It isn’t often that a team that’s won two NBA championships in the previous five years, to say nothing of four Finals appearances, enters a season with something to prove. It isn’t often that a star player whose arrival in the league coincided with that run of success and whose resume includes two Finals MVP trophies has something to prove. But that was the case with the 1985 Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson.
The Lakers were universally believed—including by themselves—to have choked away the 1984 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics, with Johnson at the center of the failure. The phrases “The LA Fakers” and “Tragic Johnson” had made their way into the sports lexicon and only winning another NBA title—at the expense of the Celtics would wipe the slate clean.
Magic came back with a strong season, averaging 18ppg and his 13 assists per game were second in the league. Magic was 1st-team All-NBA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still going strong at age 37, averaged 22 points/8 rebounds and was 2nd-team All-NBA. James Worthy came into his own as a star in his third year in the league, knocking down 18 a game and resulting in veteran small forward Jamaal Wilkes being gradually phased out of the rotation.
The trio of Magic-Kareem-Worthy was the core and they had plenty of help. Byron Scott, the 23-year-old two-guard, scored 16 ppg. Michael Cooper, a backup guard, was so good off the bench that he made 1st-team All-Defense. Mike McGee was a guard who could come off the bench and score. Down low, veterans Bob McAdoo and Kurt Rambis, combined to get 11 rebounds a game and McAdoo provided a little scoring punch when Kareem was on the bench.
Los Angeles started the season sluggish, losing five of their first eight, making one wonder if a post-Finals hangover was still lingering. They were 19-10 on Christmas Day. In mid-January, the Lakers lost three in a row, including a 104-102 defeat at Boston Garden. But Los Angeles won the rematch back in the old L.A. Forum, 117-111, and that was a part of a nine-game winning streak.
By the end of February, the Lakers were 42-18. They won ten in a row to start the month of March, and they closed the season with six straight wins. The final 62-20 record was easily the best in the Western Conference. It was better than Eastern Conference contenders Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The only team it wasn’t better than was those hated Boston Celtics, who went 63-19.
The Phoenix Suns were the opponent in the first round of the playoffs. The Suns were 36-46 and had no players of any real consequence. This was a best-of-five round in 1985 and the result was a predictable three-game sweep. But the hero was a surprise.
McGee stepped up to lead the way for the Lakers. He scored 22 points in the opener, as the Lakers used a 45-24 second quarter to trigger a 142-114 rout. A stat that shows how different basketball was played then is that each team made just one three-point shot and they combined to attempt only eight. And as you’ll see by the final scores throughout the playoffs, the lack of interest in the trey didn’t mean low-scoring games.
The final of Game 2 was 147-130, with McGee drilling 20, and McAdoo coming off the bench to do the same. McGee scored 17 in the finale, a 119-103 road win that concluded a series where he averaged 19.7ppg to lead the Lakers.
Portland had finished 42-40 and awaited in the second round. Clyde Drexler was in his second year and Kiki Vandeweghe was a prolific scoring forward, albeit one whose interest in defense was never particularly high. Mychal Thompson was a power forward that Laker head coach Pat Riley thought so highly of, that they would acquire him two years later.
The Trail Blazers also had a rookie center in Sam Bowie, who has an infamous place in NBA history—Portland opted to take Bowie over Michael Jordan with the second pick in the 1984 draft (Hakeem Olajuwon was the consensus first choice). While this pick could be predictably criticized at the time and Bowie would later develop leg problems that ended his career, it is fair to point out that he did make the All-Rookie team in 1985, with names like Jordan, Charles Barkley, Olajuwon and Sam Perkins.
Regardless, Los Angeles had way too much firepower for Portland. The Lakers led Game 1 by 28 points at the half. A balanced attack had six players between 16-20 points, while Rambis and Jabbar combined for 25 rebounds to key a decisive edge on the glass. Byron Scott’s 31 points led the way in Game 2, as the Lakers again jumped out to a lead, up 17 at the half and winning 134-118.
Worthy and Kareem combined for 54 points in Game 3, while Magic spent the night getting them the basketball, dishing out 23 assists. Even though Portland made a fourth-quarter run to make this game interesting, it still ended 130-126 for Los Angeles.
The first loss of the postseason finally came in Game 4. The Lakers were extremely sloppy with the basketball. While Magic scored 31 and had 13 assists, he had six turnovers. And Cooper was simply awful, with nine turnovers and nothing to balance it out. Los Angeles was outscored 36-19 in the second quarter and lost the game by eight.
Back home in the Forum, a strong defensive outing closed the series. The Lakers held the Blazers to 42 percent shooting from the floor and Magic had a monster night, with 34 points and 19 assists. Kareem scored 25, McAdoo knocked down 20 and the 139-120 win sent Los Angeles to the Western Conference Finals.
The Denver Nuggets had won 52 games, were the 2-seed in the West and they held serve to reach the conference finals. Alex English and Calvin Natt were terrific scorers and guard Fat Lever, in spite of his nickname, was a pickpocket artist in the backcourt, among the league leaders in steals. But here again, a handful of good players weren’t going to stop the firepower of the Showtime Lakers.
Los Angeles shot 64 percent in the series opener, Scott leading all scorers with 27, Worthy scoring 24 and McGee coming off the bench for 21. They blew the game open in the second quarter and won 139-122.
The first bit of real postseason adversity came in Game 2. Turnovers were again the problem, as the Lakers had a 24-14 deficit in this area. Magic and Kareem each shot poorly, going a combined 9-for-32 from the floor. The game was close going into the fourth-quarter and the Lakers still only trailed by three. But there was no surge and they were crushed in the final period, losing 136-114.
Now they had to go into the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains and reclaim homecourt advantage. The Big Three came ready. Worthy scored 28 and Kareem poured in 27. Magic distributed the ball, with 15 assists and he hit the boards, with 14 rebounds. The Lakers again responded to a loss with tough defense, holding the Nuggets to 45 percent shooting and they won 136-118.
Game 4 was a dogfight, tied after three quarters. Los Angeles again brought their defense, their rebounding and clutch play from the stars. They held Denver to 41% shooting, outrebounded them 55-39, while Kareem put up 29 points/12 rebounds. Worthy was good for 19/13, while Magic scored 17 and handed out 13 assists.
The biggest offensive outburst of the playoffs closed out the series in the Forum. The Lakers won the second quarter 42-19. They took 116 shots and did it with high efficiency, winning the game 153-119. A fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, and fifth in six years, was theirs. They had their long-awaited rematch with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.
Bird averaged 29 points/11 rebounds during the season and won the MVP award. He was surrounded by a frontcourt that included Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. The backcourt was anchored by point guard Danny Ainge, and two-guard Dennis Johnson. The Celtics’ version of Cooper, Johnson was an able defender. He would match up with Magic, while the Lakers threw Cooper at Bird.
In Game 1 all that got thrown was the kitchen sink at the Lakers. They looked nothing like a team that was thirsting for a rematch. On Memorial Day afternoon in the Garden, they dug a thirty-point deficit by halftime, allowed the Celtics to shoot 60 percent and were outrebounded 48-35. The final score was 148-114. It became known as “The Memorial Day Massacre” and Kareem was the principal culprit.
Kareem had just three rebounds and Riley would later recount in his book Showtime, how the next day, the Captain was sitting in the front row of the film session. He was ready to stand up take his medicine and Riley was happy to deliver it. It was a threshold moment for the old warrior, to show if he had any gas left in the tank.
The answer came in the form of 30 points and 17 rebounds in Game 2. This time the Lakers won the rebounding battle 49-37 and held the Celtics to 45 percent shooting, with Bird going 9-for-21. The 109-102 win shifted homecourt advantage.
Kareem kept it going in Game 3, with a 26/14 performance, while Worthy scored 29 and Magic scored 17 with 16 assists. Even though the Lakers trailed by ten in the second quarter, they took the game over and won 136-111. Now they were on a roll and Boston had the star facing questions. Bird had another poor shooting game.
Game 4 went down to the wire, but the Celtics evened the series when Dennis Johnson hit a jumper at the buzzer for a 107-105 win. Just as had been the case in 1984, the Lakers and Celtics were tied at two games apiece and Los Angeles would need to win one in the Garden.
1985 was the first year of the 2-3-2 format for the Finals though, a schedule that would be used through 2013, so the Lakers got Game 5 at home. Their Big Three continued to play big on the sport’s biggest stage. Kareem scored 36, Worthy knocked down 33 and Magic was good for 26 and 17 assists. They led by 13 at the half and though the Celtics cut it to four with six minutes, Los Angeles made the key plays down the stretch and won 120-111.
The Lakers had never beaten the Celtics in an NBA Finals and had two chances to get one at Boston Garden. I was 15-years-old as I watched this game on vacation in a Las Vegas sportsbook (it was the afternoon and nothing inappropriate for a teenager was going on). In later years I would become a Celtics fan (and still am), but on this day, with no dog in the fight, I had advised my dad to put his money on the Lakers. And I would prove prescient (something else that no longer applies today).
Los Angeles, as they had done at so many key checkpoints in these playoffs, played excellent defense. Bird shot 12-for-29, and it was revealed later that he had injured his hand in a barfight prior to the Finals. Worthy continued his breakout Finals, scoring 28. Magic scored 18 and had 14 assists.
But no star was bigger than the Captain. Kareem was good for 29 points and his complete reversal of form from the series opener was completed, as was that of his team. Jabbar finished the Finals with per-game averages of 26/9/5 and was named series MVP. The Lakers won 111-100 and at long last had their victory over the Celtics. They were Tragic and Fakers no more.