LARRY JOE BIRDwon his second consecutive regular season MVP award in 1985 but the trophy lost its luster as the Los Angeles Lakers avenged their devastating 1984 Finals loss to Boston with a 6 game victory in the 1985 Championship Series, led by Ageless Wonder Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bird's Hardwood Doppelganger, Earvin Magic Johnson.
Entering his seventh season, Bird had already secured First ballot Hall of Fame status with career stats of 23.6 points on 49% shooting from the field and 86% from the free throw line, (he took less than two 3 pointers per game in his first 6 seasons!) 10.7 rebounds and 5.8assists while securing two NBA Titles in his 3 Trips to the Finals.
His 1984 Finals performance will stand for the Ages as one of the Greatest displays of skill and will ever seen on the NBA's biggest stage: Sharing the Court with 8 future Hall of Famers (Magic, Kareem, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo and Jamal Wilkes on the Lakers, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson of Boston) and two Hall of Fame Coaches (KC Jones and Pat Riley) Bird carried the team on his shoulders, amassing averages of 27.4 pts, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals in 7 Games; but it was his transcendent performances in the pivotal games 4 (an Overtime Masterpiece won at the Forum) and 5 (the famous 104 degree "Heat Game" at Boston Garden) which securely put the Celtics in control of the series, earning Bird his first Championship MVP award.
Despite all the accolades, the 1985 Finals rematch loss to his nemesis Magic stung Bird to the core, so he (and Celtic Patriarch Red Auerbach) plotted a redemptive strike of an NBA season still talked about decades later as a measuring stick for unselfish team play.
Los Angeles set out to make a statement and easily handled the Celtics in the first two games; 126-113 as James Worthy continued his hot scoring with 33 points, while Magic chipped in with 13 dimes and 29 points of his own, then followed with a 141-122 blowout in Game Two, as 4 of the 5 Laker starters scored 20 plus points and Michael Cooper scored 21 off the Bench setting an NBA Finals record with 6 made 3 pointers. Boston had Zero chance of beating LA in a track meet, so Back in Boston for games 3, 4, and 5 they chose muck it up, crash the Boards (winning the battle 48-24) and play to roar of the disciples of the Church of Bird in Game 3. Larry Legend would drop 30 with 12 boards to just edge Magic's 32 pts and 11 assists on this night.
Boston carried the momentum into Game 4, once leading by 16 points in the 3rd but the Laker Fast Break could make up ground in a hurry, trimming the lead to a workable seven to start the Final period. The Lakers would tie the Game at 93 with exactly 6 minutes to play, as their new addition Mychal Thompson contributed 15 huge points off the bench to spell a misfiring Kareem while playing excellent frontcourt defense on Parish and McHale. The game developed into yet another Laker-Celtic Classic as the game entered its final minute. Bird's Corner Three with 15 seconds left gives Boston a two point lead as the Church of Bird Erupts. Pat Riley calls time out and runs a play for one of the greatest clutch shooters of any generation, Kareem, who gets fouled on a Sky Hook with :08 and makes one of two, but Boston loses the rebound and gives back the ball to LA.
Riley calls time out and runs a play for one of the greatest clutch shooters of any generation, Kareem, who gets fouled on a Sky Hook with 08 and makes one of two, but Boston loses the rebound and gives back the ball to LA.
Unless you were captured by Aliens for the last 35 years, you know what happens next as it is played on every Finals telecast since. Inbound to Magic, McHale switches on to him, Magic licks his chops, and as Worthy said, "I saw it in his eyes...no way was he passing that ball". Magic drove to the paint, ignored a WIDE OPEN Kareem under the basket and shot a 12 foot replica of the Greatest shot in NBA history contested by two-thirds of Greatest Frontline in NBA history... Magic's Junior-Junior Hook shot became a Symbol of his entire MVP season, maybe it was his intended, "drop the Mic" exclamation point to his wire to wire dominance of the League in 1987.
Bird's heart-stopping 21 foot shot off one leg that just hits the back of the rim at the Buzzer, Giving the Lakers the insurmountable 3 games to One Lead.
But most importantly it gave him the opportunity to have the last word over Bird in his own Pulpit.
So the third Game 4 Classic in this 3rd Championship Matchup between Bird and Magic ended as only it could have, down to the last minute, Bird making the big shot, Magic making a bigger shot, then Bird with a chance to win at the Buzzer. The eerie synergy of these 2 protagonists and their respective franchises once again mesmerizing us with fascinating storylines and heart-stopping heroics, two legendary competitors at the peak of their powers, both giving no quarter.
The Celtics put on a Clinic in Game 5, 123-108 as all 5 Boston starters scored 20 plus points while dishing 33 assists; the Purple and Gold took the party back to the Glitterati of the Fabulous Forum, where they would finally dispatch of Bird and Boston in Game Six 106-93 with a 30-12 run in the third quarter; Kareem turned back the clock to the tune of 32 points, his new sidekick Mychal Thompson had another stellar 15 point 9 rebound evening while Magic set the table with 19 assists. Regular Season and Finals MVP Magic Johnson, for the first time since the 1979 NCAA Championship game had outplayed his nemesis Larry Bird, who humbly called Magic after the series
"the best he has ever seen".
The Los Angeles Lakers would finish the Regular Season with a 65-17 record, the second best in the Decade to the Celtics' 68-15 record just 12 months earlier; their 15-3 roll through the 1987 Playoffs would culminate with their 4th NBA Title of the Decade and second over Boston in the rubber match of the 3 Game Classic Championship Set between these 2 Historic Franchises.
Regular Season and Finals MVP Magic Johnson would finally get his due as a not only a 4-Time NBA Champion but as a Player for the Ages; he had earned his "Drop the Mic" moment over his arch-rival Larry Bird on the World's Biggest Stage.
Earvin's "Magic" Numbers:
Regular Season: 23.9 ppg (52% FG, 84% FT); 12.2 Assists/3.8 Turnovers; 6.3 Rebounds, 1.7 Steals
NBA Finals (6 Games): 26.2 ppg (54/96); 13.0 Ast/2 Tov; 8 Rebounds, 2.3 Steals
Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Regular Season: 65-17, NBA Playoffs: 15-3
While Magic was developing new weapons to add to his Arsenal, the rest of the Lakers weren’t sitting on their Laurels in the Summer of 1986.
James Worthy survived the ugly off-season trade rumors (Worthy for Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks was the reported trade talk), and came to Camp determined to make his Critics eat their words by putting 1986 behind him and taking his game to the next level. He was ready and willing to take on a greater responsibility in the offense. Worthy came into the League as a ferocious Dunker with an unpolished offensive repertoire. He had developed an excellent Post-up Game in the last two years and was consistently hitting his Midrange Jumper in Pre-Season, so Pat Riley knew he could feature Worthy with confidence as the first option whenever necessary.
Michael Cooper, already a 4 time Member of the NBA’s 10 man All Defensive team would also raise his offensive game to diversify the Laker attack. In a League where the 3 point shot was still an outlier in most NBA Offenses, Cooper would increase his 3 point attempts from 3 to 4 a game (which seems almost comical today but statistically significant in 1986), shooting at a 35% Clip. He also would take on more backup Point Guard duties ( a positon the Lakers never successfully filled since Norm Nixon was traded) while Magic took a seat on the Bench. None of these changes would affect Cooper’s laser beam focus on becoming the best defender in the League this season. As the Laker with the leanest body mass, Cooper was also the most fearless player on the team, driving his teammates crazy with reckless abandon in practice, then terrorizing his competition, sticking like flypaper to his man, shutting down driving lanes, getting steals, deflections, spectacular blocked shots, taking charges form Power Forwards or Centers than bouncing up from the floor in defiance, his nightly efforts on defensive were both stifling to the opposition and inspiring to his teammates, who turned Cooper’s defense into instant Showtime offense. He was the also the first one to step in to defend a teammate from an over-aggressive opponent, many nights going chest to chest with a perpetrator 50 or more pounds heavier. He could single-handedly change a lackluster Laker effort on the defensive end just by entering the Game.
Pat Riley had his core 4 ready to start the 1986-87 season, but he wasn’t done tinkering. In training Camp he liked what he saw out of second year Forward AC Green out of Oregon; fan favorite and over-achieving Kurt Rambis had been a staple in the starting Lineup since Riley took over the team from Paul Westhead, but Green had an athleticism and shooting touch without sacrificing any of the energy that Rambis brought to the table. Green also had quick feet on the defensive end in the halfcourt and could finish the Showtime fast break with Worthy, Cooper and Scott. An unhappy Kurt Rambis would take to the bench but stayed sharp for when his name was called.
Magic Johnson, without a press release to diminish the enormous shadow of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would take the ball for the 1986-87 season with new purpose. He would still be the Ringmaster of the greatest show on Earth, but he would stop looking for himself last on the offensive end. He would take his 6 foot 9 frame down on the post to punish opposing guards with his new-found hook shot, or pass to a cutter or out for a perimeter shot. His newfound assertiveness on offense turned up the heat on an already smoking hot scoring Machine, and the team just fell in line as the wins started to follow. The Lakers would lose their opening Game to the Rockets then followed by winning 26 of their next 31 games.
The Celtics and Lakers spent the Decade of the Eighties accumulating Key Assets to their Championship Franchises the way the United States and Soviet Union were stockpiling Weapons in the Cold War.( Their successes with trades and draft picks in the Decade makes me wonder if the other 21 teams had Fifth Graders as General Managers!). Last season was tipped to the Celtics with the Acquisition of Center Bill Walton, whose seamless fit to the Celtic style of play earned him the 6th Man of the Year Award. In February of 1987, the Lakers would make what I considered the second best trade of the Decade...On the eve of Valentine's Day 1987, Cupid shot an arrow right through the hearts of Laker fans with the acquisition of 6 foot 10 Center Mychal Thompson from the San Antonio Spurs in exhcange for LA's first round Draft Pick this summer, their No. 2 pick in 1990, two reserves--Frank Brickowski and Petur Gudmundsson--and an undisclosed amount of cash to the Spurs.
The 32 Year old Thompson , who was the first player taken in the 1978 NBA Draft, played 8 seasons in Portland, averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds as the Blazers Center; he was a teammate of Kevin McHale for two seasons at the University of Minnesota and was heralded around the league as one of McHale's best defenders.
This generation will know Mychal Thompson as color commentator for the Laker Broadcasts, and the father of Golden State Warrior sharpshooter Klay Thompson.
As with Walton the year before, Thompson would fill an enormous Hole in the Laker Roster, a backup Center for the Captain over the last half of the season and a versatile scorer, defender and shot blocker that could play with both first and second units. Thompson would solidify a Seven Man Core that could play a fast or slow pace , play the physical or finesse game, and featured 3 of the best closers in the League, fueled by the competitive juices of Pat Riley and Magic Johnson.
Larry Bird, never one to run from a sound Bite, summed up the Celtic reaction to the trade....
"If San Antonio needed money, we would've sent them money, but to go and help the Lakers like that is just terrible."
Ironically, Thompson's first introduction to the Forum faithful would be a nationally televised game the day after the trade vs. who else, Bird, McHale and the Celtics. He scored 10 points with 4 Boards to support a 39 point -10-assist 7 rebound effort by Magic in a 106-103 Laker victory.
The effect of decreasing Kareem's minutes during the remainder of the regular season would be immeasurable, but the payoff of adding to a 65 win season with Jewelry in June could be easily quantified.
The argument for a great player making his teammates better was never more on display than the heights Bird's Band of Brothers reached that season.
Kevin McHale made the quantum leap on the heels of his terrific 1985 Finals performance and never looked back; he was second on the team in scoring at 21.3 PPG, grabbed 8.1 rebounds and added 1.9 blocks in 68gms, earning an All-Defensive First team selection; McHale missed 14 games but began to establish himself as a low post legend with an unstoppable repertoire of moves that terrorized defenses.
Old Reliable, The Chief, Robert Parish remained the team's backbone as last line of defense; Parish logged season averages of 16 points shooting 54% from the field (still sticking those midrange rainbows), pulling down 9.5 rebounds and swatting 2 shots a night.
The Celtic backcourt bounced back from a miserable Finals performance in 1985 to deliver a formidable perimeter punch in both the regular season and Playoffs of 1985-86. Dennis Johnson averaged 15.6ppg shooting 45% from the field and 81% from the line, with 5.8 Assists per game on his way to making the NBA's All Defensive second team, his 8th overall selection. The much-maligned Danny Ainge averaged 10 points on 50% shooting, 37% from beyond the Arc and 90% from the line while dishing 5 assists a contest.
The Celtic bench, their Achilles heel in the '85 finals was rock-solid after the addition of Center Bill Walton, acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers for Cedric Maxwell. Walton, a forgotten man after a string of devastating foot and ankle injuries slashed close to 400 games off his promising Career averaged 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 19 minutes per game while keeping Parish fresh for the Playoff run; reserves Scott Wedman, Jerry Sichting, Greg Kite, David Thirdkill, Sam Vincent and Rick Carlisle played important roles greasing the wheels of the Green Machine throughout the season as Boston rolled into the Finals with an 11-1 record in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Coach KC Jones and his assistants Jimmy Rodgers, Chris Ford and Ed Badger managed minutes, massaged egos and kept this team of veterans laser focused throughout a season that would encounter few if any speed bumps; he could count on Bird was a coach on the floor and the last word in the locker room, while the waffling smoke of Red Auerbach's Cigars were never strayed far from practices or games.
The Celtics logged a 40-1 Home record in 1985-86, a record that stood for 3 decades until tied by the San Antonio Spurs in 2016. Their 28 Road wins featured an overtime victory in Portland where Bird scored 47 points (adding 14 rebounds and 11 assists) while deliberately taking half of his shots Left Handed, just for fun. It was that kind of season.
These numbers placed this Celtic team on the short list of the all time Greatest Teams in NBA History.
Points Per Game 114 (Ranked 8th in the League)
Team Field Goal Percentage: .508 (FIRST)
Team Three Point Percentage: .350 (FIRST)
Free Throw Percentage: .790 (SECOND)
Team Assists per Game: 29 (SECOND)
The assist numbers do a disservice to the passes that led to the pass; Boston opponents caught a cold from whipping the ball around the court every night.
They were no slouches on the Defensive Side of the ball either, because as everyone knows, Defense wins Titles.
Points Allowed 104 (THIRD IN THE LEAGUE)
Opponent FG percentage .46% (FIRST)
Defensive Rebounds/gm 33.6 (FIRST)
Total Rebounds/gm 46.4 (FIRST)
Blocks per game 6.2 (FOURTH)
During the 1986 regular season, Jerry West, Icon of Basketball Icons, a Winner on every level, (Player, Coach, General Manager, Consultant) said of Larry Bird, who would win his 3rd Consecutive Most Valuable Player Award while leading the Celtics to a 67 win regular season, good for 3rd best record in NBA history:
"He is ...nearly as perfect as you can get in almost every phase of Basketball".
"NEARLY AS PERFECT AS YOU CAN GET IN EVERY PHASE OF BASKETBALL..."
...JERRY WEST ON 1986 REGULAR SEASON AND FINALS MVP LARRY BIRD
Over the Summer following their shocking 5-Game upset loss to the Houston Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers Franchise had to look themselves in the collective mirror and ask some painful questions:
1. Was their Captain and NBA living legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fast approaching his 38th Birthday in April 1987, still the hub of the Laker Offense?. Could he effectively provide the defense and rebounding to anchor a Championship Defense?.
2. Was Forward James Worthy's poor performance against the dominant play of the Houston Rocket front line of Ralph Sampson, Akeem Olajuwon, Rodney McCray and Jim Peterson an aberration or proof that Worthy may not be the Player they need going forward to compete with the Rockets?.
Then there was the most painful question of all...
3. Did Regular Season and Finals MVP Larry Bird's transcendent performance in the 1985-86 Season, which earned Bird the third Ring of his career, his 3rd consecutive League MVP, carrying the Celtics to their 16th Championship overall provide overwhelming evidence that Bird was once and for all the superior player to Magic Johnson?.
Magic continued to have more than his share of Critics; rival executives, current and former players, and of course current and former Media pundits believed Magic was more of a product of a great system on a team of stars vs. a legitimate individual Superstar, one that could carry a team on his broad shoulders and lead them to a Title, someone like his Iconic teammate, Abdul Jabbar had done in 1971, 1980 and 1985.
Bird’s 1986 season was like a fairy tale; as the undisputed leader of a dominant 67 win team, albeit one with 4 future Hall of Fame teammates. his all-around brilliance had the national media (including off-the record Los Angeles Beat Writers, and you know who you are),singing his praises like the Vienna Boy’s Choir, elevating Bird in just his eighth season to one of the all-time greats, the so-called “perfect” Basketball player, The Player you would pick first to rebuild your Franchise.
Bird’s dominance in the 1984 Finals over Magic and the Lakers had not completely been reset by LA’s redemption Victory vs. Boston the following season; Kareem carried the Lakers over the last 5 games of the 1985 Finals and was voted the unanimous MVP. The perception gap between the two Stars continued to widen once the Lakers were toasted by the Rockets in the WCF while Boston controlled the Twin Towers from the opening tip of The Finals, who had no answer for Bird.
My Basketball Idol Walt “Clyde” Frazier now colorful commentator of New York Knick telecasts would say “when I first got into the league, my friends would say Clyde, when are you going to make the All Star team?. Then once I made it every season, they started asking, Clyde when are you going to be All-Star Game MVP?”.
The benchmarks for individual and team achievements were set in stone since the NBA’s origins in 1946 and they were no different in the Eighties; there were Role players, Stars, All Stars, All NBA Players, then, the ascension to regular season Most Valuable Player, Finals MVP. And ultimately, the Hall of Fame.
If you were one of the Talented Tenth of the more than 3500 players that have worn an NBA uniform since 1946, you would be anointed an Icon.
Bird, for all of his magnificent achievements in his 8 year career did not line up next to an NBA Icon every night. Magic’s Identity Crisis truly started right in his own building.
THE 1985-85 BOSTON CELTICS DOMINATE THE NBA
Their Opponents in the Finals would once again be the Lak....wait, what?. The 60-22 Lakers flipped the script by belly-flopping in the Western Conference Final, losing in 5 games to a young and Hungry Houston Rocket team led by their young Twin Towers, Ralph Sampson and Akeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, and crafty former Celtic Coach Bill Fitch. Fitch, having coached Bird, knew the MVP and the Celtic front line would be a totally different Animal, and before you could say sweep Boston was heading south to Houston with 2 convincing victories in their back pockets. The Rockets delayed the inevitable with two impressive wins on their home floor, game 5 sullied by Ralph Sampson fists to the faces of Jerry Sichting and Dennis Johnson.
The Celtics would wrap up their NBA record sixteenth World Championship on the Parquet floor in Game Six rout as Larry Bird was once again voted Finals MVP; The Master of the Half Inch came within a half inch of averaging a triple double in the 6 games with 24 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game.
The NBA in 1985-86 was Larry Bird's World and we were all going along for the ride...a reminder to those with short memories that his mastery of the game of Basketball secured his place at the VIP table of the Hall of Fame.
SIXTEEN:STILL TASTES SWEET
On the East Coast, the Celtics' celebration of their Sixteenth title lasted less than a month; what should have been another victory for the storied Franchise, the selection of Maryland Forward Len Bias with the Number 1 pick in the Draft (another Red Auerbach heist from Seattle for Guard Gerald Henderson in 1984) ended in tragedy when Bias died from an apparent Cocaine overdose, sending shock waves through the World of Sports. News of Bias' death would overshadow an extremely less devastating but critical development in their upcoming season; Center Bill Walton, reigning 6th man of the Year who had played a relatively pain-free campaign had a recurrence of the ugly foot problems that had plagued his entire career; he would miss all but a few weeks of the 1986-87 Season.
Boston would still own finish the season with the best record in the East for the 4th straight season, logging 59 victories, but they still couldn’t escape adversity; on March 11th vs the Suns Kevin McHale suffered an injury when a Phoenix player stepped on his foot while McHale pulled it away. X rays were positive for a fracture, but McHale, who in his seventh season had become a bonafide A-Lister, finishing 4thn MVP Voting behind Magic, Jordan and Bird, was in no mood for ending his stellar season on the bench in a cast. McHale had finally joined his teammate Bird on the All-NBA First team by scoring 26 points a game, good for sixth in the NBA, leading the league with a 60% shooting percentage and unlike Bird, selected for the All Defensive First team. Despite warnings from his Doctors, The Celtics and his teammates, who all feared for his Career, he decided to deal with the foot after the season ended; if he could walk, he would play. The rest of the Celtics were not exactly the pictures of health either. Boston’s core of Bird, McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge were preparing for their 4th consecutive Eastern Conference Championship; the wear and tear of all those collective minutes and lack of a potent bench was starting to rear its ugly head. But they were battle tested and had a relatively healthy Larry Bird so no excuses found their way into the Celtic Locker Room. Bill Walton would try to give the playoffs a go basically on one foot. The Celtic Title defense was now sponsored by Blue Cross of Massachusetts.
The Lakers would Sweep the first round, then take a 3-0 lead on their next opponent, the Golden State Warriors. In Game 4 the Warriors would stave off elimination thanks to an epic performance by an unlikely hero. Warriors Point Guard Eric Sleepy Floyd out of Georgetown, who was a teammate of Patrick Ewing in the Classic 1982 NCAA Championship Game vs North Carolina Stars James Worthy, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins decided to do his best Jordan Impression . Floyd lit up the Purple and Gold with a career high 51 points; Sleepy would set NBA Playoff records of 39 points in the second half and an smokin' hot 29 in the 4th Quarter. Even Michael Cooper, who would be voted the NBA’s Defensive Player of the year in a few weeks had no answer for the smoking hot Floyd.. Sleepy's performance woke up LA and Cooper would get his revenge a few days later, holding Floyd to a mere 18 points as the Lakers would eliminate the Warriors 118-106, advancing to play the surprising Seatlle Supersonics, the 7th seed who reached the Third Round by shocking the second seed and 55 game winner Dallas Mavericks 4-1, then knocking off the defending Western Conference Champion Houston Rockets in six games.
The Supersonics would feature Guard Dale Ellis, whose Career was in a way a predecessor to the player who at the time of this Podcast is the frontrunner for this year's NBA MVP, James Harden. Like Harden, Ellis played his first 3 years as a backup Guard on a rising playoff Contender, the Dallas Mavericks, whose Backcourt of Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman was considered one of the Best in the League. Ellis averaged 8 points in his first 3 seasons before the trade to Seattle for Guard Al Wood. Ellis would team with a Frontcourt of first Time All Star Tom Chambers and Second year Power Forward Xavier McDaniel to form one of the most potent scoring trios in the NBA. The rest of the roster was thin, thus the 39 win regular season record, but in the playoffs, Matchups rule, and the team rode their stars to the Conference Final. Ellis would take particular satisfaction from his 29.5 ppg average in the first round which helped eliminate his former team in 4 games (remember Kids, first round Playoff Series were still only 5 Games). They would dethrone the Rockets in the Semifinal, but Houston went out swinging, losing game six in Double Overtime 128-125 as Olajuwon dropped 49 with 25 rebounds, but the Trio of Chambers (37pts ) Ellis (36) and McDaniel (24) was too much to handle.
James Worthy, still only 25 years old had been a more than willing third Wheel in the Laker Juggernaut since coming into the League in the 1982-83 Season; Worthy, like his counterpart Robert Parish in Boston, was the Quiet Man of the Lakers; getting a sound bite from him was like drawing blood from a stone. Fortunately for Laker Fans the rumored summer trade proposal for Dallas' Mark Aguirre never happened, so if Worthy was stung by the rumors, he'll take that intel to his grave. He averaged 19.4 ppg on 53% shooting in 1986-87, good enough for second on the team, and was selected to his first All Star team. Even though he had enough highlights in his first 5 seasons to warrant his own You Tube Channel, Worthy had never been the Star of Stars in a Playoff Series, coming closest in the 84 Finals before the Purple and Gold Wheels fell off after game 3.
The Conference Final would change all that and give a glimpse of James' Worthiness as a future Hall of Famer. Big Game James averaged 30 points, leading the Lakers to a 4 game sweep of the undermanned Sonics, a competitive team simply overmatched by the Laker Galaxy of Stars. Michael Cooper led the defensive effort, holding Dale Ellis to 16 points in the series, while the unheralded Laker team Defense kept Tom Chambers at 18 ppg in the 4 games. Xavier McDaniel would lead the Sonics with 24 ppg, including a 42 point outburst in a 122-121 Game Three Defeat. Pat Riley would have the next week to Scout the Piston-Celtic series and rest his 39 year old Center Abdul-Jabbar, who just kept defenses honest with the unsinkable Sky Hook.
Boston would face a formidable challenge in the Eastern Conference Finals vs. the up and coming Detroit Pistons, featuring All Star Guard Isiah Thomas, former Laker and scoring Machine Adrian Dantley, a bruising frontcourt of Forward Rick Mahorn and Center Bill Laimbeer, who would bring the pain to anyone who dared enter the paint, veteran scorer off the bench Vinnie Johnson, and youngsters Joe Dumars, John Salley and Dennis Rodman who gave the Pistons defense and Athleticism, Coached by the steady hand of former Philadelphia Assistant Chuck Daly. The Series went the distance as Larry Bird needed another memorable game 7 performance to close the series at Boston Garden, setting up the rubber match in the Bird-Magic Finals, their 3rd confrontation in 4 seasons.
At the start of the 1986-87 season Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had made 16 All Star Appearances, 10 All-NBA First teams, 11 All-Defensive Teams and was the League’s Alltime Leading Scorer. The Captain literally had 2 Careers, the Seventies, where he was the Decade’s Best player, and the First 5 years of the Eighties, where he remained in the top 10. In the 85-86 season he scored a remarkable 23.4 ppg, his best scoring output since the 1981-82 season, and good for 11th in the NBA. The League's version of the Last Jedi Master had taken on all comers over 17 Glorious seasons and was still standing, the Focal Point of the Laker half-court offense since 1975.. He was also a disciple of his beloved UCLA Coach John Wooden, and had the principles of winning basketball written into his DNA; statistics alone would never define his true impact on the Court. No longer the singular Force capable of Dominating a Playoff Series, or a Finals, as he did just 12 Months ago, he was still a wonder to behold on many nights, one of the first Athletes who embraced Martial arts, Yoga and a strict diet regimen to enhance his body, Meditation and Prayer to focus the Mind and Soul. The Sky Hook had evolved from a Weapon to a symbol of sustained excellence over time, a Symbol of an unmatched Career.
If that's all too New-Age-y for you, you can check the listing of Players who were drafted and since retired from the NBA starting with the 1969 NBA Draft. Yes, Father time was undefeated, but Kareem had taken him where no one had gone before, into the fifteenth Round. He also accepted the fact, however begrudgingly, that he would have nights where he would be the second or third Option behind Magic and fast-rising All-Star James Worthy. As a result, Kareem’s scoring average would dip below 20 ppg for the first time in his Career in 1986-87, as his minutes played would decrease by almost 800 that season.
Magic’s true brilliance came from his willingness to sacrifice his own statistics to enhance Kareem’s game while spearheading Showtime’s nuclear fast break, leading the Lakers to 5 NBA Finals and 3 NBA Titles since 1979. It was the perfect partnership, but like all relationships, it had its share of ups and downs; job number 1 for Magic had always been keeping the Big Fella engaged and satisfied on the Court, then praised to high heaven off the court. The only one better than Magic the Diplomat in giving Kareem his well-deserved props in the Media was Pat Riley. The common denominator between the delicate Egos of Kareem, Riley and Magic had always been winning, and Magic was a winner out of the Womb.
A deep dive on You tube may uncover a halftime interview with Chick Hearn in the 1983-84 season where Magic stated “ people haven’t seen all that I can do”. I remember thinking, “Jesus, what more was there?. He said, “I averaged close to 30 points a game at Everett High School (in Lansing Michagan); scoring has never been a problem for me, it’s just we have so many scorers on this team I need to get them the ball”.
That being said, it still stung Earvin to turn on the 1986 Finals on TV and hear the converts, down on their knees testifyin’ in the Church of Bird, singing his praises from the floor to the rafters of Boston Garden as they hoisted their Sixteenth Banner through the pungent Smoke of another Red Auerback stogie. While Magic, Riley, and Kareem, the Core of the Laker Franchise reflected on their collapse to the Rockets, a strong dose of reality would finally set in. They just couldn’t rely on the 38 y/o Abdul-Jabbar to put them on his back and carry them to Glory anymore.
An Astute student of NBA History, Magic would always talk about “Stealing” parts of other great player’s games to enhance his own. He said he and his father would watch countless hours of Basketball and try to emulate the greats of his youth, the Spin move of Earl the Pearl Monroe of the Knicks, the all -around court savvy of Dave Bing of the Detroit Pistons, Wilt Chamberlains rebounding prowess and another Michigan Icon, George the “Iceman” Gervin’s patented Finger roll.
This summer, he would focus on adding a weapon that he had seen countless times on the practice court and in game action, a shot that was buried back in the infancy of the league, a staple in the 70’s, but just not sexy enough in the Eighties; nonetheless it would become an effective tool for one 6 foot 9 inch Point Guard down in the low post ..the hook shot. The idea that Kareem was the only player in the last 17 seasons that shot a Hook was a travesty, and his Sky Hook should have its own separate induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Like the Bounce pass on offense or Boxing out on Defense, the hook shot is a valuable fundamental skill that every player pushing 6-10 should work on, just sayin’.
Magic, ever deferential to and respectful of Kareem, would even name the shot the Junior-Junior Skyhook.
THE DECADE'S BEST
THE GOLDEN AGE OF BASKETBALL
COPYRIGHT STEVEN A. ROSEBORO