1987: Lakers versus Celtics Round Three (Larry’s Last Finals)

Background

1986 was only the second time during the decade that the Los Angeles Lakers would miss the NBA Finals. In 1987, the Lakers made a resurgence in the regular season after trading for former number one overall pick Mychal Thompson. Bob McAdoo and Mitch Kupchak had both moved on, and Thompson served to backup the 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Los Angeles won 65 games, the most in the league, and easily reached the NBA Finals after sweeping the Denver Nuggets, beating the Golden State Warriors in five games, and sweeping the Seattle SuperSonics. In the championship series, the Lakers again squared off with the defending champion Boston Celtics, the tenth meeting between the two franchises.

The 1987 campaign was less successful for the Celtics, largely due to injuries to key players Bill Walton, Scott Wedman, and Kevin McHale. The biggest setback was the loss of number two overall draft pick Len Bias when the star recruit died from a heart attack after consuming cocaine while celebrating his draft selection. Boston still finished with 59 wins, the most in the Eastern Conference, and in the playoffs they again swept Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the first round. The next two rounds were much tougher, as the Celtics outlasted the Bucks in seven games and overcame the young Detroit Pistons in another seven game series (with a Dennis Johnson game-winning lay-up in the fifth) to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals.

Lineups

The Lakers’ starting lineup was nearly identical to that of their 1985 championship team. Magic Johnson continued to start at point guard (winning his first regular season MVP), and he was joined still by Byron Scott at shooting guard. James Worthy was the small forward alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center. Power forward was the only different position, as A.C. Green was the new starter.

Off the bench, Michael Cooper continued his stellar play as backup guard (winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in the process). New acquisition Mychal Thompson played backup to Kareem, and Kurt Rambis was now the fourth big man. Adrian Branch, Wes Matthews, and Mike Smrek all saw limited minutes in the postseason.

The defending champion Celtics continued to start Dennis Johnson at point guard and Danny Ainge at shooting guard. The frontcourt was identical as well with Larry Bird at small forward, Kevin McHale as the power forward, and Robert Parish as the starting center.

Boston’s bench was significantly weaker. Shooter Scott Wedman was lost to injury, and a limited Bill Walton scarcely played in the Finals. Jerry Sichting was still the backup guard, and newcomers Fred Roberts and Darren Daye provided depth at forward. Greg Kite stepped in as the main backup big man. Sam Vincent and Conner Henry rarely saw the floor in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Celtics 113, Lakers 126

The Lakers set the tone for the series by running the Celtics out of The Forum. They started the game by scoring the first nine points and coasted to a victory, taking a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Worthy (33/9/10) and Magic (29/8/13) were phenomenal with both tallying near triple-doubles. Byron Scott chipped in 20 points of his own, and Kareem contributed a quiet 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Bird, despite a stellar 32 points on 14/25 shooting, was unable to will the rest of his team to make the game competitive. No one else for Boston scored more than 16 points, and it looked as though their series against Milwaukee and Detroit had drained them of energy.

Game Two: Celtics 122, Lakers 141

Los Angeles picked up where they left off in game one, running rampant over the Boston defense with their “Showtime” fastbreak offense. The Lakers dominated the interior behind 23 points apiece from Worthy and Kareem, and they found a complement outside with Cooper (6/7 from three-point territory) and Magic (22 points and 20 assists). Scott was the fifth Lakers to score at least 20, and Los Angeles took a 2-0 series lead as the championship round turned to Boston for three games. Bird had 23 points and 10 rebounds, and McHale and Johnson scored 20 apiece, but the Celtics’ defense was no match for the blistering Lakers offense.

Game Three: Lakers 103, Celtics 109

Boston grabbed control of game three behind a 38 point second quarter outburst, led by the shooting of Bird and Johnson. Larry finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds despite a poor first quarter, and DJ chipped in 26 points of his own. McHale contributed a double-double, and Greg Kite provided 22 quality minutes off the bench in support of Parish’s foul trouble. The Lakers were buoyed by Magic’s near triple-double of 32/11/9 and Kareem’s 27 points and 7 rebounds. Byron Scott struggled from outside, however, missing all five of his three-point shots, and Worthy made only six field goals for an unimpressive 13 points. The Celtics looked to even the series in game four.

Game Four: Lakers 107, Celtics 106

Game four is widely regarded as one of the greatest NBA Finals duels of all time. The Celtics held the lead throughout most of the game, tempers flaring early after a scuffle between Greg Kite and James Worthy. Los Angeles battled back in the fourth quarter and tied the game at 95-95 with less than six minutes remaining. After an 8-0 Boston run, the Lakers responded with two free throws, a Michael Cooper three, a James Worthy fall-away two, and an alley-oop to Kareem to take a one point lead with 29 seconds left. On the next possession, Worthy literally held on to Bird by the jersey as the Celtics star tried to free himself. Boston swung the ball to Ainge, forcing Worthy to step away from Larry. Bird ran straight to the three-point line and drilled a jumper (0:30). Down by two, the Lakers threw the ball inside to Kareem who was fouled and sent to the line. After making the first, Kareem missed the second but the ball was called out off of McHale on the rebound. With seven seconds left and down by one, the Lakers inbounded the ball to Magic who was guarded by McHale. Magic headfaked and drove into the lane, releasing a “junior sky hook” over the Celtics forward that trickled through the net, giving the Lakers a one point lead with two seconds left. Bird had a last ditch attempt that just missed off the back of the rim, and Los Angeles took a 3-1 series lead. Bird, McHale, and DJ all finished with double-doubles, and Ainge had 23 points off his own. Worthy finished with 21 points, Kareem had 16 and 11, and Magic scored a game-high 29 points including the game-winner.

Game Five: Lakers 108, Celtics 123

Facing elimination, the Celtics held sway on their home floor in the Boston Garden. They built a double-digit lead by halftime, and all five of the Celtics’ starters scored at least 20 points. Bird, Johnson, and McHale all tallied double-doubles to complement their scoring, and Ainge made 5/6 three-point attempts (one shy of Michael Cooper’s record six). Magic led the Lakers with another near triple-double of 29/8/12, but Worthy’s shooting woes returned as he converted only six field goals for 12 points. Byron Scott and Kareem also had poor shooting nights, connecting on only 11 of 31 shots combined. The series returned to Los Angeles for game six as the Lakers looked to clinch the championship on their home floor.

Game Six: Celtics 93, Lakers 106

The Lakers started off hot at home in The Forum, but Boston held the halftime lead in game six. The third quarter was when Los Angeles stole the momentum, and they retook the lead for good when Worthy dove for a loose ball on a steal that resulted in a dunk by Magic. Despite foul trouble, Kareem poured in 32 points and blocked four shots. Worthy had 22 points, and Magic recorded 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 19 assists. DJ and McHale combined for 53 points, but Bird had a poor 6/16 showing in what would sadly turn out to be the last NBA Finals appearance of his career. This win clinched the fourth championship of the decade for the Lakers.

Aftermath

Given his stellar all-around performance in the series, Magic Johnson was a shoe-in for the Finals MVP selection. This win was the tenth all-time for the franchise and the second in three years. The Lakers’ expectations for the next season were even higher, if it was possible, after coach Pat Riley guaranteed a repeat championship during the championship parade. Los Angeles would follow through on this bold statement and win the 1988 NBA Finals over the young Detroit Pistons in a grueling seven game series, the first time a team repeated as the champion since the 1969 Boston Celtics.

Their loss in the 1987 NBA Finals and the subsequent Eastern Conference Championship proved to be the end of the ’80s Boston Celtics dynasty. The heralded franchise wouldn’t reach the Finals again until 2008, a 21-year drought. Larry Bird struggled with injuries in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the aging lineup was not able to compete with the young Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls teams. The Celtics’ four year Finals streak was snapped in 1988, and game five of the 1987 NBA Finals was the last time a championship series game was played at the Boston Garden.

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