Home  >>  Write  >>  Sports  >>  Basketball  >>  NBA  >>  NBA History  >>  NBA - Bird and Magic highlights the 80s


Magic’s Laker Showtime and Bird’s Celtic Pride Rule the 80’s (1979-1988)

The 1979-80 season marked the adoption of the three-pointer, a popular facet of the ABA game.  The New Orleans Jazz moved to Salt Lake City and took the unlikely team name of Utah Jazz.  And the NBA schedule was altered so that divisional rivals faced each other more than teams from other divisions.  However the year was highlighted by the entrance of two players who would be indelibly linked to each other for their careers, as they both would usher in a new age and change the face of the NBA. 

Magic Johnson was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, and Larry Bird by the Boston Celtics.  Both were polar opposites – Magic was always smiling and relaxed; Bird was always steely-eyed and intense.  The two had already engaged in battle the previous year for the NCAA title, with Magic’s Michigan State coming out on top.  Bird has turned the Celtics (61-21) from their atrocious 29-53 record the previous year to the league’s best record.  He would be named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, although the Celtics would be bounced from the playoffs by the Dr. J-led Philadelphia 76ers, which easily advanced to the NBA Finals.  Magic would team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lead the Lakers (60-22) to a finals showdown with the Sixers.  Abdul-Jabbar would be named league MVP yet again.   George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs led the league in scoring with 33.1 ppg.

In the NBA finals, with the Lakers up 3 games to 2 in the NBA finals, Abdul-Jabbar twisted an ankle and would be out for Game 6.  With everybody counting the Lakers out, Magic assumed Kareem’s role at Center, on his way to leading the Lakers to victory and the NBA title.  In that Game 6, fans witnessed one of the greatest individual performances in the NBA Finals, as Magic finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists.  He would be awarded the Finals MVP for his efforts.  

In the summer prior to the beginning of the 1980-81 season, the Celtics president Red Auerbach pulled arguably the most lopsided trade with the Golden State Warriors.  Trading his two first round draft picks, the Celtics had acquired C-Robert ’The Chief’ Parish and F-Kevin McHale.  The two teamed with Larry Bird to form one of the greatest frontlines in the history of the NBA.  The Lakers were dealt a blow when Magic injured his knee, which caused him to most almost the whole season.  Magic would return for the playoffs, but the Lakers (54-28) was squeezed out of the opening round by the Houston Rockets (40-42).  Houston was led by a dominating young center, Moses Malone.  Malone would lead his Rockets to the NBA Finals.

With Magic’s injury, the overwhelming favorites for the title were Dr J’s Philadelphia (62-20) and Bird’s Boston (62-20).  Julius ’Dr. J’ Erving would be the league’s MVP for the season, and Utah’s Adrian Dantley was scoring champion with a 30.7 ppg average.  Boston and Philadelphia met in the Eastern Conference Final where Boston came back from a 3 games to 1 deficit, to capture the decisive 7th game, to play the Rockets in the Finals.  In the finals, the Rockets were overmatched and loss in 6 games leading to the first title of the Bird-Parish-McHale Era.  Boston’s forward, Cedric Maxwell was named Finals MVP.       

The start of the 1981-82 season began with controversy as Magic became a villain for initiating the firing of his coach Paul Westhead.  Young Pat Riley, who was previously a radio commentator, replaced Westhead.  Riley had installed a new high-octane offense that Magic would run as the point guard.  The Lakers were highly entertaining to watch with this fast-break offensive style, which would become known as Showtime.  Despite being booed everywhere, Magic (and Kareem) led the Lakers (57-25) to the best record in the West.  In the playoffs, the Lakers were dominant as they easily swept through to the Finals.     

In the two-team dominated East, Boston (63-19) and Philadelphia (58-24) were easily the class of the league, and fans knew that they would end up meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals.  They didn’t disappoint as they battled to set up another Game 7 showdown.  This time Philadelphia prevailed to move on to meet the Lakers in the Finals, although they would be easily beaten by the Lakers in 6 games.  Magic would capture his second Finals MVP award.  For the regular season, Moses Malone won the MVP and San Antonio’s George Gervin won his second scoring title with a 32.3 ppg average.  

Since Dr. J’s arrival to Philadelphia six years ago, the Sixers were a dominant team in the regular season, and had made the NBA Finals three times.  However they still had no title.  Frustrated by this, Sixers’s management decided to sign C-Moses Malone for the 1982-83 season, who had become a free agent, to a contract.  The Sixers felt confident that they had added the final piece of the puzzle to finally win an NBA championship.  Malone didn’t disappoint as Philadelphia (65-17) rolled over its competition as it achieved the best record in the NBA.  The defending champions Boston Celtics (56-26) had played well during the regular season but stumbled in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks (51-31).  The Bucks were led by tenacious G-Sidney Moncrief, one of the best all-round players in the game.  Milwaukee had been one of the top teams in the league, but were always just a notch below the elite Laker, Celtic, and Sixer teams.  However, they stunningly swept the Celtic to face the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Their luck ran out as they were severely outmatched and lost in 5 games.  The Sixers’ with Malone and Dr. J had made it to the NBA Finals.      

In the Western Conference, the Lakers had the first pick in the NBA draft in the summer, and had selected F-James Worthy.  Worthy, who was one of the fastest and most athletic big men in the league made an immediate impact.  He became Magic’s favorite target for the fast break, and the Lakers had become even more dangerous.  Los Angeles (58-24) had the best record in the Western Conference, but tragedy struck when Worthy fractured his leg in the final week in the regular season, and would be out for the playoffs.  Nevertheless, the Lakers hung tight, and easily advanced past Portland (46-36) and San Antonio (53-29) to meet the Sixers in the Finals – where superstars Magic & Kareem would face off against Dr. J & Moses. 

By the time they reached the Finals, the Lakers were battle-weary, with key players G-Norm Nixon and F-Bob McAdoo suffering ailments.  The Sixers meanwhile were rested and ready.  When play began, Malone dominated Abdul-Jabbar in every aspect.  The Lakers had no answer, and were easily defeated in 4 straight games.  The Sixers, and Dr. J, had finally won their championship!  Moses Malone was named Finals MVP which matched his second consecutive league MVP.

Significant changes were made prior to the 1983-84 season.  David Stern, who had been the NBA’s Executive Vice President, had taken over the role of Commissioner with the retirement of Larry O’Brien.  Under Stern’s watchful eye, the NBA would continually expand, and the NBA would become one of the most popular sports league in the world thanks to his marketing vision. 

On the court, the league’s playoff format was revamped, and expanded to include 16 teams (8 from each Conference).  Each of the Divisional winners would no longer receive byes, and thus a team would now have to win four playoff series to become the champions. 

During the regular season, the Celtics (62-20) reasserted themselves as the most dominant team in the East, and it appeared the Sixers (52-30) had tailed off.  In fact, the Sixers were severely upset in the first round of the Playoffs against New Jersey (45-37).  The Celtics would advance to meet Milwaukee (50-32) in the Eastern Conference Finals, and easily disposed of them in 5 games to make another appearance in the NBA Finals.          

The Lakers (54-28) were the class of the Western Conference, and easily outmatched their opponents in the playoffs to advance to another showdown with the Celtics in what would be the first of three classic Lakers-Celtics NBA finals.   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.  However, an errant pass by Worth led to it being intercepted and a lay up to tie the score.  Boston then prevailed in overtime.  The Lakers came back hard the next game in LA and easily won Game 3.  In Game 4, Boston became more physical to slow down the Showtime attack, and the Lakers were visibly shaken.  Boston won that game in overtime.  Continuing its rough and physical play on the Lakers, and won Game 5.  Los Angeles retaliated to win Game 6, setting up a decisive Game 7.  Boston’s F-Cedric Maxwell played unbelievably and the Celtics captured the NBA title.  Larry Bird was named Finals MVP to match his league MVP.     

The 1984 NBA draft was one of the best ever.  F-Charles Barkley, C-Hakeem Olajuwon, and G-Michael Jordan were selected in this draft, and their impact on the league would be felt for many years.  However, the stories of the 1984-85 season were the Boston Celtics (63-19) and Los Angeles Lakers (62-20) – both of whom had the best record in their respective conferences.  Both teams were clearly the class of the league, and were on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals again.  Larry Bird enjoyed his best season to date, averaging 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game and was awarded his second consecutive league MVP.  Bernard King of the New York Knicks led the league in scoring with a 32.9 ppg average.   

In the playoffs, the Lakers easily dispatched Phoenix (36-46), Portland (42-40) and Denver (52-30) to reach the Finals. Boston had beaten Cleveland (36-46), Detroit (46-36) and Philadelphia (58-24) to make the Finals a return engagement.  In the Finals, the Lakers, led by Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Wortyh, rebounded from a 148-114 thrashing by the Celtics to win four of the next 5 games to capture the NBA championship.  It was the first time that the Lakers had beat the Celtics in the Finals after losing seven previous matchup.  Finally the Lakers were vindicated.  Legendary Abdul-Jabbar was awarded his second Finals MVP.    

Driven by the loss from last season’s NBA Finals loss to the Lakers, the Boston Celtics acquired C-Bill Walton for the 1985-86 Finals.    Walton, combined with F-Kevin McHale, C-Robert Parish, G-Dennis Johnson, and F-Larry Bird to lead the Celtics to their best record ever in their storied franchise, posting 67 wins and 15 losses.  Bird continued his exceptional play and was awarded his third consecutive league MVP.  In the playoffs, the large Celtic team easily disposed of Chicago, Atlanta, and Milwaukee to reach the Finals for their third consecutive year. 

The defending champions, Los Angeles Lakers (62-20) were the heavy favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.  They continued their domination by having the best record in their conference.  In the playoffs, they met with the other divisional leader, Houston Rockets (51-31), in the Western Conference Finals.  The Rockets were led by the original ’Twin Towers’ – 7-4 C-Ralph Sampson and 7-0 C-Hakeem Olajuwon, two surprisingly agile big men who easily controlled other teams with their size.  The Lakers won Game 1, but the Rockets shocked the basketball world by winning the next 4 game to meet the Celtics in the Finals.         

In the Finals, the Celtics used the strategy of double- and triple-teaming Sampson and Olajuwon whenever they had the ball.  The Celtic’s suffocating defense caused much frustration for the Rockets, since they did not have much depth past the two centers.  Larry Bird was at his best throughout the finals averaging 24.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 9.5 apg, to lead Boston to the NBA championships in six games.  Bird was named Finals MVP.

The 1986-87 season saw the emergence of the Chicago Bull’s (40-42) G-Michael Jordan as a perennial scoring powerhouse.  After missing much of last season with a broken foot, Jordan played this season with a vengeance, averaging a league-best 37.1, and eclipsing the 3000 point mark, the first time it had been done since the days of Wilt Chamberlain.  This would be the first of seven consecutive scoring titles for Jordan.  The highlight of Jordan’s season would be a 63-point performance against the Celtics in the first round of playoff action.  However, the defending champion Celtics (59-23), who had the best record in the Eastern Conference, would win the series.  The Celtics, who were suffering from injuries to key player, C-Bill Walton, made it to their forth consecutive NBA Finals after victories in 7-game series to Milwaukee (50-32), and the emerging Detroit Pistons (52-30).         

The Lakers (65-17) came out motivated after a humiliating early exit from last year’s playoffs.  Magic was asked to do more as Abdul-Jabbar was now reaching 40 years of age.  Magic responded by leading Los Angeles to the best record in the league, posting a career-best 23.1 ppg and leading the league in assists with 12.2 apg.  He would be named league MVP for his accomplishments.  The Lakers easily defeated Denver (37-45), Golden State (42-40), and Seattle (39-43) to reach a third NBA Finals showdown against the Boston Celtics.  The fatigued Celtics were no match for the rested Lakers as Los Angeles won the NBA Championship in 6 games.  The turning point of the series was a memorable skyhook by Magic Johnson over Bird, McHale, and Parrish to win Game 4.  Magic was named Finals MVP for his third time.    

Following the Laker’s celebration of the winning the NBA title, Coach Pat Riley made a bold statement that the Lakers would guarantee a repeat as champions for the following 1987-88 season.  Not since the Boston Celtic Dynasty of the 1960’s had an NBA team repeated as champions.  In this season, Riley was driven to hold true to his guarantee.  The Lakers fashioned the NBA’s best record at 62-20, with G-Byron Scott (21.7 ppg) and F-James Worthy (19.7 ppg) assuming a greater share of the scoring load from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.  In the playoffs, the Lakers just squeezed by the Dallas Mavericks (53-29) to with the Western Conference Final, and advance to the NBA Finals.   

In the East, the Boston Celtics (57-25) ended up with the best record, but a new power was emerging in the Detroit Pistons (54-28).  Led by feisty G-Isiah Thomas, who were surrounded by young, aggressive defenders F-Bill Laimbeer, F-Dennis Rodman, and G-Joe Dumars.  Due to their rough, sometimes dirty plays, the Pistons were dubbed the ”Bad Boys” of the NBA.  In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons beat up on the Celtics to win the series in six games, including 2 of 3 games in Boston, and advance to the NBA Finals against the Lakers.    

In a memorable Finals, Los Angeles came back from a 3 games to 2 deficit to win their fifth NBA championship in the decade.  However, the main highlight of the Finals came from the Piston’s Isiah Thomas.  After sustaining a seriously sprained ankle early in Game 6, Isiah exited the game but returned shortly to put on one of the most remarkable performances in NBA Finals history.  Visibly limping, Thomas was still able to score 43 points, including an NBA Finals record, 25 points in the 3rd quarter.  However it was the steady and consistent play of the Laker’s ”Big Game” James Worthy that earned him the Finals MVP.  Chicago’s Michael Jordan was named league MVP for this season.