In 1984, the Celtics returned to the NBA Finals three years after their championship in 1981. Led by league MVP Larry Bird, Boston won 62 games in the regular season and defeated the Washington Bullets in five games, the New York Knicks in seven games, and the Milwaukee Bucks in five games on their way to the NBA Finals.
The 1984 Lakers reached the NBA Finals for the third straight season with a 54-win regular season. In the playoffs, Los Angeles swept the Kansas City Kings, beat the Dallas Mavericks in five games, and overcame the Phoenix Suns in a six-game Western Conference Finals series. The 1984 NBA Finals would be the eighth time the Celtics and Lakers met in the championship series
The Celtics had undergone little change since their championship season of 1981. Their backcourt featured the most difference, as Gerald Henderson now claimed the starting point guard job, and veteran Dennis Johnson now joined him as the shooting guard. The frontcourt remained fixed with Cedric Maxwell and Larry Bird at forward and Robert Parish at center.
Kevin McHale was awarded the Sixth Man of the Year award as the backup power forward. Backups on the wing included Quinn Buckner at point guard, third-year shooting guard Danny Ainge, and backups small forwards M.L. Carr and Scott Wedman. Greg Kite and Carlos Clark saw limited time in the playoffs.
With Norm Nixon gone, Magic Johnson now assumed the role of point guard for the Lakers, and former backup Michael Cooper joined him in the starting lineup as the shooting guard. Second-year small forward James Worthy took over the starting job for Jamaal Wilkes, while Kurt Rambis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continued to start at power forward and center respectively.
Bob McAdoo continued to be the first man off the bench for the Lakers at power forward. Rookie Byron Scott and Mike McGee provided depth in the backcourt, and Wilkes was limited in the postseason due to injury. Newcomer Swen Nater served as Kareem’s backup at center, and Mitch Kupchak and Larry Spriggs rarely saw the floor in the playoffs.
Game One: Lakers 115, Celtics 109
In game one, the Lakers jumped out to a 13-point halftime lead and were able to withstand a third quarter surge by the Celtics. All five of the Boston starters shot under .500 during the game, led by McHale (25 points), Bird (24 points, 14 rebounds), and Johnson (23 points). Kareem led the way for the Lakers with 32 points and 8 rebounds, and Magic contributed 18 points and 10 assists. Worthy chipped in 20 points and Scott scored 14 points off the bench.
Game Two: Lakers 121, Celtics 124 (OT)
The Celtics stormed out of the gate and led by 11 after the first quarter, but Worthy and the Lakers’ transition offense brought them back to within two at the half. Boston’s starting frontcourt all turned in double-doubles, and Los Angeles’ new big three (Magic, Kareem, Worthy) scored 76 points combined. The Lakers committed costly mistakes towards the end of the game, however. With a two point lead, Worthy threw a lazy pass that was picked off by Henderson as the Celtic’s guard tied the game with a lay-up. With a last possession to win the game, Magic lost track of the time and dribbled out the clock. In overtime, Scott Wedman’s game-winner from the baseline proved to be the difference as Boston evened the series.
Game Three: Celtics 104, Lakers 137
A series of runs defined game three. First, the Lakers jumped out to a 15-4 lead, capped off by James Worthy dunking over Cedric Maxwell (7:15). The Celtics stormed back to take a five point lead, but the Lakers answered with another 16-0 run of their own. Los Angeles finished with six players in double figures, including Kareem’s 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Magic turned in a record-setting performance with 21 assists. Bird scored 30 points in the route, and said his team played like “sissies” afterwards in an attempt to light a fire under his teammates.
Game Four: Celtics 129, Lakers 125 (OT)
The turning point of the series took place in game four, as the Celtics rebounded from a 2-1 deficit to tie the series and reclaim home court advantage. The Lakers held the lead throughout most of the game when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis as he was going up for a lay-up early in the third quarter. Both benches cleared, but no flagrant foul was assessed. Kareem and Bird were later involved in a scuffle, and the rest of the game was a tough, physical affair. After Kareem fouled out, Boston battled back to tie the game and force overtime. Magic missed two free throws in overtime with under a minute to play, and Boston took their final lead on a turnaround jumper by Bird. Larry finished with 29 points and 21 rebounds, and Parish and Dennis Johnson chipped in 25 and 22 respectively. Magic finished with a triple-double, Worthy had 30 points, and Kareem scored 32 before fouling out.
Game Five: Lakers 103, Celtics 121
The Celtics controlled game five behind 34 points from Larry Bird on 15 of 20 shooting from the field. Despite a stifling Boston Garden temperature of 97 degrees, Boston took a 3-2 series lead to push the Lakers to the brink. Dennis Johnson continued to shoot well, contributing 22 points for the second straight game, and Parish and McHale both turned in double-doubles. Kareem struggled from the field, making only seven shots, and Boston held Magic to only 10 points off three field goals. Cooper and Worthy were both limited by foul trouble, and the series returned to Los Angeles where the Lakers fought to stay alive.
Game Six: Celtics 108, Lakers 119
Like game four in Inglewood, game six escalated physically. First, James Worthy pushed Maxwell in the back on a fastbreak lay-up, then Danny Ainge fouled Worthy on a rebound in the fourth quarter prompting the referees to separate the players. The Laker’s key sixth man Bob McAdoo left the game with a strained ligament, and it was rookie guard Byron Scott who provided the much-needed spark off the bench. Scott delivered 11 points, unsurprisingly the same number that Los Angeles would win by, including a huge three-pointer during the Lakers’ final run in the fourth quarter. Bird finished with a near triple-double of 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists, and Boston’s starting guards Johnson and Henderson combined for 42. For Los Angeles, Kareem led the way with 30 points and 15 rebounds, Magic turned in a solid 21 and 10, and Worthy and Cooper combined for 43. With this win, the Lakers evened the series at three games apiece and forced a seventh deciding game in Boston.
Game Seven: Lakers 102, Celtics 111
Boston Garden was slightly cooler than game five, but the interior still boasted a torrid 91 degrees. The Celtics controlled the game for the first three quarters before a Lakers run cut the lead to three with one minute left. Magic drove into the lane but lost the ball, and the Celtics closed out their victory from the free throw line. Maxwell had a near triple-double and a team-high 24 points, Dennis Johnson continued to shoot well with 22 points, and Bird and Parish both turned in double-doubles with a combined 34 points and 38 rebounds. Kareem led Los Angeles with 29 points, but Magic proved to be the Lakers’ undoing, as his 15 assists were offset by shooting 5 for 14 from the field and turning the ball over seven times. The victory sealed the 15th world championship for the Boston Celtics.
Larry Bird was an obvious choice for the NBA Finals MVP–his first–behind averages of 27.4 points and 14 rebounds. With this award, Bird became the fourth player to earn the honors of regular season and Finals MVP in the same year. Boston would return to the NBA Finals in each of the next three seasons, facing the Lakers two more times and the Rockets once.
For the Lakers, this was their second straight loss in the NBA Finals and the fourth time they lost a game seven to Boston. However, the team would rally the following season and force a rematch with the Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals. 1984 would be the last time Jamaal Wilkes played in the championship series, as the veteran forward played in only 42 regular season games in 1985 and missed the entire NBA Finals.