From Showtime to Blue-Collar
Under the tutelage of Pat Riley, the veteran Lakers went from fast-breaking to hard-working.
The 1986-87 Lakers may not have been L.A.’s most talented team, even its best in the decade. The Lakers’ 1983-84 team had the same nucleus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott. Abdul-Jabbar, three years younger at 37, was still a 20-point scorer. Jamaal Wilkes started at small forward, averaging 17 points, while Worthy and Michael Cooper came off the bench with former MVP Bob McAdoo.
Of course, that 1983-84 team lost in the Finals to the Celtics, after leading going into the last minute of the first four games and blowing two.
That was the difference. The Lakers won their first two titles in the ‘80s on sheer, dazzling, fast-breaking talent. By the 1986-87 season, they weren’t as flashy but were learning to play the game with their heads.
Their transition from highlight reel to blue-collar was embodied by the growth of coach Pat Riley, whose highlight that season was “guaranteeing” they’d repeat after they won the title, a promise they delivered on a year later, becoming the NBA’s first back-to-back champions in 19 years.
However, that was the least of what Riley did for them that season, reshaping a team everyone thought was over.
Coming off their 1985 breakthrough against the Celtics, the Lakers thought they were just warming up when they were dumped by the young Houston Rockets -- who featured “Twin Towers” Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson -- in a rude five-game wakeup call in the 1986 West Finals.
Among the people who thought the Lakers had been passed by were the Lakers themselves. Worthy said, “I think we’ve peaked.” Johnson said, “I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to coach but we need someone big, that’s all.” Riley said they had to face the possibility they had suffered a “core burnout.”
GM Jerry West searched so desperately for another big man to complement Abdul-Jabbar, who was 39 in the fall of 1986, there was speculation about the possible acquisition of Chicago’s Jawann Oldham, who was coming off a career high 7.4 points a game. On the eve of training camp in Palm Springs, West told Riley the cavalry wasn’t coming over the hill.
“I told him, ‘Pat, I don’t know if it’s possible,’” said West. “‘Maybe moving personnel around, doing things differently, maybe that’ll help.’”
There had been few changes since the fall of 1981 when Riley took over the Lakers’ sideline; to that point, his entire coaching experience consisted of one season as newly fired Paul Westhead’s assistant. Withy owner Jerry Buss was still skeptical after failing to persuade West to coach, waiting until they made the finals to remove the “interim” title; Riley was like an orphan his players had found on their doorstep.
“Riles,” as he was know to his players, tread lightly for three seasons before assuming command with a thunderclap in the 1985 Finals when his two days of rage after the Celtics’ Game 1 rout in the Memorial Day Massacre turned the series and the decade around.
Two seasons later, however, more would be called for than motivation, on which Riley prided himself. Now he’d have to reinvent them.
Riley’s Plan B was to reroute the offense through Johnson, saving Abdul-Jabbar for late-game and late-season situations. There was no question Johnson could handle it. There was a big question whether the forbidding Abdul-Jabbar would.
Riley didn’t dare make an announcement. Instead, he put in new plays that everyone stumbled through so badly the first day, he almost junked the whole thing. A couple of days later, however, Abdul-Jabbar, who had figured out what was going on, mentioned casually he liked the changes, to Riley’s vast relief.
That was the hard part. Everything that followed was like dominos falling.
They lost the opener in Houston, 112-102, then won nine in a row. The next time they saw the Rockets -- in Houston on Dec. 21 -- the Lakers were 18-6 and won this one, 103-96. Five days later they met again in the Forum and the Lakers won by 23.
The Lakers finished 67-15, winning the West by 10 games, 25 ahead of the 42-40 Rockets, whose star set in a hurry.
West finally found a big man, freeing Mychal Thompson from the San Antonio bench. Thompson, a former No. 1 overall pick, joined Cooper, their defensive hound and an emerging three-point threat, with veterans Kurt Rambis and Mitch Kupchak.
Johnson raised his scoring average from 18 to 24 points and won his first MVP, the first for any point guard since Oscar Robertson in 1964. Worthy, averaged 19, shooting 54 percent and Abdul-Jabbar, scored 17 and shot 56 percent. As a team they shot 52 percent, averaged a league-leading 112 points per game and were No. 6 in defense.
If not for Sleepy Floyd’s 51 points (29 of them coming in the fourth quarter) in Game 4 of their second-round series with the Warriors, the Lakers -- who led the series 3-0 at the time of Floyd’s awakening -- would have reached the NBA Finals 11-0 instead of 11-1.
The Celtics, who had broken the Lakers’ hearts so many times, did all they could to extend the series to six games. The Lakers won the opener by 13, a performance Boston’s K.C. Jones called “a thing of beauty.” Unfortunately for Jones, it paled in comparison to the Lakers’ effort Game 2, which they won by 19.
Back in Boston, the Celtics won Game 3, and led Game 4 before Johnson won it in the closing seconds with his “junior, junior skyhook” over Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Larry Bird then hit the back rim on a 22-footer at the buzzer and Red Auerbach chased referee Earl Strom to the dressing room in the last great moment in the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry. The Celtics won Game 5, but the Lakers closed them out back in the Forum in Game 6, 106-93.
Riley’s promise of a repeat was redeemed a year later, this time in more harrowing fashion. The Lakers had to win crucial Game 7s against Utah, Dallas and Detroit on their fifth title run of the decade; the Celtics, in comparison, won three championships in the 10-year span. Just like that, with two brilliant postseason performances, the hotly debated “Team of the Decade” debate was finally resolved.
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