June 22nd, 1987
v.s. Los Angeles Lakers: Your Ball, L.a.
With a Magical fast break and inspired play from a revered center, Los Angeles beat Boston for the NBA championship
In that clean, well-lighted place called the Forum, the Los Angeles Lakers finally subdued the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA finals on Sunday afternoon, performing the bloodless laser surgery that typified their season. The end came swiftly for the Celtics, who led 56-51 at the half but crumbled under a 30-12 blitzkrieg in the third period. And so, for the fourth time this decade, a purple reign fell on the NBA.
The Lakers deserved it. They may never be anybody's blue-collar baby, and they may not be "one of the greatest teams ever," a phrase that was bandied about after they devastated the defending-champion Celtics in Games 1 and 2 of the series. But they are, assuredly, the league's best team this season. They won the title by the decisive score of 106-93 after turning the third period into a track meet and the Celtics into stumblebums.
And so, once again a champion has failed to repeat in the NBA. The last time one did repeat was in 1969, when—surprise, surprise—the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 7 at the Forum. Jack Kent Cooke, then the Lakers owner, greased his own skids that day by planning a victory celebration right in front of Celtics general manager Red Auerbach's cigar. Balloons hung from the rafters, and a college band waited in the wings, but it all went for naught.
Instead of balloons, this Lakers team brought overwhelming energy and determination into the third period, and blew that up, right in Boston's face.
"There's no question this is the best team I've played on," said Magic Johnson, a member of the 1980, '82 and '85 championship Lakers. "It's fast, it can shoot and rebound, it has inside people, it has everything. I've never played on a team that had everything before." Nor has a team often played with an individual who does everything to the degree that Magic did this season. After a 16-point, 19-assist, 8-rebound, 3-steal performance in the finale, he was the unanimous choice as series MVP, his third such selection; any other choice would have been a joke.
Can the game be played any better than Magic played it in the third period on Sunday? After scoring only four first-half points, Magic was on the ropes and the Lakers were right there with him. But then he took over. Of the 30 Lakers points in the third quarter, Johnson scored 12 and assisted on 8 others. He also grabbed four rebounds and was all over the place defensively, double-teaming down low and planting his body in every passing lane. The Celtics scored only 12 points in the period (same as Magic), and almost before they knew it, it was over. One sudden, explosive charge—that's Lakerball.
"We couldn't stop the avalanche," said Danny Ainge, whose 1-for-9 shooting in the game more closely resembled a rock slide. Said Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers: "The Lakers have a way of going through surges. That's what they're all about. It was more their doing than our undoing." Maybe. But couldn't the Celtics have done something? Particularly invisible during the 12 hellish minutes of the third period was a blond guy with a wispy mustache, rumored to be the game's best player—name of Larry Bird. Bird missed his first four shots of the period before finally making a layup, but more to the point, he barely touched the ball when he wasn't shooting it. Sure, part of the time he was being covered by a piece of human flypaper called Michael Cooper, but in a curiously inefficient performance. Bird finished with just 16 points, 6 of those coming in the final, meaningless minutes of the game. "I was off the first half [3 of 8 from the floor], but that hasn't necessarily been a bad sign for us," said Bird. "So I didn't come out trying to take over the game in the third period. Then, when we got down by 10 or 12, I thought maybe I should start scoring. But by that time we were out of our offense and couldn't seem to get back in." True. The Celtics either pounded the ball inside without success (the foul calls that Kevin McHale and Robert Parish had gotten throughout the series were not forthcoming) or they took misguided, hurried bombs (Ainge was particularly guilty). Had it not been for Dennis Johnson (33 points), the Celtics could have left the Forum early and beaten the freeway traffic. "I've said all year that when we have breakdowns, we have major breakdowns," said Bird.
It was James Worthy who made a play early in the third period that was enough to give Boston a nervous breakdown. It also epitomized the Lakers' intensity during those 12 crucial minutes. With 10:05 to go, Worthy got a hand on a lazy pass from McHale to Dennis Johnson. Worthy pursued it down the sideline and dove headlong to the floor to save it from going out of bounds, tapping it to a fast-breaking Magic in the process. Magic's dunk gave the Lakers a 57-56 lead, and they never looked back. It was the kind of play that the Celtics usually make—a DJ kind of play—only this time the Lakers made it.
Until that overwhelming third period, there had been some doubt that the Lakers could hold on and win the series, even though they brought a 3-2 lead back to Los Angeles last Friday. They had been fortunate to squeeze out a 107-106 victory in Game 4 at Boston Garden on Tuesday night, and then, with a chance to celebrate on the parquet on Thursday, they played a dreadful Game 5, losing 123-108.
By then the series had taken on the usual Lakers-Celtics complexion. The bad blood began flowing late in the second period of Game 4 when Worthy steamed in for a layup and Greg Kite mistook him for a wide receiver. Kite deposited Worthy over the end line, and Worthy jumped up and started swinging. Players from both benches stormed onto the court, but there were only minor skirmishes. Actually, the best punch landed was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's almost unnoticed quick jab to Kite's face. Worthy led the resulting $8,000 fine parade with a $2,000 levy.
Now, that was more like it. Ever since Magic and Bird began singing paeans to each other and selling sneakers together, the level of antagonism between these two teams seems to have diminished. If the superstars are members of each others' fan clubs, how is, say, Wes Matthews supposed to work up a good hatred for Sam Vincent? Or, for that matter, Chick Hearn for Johnny Most? Those veteran broadcasters met on CBS during halftime of Game 5 and did nothing but exchange encomiums.
Magic ultimately won Game 4 with two seconds left when he drove across the lane and threw up what he calls "the junior, junior, junior skyhook," which Abdul-Jabbar began teaching him a couple of seasons ago but which he only recently unveiled. When Bird's desperation shot went awry at the other end, L.A. had a 3-1 series lead. "How do you think I feel?" Bird said later. "I know that when I'm up 3-1, I say it's over."
Even if Bird seemed ready to concede the series, Celtics president Auerbach was not about to go gentle into that good night. After the game he confronted referee Earl Strom in the hallway near the locker rooms. "That was the worst-officiated game I ever saw!" rasped Auerbach, referring to the fact that the Lakers shot 14 fourth-period free throws to the Celtics' one. He also told Strom, "You're a gelding," though he was not quite so Elizabethan in his choice of words. Strom stared back at him and said, "Arnold, you're showing all the class I knew you always had." The idea that the Celtics had been jobbed by the refs at Boston Garden is almost surrealistic, of course, but there you are.
Still, the Lakers couldn't put it away in Game 5, largely because of the poor play of Byron Scott (3-for-10 shooting in that game, 8 of 29 for the three games in Boston). Worthy (6 of 19 in Game 5) was almost as bad, and Abdul-Jabbar made only 8 of 21 shots during his 35 indifferent minutes on the floor. For long stretches of the game, Magic (29 points, 8 rebounds, 12 assists, 4 steals—all team highs) appeared to be playing Boston all by his lonesome. Only he, it seemed, comprehended the fact that the Celtics were not going to quit. Bird's pessimism after Game 4 was temporary, as Magic knew it would be. By the following day, Bird was telling his teammates, "If they want to celebrate, let's not let them do it on the parquet." And they didn't.
After the game even Magic had lost some of his seemingly limitless supply of patience and goodwill, allowing as how Scott and Worthy hadn't been aggressive enough on offense. Instead of acting, they were reacting. "We can't settle for jump shots all night," said Magic. "We've got to create. We're just standing around and watching."
Scott (eight points) did more than stand around and watch in Game 6, but not much more. Worthy (22 points) came to life, however, just as the press was fitting him for a pair of goat horns to match his goggles. Equally important were the contributions of Abdul-Jabbar (32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks) and Mychal Thompson (15, 9 and 2).
Kareem showed up for Game 6 with his 40-year-old scalp cleanly shaven—he has done that for several games this season—and the kind of unshakable confidence that only 197 playoff games (an NBA record) can build. He kept the Lakers in the game in the first half with 19 points, most of them coming on his artful hook, which now relies on sly as much as sky. And when he went out with his fourth personal in the first minute of the third period, in bounced the irrepressible Thompson. The Lakers defense instantly became more active, with Thompson making life miserable for McHale, as if the Celtics forward's fractured foot weren't making it miserable enough. When Abdul-Jabbar returned in the fourth period, he was rested enough to bury two skyhooks, two dunks and five free throws to finish with his season-high point total.
Probably the most telling detail in the Lakers' championship blueprint this season was the midseason acquisition of Thompson, which is roughly comparable with Boston's addition of Bill Walton last season. Another key factor was the Lakers' good fortune in avoiding injuries. Their top seven of Magic, Worthy, Abdul-Jabbar, Scott, A.C. Green, Cooper and Thompson all played in at least 78 of 82 regular-season games.
Factor No. 3 was motivation. L.A. was embarrassed by Houston in the Western final last year, and Lakers coach Pat Riley, the master psychologist, used that as a motivating tool from the first day of training camp. "If you wanted to give a Most Inspirational award," said Cooper, "it would have to go to Pat."
Factor No. 4 was Abdul-Jabbar's willingness to accept a lesser role in the Lakers offense. He averaged only 17.5 points per game (19.2 in the postseason), almost 9 below his career average. Yet he never complained about yielding the spotlight to Magic. He was still tossing compliments at Johnson as he left the Lakers locker room, bound for a summer of jump rope (for conditioning) and jazz (he now owns his own record label).
Factor No. 5 was obvious: The Lakers got transcendent play from their superstar, just as Boston had last season from Bird. Magic was the constant, the man who played, in the words of Abdul-Jab-bar, "with enough intensity, at times, for the other four guys on the floor."
There are any number of perspectives from which Magic's MVP year might be viewed—his increased scoring, his surprisingly deft outside touch, his continued domination of the NBA's assist category, his performance in the clutch—but often overlooked is his intelligence, his grasp of every nuance of the game. Remember the larger point Isiah Thomas was trying to make a few weeks ago, that racial stereotyping tends to result in the labeling of only white players as "smart"? That stereotyping may influence the way in which Magic is perceived. His style of play usually conjures up adjectives like "flashy" and "enthusiastic," both of which are accurate, rather than "intelligent," which is more subtle but even more accurate.
For all his élan, though, Magic is not a particularly flashy ball handler. He rarely goes behind his back or between his legs on the dribble (a la Thomas) unless he has to. He uses his size to back defenders up the court and into the paint, all the while keeping his eyes peeled for crevices in the defense and his teammates' cuts to the basket. (Has anyone ever followed the coaching axiom "look up when you dribble" better than Johnson?) Yes, his passes on the Laker break are sometimes spectacular, but they always have a purpose. He's not a Globetrotter—he's a fundamentalist, besides being just plain fun to watch.
"It's partly the perception of the nickname that gives him the flashy reputation," said Riley, who, like most of the Lakers, refers to Magic by either his given name, Earvin, or by the nickname he picked up in his rookie year—Buck. "I consider him to be a player with fundamental flamboyance," Riley said.
Another school of thought demeans Magic because of his height, which is listed as 6'9" but may be more. He should make better passes, this argument goes, because he can see over his defenders. Well, put the ball in the hands of most 6'9" players and tell them to run the break or quarterback an offense, and you're going to see 48 minutes of Basketball Bloopers. When Ainge says he has trouble with Magic because he's guarding a guy "who's the size of [Nets power forward] Buck Williams," he's saying it with respect. "Magic outsizes most of the guards and uses his quickness against most of the forwards," says Ainge. "That's what I call tough."
Which is a good word to describe Ainge's team, too. Though they perished in the firepower of the Lakers' incandescent third period Sunday, they went out kicking. Yes, they were old and slow and injured, but they were still there after all those blips—the Hawks, the Pistons, the Bucks, the Mavericks—had flashed across the NBA radar screen and disappeared.
The big question for the Celtics has to do with the future. McHale is heading for off-season surgery because of the fracture in his right foot, and Walton, 34, who has one year left on his contract but maybe no years left in his own injured feet, is heading for...who knows? He still feels he has several NBA seasons left in him—five was the figure Walton mentioned last week—but it remains to be seen if the Celtics brass agrees with him. And the death of Len Bias last summer has left Boston with no young player on whom to build a foundation and no early pick in this year's draft. One wonders what schemes Auerbach is cooking up to land a franchise player like, say, David Robinson, who attended Game 6 with Bob Woolf, the Boston-based agent who handles Bird and Parish.
"We've got a lot of variables in the off-season," said Bird. "We'll have to see what happens with Kevin, Bill and Scott Wedman [injured heel] before we see if we'll be the same team next year." As for Bird himself, he's thinking about lifting weights in the off-season for the first time. "Of course," he added dryly, "it might cut down on my speed."
They are the Celtics, though, and rest assured, they will be back. Since Magic and Bird entered the NBA together in 1979, one or the other has been in the finals every year, with Magic holding the lead in rings, 4-3. That might serve as Bird's motivation for next season.
The Lakers, meanwhile, can set their sights on breaking that 18-year jinx that has befuddled defending champs. And they'll probably be doing it with much the same roster that finished this season. Both Riley and general manager Jerry West deserve credit for ignoring the cries to replace speed with size after last season's debacle against the Rockets. "We won't break the team down just to get an average big guy," Riley said repeatedly. And they didn't. When they got Thompson, a better-than-average big guy, they traded away two stiffs, Frank Brickowski and Petur Gudmundsson (and tossed in some cash and a couple of draft picks). Addition by subtraction. And if Magic's knees hold up, it will be ready, set, go again next year for the Lakers track team.
Abdul-Jabbar is making noises about playing for two more years. "I plan to be back and I hope to be doing the same thing I'm doing right now," said Kareem, who happened to be sipping champagne. That's hardly wishful thinking. He's in superb shape, and the continued improvement of his backup, Thompson, can only prolong his effectiveness. Thompson, meanwhile, was planning a trip to his native Bahamas, where he'll be joined later this summer by Magic and a few other teammates. "They love the Lakers down there," Thompson said. "They'll treat me like a king."
Given that, Mychal, how will they treat Magic?
"They'll treat him," said Thompson, "like the king of kings." And right now, that's exactly what he is in the NBA.