When Larry Met Magic
By Darryl Howerton
Twenty years ago, it was 1984 and Big Brother was watching. Big Sister, Big Daddy and Big Mama, too, were tuned in to network television to see the Celtics and Lakers—Larry vs. Magic—in the 1984 NBA Finals, a historic showcase that went down as the most-watched basketball championship series of its time and now is recognized as arguably the greatest NBA Finals ever.
You had the greatest rivalry in sports about to take place for the first time in that decade. The Boston Celtics had already won the first, in ’81, of what would be three ’80s NBA Championships, and the Los Angeles Lakers had already booked two, in ’80 and ’82, of what-would-be five titles in that decade.
You had the two greatest players of that generation entering their prime, Boston’s Larry Bird, 27, and L.A.’s Magic Johnson, 24, with five NBA regular seasons under their belts, squaring off for the first time in an NBA Finals.
You had future Hall-of-Famers galore filling out the marquee, whether it be players (Boston’s Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, L.A.’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy), coaches (Boston’s K.C. Jones and L.A.’s Pat Riley), general managers (Boston’s Red Auerbach and L.A.’s Jerry West with an assist from the true architect of this squad, Bill Sharman) or even team play-by-play announcers (Boston’s Johnny Most and L.A.’s Chick Hearn).
It was a new-and-improved NBA Playoffs: The postseason was a marathon for all—the top four teams no longer received first-round byes. It was David Stern’s first year as NBA Commissioner. The Western and Eastern Conference Finals went six and seven games, respectively, and the Finals went the ultimate seven games for 17 thrilling days. America was watching in record numbers...and the NBA would never be the same again.
“We came along at the right time,” says Magic. “That’s all I can say. I needed Larry and he needed me. We pushed each other, meant so much to each other and meant so much to the game. It was a fun time.”
“They were supposed to be the physical team, and we were finesse,” says Magic.
So smooth were the Lakers, they overwhelmed the Celtics immediately from the get-go in Game 1 in the famed Boston Garden. The Lakers’ “Showtime” unit did the run-and-gun to a 24-9 lead in the first seven minutes, as 6-2 Celtic point guard Gerald Henderson helplessly attempted to slow down Magic, his 6-9 fast-breaking counterpart. Magic got two-thirds of a triple-double—his trademark—with 18 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds, and set up his venerable teammate, 37-year-old center Abdul-Jabbar, for numerous skyhooks, leading to his 12-for-17, 32-point performance. Parish, the Celtic center who finished with only 13 points, eventually fouled out with seven minutes left in the game, and the Celtics never got within four points of the Lakers, as L.A. finished Game 1 with a 115-109 victory.
Game 2 could have been more of the same, but the Celtics’ blue-collar crew fought all 48 minutes just to remain close. Led in part by a 36-26 first-quarter lead, Boston established some semblance of control with double-digit scoring coming from several Celtics’ reserves—sixth-man power-forward extraordinaire McHale (13 points), Danny Ainge (12 points) and Scott Wedman (10)—keeping them within range.
That was all the Celtics needed to keep the game close when, with the Lakers leading 113-111, Worthy inbounded a pass intended for Byron Scott under the Celtic hoop. It was intercepted by Henderson, who laid it up for the tying bucket that forced overtime. Magic dribbled away the remaining seconds in regulation, with the Lakers not getting a shot at the basket, forcing an overtime that Boston eventually went on to win, 124-121, thanks to some clutch Bird shooting.
The Celtics stole one, and the spin-doctors on both sides tried to get inside the heads of their opposition. At the time, Riley said, “We did what we came here to do. We got a split, and now we’re going back home to L.A., 1-1.” Bird countered, saying, “They should be up, 2-0,” thus implying that even though the Celts were outplayed twice, they were tied. Touché.
In L.A., the Lakers outplayed the Celtics—this time more convincingly than ever, blowing out their East Coast rivals, 137-104. Magic had the Lakers running on all cylinders with the whole team getting into the playmaking act, setting an NBA-record 21 assists in one quarter—leading to 47 third-quarter points—in what became an 80-point second half. It was Showtime basketball at its finest.
In Game 4, the Celtics decided there was only one way to outrun the Lakers in a basketball series that had become a track meet: knock ‘em down before they cross the finish line. Getting physical in the backcourt was Dennis Johnson, bigger than Henderson at 6-4, and now assigned the task of slowing down Magic. DJ did a solid job, forcing what would eventually be Finals-record 31 turnovers on Magic.
“I was bigger than Gerald and it helped having a bigger defender on Magic since he was so strong,” says the Celtics’ Johnson, whose offense was limited in Game 3, but seemed reborn offensively with the switch—scoring 22, 22, 20 and 22 in the remaining games.
The best example of the Celtics’ newfound physicality came with the Lakers controlling a 76-70 lead. Magic was again out on the break and hitting Kurt Rambis for what should-have-been a routine layup—until McHale clotheslined Rambis around the neck, sending the hustling power forward to the floor. Benches emptied, but order restored until a minute later when Abdul-Jabbar swung elbows at Bird on a rebound, and another shout-and-shove confrontation was on. It was like this the rest of the game—smackdown ball—with the Lakers holding onto a 113-108 lead with 56 seconds left. The Celtics eventually won the physical war, taking the battle of the boards the rest of the way with Parish—25 points, 12 rebounds—getting an offensive rebound putback-and-one call for a three-point play, followed by Bird grabbing a key defensive rebound that fouled out Abdul-Jabbar on an over-the-back call.
After Bird’s made free throws tied the score at 113, both teams missed last-second attempts, thus sending the game into overtime. In OT, with 35 seconds left and the score tied at 123, Magic came up short at clutch time, missing two free throws. Bird countered with a bucket and Celtic M.L. Carr stole yet another Laker inbound pass and dunked in the game-clinching points.
In postgame interviews, Riley tried to gain the referees’ attention by calling the Celtics thugs, while Bird tried to get inside the Lakers’ heads saying they should have swept Boston. Instead, the series was 2-2, with the Celtics’ confidence building; they could be outplayed—and still win the game. “Chemistry is so important in the NBA,” says Parish. “There are times in games when you’re down and some players will begin losing hope. But when you’ve been to war with teammates for years like we had, you know not to quit. That’s why chemistry is so important.”
The Lakers’ building chemistry—with new breeds Worthy, Scott and Rambis becoming acclimated to Magic and Abdul-Jabbar—would result in ’85, ’87 and ’88 NBA titles. But for ’84, the Celts nucleus had logged more time together, and knew how to steal a win in the closing moments of a tight game. In Game 5, the Celtics showed they indeed had their swagger back and returned to Boston for some homecourt cooking...literally. In a game that was played in 97-degree heat in Boston Garden, players on both sides needed oxygen—even ref Hugh Evans dehydrated and fainted at one point. “Everybody talks about Boston having a leprechaun, but I always thought that leprechaun’s name was Red,” says Magic, breaking into his trademark laugh, referring to the suspicion that Auerbach may have been responsible for the arena air conditioning not working.
The Celtics seemed prepared for such heat, showering and changing into fresh uniforms at halftime, with bench players fanning Bird on the sidelines. The 6-9 small forward, in turn, responded with a superb 29-point, 21-rebound performance, while the Celtics’ heated defense limited the Lakers to 33-percent shooting in a 119-108 victory.
In Game 6 at L.A.’s fabulous Forum, the Lakers stalled for a while, but showed late they still had some run in them. Old head Abdul-Jabbar was in top form, scoring 30 and grabbing 12 rebounds. Rookie Scott gave the Lakers new life, especially in a 36-21 fourth-quarter run with clutch shooting that gave the Lakers’ a 119-108 come-from-behind win.
In Game 7, Boston made sure it maintained a large enough lead throughout the game—six points after halftime, 13 points after three quarters—so they could avoid the trademark Laker run at the end of the game. The Lakers made their run—trailing 105-102 with 1:14 left—but that was as close as it got in the Celtics 111-102 championship-clinching victory, with Boston getting all the key rebounds at the end of the game.
That was the key. With concentrated effort on offensive rebounding and second-chance points, the Celtics finished with 52 rebounds—20 offensive—to the Lakers’ 33. After all, the Lakers couldn’t run, if they couldn’t control the boards, could they?
That’s what made regular-season MVP Larry Bird the obvious choice for NBA Finals MVP. Not only did he average a series-high 27 points per game, but his 14-rebound average was exactly what the Celtics needed...and he knew it.
“That’s what made Larry so great,” says Ainge, now the Celtics’ executive director of basketball operations. “If you needed a basket, Larry would get it. A rebound? Larry would get it. He always knew what you needed to do to win.”
Magic had a great series, as well—18 points per game and a Finals record 95 assists (14 assist average). But his best was yet to come...
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