The 1987 NBA Finals: Magic & Bird’s Last Battle

The 1987 NBA Finals were the third time in four years that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would play for a championship at the NBA level—in addition to their 1979 NCAA final battle–and as it turned out, it would be the final time.

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Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers were both the same team and a different once all at once. The same, in that the same organization that won championships in 1980, 1982 and 1985 built around Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, again rolled to the best record in the Western Conference.

But the Lakers were different in that Magic Johnson subtly displaced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the focal point of the team. Magic averaged 24 points/12 assists per game, won his first league MVP award and when the rising Houston Rockets imploded, Los Angeles sailed through the West.

The defending champion, Bird’s Boston Celtics were awaiting in the NBA Finals. That the Celtics could even get in position to play the Lakers took all the guts and guile the proud Eastern Conference giant could muster.

Boston reached the postseason wounded, with Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot and the team’s depth sorely lacking. The tragic death of the top draft pick, Len Bias, the previous spring had seriously hurt the team’s effort to replenish with youth, in addition to its more obvious and infinitely more important human costs.

And unlike the Western Conference, the 1980s East was where the contenders were. In addition to old reliables like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, you had up-and-comers like the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks.

The Bucks pushed the Celtics to a Game 7 in the conference semifinals and then led by eight points with five minutes to go in the decisive game before a Boston rally.

Detroit beat Atlanta and Isiah Thomas brought the Pistons into Boston for the conference finals. The teams split the first four games, but the Pistons led by 107-106 in the closing seconds of Game 5. All they needed to do was inbound the ball.

But Thomas lofted a lazy pass and an alert Bird picked it off and hit a cutting Dennis Johnson for the game-winning basket. Boston then survived a tough seventh game, 117-114, back in the Garden, thanks to 37 points from Bird.

So it was again time for Magic and Bird to play for the NBA championship. Los Angeles had been the better team in the regular season, they were more rested coming in and it showed in the opening two games at the old L.A. Forum. The “Showtime” Lakers were running the floor and they won Games 1 & 2 going away.

The Finals went to Boston for the middle three games (the 2-3-2 format was in place from 1985-2013). Boston grabbed Game 3, and were poised to make it a real series when Bird drained a corner trey late in Game 4 to give the Celtics a 106-105 lead.

It was then Magic Johnson completed his evolution from great point guard, to great point guard plus go-to guy in the clutch. Magic got the ball and drove the lane, putting up what would be called “the baby skyhook”, named after Kareem’s legendary sweeping skyhook. The ball went down and the Lakers had their crucial road win.

Boston won Game 5 easily and led at halftime of Game 6, but the Lakers found the fast-breaking form of the opening two games and pulled away. Magic won Finals MVP for the third time in his career and the Lakers won the franchise’s fourth championship of the 1980s.

The 1987 NBA Finals was the end of an era in basketball. The Celtic dynasty was on its last legs, and the Laker dynasty would fall three years later.