The Lakers stormed through the regular season, winning 57 games despite the firing of head coach Paul Westhead due to a conflict with guard Magic Johnson. Pat Riley replaced Westhead 11 games into the season, and the team fell three wins short of equaling their record two years previously. In the playoffs, the Lakers swept both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs en route to their second Finals appearance in three years.
The 76ers finished with one more win than the Lakers, thus earning home court advantage in the NBA Finals. Julius Erving still led the team in scoring, and sophomore guard Andrew Toney provided a sharp-shooting outside threat. Whether or not the team could muster a defense for six-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was yet to be seen.
The Lakers’ starting lineup remained relatively unchanged since 1980. Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson still operated as the starting guards. The main difference was in the frontcourt, where rookie power forward Kurt Rambis had taken Jim Chones’ spot. Kareem and Jamaal Wilkes still started at center and small forward respectively.
Their bench was stronger than in previous years, as the Lakers had added veteran power forward Bob McAdoo to provide a scoring spark. Michael Cooper was still the primary backup on the wing, and Mark Landsberger served as the fourth big man. Players that played sparingly in the playoffs include Jim Brewer, Clay Johnson, Mike McGee, and Eddie Jordan.
For the 76ers, Maurice Cheeks still remained the starting point guard. Although Lionel Hollins started throughout the regular season, Andrew Toney took his starting spot at shooting guard in the postseason. Erving still started at small forward, but the power forward and center spots saw a three-headed trio of Bobby Jones, Caldwell Jones, and Darryl Dawkins.
Dawkins would come off the bench as a sixth man in the NBA Finals. Hollins would play the role of third guard, and Clint Richardson and Mike Bantom provided depth on the wing. Earl Cureton, Steve Mix, and Franklin Edwards scarcely saw the floor in the playoffs.
Game One: Lakers 124, 76ers 117
The 76ers held a 15-point lead halfway through the third quarter, but the Lakers defense responded by employing a “zone trap.” Los Angeles would then go on a 40-9 run over the next 11 minutes, stealing home court advantage in the process. Magic led the way with a near triple-double (10 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists) and Wilkes, Nixon, and Kareem provided the scoring punch with 71 points between the trio. Erving, Toney, and Bobby Jones led the 76ers with 27, 20, and 19 points apiece.
Game Two: Lakers 94, 76ers 110
In game two, the 76ers delivered the Lakers their first loss of the postseason. Los Angeles shot poorly from the field collectively, as Kareem and Magic shot a combined 13 for 28. Dr. J led the 76er’s balanced attack with 24 points and 14 rebounds, and Cheeks chipped in 19 points and 8 assists to even the series at 1-1 heading back to Los Angeles.
Game Three: 76ers 108, Lakers 129
Back home in Los Angeles, the Lakers blew out the 76ers while leading wire-to-wire. Six players scored in double figures, led by Nixon’s 29, and Magic’s near triple-double of 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. Toney exploded offensively for Philadelphia with 36, but no one aside from Erving (21 points) came through.
Game Four: 76ers 101, Lakers 111
The Lakers pushed the 76ers to the brink after a game four win that saw Magic and Wilkes both score 24, Kareem accounting for 22 and 11, and McAdoo chipping in 19 off the bench. Toney and Erving led Philadelphia with 28 and 25 points each, but no other 76er scored more than 12. Centers Caldwell Jones and Dawkins were notably ineffective with a combined 11 points.
Game Five: Lakers 102, 76ers 135
With their backs against the wall, the 76ers blew out the Lakers in front of their home crowd at The Spectrum. Toney led the way with 31, and Dr. J (23 points), Bobby Jones (21 points), and Dawkins (20 points) all bounced back offensively. Dawkins was huge defensively as well, holding Kareem to a playoff career low six points. McAdoo led the Lakers with 23 points in the losing effort.
Game Six: 76ers 104, Lakers 114
The 76ers started strong in game six, but the Lakers stormed back and held a 66-57 lead at the half. Despite late charges, Los Angeles held on behind balanced scoring, Magic’s 13/13/13 triple-double, and Wilkes’ series-high 27 points. Toney (29 points) and Erving (30 points) led Philadelphia, but no other 76er stepped up. Inside presence Darryl Dawkins was a let-down, fouling out and accounting for only one rebound in 20 minutes. Unlike 1980, the Lakers were able to celebrate this championship at home in The Forum.
The Lakers’ series win gave them their second championship in three years and their eighth title in franchise history. Magic Johnson won his second Finals MVP behind averages of 16.2 points, a series-leading 10.8 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2.5 steals. The Lakers’ lineup would remain unchanged as they would remain Western Conference champions for the next three years.
For the 76ers, this series loss was a turning point for the franchise. Darryl Dawkins was ineffective inside for the second straight Finals, and was sent to the New Jersey Nets. To account for their lack of a reliable big man, Philadelphia lured MVP Moses Malone away from the Houston Rockets, and the 76ers would go on to reach the NBA Finals again in 1983.