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History Lesson: 1987 Lakers

We interrupt the Lakers' scintillating start to bring you a bit of nostalgia.  Taking a page from LakerFoEva's epic post, this writing focuses on one of the Lakers' 16 (or 17) championship teams, namely the squad of 1986-87.

Magic '87

Magic was indeed Most Valuable in 1987 

And since we're reminiscing, we might as well go all the way.  See, I have this collection of Laker video tapes from all five seasons they won the title during the 1980's.  Um, video tapes are these rectangular thingies that some of the more seasoned bloggers used to watch movies on.  They also brought us the fun phrase, "Be kind. Rewind." 

Anyways, I would wear these suckers out during the off-season, and they came in particularly handy during the post-Magic, pre-Kobe era when the Lakers had the audacity to go twelve seasons without hosting a ring ceremony.

For some reason, I thought about those tapes on the way home Saturday night.  So I picked up a three-pack of beer- yeah, I was surprised, too- and took a seat where my couch used to be (I am in the middle of a move).  I knew exactly which highlight film I wanted to watch: the Magic-led Lakers' Drive for Five (as in their fifth championship in Los Angeles).

But first let me be kind, rewind, to where the story of the 1987 Lakers truly begins: May 21, 1986.

A year after removing the monkey that was the Boston Celtics off their backs- thus avenging a bitter seven-game loss in the 1984 Finals, not to mention ending decades of frustration and futility every time the two teams would tussle for the title- it seemed inevitable that the Lakers would defend their crown against Basketball Jesus and his apostles.  But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the LA-Boston trilogy: the upstart Houston Rockets stunned Los Angeles in the final round of the Western Conference playoffs, the final blow coming on a last-second shot by a twisting Ralph Samson that somehow found its way to the bottom of the net.

The person waiting for the ball was defensive specialist Michael Cooper, who fell to the Forum floor as if he had been shot.  Boston defused the Rockets in six games, and claimed its third title- same as Los Angeles- of the decade.

In the blink of a fluke basket, the Lakers were suddenly seen as a team whose best days were in the rearview mirror.  Houston, with the dynamic duo of Hakeem Olajuwon and Samson, were anointed in the press as the heir apparent to the former champions' throne and that prognosis gained even more steam following the first game of the 1986-87 season; a 112-102 victory over the Lakers.

Riley, who had gone from broadcast booth in 1982 to coaching Los Angeles to a pair of titles in four seasons, would need to dig deep into his bag of motivational tricks if he was going to right the Laker ship:

"I was trying to convey to the players that I think everybody wanted to see just how totaled this was. Everybody wanted to see just exactly how over the hill we were.  Everybody wants to see your demise.  That was the final blow...we rose out of the ashes after that game."

Indeed.

Los Angeles reeled off nine consecutive wins and never looked back en route to a 65-17 record, best in the NBA, and as LakerFoEva points out, the second best mark in Laker lore up to that point.  After crushing the Golden State Warriors 132-100, Los Angeles took to the road for its first extended road trip of the season, a five-game eastern swing.  They managed only to alternate wins and losses, but the middle contest proved to be the most telling, a come-from-behind win on the parquet floor at Boston, the Celtics' first home loss in 48 games.

Pat Riley's roster could by no means be considered deep; he pretty much depended on seven players.  But what a magnificent seven they were: Hall-of-Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy, plus Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, Kurt Rambis, and Byron Scott.

The Lakers' next test came against a pair of budding powerhouses in the Lone Star State: the Mavericks and the Rockets on back-to-back nights in late December.  Call it a wash with the Lakers getting drubbed in Dallas (130-119) but securing a win in Houston (103-96).  Five nights later the Rockets were in Los Angeles for the first time since eliminating the champions in the Western Conference Finals.  There would be no late-game heroics this time for Houston, as the Lakers won handily 134-111.

I was in Oakland the night Magic and his cohorts showed up for a showdown with Golden State on January 10.  My high-school pal Chris Maselli- a Warrior fan- had given me two tickets for Christmas.  The only catch: I had to take him with me. I would have preferred a gift certificate.  The Lakers were lit up, 124-109.  They proceed to run off six straight wins, only to lose twice to Dallas in a nine-game span.  The Mavericks had tested Los Angels in the previous year's playoffs and after taking three of five from the Lakers in 1987, they posed a genuine threat to the Purple and Gold's return to prominence.

Lucky for the Lakers (perhaps), Dallas was dumped in the first round of the post-season by Seattle.  In fact it was the Sonics who ultimately took the torch as "this year's Rockets".  In the middle of the Lakers' two defeats at the hands of Dallas (and a pair of wins over Phoenix and Portland), Los Angeles was sluggish in a 125-101 loss at Seattle.

Having dropped three of five games, the Lakers returned home to face the lowly Kansas City Kings.  Point production was only a problem for one of the teams, and I'll be nice and give you a clue: it rhymes with Kings.  At one point in the first quarter, Kansas City- that still sounds strange, by the way- was behind by the cartoonish score of 29-0.  That is not a misprint, a typo, or a lie.  So basically, it really happened.

What happened in mid-February made Larry Bird angry.  The Lakers acquired Mychal Thompson in a Gasolian trade in which LA gave up center/forward Frank Brickowski, center Petur Gudmundsson, a 1990 first-round draft choice to San Antonio, and some of Jerry Buss' money.  Someone call the cops already.  Said Bird:

"If San Antonio needed money, we would've sent them money," said Larry Bird. "But to go and help the Lakers like that is just terrible."

The timing of the Thompson trade could not have been better for the Lakers, whose first post-All Star Game contest was against Larry Bird's Celtics, who arrived in Inglewood sporting an identical 37-12 record.  Boston broke out to a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter until Magic appeared and- voilà! - the Celtics' advantage vanished into the smoggy air.

Johnson shot 12 of 20 from the field- including a shot just inside midcourt to beat the third quarter buzzer- and 14-of-15 from the line.  All told, 39 points to go with 10 assists.

As they had done the previous time coming off a win over the defending champions, the Lakers laid an egg in their next game: an ugly home loss against Washington.  But from February 18 to April 16, Los Angeles went 27-2.  I'm no expert, but I am pretty sure that's fairly decent.

At the forefront of the Lakers' dominance was Earvin Johnson, who took on greater responsibility in the team's offensive scheme, that is, he wasn't necessarily looking to pass first. Though he still led the league in assists (977), Magic also set career highs in field goal attempts (1308) and field goals made (683), and points scored (1909).  All of which earned him his first Most Valuable Player award.

The Lakers breezed through the first six games of the playoffs, sweeping Denver in the first round and taking a 3-0 lead on Golden State in the conference semi-finals.  In those half-dozen contests, they outscored the Nuggets and Warriors by an average score of 130-108.  So maybe "contests" wasn't the right word.

In Game 1 against Golden State the Lakers dropped 49 third-quarter points on the beleaguered Warriors, and they needed most of them in a 125-116 win.  I was at Game 3 when the Lakers raced to a 133-108 victory.  In case you are wondering, I enjoyed that immensely.  The arena in Oakland has always been a daunting place for visiting ball clubs, even more so in the playoffs. But the Lakers simply didn't care; if anything they were more focused, more intense.

At some point during the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Lakers' swagger may have gotten the best of them, and the Warriors- spearheaded by Sleepy Floyd's 51 points, including 29 in the fourth quarter alone- stunned LA with a come-from behind win.

All that got Golden State was the satisfaction that it had inconvenienced the Lakers by forcing a fifth game, where the Warriors were eliminated by the score of 118-106.

Next up for Los Angeles were the Seattle Supersonics, who gave the Lakers all they could handle in three tightly-contested ball games:

On Saturday, down 0-2 and at home in front of 14,657 fans in full throat at the Seattle Coliseum, the Sonics threw their best game at the Lakers. Seattle shot 51% from the floor and outrebounded the Lakers by 16 on the offensive board (21-5). Forward Xavier McDaniel, playing so hard he had friction burns on his thighs, scored 42 points. Still the Sonics lost, 122-121. And it never really seemed that close. "We played well. We just didn't play well enough to beat the Lakers," said Bickerstaff.

In Game 4, LA rolled to a 133-102 victory to complete the sweep. Four more wins to put the nightmare of Ralph Samson behind them.

 

Yes, the Lakers were back in the Finals, and waiting for them were the champion Celtics, banged up after back-to-back seven game sets.  Los Angeles’ objective was clear: run, run, and run some more.  You could say the strategy worked pretty well: the Lakers won the first two games handily, 126-113 and 141-122.  They were particularly impressive in the latter contest, with five players scoring 20 or more points.

 

Boston, with its 39-2 home record, was not going to relinquish its crown so readily.  The Celtics eked out a 109-103 win in Game 3, and led by 16 in the third quarter of Game 4.  The Lakers battled back and tied the score at 95 with 5:30 left to play, only to see the Celtics go on an 8-0 run.  A pair of free throws and a three-pointer by Cooper brought LA to within three points.  The Lakers clamped down on defense, forcing a Bird miss and a turnover.  A post move by Worthy closed the gap to one, and a Kareem dunk off an alley-oop pass from Magic gave LA the lead.

 

At Mom’s house, we paced nervously, and it only got worse when Bird’s three-pointer put Boston back in front with just 12 seconds left.  Kareem was fouled on the Lakers’ next possession but made only one of two free throws.  Lucky for him, it was the second one, and as Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson fought for the rebound, the ball was knocked out of bounds…by McHale.  Seven precious seconds remained, and Bird warned his teammates not to leave Magic.  No one listened.  Johnson dribbled to the middle of the key and, with McHale and Robert Parish closing in fast, lofted a "junior, junior skyhook" that fell gently through the hoop to give the Lakers a 107-106 lead.

 

After the ensuing timeout, Bird somehow broke free and got a good look, but his shot bounced off the back rim and fell harmlessly to the parquet hardwood as the Lakers’ celebrated their 3-1 advantage. In Mom’s front yard we gave hard high-fives and harder hugs.  Amid the chaos, my cousin Paul lost one of his shoes.  It was never found.

 

Afterwards, Magic talked about the intestinal fortitude that he- and the man he just beat- possessed: "We both do what we have to do to win the game.  You know that’s the difference between us and a lot of people because we’ll take that shot, either one of us."

 

The Celtics were down to their very last shot, but they overcame a slow start to trounce the Lakers, 123-108.  After three games at the Garden, it was time to go home.  Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale helped stake the Celtics to a five-point halftime lead in Game 6.  But as we had done three times before, we got the champagne at the break in anticipation of another title, and the Lakers didn’t disappoint.  James Worthy beat Bird to a loose ball early in the third quarter, and just as he was falling out of bounds, he pushed the ball towards Magic, who dunked it home to give the Lakers a lead they would keep for good.  The season MVP became the Finals MVP after scoring 16 points and dishing out 19 assists in the clinching contest.

 

 

NBA 1987 Finals Game 6 "Lakers - Celtics" (part 20) (via NBAclassics)

 

Two years earlier it was Kareem- at 38 years old- who walked away with the most valuable hardware, and shrugged off the notion that he could no longer keep up with a game he once dominated.  "I live with me all the time," he said. "I know what I can do."

 

In Game 6, the captain dropped in 32 points.  No other Laker on the floor had more.  Back at Paul’s house, we didn’t spray champagne on each other as we had in ’85.  This time we simply passed the bubbly and took satisfying sips. We weren’t the only ones:

 

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.

 

Riley, being Riley, wasn't going to let the Lakers rest on their laurels for very long, and he guaranteed that the Lakers would win it again in 1988, a sentiment echoed by Chick Hearn on ring night: 

 

 

1987 Lakers Ring Ceremony (Chick Hearn) (via OldGoldenThroat)

 

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