Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was almost 40 years old heading into the 1986-87 season. And as long as anyone could remember, he had been the focus of the Los Angeles Lakers' offense.
But Riley wanted to change that. Abdul-Jabbar's retirement was inevitable, and Riley wanted to begin shifting the burden to other players. He wanted Magic Johnson, and to a lesser degree James Worthy, to become the focus of the offense. So Riley and his staff began formulating their ideas of how this transition should work and took their notions into training camp that fall.
Within days the players became comfortable with the new system. Abdul-Jabbar personally reassured Riley that everything was working fine. Then Magic sealed it in gold by turning in a stellar season, one that would make him the first guard since Oscar Robertson to win the league MVP Award. His scoring zoomed to a career-high 23.9 points per game, and he topped the league in assists at 12.2 per game.
He didn't do it alone, of course. Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper and A. C. Green all wanted to establish their superiority.
Their big boost arrived on Feb. 13, when the team acquired Mychal Thompson from the San Antonio Spurs. Larry Bird was heartsick at the news. The 6-foot-10 Thompson gave the Lakers just what they needed up front. He could play backup to Abdul-Jabbar at center, and he was a solid power forward. Better yet, he was an excellent low-post defender, and having played with Kevin McHale on the college level, he knew better than anyone how to defend Boston's long-armed forward. With Thompson, the Lakers surged to a 65-win regular season, the best in the NBA.
All the while, Boston's fortunes were headed in the other direction. It had been 18 seasons since a team had won back-to-back championships in the NBA. The 1986-87 Celtics had hopes of being the first modern team to repeat. But one by one things fell apart for them. Tragedy struck the day after the draft when Len Bias, the second overall pick, collapsed and died from cocaine-induced heart failure.
The Boston bench, which seemed so deep in 1986, rapidly disintegrated. After an early-season accident on a stationary bike, Bill Walton was sidelined with the foot injuries that had plagued him throughout his career. Scott Wedman was struck down by a heel injury and never played for Boston again, and Jerry Sichting was slowed by a persistent virus.
To bolster the frontcourt, the Celtics picked up Darren Daye and Fred Roberts, but they needed time to build confidence. Without a strong bench, the Boston starters were forced to play Herculean minutes. As a result, Bird, Danny Ainge and Robert Parish were each troubled by nagging injuries. Then, late in the season, McHale broke a navicular bone in his right foot and tore ligaments as well. The doctors were worried that continued play might cause McHale permanent damage, but because the Celtics seemed to have a good chance in the playoffs, he decided to play hurt.
Boston survived a seven-game encounter with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, then bashed heads with the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals. Again the series went to seven games, and Boston escaped, but only by virtue of Bird's last-second steal of an Isiah Thomas pass in Game 5. Bird quickly fed Dennis Johnson for the winning layup to complete a play for the ages.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were scorching. Detroit assistant coach Dick Versace scouted them during the playoffs and came away shaking his head. "They're cosmic," he said. "They're playing better than any team I've ever seen."
The Finals opened in the Forum before a crowd peppered with even more celebrities than usual. Their presence only seemed to inflame Riley more. The Celtics get all the respect for being hardworking, while the Lakers are packaged as a bunch of glitzy, super-talented guys who glide through "Showtime" without much character or thought, Riley told his players.
Magic Johnson led the rout in Game 1 with 29 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and no turnovers. Worthy, on the receiving end of many of Johnson's passes, had 33 points and nine rebounds. The Lakers ran 35 fast breaks in the first two quarters and led by 21 at intermission. They settled into a canter thereafter, finally posting a 126-113 win.
The Celtics knew they were reeling, and to catch themselves they had to stop Magic. They accomplished that in Game 2, but in the process they allowed Cooper to switch specialities, from defense to offense. Boston Coach K.C. Jones put Ainge on Magic, and that seemed to work for a while. But Boston trailed by seven in the second quarter as Cooper pushed the Lakers through a 20-10 outburst, scoring or assisting on all 20 points. When it was over, he had laced in 6 of 7 three-point attempts, a playoff record.
And the Celtics had spent another day in feeble pursuit of the Lakers' break. "One of the Laker girls could've scored a layup on us," Boston backup center Greg Kite said later. Abdul-Jabbar flicked in 10 of 14 shots for 23 points, while Magic posted 20 assists and 22 points. In Cooper's big second quarter, he racked up eight assists, tying a Finals record. It all added up to a 141-122 rout, Boston's sixth straight road loss in the playoffs.
Before doubt crept too far into Celtics minds, they righted themselves in Game 3. McHale had limped off the floor in Game 2 after further aggravating his injury by stepping on Parish's foot. But the Celtics' forward bounced back in Boston with 21 points and 10 rebounds while letting the air out of Worthy's game, limiting the Lakers' forward to only 13 points and three rebounds.
Scott hit 2 of 9 shots from the field to finish with four points. The Lakers' load fell on Magic and Abdul-Jabbar. The former scored a game-high 32, but Abdul-Jabbar was left to contend with the little-known Kite. K.C. Jones loved the way Kite worked before and after practice to improve his game, calling him an inspiration to the team.
That Sunday, June 7, Kite provided more than inspiration. He played 20 minutes, and while he failed to score, he grabbed nine rebounds, blocked a Magic layup and did solid body work on Abdul-Jabbar. The defensive minutes Kite gave Boston from the bench were just enough, as Bird scored 30 points and Dennis Johnson hit 11 of 22 attempts from the field to finish with 26 points.
The Celtics' big effort came in the second quarter, when they went 17-of-21 from the field. "I hope that's as well as they can play," said Abdul-Jabbar after the 109-103 Boston victory.
"Maybe we were just due for a game like that," said Magic. "I know we won't play that way again."
For a brief moment the pressure was off the Celtics. No longer did they have to worry about the big embarrassment. "We're just too good a team to be swept," Bird said. "This was the most important game of the series for us. If we lost, it might've been tough to get up for Game 4. Now it's going to be easy."
Boston went up by 16 after halftime, but Los Angeles cut the lead to eight with 3½ minutes to go in the game. The game's conclusion -- the series, actually -- came down to one Magic sequence. With half a minute left, the Lakers called a timeout to set up a pick for Abdul-Jabbar. But Magic told him to fake it as his defender, Parish, attempted to fight through the pick, and then roll to the basket. He did. The pass was there, and the Lakers took a 104-103 lead. But Bird's three-pointer with 12 seconds left put Boston up 106-104.
On the next possession, Abdul-Jabbar was fouled and went to the line, where he made the first and missed the second. McHale grabbed the rebound, but Thompson gave him a gentle push and the ball went out of bounds. McHale signaled Boston ball, but the officials saw it the other way, giving possession to the Lakers.
What followed was another play for the ages. Magic took the inbounds pass to the left of the key and at first contemplated a 20-footer, but McHale came out to change his mind. So Magic motored into the key, where Bird and Parish joined McHale in a trio of extended arms. Nevertheless, Magic lofted a hook which just cleared Parish's fingertips and then snuggled into the basket with a swish. K.C. Jones, watching from a twisted stance from the Celtics' bench just feet away, felt his heart sink into an abyss.
The Celtics got a timeout with two seconds left, and the Lakers even left Bird open for a shot. But the ball rattled in and then out and Magic ran off happily, having stolen Game 4, 107-106. In the locker room, he dubbed the shot "my junior, junior, junior sky-hook."
"You expect to lose on a sky-hook," Bird said with a pained smile. "You don't expect it to be from Magic."
The Celtics made the mistakes down the stretch, he continued. "We turned the ball over twice. We missed a rebound after a free throw. We really can't blame anybody but ourselves."
Would the game be remembered just for its last minutes? "It should," Bird said. "A lot happened in the last minute-and-a-half. Robert gets the ball taken away from him. I throw the ball at Kevin's feet. They miss a free throw, and we don't get the rebound. How many chances do you need to win a game?"
The Celtics had to win Game 5 in the Garden. Fortunately, for Boston, the Lakers were compliant. And Ainge had his outside shot going. The Celtics got the lead and kept it. Ainge missed a trey early in the second half, bringing the Celtics' bench to shout that they didn't need threes. But Ainge must have had plugs in his ears. He kept throwing them up, hitting four in the period. For the game, he made 5-of-6 from "Ainge range."
Magic countered for Los Angeles with 29 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and four steals, but he received little help. Before the game Bird had told his teammates, "If they want to celebrate, let's not let them do it on the parquet." At one point during the contest, the Lakers' staff even iced down several cases of champagne. But the Celtics had incentive enough. They got their second win, 123-108, and the series jetted back across the continent.
Kareem arrived for Game 6 with a shave job on his balding head. And for a time, it seemed Los Angeles was intent on cutting the game just as close. Magic had only four points by the half, and the Celtics led 56-51. But like Abdul-Jabbar's perspiring pate, the Lakers shone after intermission.
Worthy finished with 22 points, while Abdul-Jabbar contributed 32 points, six rebounds and four blocks. Thompson added 15 points and nine rebounds. And Magic led them with another display of all-around brilliance. On top of his previous efforts, his 16-point, 19-assist, eight-rebound showing brought him the Finals MVP Award as Los Angeles claimed its fourth title of the decade with a 106-93 win.
"Magic is a great, great basketball player," Bird stated flatly, settling the issue for the moment. "The best I've ever seen."
"I guess this is the best team I've ever played against," Bird said. "In '85, they were good. In '84, I really thought they should have beaten us. I don't know if this team's better than they were, but I guess they are. Their fast break is better. They're deeper."
The Lakers and the Celtics had established a standard for pro basketball, and by 1987 they had begun to assume that the championship round was theirs to share.