The 1980 NBA Finals saw the Lakers win 60 games and return to the championship series for the first time since 1973 when they fell to the Knicks in five games. Paul Westhead took over the head coaching job for Jack McKinney 14 games into the season and led the Lakers to a 50-18 finish to the regular season. This was also the first championship Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would compete in as a Laker. Not to be ignored was the presence of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a 6’8″ rookie shooting guard who could play nearly anywhere on the floor.
For the 76ers, this was their second trip to the Finals in four years, as they fell to the Portland Trailblazers, led by Bill Walton, in 1977 4-2 despite winning the first two games. Head coach Billy Cunningham led the team to 59 wins, their most since the days of Wilt Chamberlain. Julius Erving was still regarded as one of the top five players in the NBA, though his supporting cast wasn’t quite as consistent as the Lakers’.
The Lakers started third-year point guard Norm Nixon alongside Magic in the backcourt. Their frontcourt consisted of veteran Jamaal Wilkes at small forward, Jim Chones at power forward, and league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center.
With a limited rotation, the Lakers only used 2-3 players off the bench. Sophomore guard Michael Cooper backed up Nixon, Johnson, and Wilkes on the wing. In the post, Mark Landsberger backed up both Chones and Kareem, with veteran Spencer Haywood playing the role of fourth big man. Players to see limited time in the playoffs include Brad Holland, Marty Byrnes, and Butch Lee.
The 76ers started sophomore point guard Maurice Cheeks in the backcourt alongside Lionel Hollins at shooting guard. Julius Erving played small forward in the frontcourt alongside dual centers Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins and Caldwell Jones.
The 76ers’ rotation only ran about eight players deep. Henry Bibby played the role of backup guard; Steve Mix played backup forward; and future sixth man Bobby Jones was the first man off the bench, allowing either Dawkins on Jones to remain at center. Players rarely seeing playoff minutes include Jim Spanarkel, Bernard Toone, and Clint Richardson.
Game One: 76ers 102, Lakers 109
Kareem came out with a vengeance in game one at home, dominating on both offense and defense with 33 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 blocks. His supporting cast came through with Nixon scoring 23 and Wilkes scoring 20. Magic recorded a triple-double in his first Finals game, with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Lakers defense did a good enough job on Erving, holding him to 20 points, and no other 76er scored more than 16 points.
Game Two: 76ers 107, Lakers 104
The 76ers jumped out to an 18 point lead at halftime, buoyed by the spirited play of Dawkins, Erving, and Cheeks. Kareem had very little support offensively, as his 38 point explosion fell by the wayside. The Lakers stormed back to trim the lead to one late in the game, but it was as close as they would get with Bobby Jones responding with a jumper to extend the lead. Cheeks and Erving finished with 23 apiece, and Dawkins played outstanding, drawing Kareem away from the basket with a smooth outside touch.
Game Three: Lakers 111, 76ers 101
On the road, the Lakers led the entire game, led by Kareem’s 33 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. Nixon stepped up to score 22, and Wilkes and Magic recorded 19 and 16 respectively. Erving scored 24 in the losing effort, and Dawkins had 21 before fouling out of the game.
Game Four: Lakers 105, 76ers 102
The 76ers held Kareem in check for the most part, limiting him to 23 points–a series low thus far. Magic and Wilkes found their groove, scoring 28 and 20 apiece, but it was not enough to counter Dawkins’ team-leading 26 and Dr. J’s 23. The highlight of this game saw Erving drive baseline and finish an impossible layup from behind the backboard while hanging in mid-air.
Game Five: 76ers 103, Lakers 108
The most important game of the series up until this point, game five saw Erving and Kareem explode for 36 and 40 respectively. Dr. J started the game by emphatically dunking over Abdul-Jabbar twice. The Lakers held a two point lead in the third quarter when the Lakers’ center twisted his ankle after stepping on Lionel Hollins’ foot. Magic helped extend the Lakers’ lead before Kareem returned in the fourth quarter, injured ankle and all. He proceeded to score 14 points and block 2 shots, including a crucial three-point play by dunking on Erving following Dr. J’s game-tying basket. The Lakers would take a 3-2 series lead back to Philadelphia to clinch the championship.
Game Six: Lakers 123, 76ers 107
Kareem, despite leading the series, was held out of game six and did not fly to Philadelphia due to his injured ankle. Magic, seizing the opportunity, jumped center in place of Kareem. The rookie guard would go on to record a series-high 42 points to go along with 15 rebounds and 7 assists. Wilkes played outstanding as well, recording a career-best 37 points. The Lakers broke a halftime tie with a 14-0 run, and the 76ers couldn’t come any closer than two in the fourth quarter. Dr. J led the way with a team-high 27 points, but Dawkins was mostly unheard of as he pulled down a measly four rebounds.
The Finals MVP was awarded to Magic Johnson, due to his game six explosion and all-around series performance with 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game. The award could have gone to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar due to his dominance in games one through five, but it is speculated that the NBA didn’t want to present the MVP to “an empty chair.” The Lakers’ supporting cast of Wilkes, Nixon, Cooper, and Chones helped contribute to the franchise’s second championship since moving to Los Angeles.
In a losing effort, Julius Erving accounted for 25.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists per game throughout the series. Darryl Dawkins was the only player to step up and help, though his average of six rebounds per game proved that the 76ers would need further help inside. Though the teams would both lose in the 1981 playoffs, the 1982 NBA Finals featured a rematch between the Lakers and 76ers in the championship series.