The 1982 NBA Playoffs: The Sixers Avert Disaster & Magic Comes Back

The Philadelphia 76ers fans must have felt like they were re-living a nightmare in the 1982 NBA playoffs. Because they were. Just like in 1981, they and the Boston Celtics were far and away the best teams in the East and were on a collision course to play in the Eastern Conference Finals.

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Larry Bird led the way for Boston, with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in place down low, and Tiny Archibald running the offense. For Philadelphia, Julius Erving averaged 24 ppg, Andrew Toney was lights-out from the perimeter, Mo Cheeks ran the show, while Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones hit the boards and each team rolled into the conference finals.

Just like in 1981, the Sixers won three of the first four games, with Toney scoring 30-plus points twice. Bird had a 20 points/20 rebounds night to key a Boston win in Game 5, but Philly still had Game 6 at home. Toney shot 1-for-11, the Celtics won and for the second straight year, the 76ers were on the brink of blowing a 3-1 series lead.

This year would be different though—Toney had 34 points in Game 7, Dr. J had 29 and Philadelphia used a 31-22 third quarter to pull away and win 120-106, saving themselves some monumental embarrassment and according to reliable reports, saving the job of head coach Billy Cunningham. The 76ers also won some respect from an unlikely source—Celtics fans congratulated them in the closing moments of Game 7 with a “Beat LA!” good-luck chant.

Speaking of LA, the Magic was back, quite literally for the Los Angeles Lakers, and it’s where the similarities to the previous year ended.  Unlike ’81, Sixers-Celtics wasn’t the de facto championship series, because Magic Johnson was healthy and happy and the Los Angeles Lakers rolled to a 57-win regular season after making a coaching change to assistant Pat Riley after twelve games.

Magic averaged 19 points/10 rebounds/10 assists, Norm Nixon averaged 18 ppg as his running mate, while Jamaal Wilkes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were both 20-plus point scorers on the front line. Los Angeles swept both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs to reach the NBA Finals.

Even though Philly had homecourt, the Lakers came in, and behind 24 points/10 rebounds from Wilkes, took Game 1. And even with Toney going crazy, Los Angeles defended their home court in Games 3 & 4 behind strong first quarters and took a 3-1 series lead.

After a Sixers’ rout in Game 5, the series came back west. Magic had a Lucky 13 night—13 points/13 rebounds/13 assists. With his team dominating the glass, the Lakers won the title and Magic got his second Finals MVP in three years. Read a complete account of the 1982 NBA Finals.