Stunned by Houston and a game-winning basket by Ralph Sampson in the playoffs a year before, the Lakers came back in 1986-87 stronger than ever. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar now 39 years old, Coach Pat Riley made key changes in the offense, shifting the focus onto Magic Johnson, with James Worthy as his primary sidekick.
Mychal Thompson, acquired from San Antonio in midseason, helped take some more of the load off Abdul-Jabbar in the pivot and also played power forward along with A.C. Green and Kurt Rambis. Riley also was blessed with two extraordinary role players, Byron Scott as the designated shooter (17.0 ppg including 65 three-pointers, shooting .436 from behind the arc) and Michael Cooper as the defensive stopper (he would be voted the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year).
The Lakers' Showtime offense never ran better. Johnson was brilliant, averaging a career-high 23.9 ppg and leading the league in assists for the fifth year in a row at 12.2 apg. With Abdul-Jabbar and the other big men controlling the boards, Johnson ran the floor and set up Worthy, Scott and Cooper for basket after basket. The result was beautiful to watch as the Lakers raced to a league-best 65-17 record that was the second-best in franchise history, behind only the 69-13 mark posted by the 1971-72 team.
The first three rounds of the playoffs provided little competition for Los Angeles, which surged past Denver 3-0, Golden State 4-1 and Seattle 4-0. Meanwhile, with Detroit still battling Boston in the East, Riley set up a mini-training camp in Santa Barbara after the conference finals so he could fine-tune his team and get it focused on the NBA Finals. So when the Celtics finally outlasted the Pistons in seven games, then went cross-country to open the NBA Finals, they found a Laker team that was well-rested and primed to regain the title it had surrendered the year before. Added incentive for the Lakers was that this would be the third (and as it turned out, last) matchup against Boston in the Finals during the 1980s, and was viewed as a rubber series since each club had won once.
Worthy had 33 points in Game 1, but it was Johnson who ran the show with 29 points, 13 assists, 8 rebounds and not a single turnover-a remarkable performance under the magnifying glass of an NBA Finals opener. The Lakers ran 35 fast breaks in the first half alone en route to a 126-113 victory. Boston moved Danny Ainge onto Johnson to try to slow him in Game 2, but he responded with 22 points and 20 assists and set up Cooper for six three-pointers in a 141-122 rout. Boston would win Game 3 at home, but in a playoff classic, Johnson sank a running hook shot with two seconds left to give the Lakers a 107-106 win in Game 4. That sealed the series, although Boston prolonged it by winning Game 5 before the Lakers went back home to wrap it up with a 106-93 win in Game 6. Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 32 points in the finale, but it was Johnson who was voted NBA Finals MVP.
When the series was over, Riley promptly declared the Lakers would repeat as champions in 1987-88. He was throwing down the gauntlet to his talented team, and his bold words would serve as motivation throughout the following season, when they did indeed repeat.