The 1988 Los Angeles Lakers were playing basketball under a self-imposed burden as the regular season wound down. The previous June they had won their fourth championship since Magic Johnson was drafted in 1980. In the aftermath of beating the Celtics, Coach Pat Riley made a public guarantee—they would win it again in 1988 and become the first NBA team in 19 years to capture back-to-back titles.
Even with everyone gunning for them, the Lakers outlasted the rest of the Western Conference to gain the #1 seed in the playoffs, with the Celtics having to try and fight off the emerging Detroit Pistons in the East.
Riley’s team was led by Magic, the 6’8” point guard whose floor vision consistently put his assists in double digits and whose scoring ability had improved with each passing year in the league. Byron Scott was a solid two-guard.
Down low, the aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t as dominant as he’d once been, but his skyhook was still a reliable scoring weapon in the post and the value of his leadership was immeasurable. James Worthy at forward was one of the NBA’s bright stars and fellow forward A.C. Green was the frontcourt equivalent of Scott—reliable, if not spectacular.
Finally, Riley had quality veteran depth with guard Michael Cooper, able to spell Magic at the point and run with him as the shooting guard if necessary, along with Mychal Thompson, a forward able to play both facing the basket and posting up. Though the Lakers were getting older and the rest of the NBA was catching up to them and the Celtics, Los Angeles was still a complete team.
The playoffs began against the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had a talented backcourt, with defensive whiz Alvin Robertson and Johnny Dawkins, who combined to average 36ppg. They got more production from forward Walter Berry, to the tune of 17 a night. They had also managed to lose 51 games in the regular season. This series was a mere tuneup for the defending champs.
Los Angeles shot 59% from the floor and controlled the glass in the opener. The balanced attack offset 34 from Robertson in a 122-110 win. After digging a seven-point hole in the first quarter of Game 2, the Lakers took over the second half. Again, they decisively won the rebounding battle, had a balanced attack and this time got a big night from Mychal Thompson, who scored 29 off the bench. The final was 130-112.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in 1988 and though Game 3 on the road was a close one, the LA defense figured out how to handle Robertson, holding him to eight points. Magic scored 25 and dished 11 assists. Thompson had another big night off the bench with 23 points/9 rebounds and the 109-107 win clinched the series. It was the last easy series the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers would play.
Utah was up next with its terrific duo of forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton. Both were second-team All-Stars. The Jazz had more length on the frontcourt with Thurl Bailey—a 20/7 man, who had starred for the legendary 1983 N.C. State basketball team, and Mark Eaton who averaged eight rebounds a game.
Los Angeles came with their defensive chops ready to roll and they held Utah to eight points in the first quarter. The Lakers forced Stockton into a 3-for-13 shooting night while Kareem went for 16/10, Worthy added 23/7 as LA controlled the boards. The result was a 110-91 win.
But Kareem faltered in Game 2, while Malone and Bailey stepped up and combined to score 49 points. Magic played well, with 19 points and 10 assists. Byron Scott knocked down 26, but the backcourt play couldn’t overcome the Jazz’s frontcourt dominance. LA lost homecourt advantage in a 101-97 defeat. The trouble deepened in Salt Lake City in Game 3. Magic and Scott were again the only players to produce, the Lakers shot 42 percent and a 96-89 loss put them in a desperate spot for Game 4.
Champions bring their defense in these spots and that’s what the Lakers did. They held the Jazz to 42 percent shooting in Game 4. Even though LA was down a point at the half, they used a strong third quarter to take control. Magic, Scott, Worthy and Kareem all had 20-plus points in the 113-100 win that put Los Angeles back in control.
Game 5 back in the L.A. Forum was a nailbiter and Worthy stepped up big, shooting 12-for-20 and scoring 27 points. Magic scored 20 more and handed out thirteen assists. Scott continued his terrific play in this series, knocking down 20. The Lakers escaped 111-109 and kept control of homecourt.
Los Angeles mailed Game 6 in, trailing 31-13 after a quarter and losing by 28. It set up a decisive battle back in the Forum. Utah’s two big guns were both great—Malone delivered 31 points/15 rebounds and Stockton scored 29. But the Jazz production was top-heavy. The Lakers got contributions everywhere, especially on the boards where they held a 43-29 advantage. Scott finished the series with a 29-point performance while Magic and Worthy added 23 more. The 109-98 win sent LA to the conference finals for the seventh straight year.
The 53-win Dallas Mavericks awaited. They were an explosive team offensively, led by 25-ppg scorer Mark Aguirre. Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman were productive perimeter players. Sam Perkins, Worthy’s teammate on the 1982 North Carolina championship team, averaged 14/8. Roy Tarpley and James Donaldson were tough on the boards. The Mavs were a complete team and this would be a battle.
Los Angeles ran on high-efficiency in Game 1, shooting 55 percent. Worthy led the way with 28, the Lakers controlled the third quarter and won 113-98. Then they upped the ante in Game 2, shooting 62 percent. Scott went off for 30 while Magic dished 19 assists in a 123-101 win.
But the road wasn’t as kind. LA was crushed on the boards in Game 3 and Dallas took over down the stretch in a 106-94 win. Magic came out in Game 4 with 28 points and 12 assists, but he was the only one. The Mavericks again took over the second half and evened the series with a 118-104 win.
Homecourt again was a tonic, especially for offensive efficiency. The Lakers shot 60 percent in Game 5, with Magic passing for twenty assists and Worthy and Kareem combining for 54 points. The 119-102 final put LA one step from the Finals.
Game 6 was a close one in Dallas. Scott and Worthy each scored 27, but in Worthy’s case it came on 9-for-21 shooting. The Lakers lost 105-103 win and were again headed for a seventh game in the Forum. They led the decisive game 54-53 at the half.
Experience matters in these spots, especially in the NBA and Los Angeles took over the second half. Worthy, Magic and Scott were all good for 20-plus and the Lakers ended up shooting 55 percent in the 117-102 win. They were ticketed for the NBA Finals for the seventh time in the 1980s.
It wasn’t Boston with Larry Bird or Philadelphia with Julius Erving waiting, as it had been the previous six trips. Detroit was the new kid on the block in the East. The Pistons were an unusual team at this point in NBA history. While the traditional power trio of the Lakers, Celtics and Sixers had revolved around one key star, the Pistons were a true team.
Isaiah Thomas at the point was the best player, but he was more first-among-equals than a leader on the level of a Magic or Bird or Dr. J. Head coach Chuck Daly, who would one day coach the first Olympic “Dream Team” in 1992, adroitly shared out playing time among nine players without squashing egos. After coming up one game short of the Finals in 1987, Detroit had gotten past Boston and was ready for the Lakers.
Just how ready the Pistons were was evident in Game 1. Adrian Dantley knocked down 34 points with red-hot shooting and Detroit blew the game open in the second quarter on their way to a 105-93 win. Two nights later it was Magic and Worthy saving the season with a combined 49 points and a twelve-point win of their own. The series was going back to the Pontiac Silverdome knotted at a game apiece.
Both the Pistons and the NFL Lions used to play their games in the Silverdome prior to the construction of Ford Field and The Palace in Auburn Hills, and this was the first time the NBA Finals had been played in a dome. The Lakers had no problems adjusting in a Sunday afternoon Game 3 as the Worthy/Magic tandem again led the way and a big third quarter keyed a 99-86 win that ensured the series would at least get back West.
But on Tuesday and Thursday night, it became apparent that Los Angeles would go home with its back to the wall. Detroit dominated the second half of Game 4 with Dantley scoring 27 and rolling to a 111-86 blowout. Game 5 was good throughout, but once Detroit turned an early 12-0 deficit into a 59-50 lead by halftime they seemed to be a step ahead and kept the Lakers at arm’s length. Jabbar’s 26 weren’t enough to avert a 10-point defeat.
The 1988 NBA Finals were an interesting series in that the teams were evenly matched, but the individual games weren’t—every one had been settled by a 10-plus victory margin. That would change in the final two games.
Game 6 was on Saturday afternoon. The Lakers had been pushed to this point twice before in the playoffs, but never had they needed consecutive wins in elimination games and on a more intangible level, never had it seemed they were the ones chasing the more talented opponent.
So when Detroit rallied from a 56-48 deficit and eventually took the lead behind an astonishing performance from Thomas, who poured in 25 points in the third quarter alone before rolling his ankle at the end of the period, it hardly seemed that this would be one of those usual NBA games were the home favorite inevitably asserts itself in the fourth quarter. Detroit still led 102-99 in the closing minute. Byron Scott nailed a mid-range jumper that had the season riding on it and Thomas, playing through the pain, missed on the other end.
Los Angeles came down for a winner-take-all possession. It went to Jabbar in the post. He launched the skyhook over Detroit forward and enforcer Bill Laimbeer. It missed, but Laimbeer was whistled for a foul. Replays showed that Laimbeer had bumped Kareem on the way up. It was a tough call to have to settle a game on, but it did appear to be the correct one. Jabbar hit both free throws and we were set for a Game 7 on Tuesday night.
The finale was worth the price of admission. Detroit, as usual, was unfazed by the road and the Lakers’ championship pedigree, taking a 52-47 halftime lead. But Thomas’ ankle stiffened, and so did the Los Angeles defense. With Worthy having a monster game, reminiscent of the way he’d stepped for North Carolina in the 1982 Final Four, the Lakers’ led got as high as sixteen and they still led 90-75 deep into the fourth quarter.
It looked over, but the Pistons came roaring back. Thomas got back on the floor and they closed the lead to 98-92 and ultimately to 102-100. At this point the Lakers had several chances to seal the game from the line, but only went 2-of-6 and when Laimbeer nailed a three-pointer from the cheap seats the lead was down to 106-105 in the closing seconds. Green broke long on the inbounds and slipped behind the Pistons defense. He was hit in perfect stride for an easy basket that made the lead three with six seconds to go.
Thomas brought the ball over midcourt. With a couple seconds left, Laker fans were storming the court and the Piston guard had no chance to get off what would have still been a desperation three, about forty feet. The officials let the situation stand and curiously there was no argument from the Detroit side.
The Lakers were repeat champions. They had taken the burden of their coach’s words and fulfilled them. When CBS’ Brent Musberger asked Riley in the postgame interview if he had anything to say this time around, Jabbar came up from behind him and put a towel in his mouth and said playfully “Not this year!”
While repeat champions have become the norm in the NBA over the past two decades, it was the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers that broke through the barrier and made it happen.