The 1987 Los Angeles Lakers Return To Greatness

For a team that had won NBA championships in 1980, 1982 and 1985, the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers entered the season with a surprising amount to prove. Their repeat bid in 1986 had ended in the conference finals when they were taken apart by the Houston Rockets and it was said that the Lakers were about to be confined to the ash heap of history. Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thought differently and backed it up by winning their fourth NBA crown of the decade.

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The critique of the Lakers coming into the year was that the “Showtime” fast-break style that won their previous titles was becoming outdated by the league-wide trend of going big. The Rockets, with 7-footers Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson were a perfect example. Los Angeles’ historic rival, the Boston Celtics, had won the 1986 NBA title with an imposing front line. The Lakers were still trying to do it with speed and finesse and when they lost the season opener in Houston, 112-102, it was seen as a validation of the critics.

But Magic Johnson was ready for a breakout year. He averaged 24 points/6 rebounds/12 assists per game and won the first MVP award of his Hall of Fame career. Kareem, now 39-years-old, still scored 18 a night and got seven rebounds per game. James Worthy filled the lanes on the fast break and was good for 19ppg. Byron Scott, the underrated two-guard, knocked down 17ppg. The Lakers filled out the starting lineup with double-digit scorer A.C. Green who could also run the floor.

The team wasn’t deep—the only notable sub was Michael Cooper in the backcourt. But Cooper could play either guard spot, was an All-NBA defender and chipped in 11 points a night. After the opening loss to the Rockets, the Lakers responded by winning nine straight.

No one doubted the Lakers were good though—it was their ability to compete with Houston and Boston that was the question. Statement games awaited in December with a trip to the Garden, along with two games in six days against the Rockets around Christmas.

On December 12, Magic made his first big move in the MVP race. He scored 31 points in Boston, and with Worthy and Kareem combining for 51 more, the Celtics won 117-110. Magic poured in 38 and dished 16 assists in a 103-96 road win at Houston. He finished it off with a splendid 30 points/15 assists game in dispatching the Rockets 134-111 at hoe.

Los Angeles was rolling at 21-6 and the doubters began to disappear. The record reached 37-12 and before their anticipated second game with Boston, the Lakers made a trade with the San Antonio Spurs to acquire Mychal Thompson. The versatile frontcourt player—and father of current Golden State star Klay Thompson—could play power forward and center and gave Los Angeles depth. Los Angeles celebrated by beating Boston in a good 106-103 game where Magic scored 39 and handed out 10 assists.

The Lakers closed the regular season strong, with a 21-1 stretch that pushed their final record to 65-17. They were the best in the Western Conference by ten games. Houston had collapsed with drug problems in their backcourt. Dallas was now the prime challenger in the conference and out East, the Lakers were six games better than the Celtics. The road to the championship would go through the old L.A. Forum.

Denver was the opponent for the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets had two excellent players in small forward Alex English and point guard Fat Lever. English was the third-best scorer in the league, going for nearly thirty a night. Lever was a second-team All-Star and nearly averaged a triple-double ,at 19/9/9 per game. Denver loved to run and gun under head coach Doug Moe, but they didn’t play defense. The record was only 37-45 and nobody was going to beat the Showtime Lakers at their own game.

Los Angeles exploded for a 43-point second quarter in Game 1 and forced Lever into 3-for-14 shooting as they grabbed the opener 128-95. The Lakers jumped the Nuggets quickly in Game 2, leading 40-23 after the first quarter. Kareem led all scorers with 28, while Magic added 21 and passed for 15 assists. Los Angeles held serve on their home court with a 139-127 win.

The first round was just a best-of-five affair in 1987, so L.A. had a chance to close in Game 3. With some outstanding ball movement, that’s what they did. The Lakers finished with a 40-10 assist-to-turnover ratio and seven different players scored in double figures. The game was close for a quarter before Los Angeles pulled away to a 140-103 victory.

Golden State was next and had a quality backcourt with Sleepy Floyd and Chris Mullin, who combined for 33 points a night. The Warriors had talent up front, with a good rebounder in Larry Smith and center Joe Barry Carroll going for 21 points/7 rebounds a game. They had a good coach who’s record has stood the test of time in George Karl. What they didn’t have was the ability to really put it all together, perhaps because Carroll’s reputation as a leader was suspect—he had the nickname “Joe Barely Cares.” The Warriors finished the regular season a mediocre 42-40.

They were still a tougher test than Denver and the Lakers trailed Game 1 at the half before turning up the heat with a dominant third quarter. Magic was brilliant, with a 25/12/14 triple-double, while Worthy scored 28 in a 125-116 win. Magic, Worthy and Kareem all scored between 20-25 points in leading a 116-101 win in Game 2 that’s noteworthy today in that the Lakers only attempted three shots from behind the arc and missed all three.

Magic was his usual self in Game 3 on the road, putting up a 20/10/10 line and Worthy again scored 28. Thompson made his biggest impact of the playoffs, with 23 points/12 rebounds and keying a 51-35 team-wide edge on the glass. The 133-108 win put the Lakers on the brink of another sweep.

Floyd got in the way of the perfect playoff record. With the Lakers up 14 after three quarters of Game 4, Floyd’s electric 51-point game brought his team all the way back. Los Angeles gave up 41 fourth-quarter points and lost 129-121. But it was just a delay of the inevitable. The Lakers tightened up the defense for Game 5, held the Warriors to 41 percent shooting and coasted to a 118-106 win that sent them to their eighth consecutive Western Conference Finals

There was chaos on the opposite side of the West bracket. The 7-seed Seattle Sonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder) upset Dallas and Houston in succession. The Sonics had three quality players in guard Dale Ellis along with forwards Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers. But with a record of 39-43 there was no reason to think they could beat the Lakers.

Seattle came to the Forum and put up a fight in the first two games. Los Angeles survived a 92-87 battle in Game 1 thanks to 27 points from Worthy and a 30-18 edge in points from the free throw line. They took Game 2 behind good rebounding keyed by Green, 30 points from Worthy and…you guessed it, another triple-double from Magic. Johnson finished with another 20/10/10 line and the Lakers won 112-104.

Worthy continued his strong run in the playoffs with 39 points in Game 3 and Los Angeles needed everyone of them as they escaped with a 122-121 win, again enjoying a big advantage in free throw scoring. After three good games, the Sonics finally came apart in Game 4. The Laker defense forced a 36 percent shooting performance, and the free throw disparity was again big—44-25 in points from the foul line for Los Angeles. The 133-102 win put the Lakers back in the NBA Finals.

Boston was waiting with that great frontline. Larry Bird’s string of three straight MVP awards might have ended at the hands of Magic, but Bird still averaged 28 points/9 rebounds/7 assists. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish combined to average 44 points/20 rebounds per game. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge comprised the best backcourt the Lakers had faced.

What the Celtics were not was healthy—McHale was playing on a broken foot, nor were they rested. Boston had been pushed to the limit in grueling seven-game series against Milwaukee and Detroit, both of which came down the bitter end of Game 7. Los Angeles was tanned, rested, ready and they had spent all year being the superior team in any regard.

All of that was in evidence when the series opened at the Forum. Worthy was electric in Game 1, going for 33 points/9 rebounds/10 assists, even outpacing Magic on the triple-double front—though Johnson still scored 29 and dished nine assists. Kareem added ten rebounds to contribute to a 47-32 team edge on the glass. The Lakers won easily, 126-113.

It was more of the same in Game 2. The Lakers won rebounding 43-33. They shot 62 percent. Magic, Kareem and Scott all scored 20-plus points and the final score was 141-122.

Boston looked too slow, too tired and too beat up to compete. What the Celtics had was pride and three straight games ahead in the Garden (the Finals were played on a 2-3-2 schedule from 1985-2013). They got on the glass and outrebounded the Lakers 48-32 in Game 3. While Magic was great—32 points/11 rebounds/9 assists—and Kareem knocked down 27, everyone else took the game off. Los Angeles lost 109-103.

The stage was set for a memorable Game 4. In a back-and-forth game, the Lakers clung to a 104-103 lead late. Bird got himself loose for a corner three. I was a teenager at the time and a group of us were playing cards at my house. One of the group was a Celtics fan (I am today, but was still living in darkness at the time). When Bird’s three hit the bottom of the net our card-playing friend, exploded out of his chair. Boston was up two and the possibility of these Finals getting very interesting was now at hand.

Los Angeles got the ball to Kareem in the closing moments and he was fouled. After making the first free throw, Jabbar missed the second, but the Celtics knocked the rebound out of bounds. The Lakers would get another chance.

The next play lives on in NBA lore. The ball went to Magic who drove the lane and put up a baby skyhook. It was the last of his game-high 29 points and it put L.A. up 107-106. Bird got off a desperation three before the buzzer and it almost went in…but almost still meant the Lakers had a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Magic was the only Laker that appeared interested in playing Game 5. He went for 29/8/12, but no one else contributed and all five Celtic starters scored at least twenty points. Los Angeles lost 123-108, but they were going home with two chances to clinch.

Game 6 was on a Sunday afternoon and Boston didn’t quit. They led 32-25 after the first quarter and 56-51 at the half. In the third quarter, Los Angeles made their final push.

Magic orchestrated the attack brilliantly, finishing the game with 19 assists. Worthy finished with 22 points. And Kareem? The venerable Captain, with the finish line in sight, went off for 32 points. The Lakers blew the game open by winning the third quarter 30-12 and they coasted in to a 106-93 win. They were champions again.

In our own day, repeat NBA championships are par for the course, but that wasn’t the case in the late 1980s. It had been nineteen years since anyone repeated and at a rally celebrating the championship, Riley made it clear he wasn’t letting anyone rest on their laurels. He guaranteed the fans they would do it again in 1988. And they did.