Epic Battles: The 1984 NBA Finals

Joe GillCorrespondent IINovember 21, 2009

In the 70’s, the NBA was a floundering league.

Rampant drug use.

No lucrative sponsorship deals.

No big TV contracts.

No real superstars.

That all changed in 1979, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the NBA.

They faced each other in the 1979 NCAA National Championship game with Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans prevailing.

Both Bird and Johnson were collegiate stars and there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t flourish in the NBA.

And flourish they did.

Magic and the Lakers captured the 1980 championship against Dr. J and the Sixers. Johnson posted 42 points in the deciding sixth game with team captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out.

But it wasn’t over the Celtics.

Larry who hated to be outdone by Johnson led his Celtics to a championship versus the Houston Rockets in 1981.

But it wasn’t over the Lakers.

During the ‘83-‘84 season, both teams steamrolled through the regular season.  Boston finished number one in the Eastern Conference with a 62-20 record. The Lakers netted 54 victories to post the best record in the west.

Bird and the Celtics would knock of Washington, survive the Knicks, and beat the Bucks on route to the Finals.

Magic and the Lakers bumped off all their playoff competition in the West. They defeated Kansas City, Dallas, and Phoenix with relative ease.

The matchup was now set between the Best of the West, Los Angeles and the Beast from the East, Boston.

The NBA was hoping to showcase the ambassadors of the league, Bird and Johnson.

CBS broadcasted this epic series between the NBA’s best and the matchup would not disappoint.

The Lakers wanted this series in the worst way.

During the Celtics dynasty centered by Bill Russell, Boston defeated the Lakers for six of their 11 championships between 1956 and 1969.

The Lakers had their own “Curse.”

Magic Johnson was going to do everything in his power to “reverse” this curse.

He went as far as promising Lakers great and executive, Jerry West a victory and “making it right.”

West would not even travel to Boston for the series due to all the heartbreak handed to him by the Celtics.

In Game One, Kareem not Magic, would do everything in his power to exorcize all the Boston demons. Abdul Jabbar put in 32 points to lead the Lakers to a 115-109 victory at the Garden.

The Lakers already accomplished their goal of splitting in Boston, but they wanted more.

Game Two was in the grasp of the Lakers. They held a 2 point lead with only 20 seconds left on the clock.

Magic made a rebound of Kevin McHale’s free throw miss and all he had to do was run out the clock. However, he called timeout.

Magic and coach, Pat Riley had committed a major miscommunication. Riley instructed Johnson to call timeout if McHale made his free throws not if he missed them.

After the timeout, the Celtics face guarded the Lakers and caused a turnover. James Worthy’s pass was stolen by Gerald Henderson and he scored to tie the game.

The Celtics would go on to win 124-121 in overtime and Magic Johnson was devastated by his ill advised timeout.

The Celtics survived and headed to the LA Forum with the series tied, 1-1.

Magic and the Lakers were able to shrug off their Game Two blunders. They destroyed the Celtics 137-104 fueled by 51 fast break points.

The Lakers were now up to 2 games to 1 in the best out of seven.

The Celtics teammates were sickened by their performance.

Bird said, “I was not going to watch Magic celebrating in front of me again.”

The Celtics were embarrassed and they needed to circle the wagons.

They needed a spark. A pivotal moment.

Celtics’ coach, KC Jones instructed his team, “No more lay ups.”

His team took heed.

McHale said to Danny Ainge, “We’ve got to foul someone hard.”

Uncharacteristically, Kevin McHale did just that.

With the Celtics trailing 76-70 in Game Four, Kurt Rambis was going in for another fast break layup.

McHale clothes lined Rambis and the Laker fell to the ground with a thud.

Pushing and shoving ensued.

This was the moment the Celtics needed. They needed to prove to the Lakers no basket would be easy.

Despite the chippyness, the Lakers still had a 5 point lead and were ready to put the Celtics on the ropes.

However, Los Angeles seemed to melt under the physical pressure exerted by the Celts. Bird and Parish combined to erase the deficit and forced the game to overtime.

The game came down to last minute.

With 35 seconds left the always dependable Johnson, missed both free throws.

Bird said, “That’s when I knew we had ‘em.”


Magic looked beaten.

His trademark smile was gone.

“Mr. Clutch” Larry Bird came down court and hit a jumper to put Boston up by 2, 125-123 with 16 ticks left on the clock.

James Worthy now was at the line and could have made up for Magic’s previous misses.

But he too buckled under the Celtics suffocating confidence and momentum.

He missed both shots and the Celtics won Game Four, 129-125.

McHale’s hard foul had fired his team up and shifted the momentum of the series.

Back in Boston, Bird took over Game Five. Bird put on a show for the large CBS watching audience.

Bird said, “I had that rhythm you could dream of. It was a tremendous feeling. And our crowd was fantastic. I felt after Game Five we had it.”

He scored 34 points and hauled in 17 rebounds igniting the Celtics to a 121-103 victory in the pivotal Game Five matchup.

It was back to Forum for Game Six with the Celtics holding a 3-2 series lead.

The Celtics were physical and thought the Lakers were soft.

In Game Six, they would pound and trash talk Los Angeles to no end.

With a 6 point lead at halftime, the Celtics were so confident that they broke the Lakers will. They went as far as putting up plastic in their locker room for the celebration (sounds like Game 6 for the Sox versus the Mets in 1986).

However, you can never count out great teams and especially great players like Magic Johnson.

Magic led his team with 21 points and 10 rebounds to combat Bird’s 28 points. Johnson would not allow the Lakers to lose the championship on their home court.

He willed the Lakers to a 119-108 win and knotted the series at 3-3.

Seventh Heaven.

The NBA couldn’t have asked for a more exciting series to make their league relevant again.

The Celtics had history on their side for Game Seven. Boston had NEVER lost a Game Seven at home.

And they were not going to start now.

Magic Johnson said about his team prior to the game, “That takedown of Rambis had totally changed the complexion of the series.”


The Lakers were already beaten before they even took the court and Magic knew it.

The Celtics were loose and ready to hoist another banner to the Garden rafters.

Cedric Maxwell led the way by scoring 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists. Bird was having a mediocre night and ended up with 20 points.

The win was not locked up until Dennis Johnson stole the ball from Magic Johnson in the final minute.

Final Score: Celtics 111 Lakers 102

Bird was able to avenge his NCAA Championship game loss to Magic which ate away at him.

The Celtics continued their championship dominance over the Lakers going a perfect 7-0 versus them in the Finals.

Larry Bird said, “I always thought they (the Lakers) were soft, and they were that all season.”


The takedown of Rambis showed the Lakers that no basket would be a lay up. They would have to claw and scratch for every point.

The Celtics’ eastern style of physical play was too much for the finesse Lakers.

However, this was just the beginning of the epic battles between Los Angeles in the 1980’s.

Both teams would meet again in 1985 and 1987 with the Lakers winning both times.

The rivalry between Boston and LA gripped not only the cities involved but a nation.

The 1984 Finals broadcast by CBS was the highest rated championship series in NBA history.

Bird versus Magic. Boston versus LA. A sports fan’s dream matchup.

I can still hear the chant from the Garden…….Beat LA.

All quotes taken from Jackie MacMullan’s book, “When The Game Was Ours.”  This is a must read for any basketball fan, not just fans of the Celtics or Lakers. Stayed tuned for my full review of the book to be posted on Boston Sports Then And Now.

Joe Gill is a featured blogger for Boston Sports Then and Now, Rootzoo.com and Trufan.com






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