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Fran Blinebury

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Coach Pat Riley (right) put all his trust in Magic Johnson in 1986-87 ... and it paid off with a title.
Ken Levine/Getty Images

Riley makes over Lakers, leads them to redemption in '87


Posted Sep 5 2011 10:39AM

They were growing old and evidently weary. They were getting worn down and seemingly out.

The previous season had ended with a shocking 4-1 loss in the West finals to the on-the-rise Houston Rockets with their Twin Towers tandem of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. Suddenly, the dynasty clock was ticking loudly.

The 1986-87 Lakers had something to prove. They were no longer able to run past the rest of the NBA with their lightning-bolt array of fast-breaking talent that filled up the Fabulous Forum with Hollywood stars and filled up the highlight reels with their dazzling exploits.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 39 years old heading into training camp. Magic Johnson and James Worthy had already logged a great deal of mileage in the 1980s. "I think we've peaked," said a sober and succinct Worthy.

The Lakers had spent the summer looking for ways to supplement their roster. But by the time October arrived, general manager Jerry West told coach Pat Riley that it might take a change of philosophy -- rather than a change of personnel -- to get the team back to the top.

To that point, Riley had been more caretaker and motivator in guiding the Lakers to a pair of championships. But he had been bitterly crushed by the loss to the Boston Celtics in the 1984 Finals, when the Lakers led each of the first four games in the final minute of play, then lost two of them and eventually the series 4-3. The next postseason, after the so-called "Memorial Day Massacre," a 148-114 loss in Game 1 of the 1985 Finals, the fiery and inspirational Riley appealed to his team's competitive core and rallied the Lakers to win the championship, defeating the Celtics for the first time ever in the playoffs.

But now Riley's task was more on the court than in the Lakers' heads. The challenge was to redesign the offense, reinvent the image of the NBA's most glamorous team and keep the Lakers in the championship mix in the process. While he already had two glittery championship rings in his possession, this was actually the birth of Riley as the legendary coach who would eventually enter the Hall of Fame.

The decision was made to make Magic the focal point of the attack, running the offense through him, while saving the aging Abdul-Jabbar to have his greatest impact in the fourth quarter. Would it work? Could it work? Could the strutting "Showtime" Lakers become a bunch of 9-to-5 "regular Joes?"

When the Lakers lost the season opener to the young Rockets, the rumblings were ominous. But in a short time those became little more than sounds of rolling thunder as L.A.'s new look team rumbled to a 19-6 start, capped off by a win over the Rockets in Houston.

These were the new-look Lakers up to their dominant old tricks. When West was able to pull off another of his "mid-season miracle" deals and added Spurs forward Mychal Thompson to the mix as a potent weapon off the bench, the machine was humming.

Magic won the first of his three MVP awards and became the first point guard to claim the honor since Oscar Robertson in 1964. His scoring average jumped from 18 to 24 points per game while he still kept up his pace as distributor in the offense. Abdul-Jabbar could have been a fly in the ointment if he'd have protested the decision to get him fewer touches and points. Instead, he was the picture of contentment and remained a potent late-game threat.

The Lakers had big men Kurt Rambis and A.C. Green in their frontline rotation with Thompson and Abdul-Jabbar. Byron Scott helped light up things from long range in the backcourt with Johnson. Finally, defensive stopper Michael Cooper became an all-around threat with his shooting coming off the bench.

The transformation of the Lakers was nothing short of a resounding success as they blitzed through the regular season with a 67-15 record, practically lapping the field in the Western Conference.

The response in Boston to the resurgence in L.A. was muted. Key reserves Bill Walton and Scott Wedman were plagued by injuries and, as a result, the core of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson were all forced to play more than 37 minutes per night, which took a toll.

It was the season when Michael Jordan won the first of his 10 NBA scoring titles, averaging 37.1 points, and became the first player to score more than 3,000 points since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63.

However, the season was all about the reconstructed, renewed and re-energized Lakers as the playoffs began. They rolled through the Western Conference bracket, barely even feeling a speed bump, sweeping Denver 3-0 in the first round, taking out Golden State 4-1 in the second round and sweeping Seattle 4-0 in the conference finals. If not for a playoff record 29 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 (and 51 in the game) by the Warriors' Sleepy Floyd, the Lakers would have taken a flawless record into The Finals.

The Celtics were waiting as the Eastern Conference representative for the fourth straight time following a 59-23 season. But this Boston team needed seven games each to get past Milwaukee and Detroit, and was no match for L.A. The Lakers took a 2-0 lead in the Finals with a pair of double-digit wins. The Celtics won Game 3 and had a chance to even the series when they had a one-point lead with five seconds left in Game 4.

That's when Magic capped off his MVP season by rolling into the lane and launching what he called his "junior, junior sky hook" over the outstretched arms of McHale and Parish to give the Lakers a stunning win at Boston Garden. With the breathing room of that 3-1 lead, they eventually wrapped up the crown at home in Game 6.

"You expect to lose on a sky hook," Bird said. "You don't expect it to be from Magic."

The Lakers had picked themselves up off the floor, re-established their superiority and staked their claim as the "Team of the '80s" with their fourth title of the decade, all after their coach had changed their style and identity. And Riley wasn't done yet.

During the trophy presentation, he was asked if the Lakers could repeat as champions, a feat that had not been accomplished since 1969.

"I guarantee it," Riley said.

The 1987 Lakers had all the answers.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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