The opening of the season was marked by turmoil for the 1982 Los Angeles Lakers, but the ending was drenched in champagne, as a healthy and rejuvenated Magic Johnson led the franchise to its second NBA title in three years.
Magic had been injured in the 1981 regular season and missed 45 games. Even though he returned for the playoffs, the Lakers were upset in the opening round by the Houston Rockets. The following season saw the Lakers start 7-4, but the tensions were high between Magic and head coach Paul Westhead.
After a verbal altercation at halftime on November 18, Westhead was fired and replaced with Pat Riley. Magic was blamed as a coach-killer. The glory of 1980, when he helped the Lakers win the championship as a rookie seemed eons away.
But the coach that took over turned out to be pretty good himself. Riley won his debut against the San Antonio Spurs, an eventual division champion and future playoff opponent and the Lakers went 17-3 through the end of the calendar year.
By the end of March, Los Angeles was 49-23 and they closed strong, winning six of eight. Their 57-25 record gave them the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs with five games to spare, though Los Angeles still trailed the powers of the East, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Magic had a fantastic year, averaging 19 points/10 rebounds/10 assists. His assists were second in the league and on the defensive end he was third in steals. For some reason, he was overlooked when the 1st-team NBA All-Stars were chosen.
Seattle’s Gus Williams and San Antonio’s George Gervin were chosen ahead of him. Neither had Magic’s all-around excellence, particularly Gervin, who was the league’s leading scorer but had a phobia regarding the notion of playing defense.
Norm Nixon was the running mate in the backcourt and averaged 18 points, while dishing eight assists a game himself, fourth in the NBA. Jamaal Wilkes was a terrific scorer at small forward with 21 ppg. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar anchored the middle and averaged 24 points/9 rebounds.
Further help down low came from Mitch Kupchak, who averaged 14/8, along with Kurt Rambis and the Lakers also had Bob McAdoo, who would play a key role in the championship drive. Backcourt depth and versatility was provided by Michael Cooper, one of the best defenders in the league.
The structure of the NBA at this time was two divisions within each conference. The format of the playoffs called for six teams to qualify with the two division champs getting first-round byes and the other four teams playing a best-of-three “mini-series.” As Pacific Division champs, the Lakers took a few days off before beginning play in the conference semi-finals.
Los Angeles opened postseason play with the Phoenix Suns, a consistent contender in recent years with a 46-36 record in 1982. The Suns had good frontcourt talent in Truck Robinson and Alvan Adams. They had scorers in Walter Davis and Kyle Macy and they had acquired a point guard with a record postseason success. Dennis Johnson had been Finals MVP for Seattle in 1979 and would later become a Laker nemesis when he was traded to Boston.
An offense that was both balanced and prolific led the way in Game 1 at the old Los Angeles Forum. Jamaal Wilkes scored 28, one of four Laker players to get 20-plus and the result was a 115-96 win. Kareem hadn’t been one of those four, but he made up for it in Game 2 with 24 points to key a 117-98 win.
Kareem was also making up for it with defense—Robinson would only average 12ppg for the series. The games were more competitive when the series went to Phoenix, but the bottom line stayed the same. The trio of Wilkes, Magic and Kareem combined for 71 points and led a 114-106 win. Kareem and Wilkes each had 24 in the fourth game, while the Suns continued to struggle getting points down low. The 112-107 win completed the sweep.
San Antonio was 48-34 and led by the offensively explosive Gervin, along with small forward Mike Mitchell. The Spurs had a talented playmaker in Johnny Moore. But they lacked the depth and balance of Los Angeles. Dave Corzine and Mark Olberding were nice players down low, but not ones you were going to win an NBA championship by relying on.
Kareem exploited the interior edge right away in Game 1 with 32 points, while McAdoo added 21 in a 128-117 win. The next three games were all close, but the Lakers kept sweeping right through the West.
Los Angeles trailed Game 2 by a point going into the fourth quarter, but the defense on Gervin, holding him to 18 points, ultimately led to a 110-101 win. The Lakers only led by two points going to the fourth quarter on the road in Game 3, but a combined 48 from Kareem and McAdoo keyed a 118-108 win. And the lead was only a point going into the final period of Game 4, but 48 more from the Kareem-McAdoo combo, along with 30 from Nixon resulted in a 128-123 clinching win.
Philadelphia had survived the Eastern Conference, winning a road Game 7 in Boston Garden. Lakers-Sixers was a Finals matchup that would happen three times in four years in the early 1980s (including 1980 & 1983). Philly was led by the great Julius Erving. Dr. J averaged 25 a night. He had a brilliant playmaker in Maurice Cheeks and good two-guard in Andrew Toney.
But while the Sixers had a nice rebounder in Caldwell Jones and a talented, but enigmatic power forward in Darryl Dawkins, there were not as good as the Lakers in the paint. And that difference would manifest itself throughout the Finals.
The other thing that manifested itself throughout the Finals was Magic Johnson. He led the Lakers in rebounding in Game 1 with 14 and along with Nixon and Cooper keyed a trapping defense that turned the tide of the series opener. After trailing by 11 at the half, the Lakers went on a stunning 40-9 run and ultimately won the game 124-117.
Wilkes posted 24 points/10 rebounds in the win, and Los Angeles controlled the glass to the tune of 50-41 in rebounding. That edge disappeared in Game 2, as Philadelphia played with desperation, while Magic was the only Laker who rebounded. But even with the 110-94 win, the Lakers had taken homecourt advantage as the series went west.
Los Angeles was in control for the middle games at the Forum. They set the tone in Game 3 by running out to a 32-20 lead and playing solid defense, holding Philadelphia to 44 percent from the floor—at a time when top teams customarily shot 50 percent or higher. Nixon led the scoring with 29 points, while Magic posted a 22/9/8 line.
In Game 4, the lead was 15 by halftime and Magic’s line was 24/8/7. Kareem and Rambis were each in double-digits on the glass, while Nixon dished 14 assists in the 111-101 win.
On the brink of a title, Los Angeles did not match Philly’s desperation back in the old Spectrum for Game 5. It was tied at halftime, but the defense rested, as the 76ers went on a torrid streak, shooting 60 percent for the game and scoring 81 points after intermission. Jabbar’s six points was his playoff low and the final was 135-102.
The pressure was on in Game 6, the final game of the year at the Forum one way or another. Magic’s Lucky 13 night—13 points/13 rebounds/13 assists—summarized the steady efficiency the Lakers brought to this game. Wilkes knocked down 27. Kareem went for 18 points/11 rebounds, while McAdoo added a 16/9 along with three blocks. The Lakers won 114-104 and were NBA champions again.
Magic was an easy pick for Finals MVP, averaging 16/11/8. Wilkes, one of the truly underrated players of the early 1980s Los Angeles Lakers led all scorers with 20 ppg. Kareem was steady down low with an 18/8 average for the series, while Nixon averaged ten assists.
It had been a long way from the turmoil of November to the celebration of June, but the Magic was back in Hollywood.