No NBA team had won back-to-back titles since the Boston Celtics turned the trick in 1968 and ’69. Many believed that the league’s expansion had spread the talent pool so widely that repeating had become nearly impossible.
Lakers coach Pat Riley disagreed with that theory.
Not satisfied with the Lakers’ position as the Team of the 1980s after four titles, Riley decided that back-to-back titles would stamp his team as one of the all-time greats. So he did a peculiar thing. A day after the 1987 Finals, Riley guaranteed the Lakers would repeat.
The Lakers fashioned the NBA’s best record at 62-20, with Byron Scott (21.7 ppg) and James Worthy (19.7) assuming a greater share of the scoring load from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. The Lakers’ bench was at its deepest. Mychal Thompson, a key reserve on the 1987 title team, was now sharing the center spot with Abdul-Jabbar. Third-year forward A.C. Green, who was coming of age, and veterans Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis made important contributions.
The season was notable, too, for some statistical feats. First, Michael Jordan became the first player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Jazz guard John Stockton led the league in assists, marking the first of nine consecutive seasons in which he’d accomplish that feat. Finally, one of the closest statistical margins in NBA history, Michael Cage of the Clippers topped Charles Oakley of the Bulls by .03 rebounds a game to claim the rebounding title.
As the Lakers looked to repeat, a new challenger was rising in the East. Boston won an East-high 57 games, but Detroit, which had pushed the Celtics to the limit in the East finals in 1987, won 54 games and the Central Division. General manager Jack McCloskey and coach Chuck Daly had surrounded 6-foot-1 star guard Isiah Thomas with rugged rebounders Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, scorers Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson, and young, aggressive defensive forwards Dennis Rodman and John Salley.
Each team was battle-tested on its way to the Finals, with Detroit going 11-5 and the Lakers 11-6. The Pistons defeated Boston by winning two of three games at Boston Garden while the Lakers outlasted Dallas in seven hard-fought games with the home team winning each time.
In the Finals, Los Angeles needed every bit of its homecourt advantage, coming back from a 3-2 deficit to win two close games in the Forum to become the first repeat champions since the 1968-69 Boston Celtics.
One of the most memorable moments in Finals history happened in 1988, with Thomas taking center stage.
His effort in Game 6, when he sustained a seriously sprained ankle but still scored 43 points, stamped him as an NBA legend in the making. Thomas scored 25 points in the third quarter, which remains an NBA Finals record.
“What Isiah Thomas did in the second half was just incredible,” Riley said.
As was Worthy in Game 7, whose 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists helped the Lakers hold off the Pistons and make good on Riley’s promise.
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated New York (3-1)
Detroit defeated Washington (3-2)
Chicago defeated Cleveland (3-2)
Atlanta defeated Milwaukee (3-2)
Western Conference first round
Los Angeles Lakers defeated San Antonio (3-0)
Denver defeated Seattle (3-2)
Dallas defeated Houston (3-1)
Utah defeated Portland (3-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated Atlanta (4-3)
Detroit defeated Chicago (4-1)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Utah (4-3)
Dallas defeated Denver (4-2)
Eastern Conference finals
Detroit defeated Boston (4-2)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Dallas (4-3)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Detroit (4-3)
Points — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (35.0)
Assists — John Stockton, Utah Jazz (13.8)
Rebounds — Michael Cage, LA Clippers (13.03)
Steals — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (3.2)
Blocks — Mark Eaton, Utah Jazz (3.7)
FG % — Kevin McHale, Boston Celtics (60.4)
FT % — Jack Sikma, Milwaukee Bucks (92.2)
3PT % — Craig Hodges, Milwaukee Bucks/Phoenix Suns (49.1)
Most Valuable Player — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Rookie of the Year — Mark Jackson, New York Knicks
Defensive Player of the Year — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Most Improved Player — Kevin Duckworth, Portland Trail Blazers
Sixth Man of the Year — Roy Tarpley, Dallas Mavericks
Coach of the Year — Doug Moe, Denver Nuggets
All-Star Game MVP — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Finals MVP — James Worthy, Los Angeles Lakers