1982 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers 4, Philadelphia 2
Lakers' Arduous Season Ends in Victory
Maybe there has been an NBA team that has survived as much controversy as the 1982 Los Angeles Lakers and then gone on to win an NBA championship, but it's doubtful. The list of their troubles is long and substantial.
During the 1981 playoffs, Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon had engaged in a much-publicized squabble through the media, thus damaging their once-close relationship.
Just weeks before training camp opened, forward Jamaal Wilkes lost his infant daughter to crib death. (Wilkes' first daughter had died of heart disease).
In mid-November, Magic, who felt coach Paul Westhead's offense was stifling the team's creativity, asked to be traded. The next day, team owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead, who had just directed the team through a five-game winning streak.
The team was then mired in confusion over Westhead's successor. Buss had badly wanted Jerry West, then a personnel consultant to the team, to return to the bench. West vehemently declined and instead offered to help 36-year-old assistant coach Pat Riley adjust as head coach.
In the Lakers' next home game, Magic was stung by a chorus of boos from the Forum crowd. For months afterward, he would hear extensive booing on road trips.
In December power forward Mitch Kupchak, whom the Lakers had acquired as a free agent for a bundle of cash, blew out his knee in a game at San Diego and was lost for the season. Just days after Kupchak went down, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suffered a severe ankle sprain.
The injuries left the Lakers undermanned in the frontcourt. Faced with this adversity, the team responded by going on a short winning streak, much of it the result of gutty performances from Magic. But it was clear that emotion could only carry them so far. Even when Abdul-Jabbar returned they would face the same dearth of rebounding.
But then help arrived in two very unexpected forms. First came the acquisition of 30-year-old free agent Bob McAdoo, the same McAdoo who was disdained in Boston and considered a selfish problem in Detroit despite having a league MVP award and three scoring titles under his belt. Few people figured he would fit in with the Lakers, but he showed a remarkable willingness to play off the bench. Even better, he was good at it, giving the team just the scoring punch it needed at key times.
The other unexpected assist came with the emergence of power forward Kurt Rambis, the Clark Kent look-alike and free agent who reluctantly signed with the Lakers only after management assured him he had a solid shot at making the team. Not long after Kupchak went down, Rambis got an unexpected start and responded with 14 rebounds. True, he couldn't shoot and lacked athletic grace, but the Lakers had enough of those properties. They needed his hustle, his defense, his rebounding and his physical play.
Combined with the other "Showtime" elements and Abdul-Jabbar's return, McAdoo and Rambis would became major factors in the team's playoff success.
Riley was working as the color analyst on Lakers radio broadcasts in the fall of 1979 when Westhead asked him to be an assistant coach. Riley had jumped at the chance and remained loyal to Westhead, even after the firing. "I was numb," Riley said. "I thought the firing was horrible."
Although confused, he agreed to take the head job, and he agreed to make the wide-open, full-speed game the team's top option, which meant that Magic was happy again. But that still didn't translate into immediate success. Between January and March, the Lakers barely played .500 ball.
Despite their struggles, they finished the regular season with a best-in-the-West 57-25 record. More importantly, they were peaking as the playoffs opened. After March 31, they won 21 of their final 24 games. The Lakers' success took Buss by surprise; the coach he hadn't particularly wanted was getting the job done.
Much of the success, of course, was due to Magic, who fought through the distracting boos by concentrating on his game. "The crowds still get me going," Magic said toward the end of the regular schedule. "They still jack me up. And I still love the game. I don't think I'll ever lose that."
The Eastern Conference, meanwhile, had evolved into another Philadelphia-Boston battle. Once again the Celtics led the league with a 63-19 record, and once again they fell behind to the Sixers, three games to one, in the conference finals. And once again they came back to tie it at three games all with a gutty win in Philadelphia.
As with the previous year, the seventh game was in Boston, so Philadelphia's fans were prepared for other late-spring entertainment. This time, though, there was no folding act. In the Garden, Dr. J and Co. overwhelmed the Celtics 120-106 and the Boston fans sent them off to the Finals with chants of "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!"
The Lakers watched this drama on the tube, having swept both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. Their last game against the Spurs had ended a full 12 days before Philadelphia finished off Boston. Rather than get rusty, they scheduled two-a-day practices and battled each other to pass the time. "That's the best thing about this team," said Riley, "the work ethic."
The second-best thing was their nifty zone trap. They produced it at just the right time in the Finals opener at the Spectrum on Thursday, May 27. Fresh from the battle of Boston, the Sixers worked their offense to precision until midway through the third period. At the time Philadelphia led by 15. Then, over the next 11 minutes or so, the Lakers ripped through a 40-9 blitz. The bewildered Sixers fell 124-117 and just that quickly the Lakers had snatched away the home-court advantage.
After the game, Sixers coach Billy Cunningham called it both ways. He said the zone trap wasn't hurting his team all that much. Then he called it an obviously illegal zone. Riley decided to back off the trap a bit.
Instead, he switched Magic to cover Erving on defense. "Magic on Doc seemed like an ideal matchup to me," offered Riley. "Dr. J is a great offensive rebounder. He'd hurt us real bad. Defensive rebounding is Magic's strength. So we put him in the position we wanted him to be in. It was great to watch. No pushing, no shoving, no hammering. They played with their talents. Magic played him as honestly as he could play him. Two great players going against each other."
In Game 2 that wasn't quite enough, as Erving brought the Sixers back with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Cunningham ran all three of his centers -- Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins and Earl Cureton -- at Abdul-Jabbar. "The second game they got 38 second chances and converted that into 50 points," said Riley later. "We got six for 25."
The Sixers used that advantage to take a 110-94 win that evened the series. Their balance was impressive. Maurice Cheeks had 19 points and eight assists, Caldwell Jones added 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Bobby Jones and Clint Richardson each scored 10.
All season long Philadelphia had lacked consistency, so much so that in the playoffs columnist Bill Lyon of the Philadelphia Inquirer began referring to them as "Team Schizo." The players conceded the name was accurate.
"It's not like we're trying to give everybody ulcers," Caldwell Jones said. "It just goes that way."
Bobby Jones explained, "The personality of this team is basically casual, loose, especially when things are going well."
But the resulting looseness often cost them.
It did the next two games in the Forum, where the Lakers dominated completely. Nixon led the parade in Game 3 with 29 points as the Lakers marched to a 129-108 victory. Again the zone trap was the Sixers' undoing. But the Sixers did their share, too, with incredibly flat play. Andrew Toney scored 36 and Erving 21, but no one else came through.
The next night, the Lakers controlled the tempo by ditching Showtime and going to their half-court power game with Abdul-Jabbar. On the other end, they kept up the pressure with their zone trap. Altogether, it was enough for a first-half run that put the contest away. The Lakers went up, three games to one, with a 111-101 win. Wilkes and Magic had 24 points each, while Abdul-Jabbar added 22 and McAdoo 19. Rambis thumped his way to 11 rebounds.
"We haven't won it yet," said Riley, "but we're starting to smell the aroma."
But back in Philadelphia the Sixers reverted to their old personality -- the good one -- for Game 5. In a shocker, they held Abdul-Jabbar to just six points. He hadn't scored that few since being tossed out of a game several years earlier. Playing one of the better defensive games of his career, Dawkins had been the prime pusher and shover.
"I tried working hard," Dawkins said. "I tried stopping him from getting position. It's hard. He's strong, and if you let him get position he gets the sky-hook. You can't block that. Wilt Chamberlain couldn't block it, so how do you expect me to block it?"
Dawkins also contributed 20 points and nine rebounds to the effort.
The Sixers' strong showing gave them hope as they headed cross-country for Game 6 in the Forum. But again the team changed faces. Erving scored 30 and Toney 29, but Dawkins got six fouls, one rebound and 10 points in only 20 minutes of play, and everyone else struggled as well.
The Lakers got the early lead and were up, 66-57, at the half. Finally, in the third period, the Sixers found some defensive toughness. They held Los Angeles to 20 points for the quarter and several times cut the lead to one point. "I had a few butterflies about then," said Wilkes, whose 27 points led six Lakers in double figures.
The Lakers surged early in the fourth period to boost their lead to 11. Toney and the Doctor responded, and with a little under four minutes to go they trimmed the edge to 103-100. That was about as far as the pair could take Philadelphia, however. Abdul-Jabbar scored and was fouled on the next play. He made the free throw to put Los Angeles up by six. Moments later, Wilkes got a breakaway layup to close it out, 114-104.
The Lakers had won yet another title with yet another rookie coach. Riley and Buss smiled broadly as the Lakers owner accepted the trophy afterward. "It seems like a millennium since I took over," Riley said of his seven months as a head coach.
Johnson, with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in Game 6, was named the series MVP, a choice deemed questionable by some members of the media who thought there were other Lakers just as deserving. The Lakers, though, had had about all the controversy they could stand for one season.
"There were times earlier in the year when I didn't think this would be possible," Wilkes said as champagne cascaded over his face. "We had so many unhappy people around here you wouldn't believe it."
No one was happier than McAdoo, who had 16 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in Game 6. Throughout the series, he had provided consistent scoring and rebounding off the bench. "This is the happiest moment of my life," he said. "People have said bad things about me during my career, but this makes up for it. I always said I would trade my scoring titles to be on a championship team, but I guess that wasn't necessary."
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