, that's for sure. I can't believe a team like this would let L.A. come out and push us around like they did. Today I didn't feel we played hard." Isn't it interesting that when that message comes from Larry Bird it is cited as an example of his tough-minded leadership but if another player said similar things it would be considered "throwing his teammates under the bus"? It is fascinating how the media shapes our perceptions of events and personalities.

The Lakers led by as many as 14 points in the first half of game four but the Celtics had cut the margin to 76-70 when perhaps the biggest--and certainly the most famous--play of the series happened. Laker forward Kurt Rambis was cruising in for a layup when McHale clotheslined him and sent him sprawling to the floor. That would be a flagrant three foul today--yes, I know that there is no such thing as a flagrant three but if anyone committed a foul like that Commissioner Stern would instantly invent a flagrant three foul and administer swift justice. Riley later said that the Celtics were "a bunch of thugs." Maxwell offered this interesting take on the McHale play: "Before McHale hit Kurt Rambis, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted. Now they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light and look both ways."

Although Boston played a beautiful brand of basketball with a lot of passing and cutting, people forget just how physical the 80s Celtics really were; the "Bad Boys" Pistons were put together specifically to be able to match the physical punishment that the Celtics dealt out and it is ironic that the finesse-oriented Bulls later emerged to vanquish them just like the finesse-oriented Lakers ultimately won two of their three matchups with the Celtics in the 80s.

Despite the Celtics' efforts to slow down the Lakers by any means necessary, the Lakers built a 113-108 lead with less than a minute left in game four. Then Abdul-Jabbar, who had scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, fouled out as Parish converted a three point play. The Lakers turned the ball over and Bird drained two free throws to tie the score. Then Parish stole Magic's pass but after Bird and McHale each missed shots the teams again battled into overtime. Bird's jumper with 16 seconds remaining gave the Celtics the lead for good. Bird shot just 9-24 from the field and had only two assists but he finished with 29 points and 21 rebounds. Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 32 points, Worthy scored 30 points on 14-17 field goal shooting and Magic had 20 points, 17 assists and 11 rebounds while shooting 8-12 from the field--but this would not be remembered as a great game for Magic: he committed seven turnovers, including critical ones late in the game, and he missed two free throws with 35 seconds left in regulation. In light of Magic's late game miscues in games three and four, McHale later referred to him as "Tragic" Johnson.

The series shifted back to Boston for the critical game five and Bird authored one of the signature performances of his career, shooting 15-20 from the field, scoring 34 points and grabbing 17 rebounds as the Celtics cruised to a 121-103 win. It was a sweltering 97 degrees inside of the Boston Garden but Bird dismissed that as a concern, reasoning that most players grew up playing outside all day long in summer heat. Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 19 points but shot just 7-25 from the field, was not buying that logic. In response to a question about how difficult the playing conditions were, he said, "I suggest that you go to a local steam bath, do 100 pushups with all your clothes on, then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes. The game was in slow motion. It was like we were running in mud." Worthy led the Lakers with 22 points on 10-17 field goal shooting. Magic had 13 assists but scored just 10 points on 3-9 shooting.

Four Lakers scored at least 20 points as they staved off elimination on their home court with a 119-108 game six win. Abdul-Jabbar had a game-high 30 points, while Magic contributed 21 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. Bird shot 8-11 from the field and led the Celtics in points (28), rebounds (14) and assists (eight).

Heading into game seven, the natural assumption would be that Abdul-Jabbar, Bird or Magic would emerge as the star. Abdul-Jabbar scored a game-high 29 points on 12-22 shooting but Bird and Magic both had subpar shooting performances, 6-18 and 5-14 respectively. Bird finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and three assists, while Magic had 16 points, 15 assists and five rebounds. The man of the hour turned out to be none other than Maxwell, who had won the 1981 Finals MVP by averaging 17.7 ppg and 9.5 rpg during a series in which Bird rebounded and passed well (15.3 rpg, 7.0 apg) but struggled mightily with his shot (39-93, .419). Before game seven, Maxwell declared that the team should hop on his back and he would carry them home and he did just that, leading the Celtics in scoring (24 points) and assists (eight) and adding eight rebounds in a 111-102 victory. Bird, who averaged series-high numbers in scoring (27.4 ppg) and rebounding (14.0 rpg), won the Finals MVP. Meanwhile, Magic had to endure a very long offseason during which he was roundly criticized for his various Finals miscues. He expressed disappointment in his play--particularly the missed free throws in game four--but seemed puzzled by the extent of the animosity directed toward him: "I sat back when it was over and I thought, 'Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time or didn't we?' This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was."

Magic would have to wait a very long year before he and his Lakers had an opportunity to avenge this painful defeat.

Tomorrow in Part II: The Celtics and Lakers post the two best records in the NBA in 1984-85 and the whole season seems like just a long prelude to their inevitable Finals rematch.

1983-84 NBA Leaderboard

Best Regular Season Records

1) Boston Celtics, 62-20
2) L.A. Lakers, 54-28
3) Philadelphia 76ers, 52-30
4) Milwaukee Bucks, 50-32
5) Detroit Pistons, 49-33


1) Larry Bird (Celtics)
2) Bernard King (Knicks)
3) Magic Johnson (Lakers)
4) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lakers)
5) Isiah Thomas (Pistons)


1) Adrian Dantley, 30.6 ppg (Jazz)
2) Mark Aguirre, 29.5 ppg (Mavericks)
3) Kiki Vandeweghe, 29.4 ppg (Nuggets)
4) Alex English, 26.4 ppg (Nuggets)
5) Bernard King, 26.3 ppg (Knicks)


1) Moses Malone, 13.4 rpg (76ers)
2) Buck Williams, 12.3 rpg (Nets)
3) Jeff Ruland, 12.3 rpg (Bullets)
4) Bill Laimbeer, 12.2 rpg (Pistons)
5) Ralph Sampson, 11.1 rpg (Rockets)


1) Magic Johnson, 13.1 apg (Lakers)
2-3) Isiah Thomas, 11.2 apg (Pistons)
2-3) Norm Nixon, 11.2 apg (Clippers)
**note: Thomas and Nixon each had 914 assists in 82 games**
4) John Lucas, 10.7 apg (Spurs)
5) Johnny Moore, 9.6 apg (Spurs)


Roland Lazenby's excellent 1996 book The NBA Finals: A 50 Year Celebration is the source for some of the quotes and background information in this post and it is truly a great read not just about the Lakers and Celtics but also about the first half century of NBA history.

Information about various records and statistics can be found in the 2008 Finals Record Book, which is made available to members of the media covering the 2008 NBA playoffs. Other statistical information can be found in various editions of the Sporting News Official NBA Guide and the excellent website Basketball-Reference.com.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:33 AM



At Tuesday, June 03, 2008 9:02:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

The thing that bothered me about this year was that the Lakers should have won this series. They were the better team.

The Lakers could of won game 7 as well. I remember them being down 3 with like a 1:20 left and Magic gets the ball stolen from him and he puts his hands up to indicate he was fouled.

I also wanted ML Carr killed. I hated that cheerleading clown.

Now that you are taking it back its amazing to hear people talk about todays game and how the game is better. These Lakers and Celtics teams wouldnt have won a game against the Lakers and Celts of the 80s.

At Tuesday, June 03, 2008 1:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was one of the best basketball articles i've ever read. Really. As a basketball fan who was born at the beginning of the 80's, i deinitely felt the rivalry as if it was nowadays when i read your post. Thanks!

I read in a website(which is quite reliable and of high quality) that as great as a baller he is, Magic Johnson didn't show up at the end of the games and wasn't known a clutch player at all. Does this claim have some ground? What is your opinion?


At Tuesday, June 03, 2008 5:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


No question, the Lakers missed a golden opportunity that season. The Celtics had a knack for winning series that it seemed like they should have lost. Philly had a 3-1 lead against them in '81 and led for most of game five but still lost; the 76ers lost the last three games of that series by a combined total of five points--and they beat Boston in the '80 ECF and the '82 ECF, so they literally came within a handful of plays of defeating the Celtics for three straight years. If that scenario had taken place, Bird and Doc would likely each have had two NBA rings.

One interesting thing about the Bird-Magic rivalry that does not get a lot of mainstream media play is that no matter how you look at it Magic came out on top from beginning to end: Magic beat Bird in college, stepped right in as a rookie and won the Finals MVP with a performance for the ages, won two Finals MVPs in his first three years, beat Bird head to head in the Finals two out of three years and ended up with five championships to Bird's three, including the first back to back titles since Russell's Celtics. I think that a lot of people don't realize how poorly Bird shot in a lot of those Finals games, though he of course also had some great, great games and he put on a clinic in game six of the '86 Finals.

At Tuesday, June 03, 2008 5:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Glad to hear that you like this article. Stay tuned, because there are two more just like it on the way in the next couple days!

I think that a lot of the criticism of Magic as a clutch player stemmed from this series. As I noted in my article, even the greatest players don't always make the right plays. Magic came up big in clutch situations on many, many occasions, including his remarkable performance in game six of the 1980 Finals as a rookie, so I do not agree with anyone who says that he was not a clutch player.

At Tuesday, June 03, 2008 5:32:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

Fantastic, fact-laden, recap.

As you mentioned, people have this sense that the Lakers-Celts matchup dominated the 80s. The Lakers faced the Sixers twice, the Celts three times, Detroit twice, and, bleeding into the early 90s, the Bulls.

So, Magic made it to 9 finals in 12 seasons (excluding 1996)? That's pretty good.

At Tuesday, June 03, 2008 5:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Two of the three times that Magic's Lakers did not make it to the Finals (not counting his brief 1996 comeback) they lost to teams that were led by at least one future Hall of Famer and that went on to play in that season's Finals:

1981: HoFers Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy led Houston to a 2-1 first round win over the Lakers before losing to the Celtics in six games in the Finals.

1986: HoFer Hakeem Olajuwon led Houston to a 4-1 WCF win over the Lakers before losing to the Celtics in six games in the Finals.

In 1990, the Lakers lost in the Western Conference semifinals to a Phoenix Suns team led by Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek and Eddie Johnson. The Suns then lost to Portland in the WCF.

At Wednesday, June 04, 2008 9:03:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Very true its never mentioned that Magic dominated that the Bird/Johnson rivalry. For some reason people forget how great Magic was.

That Philly/Celtics scenario really pissed my father off. Since he was a Doc fan like everyone else in the world it killed him that they lost that 3-1 lead and almost lost it again. I definitely wish Dr J got more NBA rings.

Sony....the Lakers faced Philly three times....80, 82 and 83. Im surprised you missed that, David.

I think it is still amazing that Calvin Murphy is in the Hall and only played in one all star game and never making an all nba team. Im not saying hes not a Hall of Famer...its just very rare.

At Wednesday, June 04, 2008 5:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I misread Sony's comment to say that the Lakers beat Philly two times. As you said, they faced each other three times in the Finals in four years.

Keep in mind that the HoF also considers a player's collegiate accomplishments and Murphy had a great career at Niagara. Still, you are right that it is unusual that a one-time All-Star made it to the HoF.

At Thursday, June 05, 2008 8:34:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Yeah I realize the college scenario. Which just continues to show me how confusing the voting is for the Hall. They have a college basketball hall of fame already. But they consider college years in the Naismith hall of fame.

At Thursday, June 05, 2008 6:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i ranked bird 5th all time i ranked magic 4th all time magic was more complete and beter player than bird was bird only beat him once in 4 tries counting the 79 game. you make valid points david also magic had 3 mvp bird 3 mvp bird had him in all nba 9-8 first team second bird one magic 2 magic 12 time all star bird 11 time all star they stats is so similar it's crazy.


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