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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Way We Were, Part III: Celtics-Lakers, 1987

In Part I of the 1980s Celtics-Lakers Finals trilogy, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics defeated Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers 4-3 in 1984. The Lakers avenged that defeat with a 4-2 victory in the 1985 Finals in Part II and at the time it certainly seemed likely that those teams would meet again in the 1986 Finals--but fans would have to wait an extra year for the third and final chapter in this saga.

In 1985-86, the Celtics added Bill Walton--the 1978 regular season MVP and 1977 Finals MVP--to provide frontcourt depth and the injury prone center enjoyed the healthiest season of his career, averaging 19.3 mpg while appearing in 80 games, far surpassing his previous career-high of 67 games. Walton won the Sixth Man Award after shooting .562 from the field and averaging 7.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.3 bpg. The Celtics' frontcourt rotation was ridiculously good, consisting of Hall of Famers Larry Bird--who won his third straight MVP--Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Walton plus former All-Star Scott Wedman, who provided an offensive spark off of the bench that season, averaging 8.0 ppg in 17.7 mpg. Of course, the backcourt was not too shabby either, with 1979 Finals MVP and perennial All-Defensive Team member Dennis Johnson at one guard and sharpshooting future All-Star Danny Ainge at the other guard. Jerry Sichting shot .570 from the field in 19.5 mpg as the first guard off of the bench. Not surprisingly, the Celtics cruised through the regular season, amassing one of the greatest records of all-time, 67-15. They were particularly dominant in the friendly confines of the Boston Garden, setting a record that still stands by winning 40 out of 41 home games. They won their last 31 home games of the season, which is still the current NBA record for such a season-ending streak, and when they won their first seven home games in 1986-87 they set a record for consecutive home wins that stood for nearly a decade.

The Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs but that series is remembered not for Boston's dominance--the Celtics won game one by 19 and game three by 18--but rather for a breakout performance by second year sensation Michael Jordan. After winning the 1985 Rookie of the Year award, Jordan missed most of the 1986 season due to a broken foot. Against the team's wishes, he came back late in the season, playing limited minutes and helping the Bulls qualify for the playoffs. He scored 49 points in the first game--but that was just a prelude to his game two performance when he scored 63 points as the lowly Bulls pushed the powerful Celtics to two overtimes before bowing, 135-131. Jordan broke Elgin Baylor's 24 year old record for most points in a playoff game (61, which is still the Finals record). Interestingly, Baylor missed most of the 1962 season due to his armed forces commitment and he later said that being fresher helped him to have such a great game; no one else has scored more than 56 points in an NBA playoff game. After Jordan went over, around and through various Boston defenders, Bird famously said, "He's God disguised as Michael Jordan." In the Eastern Conference semifinals the Celtics brushed aside Dominique Wilkins' Atlanta Hawks 4-1 and then they destroyed the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Lakers easily posted the best record in the West (62-20), they swept San Antonio in the first round and then they beat Mark Aguirre's Dallas Mavericks in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. In the Western Conference Finals they faced the Houston Rockets, who were led by the "Twin Towers," Hakeem Olajuwon and 1984 Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson. The Rockets seized homecourt advantage by winning game two in Los Angeles, they captured both games in Houston and they wrapped up the series in game five on Sampson's twisting shot at the buzzer. There would be no repeat for the Lakers and no rematch for the Celtics. The Finals proved to be anticlimactic as the Celtics won the first two games at home, earned one victory in the middle three games in Houston and closed out the series with a convincing 114-97 game six win at home. Bird had perhaps his best Finals game ever in that contest, finishing with 29 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds after nearly having a triple double at halftime. He won the Finals MVP, averaging 24.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 9.5 apg in the series. McHale (25.8 ppg, .573 field goal shooting) was the leading scorer in the Finals for the second year in a row; Bird led the Celtics in scoring twice in his five Finals appearances and was the leading overall scorer in the Finals once (1984).

The 1986 Celtics were undoubtedly Bird's greatest team and one of the best teams of all-time--and the 1987 Lakers were most likely Magic's greatest team and one of the best teams of all-time. If there is one regret about the 1980s NBA it is that there was not some way to have the 1986 Celtics face the 1987 Lakers in the ultimate battle of champions.

Magic once said that the best thing about his rivalry with Bird is that they each made the other play his best game. Perhaps it was inevitable that after Bird and the Celtics stormed through the NBA in 1986 that Magic and the Lakers would have a virtually identical run in 1987, posting a 65-17 record and winning 37 of 41 home games. Bird and Magic were not the first NBA players who added something new to their games each offseason but because they faced each other in the Finals three times in an era during which media coverage of the league expanded tremendously even casual fans knew about how they transformed their games: Bird added the three point shot as a deadly weapon and, with range no longer a factor, he perfected a deadly stepback move that made him almost unguardable during his prime; one offseason he really stepped up his cardio training, hit the weights and his body looked more toned than ever. Meanwhile, Magic steadily improved his free throw shooting and he added the three point shot to his repertoire in the latter stages of his career. However, the most famous addition to either of their games happened prior to the 1986-87 season when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar taught Magic how to shoot the skyhook. Magic modified the move slightly and he used it to good effect that season--and very famously in game four of the Finals--as Abdul-Jabbar accepted a lesser role and was not his team's leading scorer for the first time in his career. Magic averaged a career-high 23.9 ppg, led the NBA in assists for the fourth time in five years and won his first MVP award, beating out Jordan and Bird. The Lakers made a key midseason acquisition by picking up Mychal Thompson, a former 20 ppg-10 rpg player who could play power forward and center; he took the place of the departed Bob McAdoo, who had been a key bench player for the Lakers since the 1981-82 season.

The Lakers annihilated the Western Conference in the playoffs, posting an 11-1 record with scores that included 128-95, 140-103, 133-108 and 133-102. The sole loss came in game four of the Western Conference semifinals after they had already taken a 3-0 lead over the Golden State Warriors. Golden State guard Eric "Sleepy" Floyd--a career 12.8 ppg scorer who averaged 18.8 ppg that season--simply went nuts and had one of the most improbable playoff performances in NBA history, racking up 51 points as the Warriors won, 129-121.

The Celtics' road to the 1987 Finals was much more arduous. Their season began with tragedy when Len Bias, the second overall pick in the draft, died of heart failure after overdosing on cocaine; the Celtics had hoped that he would infuse their frontcourt with youth and athleticism for years to come. Although they finished with the second best record in the league (59-23) the frontcourt depth that had been so key in 1986 was wiped out by injuries to Walton (who played just 10 games) and Wedman (who played in only six games). The Celtics had to rely on their starters more than ever and they also had to deal with strong challengers in Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee. In the first round they again faced the Bulls and had to contend with Jordan, who had just set the non-Wilt Chamberlain single season record by scoring 3041 points (37.1 ppg). The Celtics held Jordan slightly below his average (35.7 ppg) and won 3-0. Then they had a long, hard series against Milwaukee, losing on the road in overtime in game three and then winning on the road in double overtime in game four. Milwaukee retaliated by capturing game five in Boston and it took the Celtics the full seven games to dispatch the Bucks. Things only got tougher in the Eastern Conference Finals when the Celtics faced a Detroit Pistons team that lacked their star power but was built specifically to combat the physicality of their frontcourt. The Celtics won the first two games at home but the Pistons scored two routs in Detroit to even the series. The Pistons led 107-106 and had possession of the ball late in game five when Bird made one of the most famous plays in NBA history, stealing Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass and feeding a cutting Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. The Pistons bounced back to win game six at home but dropped a 117-114 decision in game seven at the Boston Garden.

The Celtics had made it back to the Finals but they were truly the walking wounded, with the most notable injuries being the foot fractures suffered by McHale and Walton, each of whom played anyway in the playoffs and later had fusion surgeries. As Walton said on Tuesday during ESPN's special rebroadcast of game six of the 1987 Finals, the lesson here for young players is don't play if you have a broken foot. Walton never played in another NBA game after the 1987 Finals. McHale played for six more seasons but never reached the All-NBA First Team level that he performed at in 1986-87, when he averaged 26.1 ppg and became the only player to shoot at least .600 from the field (a league-best .604) and .800 from the free throw line (.836) in the same season.

Not surprisingly, the well-rested Lakers jumped out to a 9-0 lead in game one of the Finals, led 69-54 at halftime and coasted to a 126-113 victory. Magic had 29 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and no turnovers. James Worthy had a game-high 33 points on 16-23 field goal shooting and he narrowly missed posting a triple double (10 assists, nine rebounds). Bird led the Celtics with 28 points and seven rebounds.

The Celtics kept pace in a high scoring first quarter in game two, only trailing 38-34, but the Lakers blew the game open in the second quarter with a 20-0 run. Michael Cooper accounted for all 20 points by scoring or via assist as he tied a Finals record with eight assists in one quarter. Cooper also shot 6-7 from three point range in this game, finishing with 20 points and nine assists. Remarkably, in the third quarter Magic also had eight assists; he ended up with 24 points and 20 assists. Byron Scott tied Magic for game-high honors with 24 points as five Lakers scored at least 20 points in a 141-122 victory. Bird led the Celtics with 23 points.

If you think the phenomenon of players performing better at home than they do on the road in the playoffs is something new, consider what happened in game three in Boston: Scott's production plummeted to four points on 2-9 field goal shooting, while Worthy--who scored 56 points on 26-38 field goal shooting in the first two games--had just 13 points on 6-18 shooting. Magic (32 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Abdul-Jabbar (27 points, seven rebounds) tried to carry the load for the Lakers but the Celtics prevailed because of strong performances by their five starters, who scored 107 of the team's 109 points in a six point win. Bird led the way with 30 points, though he shot just 10-24 from the field. He also had a game-high 12 rebounds and four assists. There had been some understandable talk before this game that the Lakers might sweep the Celtics and afterwards Bird admitted that the Celtics had thought about this: "We're just too good a team to be swept. This was the most important game of the series for us. If we lost, it might've been tough to get up for game four. Now it's going to be easy."

The 1987 playoffs produced two of the signature moments in NBA history. The first was Bird's steal in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. The second was Magic's game-winning shot in game four, a dagger that he termed the "junior, junior skyhook." For most of the game it did not seem like the score would be close enough for a last second shot to make a difference; the Celtics built a 15 point second half lead but then the Lakers rallied and went ahead on a lob from Magic to Abdul-Jabbar with less than 30 seconds to play. Bird answered with a three pointer to put Boston up 106-104. Abdul-Jabbar split a pair of free throws but the Celtics were not able to control the rebound, so the Lakers had one final chance. After a timeout, Magic received a pass on the left wing, drove to the middle of the lane and hit one of the most famous shots in NBA history, a hook lofted over the outstretched arms of Boston's Hall of Fame frontcourt. There were still two seconds left and Bird got free for a corner three pointer that could have won the game but he missed--and the game, the series and the rivalry tilted in Magic's favor. Magic finished with a game-high 29 points plus eight rebounds and five assists. McHale led the Celtics with 25 points (shooting 10-14 from the field) and 13 rebounds. Bird had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists but he shot 7-19 from the field.

"You expect to lose on a skyhook," Bird said after the game. "You don't expect it to be from Magic." He knew that the Celtics had squandered a great opportunity. "We turned the ball over twice (late in the game). We missed a rebound after a free throw. We really can't blame anyone but ourselves...A lot happened in the last minute and a half. Robert (Parish) gets the ball taken away from him. I throw the ball at Kevin's feet. They miss a free throw and we don't get the rebound. How many chances do you need to win a game?" Bird realized that the odds of the Celtics winning the series were not good. "I know when we're up 3-1 I always say it's over. It's not a good position. There's no question we're in trouble. We're not a good road team. I don't know if we can beat them twice out there. But we'll give it a try."

Naturally, the Celtics did not want the Lakers to celebrate a championship in Boston. All five Celtic starters scored at least 20 points in a 123-108 victory that shifted the series back to Los Angeles. Dennis Johnson led Boston with 25 points and 11 assists, while Bird had 23 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists though his shot was again off (7-18). Magic led the Lakers with 29 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds but Worthy (12 points on 6-19 shooting) and Scott (seven points on 3-10 shooting) once again struggled on the road.

The Celtics survived a slow start to take a 32-25 first quarter lead in game six and they still led 56-51 at halftime. However, they were done in by a disastrous third quarter during which the Lakers outscored them 30-12. That proved to be too much to overcome and the Lakers clinched the title with a 106-93 victory. During game six, CBS ran a graphic titled "Bird's '0 for' starts": he shot 0-6 from the field to start game three, 0-3 to start game four, 0-4 to start game five and that trend continued with an 0-3 to start game six. He eventually scored eight points in the first quarter but he ended up with just 16 points on 6-16 shooting. He also had nine rebounds and five assists. Bird averaged 24.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 5.5 apg in the series while shooting .445 from the field. Dennis Johnson led Boston with a game-high 33 points and he added 10 rebounds, tying McHale for game-high honors. Abdul-Jabbar scored 32 points on 13-18 shooting, a remarkable performance for anyone, let alone a 40 year old. However, the night belonged to Magic, who finished with 16 points, 19 assists and eight rebounds to clinch his third Finals MVP. Magic only shot 7-21 from the field but he orchestrated the Lakers' fastbreak attack to perfection. Magic led both teams in scoring (26.2 ppg) and assists (13.0 apg) during the series in addition to averaging a team-high 8.0 rpg. He shot .541 from the field. Bird put it best: "Magic is a great, great basketball player. The best I've ever seen."

After the series was over, Dennis Johnson said to Michael Cooper, "Same time, same place, next year" and Cooper agreed--but it was not to be. The Lakers survived three brutal seven game series to win the 1988 championship, becoming the first team since Bill Russell's 1968-69 Celtics to repeat as champions--but the Lakers' opponents in the Finals were the Pistons, not Bird's Celtics. Bird played in his last Finals game in 1987 and the Celtics have not been back to the Finals since then--until tonight. Magic's Lakers lost in the 1989 Finals to the Pistons and then they fell to Jordan's Bulls in the 1991 Finals as Jordan captured the first of his six championships. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant revived Laker glory earlier in this decade by winning three straight championships (2000-02) and making a fourth Finals appearance in 2004. Will Bryant's Lakers and Kevin Garnett's Celtics author their own Finals trilogy or is this year's engagement strictly a one-time showing? As Cooper and Johnson found out, next year is never promised to you, so you have to make the most of each opportunity to win a championship.

1986-87 NBA Leaderboard

Best Regular Season Records

1) L.A. Lakers, 65-17
2) Boston Celtics, 59-23
3) Atlanta Hawks, 57-25
4) Dallas Mavericks, 55-27
5) Detroit Pistons, 52-30


1) Magic Johnson (Lakers)
2) Michael Jordan (Bulls)
3) Larry Bird (Celtics)
4) Kevin McHale (Celtics)
5) Dominique Wilkins (Hawks)


1) Michael Jordan, 37.1 ppg (Bulls)
2) Dominique Wilkins, 29.0 ppg (Hawks)
3) Alex English, 28.6 ppg (Nuggets)
4) Larry Bird, 28.1 ppg (Celtics)
5) Kiki Vandeweghe, 26.9 ppg (Trail Blazers)


1) Charles Barkley, 14.6 rpg (76ers)
2) Charles Oakley, 13.1 rpg (Bulls)
3) Buck Williams, 12.5 rpg (Nets)
4) James Donaldson, 11.9 rpg (Mavericks)
5) Bill Laimbeer, 11.6 rpg (Pistons)


1) Magic Johnson, 12.2 apg (Lakers)
2) Sleepy Floyd, 10.3 apg (Warriors)
3) Isiah Thomas, 10.0 apg (Pistons)
4) Doc Rivers, 10.0 apg (Hawks)
5) Terry Porter, 8.9 apg (Trail Blazers)


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 @ 4:46 AM



At Thursday, June 05, 2008 6:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

bird gave mantle to magic as best player in league which would be passed top of his jordan. magic was dominant in 87 winning first mvp of his career.

on another subject to end this debate once and for all scottie pippen did not make all star team in 1991 nor did make all nba team that year he did not make it in 98 and made third team so jordan won championship without a allstar a all nba player pippen made 6 straight all star apperances after that. but this thing with me and you is silly i want to end it now jordan did more with less than anybody and the facts prove it look on the 91 nba all star roster and all na team if you dont believe me.

At Thursday, June 05, 2008 7:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


First, if this is how you want to count the numbers then if the Lakers win the championship you will have to say that Kobe won a title with less help than MJ. Gasol's only All-Star appearance was in 2006 and he never has made the All-NBA or All-Defensive Teams. MJ played with a Top 50 player in Pip and several other players who made the All-Star Team at various times in their careers, including Grant, Rodman, Armstrong and Cartwright. Kobe is playing with one one-time All-Star. If your key factor in determining the amount of "help" a player received is counting All-Star selections then this is a slam-dunk case for Kobe having less help this year than MJ did--by far.

Second, you are again making the mistake of citing certain numbers/stats without considering the context. Pip made the All-Star team in 1990 and then again from 1992-97. He made the All-Defensive Second Team in 1991 and he averaged 17.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 6.2 apg that season--better than his numbers in 1990 when he made the All-Star team (16.5, 6.7, 5.4). Every year there is a worthy player or two who does not make the All-Star team, particularly when a conference is stacked at a certain position. Moreover, I think that in looking back it is fair to say that Pip should have been an All-Star in 1991, particularly considering how he later demonstrated his value during the playoff run (21.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 5.8 apg while shooting .504 from the field). The key matchup switch in that year's Finals was putting Pip on Magic; Pip shut Magic down. Also, in the clinching game five of the Finals Pip had 32 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and five steals, equaling or besting MJ in every category except assists. You could not possibly be more wrong about Pip's importance to that championship team and to the Bulls' championship run in general. They do not win any of those rings without him.

In 1997-98 Pip missed almost half of the season due to injury and he did not play in a game until January 10 so of course he did not make the All-Star team--the voting was all but over by then. It is a testament to his value that he made the season-ending All-NBA Team despite all the games that he missed. Pip's all-around play had him in contention for that year's Finals MVP before he suffered a back injury--multiple ruptured disks that had to be surgically repaired in the offseason--that limited him in the latter part of the series. MJ had a great game six performance to clinch the 1998 title, much like Magic did in 1980 when Kareem missed game six, but just like the 1980 Lakers would not have been in position to win without Kareem's earlier contributions the 1998 Bulls would not have won without Pip's contributions. By the way, Pip did play in game six and although his stats were not much to look at if you watched the game you know that the Bulls' plus/minus was much better when he was on the court than when he was out of the game. The Bulls fell behind by a significant margin when he was getting treatment and came back when he returned to the court and forced the Jazz to put some defensive attention on him and away from MJ, who struggled with his shot when Pip was out of the game. So don't give me the stats from that game--watch it the next time it is on ESPN Classic or NBA TV if you don't remember what happened as clearly as I do.

At Thursday, June 05, 2008 7:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Here is Mike Wise's New York Times account of Pip's performance in game three of the 1998 Finals (i.e., before Pip hurt his back, though he probably contributed to his later back problems by taking so many charges in this game, particularly against Karl Malone--talk about giving up your body for the team!):

Scottie Pippen was buzzing John Stockton like an annoying gnat in the backcourt, filling the passing lanes the way Coach Jerry Sloan wishes his players would and taking a charge from Karl Malone under the basket. On the next Utah Jazz possession, Pippen caused more havoc.

"He is probably the only guy in basketball who draws offensive fouls anymore," Sloan said today. "He had a ton of them last night, I think eight or nine. That was about as good a display of being able to step up and take a charge as you'll see."

Antoine Carr, the veteran Jazz forward, added, "Scottie is everywhere."

Pippen, a roving linebacker in high-tops, is using the finals to reaffirm his position as the game's most complete and chaos-inspiring defensive player. On Sunday night, he was largely responsible for the lowest scoring total in National Basketball Association history since the advent of the shot clock, when the Chicago Bulls pulverized the Jazz, 96-54, to take a two-games-to-one lead in the four-of-seven-game series.

Pippen roamed the floor, spreading his 6-foot-7-inch angular body from player to player on the Jazz roster. Twenty-six Utah turnovers and an unprecedented finals rout later, everyone wanted to know how one player could cause such disruption.

After the Jazz practiced at the United Center today, Sloan was asked whether Pippen was guilty of defending illegally -- guarding the ball instead of his man -- a violation punishable by a technical foul after a warning. Sloan, perhaps Chicago's greatest defender before this current group of Bulls made their mark, would not take the bait.

"I didn't hear them call it, so I guess there was no illegal defense," he said. "I think floater is the right word. Pippen is floating, and a lot of people didn't recognize it. We didn't adjust to it. It's not like we had time to stop the game and practice on it for a while."

Later, Wise wrote of Pippen:

This post-season alone, he shut down Charlotte's Glen Rice in the second round and discombobulated the Pacers' offense in the Eastern Conference finals.

Whereas everyone remembers Steve Kerr's game-winning shot in Game 6 of last season's finals against the Jazz, few recall what happened moments later. Pippen deflected the inbounds pass on the other end to Toni Kukoc, who dunked to seal the victory and Chicago's fifth title.


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