The 1983-84 season was one of change in the NBA. The league moved to an expanded playoff format, eliminating first-round byes for division winners and including eight teams per conference in the postseason for the first time. The new format eliminated the first-round, best-of-3 miniseries. Instead, each first round series would be a best-of-5, and even the division winners would have to play in the first round. In the extended format, teams would have to win four playoff series to win a championship for the first time in league history.
Off the court, the league saw big changes as well. NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien, who presided over the NBA-ABA merger, retired after the season, with the league’s executive vice president David Stern taking his place. O’Brien’s legacy would remain in place, though, as the championship trophy was named after him starting in 1984.
As the league’s fourth commissioner, Stern would oversee tremendous expansion in the marketing of the NBA, develop a cohesive and profitable broadcasting strategy and become the driving force behind the NBA’s profound increase in global popularity. Stern would move quickly to ensure the stability of NBA franchises by increasing licensing revenues, developing corporate sponsorships and bolstering the league’s image with a ground-breaking anti-drug policy.
The Celtics emerged as the dominant team during the regular season, winning 62 games and taking the Atlantic Division by 10 games over the defending champion 76ers. Philadelphia won 52 games, but was eventually tripped up by New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs, marking the high point in the Nets’ NBA history.
Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar passed Wilt Chamberlain to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer on April 5, 1984, while Detroit defeated Denver 186-184 on December 13, 1983, in the highest-scoring game in league history.
Come playoff time, the Celtics eased past Washington, defeated the Knicks in seven games, and easily moved past Milwaukee to reach The Finals.
The Lakers, who won 54 games, defeated Kansas City, Dallas and Phoenix, losing only three games along the way, to meet Boston.
Four seasons had gone by since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had entered the NBA in 1979. Magic’s Lakers had won two titles and Larry’s Celtics had captured one. But the two greatest players in the game had yet to meet in the NBA Finals, with their on-court meetings limited to two a year during the regular season. But 1984 changed all that.
For years afterward, the Lakers would rue the title that got away from them. The Lakers won the first game in Boston, and led Game 2 115-113 with 18 seconds left and possession of the ball.
With the series shifting back to Los Angeles after Game 2, the thought of a series sweep was on the mind of players on both sides. But James Worthy’s crosscourt pass was intercepted by Gerald Henderson, who went in for an uncontested layup to tie the score. Boston won the game in overtime, and after winning again in overtime in Game 4, managed to pull it out in seven games.
“To be honest, they should have swept,” Bird later said.
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated Washington (3-1)
Milwaukee defeated Atlanta (3-2)
New York defeated Detroit (3-2)
New Jersey defeated Philadelphia (3-2)
Western Conference first round
Utah defeated Denver (3-2)
Dallas defeated Seattle (3-2)
Phoenix defeated Portland (3-2)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Kansas City (3-0)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated New York (4-3)
Milwaukee defeated New Jersey (4-2)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Dallas (4-1)
Phoenix defeated Utah (4-2)
Eastern Conference finals
Boston defeated Milwaukee (4-1)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Phoenix (4-2)
Boston defeated Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
Points — Adrian Dantley, Utah Jazz (30.6)
Assists — Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (13.1)
Rebounds — Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers (13.4)
Steals — Rickey Green, Utah Jazz (2.65)
Blocks — Mark Eaton, Utah Jazz (4.28)
FG % — Artis Gilmore, San Antonio Spurs (63.1)
FT % — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics (88.8)
3PT % — Darrell Griffith, Utah Jazz (36.1)
Most Valuable Player — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
Rookie of the Year — Ralph Sampson, Houston Rockets
Defensive Player of the Year — Sidney Moncrief, Milwaukee Bucks
Sixth Man of the Year — Kevin McHale, Boston Celtics
Coach of the Year — Frank Layden, Utah Jazz
All-Star Game MVP — Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons
Finals MVP — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics