Although the season would forever be known as the year Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson entered the league, several other important changes also occurred. The 3-point field goal, a popular facet of the ABA game, was adopted by the league. The New Orleans Jazz moved to Salt Lake City and took the unlikely team name of Utah Jazz. And the schedule was altered so that teams faced rivals in their own division more often than teams from other divisions.
But the big story of the season was the arrival of two charismatic and talented rookies, Bird and Johnson, materializing on opposite coasts on the rosters of two of the NBA’s most successful franchises.
The turnaround in Boston was dramatic. Havlicek had retired after the 1978 season, and Boston went 29-53 in 1979. Along with Bird, the Celtics still had former MVP Dave Cowens and third-year forward Cedric Maxwell up front, Nate Archibald and Chris Ford in the backcourt. The team posted a remarkable 61-21 record, a 32-game improvement. But Philadelphia won 59 games and behind Julius Erving’s stellar play, defeated the Celtics in five games to advance to the Finals.
In Los Angeles, the Lakers experienced a little “Magic,” as Johnson’s enthusiasm seemed to rejuvenate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, propelling the Lakers to 60 wins and a berth in the NBA Finals.
Abdul-Jabbar, who hadn’t won an NBA title since 1971 with Milwaukee, dominated the NBA Finals as Johnson fed him the ball in all the right spots in the first five games. But Abdul-Jabbar badly twisted an ankle in Game 5, and couldn’t make the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6.
The Lakers, figuring they had nothing to lose, came out and played loose in the Spectrum. Jamaal Wilkes enjoyed one of the finest games of his career and finished with 37 points. But the newspapers the next day heralded the only headline possible — “It’s Magic!” Johnson, filling in for Abdul-Jabbar as the starting center and eventually playing every position in the court, scored 42 points, added 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers wrapped up the title.
“We know you’re hurting, big fella,” Johnson said over live television for all America, and Abdul-Jabbar, to hear. “But we want you to get up and do a little dancin’ tonight.”
Eastern Conference first round
Philadelphia defeated Washington (2-0)
Houston defeated San Antonio (2-1)
Western Conference first round
Phoenix defeated Kansas City (2-1)
Seattle defeated Portland (2-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated Houston (4-0)
Philadelphia defeated Atlanta (4-1)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles defeated Phoenix (4-1)
Seattle defeated Milwaukee (4-3)
Eastern Conference finals
Philadelphia defeated Boston (4-1)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles defeated Seattle (4-1)
Los Angeles defeated Philadelphia (4-2)
Points — George Gervin, San Antonio Spurs (33.1)
Assists — Micheal Ray Richardson, New York Knicks (10.1)
Rebounds — Swen Nater, San Diego Clippers (15.0)
Steals — Micheal Ray Richardson, New York Knicks (3.2)
Blocks — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, L.A. Lakers (3.4)
FG% — Cedric Maxwell, Boston Celtics (60.9)
FT% — Rick Barry, Houston Rockets (93.5)
3PT% — Fred Brown, Seattle SuperSonics (44.3)
Most Valuable Player — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, L.A. Lakers
Rookie of the Year — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
Coach of the Year — Bill Fitch, Boston Celtics
All-Star Game MVP — George Gervin, San Antonio Spurs
Finals MVP — Magic Johnson, L.A. Lakers