The Los Angeles Lakers had all the motivation they needed to drive them toward a NBA Finals rematch with the Boston Celtics during the 1984-1985 campaign; the phrase most often mentioned described the Lakers perfecting the human gag reflex. Magic Johnson bore the brunt of the nationwide criticism; his “tragic” lapses in the 84 Finals raised a king-sized red flag next to his previously spotless resume atop the NBA food chain. The haunting snapshots of Finals MVP Larry Bird soaked in vintage 1984 champagne, then winning his second consecutive League MVP trophy in 1985 ignited Johnson’s competitive drive to another level .
The NBA, which had been a two-man game in the first 5 years of the Bird-Magic Decade was suddenly in danger of becoming the Larry Bird era. The Lakers torched all film of the 84 Finals, where they literally threw away 3 games (although give the Celtics much-deserved credit for “Russellian” resolve under pressure), and their leaders, Magic, Kareem and Pat Riley arrived in training camp with egg on their faces but fire in their bellies. The Finals hangover led to a 10-6 start by Thanksgiving 1984, but a 9 -game winning streak starting in mid-December got the competitive juices flowing into the second half of the season, the Lakers going on a 36-5 romp to finish 62-20. Their offense continued to punish the League, ranked second in the NBA at 118.2ppg. Magic with 18 points and 12.6 assists had another ALL-NBA First team season, and Abdul-Jabbar led the team with 22 ppg.
Forward James Worthy, not yet an All Star but playing like one, chipped in with 17 points and hours of highlight reel dunks. Worthy was also expanding his game to add a host of mid-range shots which made him a bigger load for a defense to handle. Michael Cooper’s claim to fame was still his tenacity at the defensive end, where he was now an All Defensive Team mainstay, but he developed into a marvelous backup to Magic Johnson; no longer a one-dimensional dunker, Cooper’s ball handling, passing and perimeter shooting, especially the deep three-ball added another dimension to the Laker arsenal. The growing versatility of this team combined with the sour taste in their mouths from last season would carry them through the Western Conference Playoffs as men on a mission; Los Angeles would only lose 2 games in the 1985 Western Conference Playoffs as they waited impatiently to challenge Boston in the rematch for the Championship of the World.
The team had constructed a weighty chip on their shoulders a result of the perceived (or Riley-planted) dis-respect of the Lakers by the National Media as the representatives of the “soft” conference. Their Western Conference Final vs. the Denver Nuggets exhibited glimpses of the unkinder, less gentle Lakers as a flurry of elbows were thrown around, leading to a Kareem ejection in game two, a result of his riding Denver Center Danny Schayes’ back like a Mechanical Bull after exchanging blows. A older, wiser Magic in particular reflected a notable loss of innocence as he rewound his career ups and downs: his return from the knee injury in ‘81, the airball vs. Houston, the messy firing of Westhead, the controversial contract extension and resultant teammate backlash, the home crowd boos, the embarrassing Philadelphia sweep in 1983, then last year’s snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory had hardened Johnson to the ebb and flow of Media adulation. That sinking feeling that he and his teammates experienced running through the delirious crowd in the Boston Garden last June was now, almost 12 months later just pre –game butterflies, the itch to resume hand to hand combat.
The Celtics would oblige their left coast rivals with a 63-19 mark, again tops in the NBA.
Bird would earn that second Most Valuable Player award on the merits of a 28.7point, 10.5 rebound, 6.6 assist stat line. Boston began its Title defense with a tune up against Cleveland, wiping out the Cavs in 4 games. In the Conference Semifinal, the new kids on the Eastern Conference block were the Detroit Pistons, with their “Pocket Magic” All- NBA point guard, 6 foot Isiah Thomas, who guided the Pistons to a 46-36 record and steered a high-flying offense assisted by forward Kelly Tripuka, Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson, John Long and Bill Laimbeer. They gave the Celtics more of a tussle, splitting the first 4 games, but the results remained the same, a 4-2 Boston triumph. Philadelphia, Boston’s Conference Final opponent for the fourth time in the decade, won 58 games during the regular season, and somewhat surprisingly swept the 59- win Milwaukee Bucks, who looked like a serious title contenders. The Sixers added Rookie Charles Barkley to their delicate veteran mix, and Barkley did not disappoint in his freshman season with 14 points and 6.6 rebounds, starring off the bench in the Sixer sweep of the Bucks. A talented, relatively healthy and experienced Philadelphia team seemed primed for an upset of the favored Celtics in the Conference final…until the opening tip of Game one.
Boston took the Sixers apart in 5 games, with the least experienced participant, Barkley, carrying Philadelphia to their only victory. Robert Parish repeatedly stifled Moses, while Dr. J seemed bamboozled and bewildered, thoroughly outplayed by Bird. The effectiveness of Boston’s front line with Kevin McHale stepping in for an injured Cedric Maxwell full time would have a lasting effect for the Celtics, the "new and improved “ Big Three paying long term dividends on both ends of the court.
Those preliminaries taken care of, Magic-Bird II opened once again in historic Boston Garden on Memorial Day 1985; the Lakers, who had wanted the Celtics all year long, got their wish and were primed for redemption. They walked into the Boston Garden on Memorial Day, 1985 with a playoff record of 11-2, averaging 131.7 points per game...
(hit the pause button, let that sink in…they averaged 131 points per game in the first thirteen games of the playoffs).
A game that the NBA hoped to be a Summer Blockbuster on a Holiday that honored our departed servicemen turned out to be a memorial for the Lakers; the Celtics buried them 148-114, in what seemed like game 8 of last season’s Finals. Parish outscored Kareem 18-12, as the Captain looked 83 instead of 38. Magic had 19 with 12 assists, but the Celtic juggernaut was not to be denied. Boston shot 60 percent from the field, were a plus-15 off the glass and passed the Lakers into whiplash with an astounding 43 assists. Reserve Forward Scott Wedman had the game of his life, taking eleven shots off the bench without a miss, and Larry Bird was content being a role player with 19 points. The Celtics were four points shy of having 5 players with at least 20 points.
The critical fallout from the Memorial Day Massacre planted the Lakers squarely in the crosshairs of history. The specter of a 9th consecutive Finals loss to the Celtics would forever certify the team as a historically entertaining, but physically and mentally inferior foil to the Boston Mystique, perennial victims of the Celtic Way to Play Basketball.
In Game two, a game coach Pat Riley refers to as “ the most important game in Laker history”, Captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decided to stand up to the Ghosts of Celtic past. His 30 point, 17 rebound, 8 assist dominance of game 2 served to resuscitate, then inspire his teammates. Magic’s men re-discovered the running game, dumped it into Kareem whenever the pace slowed down, then ran some more. This team’s most significant contrast to last season’s model became their increasingly stiff backbone and willingness to mix it up with their antagonists in Green as the series progressed. Los Angeles collectively shoved back when Boston reverted to the alley- fight tactics that dismantled their title hopes in ’84. Laker forward Mitch Kupchak, his reconstructed knee finally functional after 2 ½ grueling years of Rehab, elected himself the new Sherriff in town, pounding flesh and inflicting pain in the paint on any and every Green shirt in his path.
Game three was a mirror image of the 84 Finals,a 136-111 Laker romp, with the Captain continuing his onslaught with 26pts, 14 boards, 7 assists and 2 blocks while Magic added 16 points, 7 boards and 17 assists, a bushel of them to Worthy, who led the Los Angeles with 29 points. Push came to shove as Ray Williams of the Celtics was tossed for pulling on Clark Kent’s, i.e. Kurt Rambis’ cape.
Boston had no quit in them, winning game four, the closest game of the series 107-105 on a Dennis Johnson buzzer-beater, but this year due to the new 2-3-2 Finals home game format ( meant to cut down on travel , although it is said CBS favored the format to extend the NBA Finals series to a more profitable minimum of six games), awarded Los Angeles the pivotal Game Five on their home floor with the series tied at 2 games apiece. The Lakers took care of business this time around, winning 120-111 on the strength of a 36 point, 7 rebound, 7 assist, 3 block stat stuffer by Kareem and another 17 assists by Magic ( DJ would dish 17 assists of his own for the Celtics in a losing cause) to take a 3 games to 2 lead back to the parquet of Boston, where the Celtics had never been eliminated in a Championship series( as if Earvin Johnson needed any more motivation). Game six stayed close for 3 quarters, but the fresh and determined legs of Magic, Worthy, Cooper, and Scott turned up the heat, sprinting toward the finish line in the fourth quarter, Kareem raining down Sky Hooks for emphasis.
The 111-100 Los Angeles victorychased the ghosts from Boston Garden, and as ecstatic Laker Owner Jerry Buss would remind everyone while hoisting the winner’s Trophy in the visitor’s locker room, the victory “would erase the most odious sentence in the English Language, that the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics”. The Los Angeles Lakers won their third and most impressive championship of the decade, finally waking up from the quarter-century Nightmare on Causeway Street that wore Celtic Green. This Championship defined the Lakers as more than a Hollywood stable of purebred athletes, but as a team of high collective character, a higher Basketball IQ and the highest level of intestinal fortitude. Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, now looking a young 38, took home both the Finals MVP trophy, on the strength of a remarkable 25.7 Pts on 60% shooting, 9 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 blocks in the six games, and the even greater respect of millions of NBA fans truly awed by his continued middle aged pursuit of excellence.
Magic Johnson, averaging 18.3 points, 14 assists (breaking his own Finals assist record set last year) and 2 steals per game gained something infinitely more valuable than an MVP Award or another Championship trophy; the redemption from his 1984 performance and the distinction of his team being on the first (and last as this goes to press) team to win a Championship on the Boston Parquet in its storied history.
Beating Bird in his Nest was its own reward.
Big Game James Worthy had an excellent series, establishing himself as a special player in the League with a 23 point per game average on 56% shooting. Kevin McHale, who would forever remove “sixth man” from his name, would lead all Boston scorers with 26 points per game on 59% shooting, and 10.7 rebounds. Robert Parish, another performance like a tree falling in the forest not making a sound, added his usual steady 17 ppg with 9 boards. The Boston starting backcourt could have built a new Garden with their 6 game accumulation of bricks; Dennis Johnson, while playing an excellent floor game vs. Magic and winning game four, shot a paltry 38% from the floor, while his running mate Danny Ainge barely better with 41%.
The leader of the pack, Larry Bird could never get untracked, his FG% of .449 and 3pt FG% of .333 a shell of his .484 and .667 3pt FG% in his Finals MVP performance of 1984. This time it would be Bird’s summer to simmer and suffer.
[ A startling statistic was the cumulative 3 point attempts of the participants in the 1984 and 1985 NBA Finals totalled 96. In the 13 contests over two seasons, Boston shot 4 per game, the Lakers 3. That’s seven per game. Teams take seven threes today before the end of the first quarter. It was just a different game].
The NBA and its fans were the real winners, as Rounds One and Two of this Super-Heavyweight Laker- Celtic title fight left everyone starving for more. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had developed into the League’s dominant forces, and their star wattage elevated the NBA to the greatest popularity in its storied history. The League was a hit around the world, the Bird-Magic saga combined with the dawning of the Jordan Era making the NBA the sport of a new generation, in both Chicago and Barcelona, New York and Milan, Los Angeles and Bejing. The NBA for the first time found itself in the neighborhood with Major League Baseball and behind the jewel of Professional Sports, the NFL.
Network executives took notice with prime time Playoff games a priority instead of an afterthought. Satellite television and the dreams of a World Wide Web were on the cusp of making the world infinitely smaller, where displaced fans from around the country or around the globe would soon be able to see their favorite NBA team wherever they lived, with the new capacity to watch Magic, Bird and Jordan, Hakeem and Sampson, Barkley, Isiah and soon Patrick Ewing on a nightly basis from the vantage point of their Cable Superstation or Satellite Dish.
None of the new technology mattered to the Celtics; the proud Franchise didn’t win 15 titles to this point by making excuses or standing pat. They exchanged niceties with the victorious Lakers, quickly licked their physical and emotional wounds, assessed their situation, and reloaded for the next season, searching the league for reinforcements, savoring a chance to be the major roadblock to the Lakers’ defense of their Championship. That summer they found just the 6’11” redheaded roadblock for the task at hand.
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THE GOLDEN AGE OF BASKEBALL BOOK EXERPTS
VOLUME TWO, CHAPTER ONE: THE REVENGE OF THE LAKERS
PHOTOGRAPHY COPYRIGHT STEVEN A ROSEBORO
THE GOLDEN AGE OF BASKETBALL
BY STEVEN A. ROSEBORO