Larry v. Magic: Postscript #2
FINALS CHAPTERS CLIMAXED LEGENDARY RIVALRY
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the epicenter of the earthquake that shook the NBA in the 1980s.
Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics met three times in the NBA Finals, in 1984, '85 and '87. Magic's teams won the last two, but it was the first encounter, in 1984, that may have been the on-court shot of adrenaline the league needed to make the jump to "big time."
The series shattered previous TV ratings and, because of Bird and Johnson, rekindled the LA-Boston rivalry, which dominated the league for much of the decade.
Last year Magic had pined for one more Boston-LA matchup, a Glory Days revisited, if you will. Both teams were playing well and the Lakers made it. The Celtics did not. If it happens again, Magic won't be a part of it. The Lakers guard retired yesterday.
Two Celtics guards who battled Magic in those memorable playoff series reflected on the player and the individual. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge both went head-to-head with Johnson and both felt the better for it. Ainge said he still got a kick out of playing against Magic.
"It's the ultimate challenge for me. I love playing against him. I've said it before, but I think he's the best player of all time," Ainge said. "Maybe Michael Jordan will be, but Magic has been doing it for 12 years."
Dennis Johnson said, "I've probably guarded Magic more than anyone in the league. And when you played against a guy like him, you came away with a lot more than just basketball. The happiness. The adulation. And he never said a negative word about anyone."
Magic already had two rings, and Bird one, when the Celtics and Lakers met in the 1984 NBA Finals. It was a hugely anticipated matchup in that it had been five years in the making.
Although both players entered the league in 1979, months after their memorable meeting in the NCAA final in Salt Lake City, the Lakers and Celtics somehow managed to avoid each other come playoff time until 1984. Bird had taken Rookie of the Year honors. Johnson had finished that season with his memorable 42-point, 15-rebound, 7-assist performance while playing all five positions in the Game 6 closer against the Sixers in the Spectrum.
The Celtics won the '84 series in seven games, and Magic spent a disconsolate summer trying to shed his unfamiliar image as series goat. There were three events in that series that led to the demythologizing of Magic, something that was as short-lived as it was utterly absurd.
In Game 2, the Lakers were in position to win, but Gerald Henderson stole a James Worthy pass and tied the game. The Lakers still had time for one last possession, but Magic dribbled out the clock before LA could get off a shot. Boston went on to win in overtime.
His second gaffe came in Game 4. He had two free throws that would have put the game away but missed both. The Celtics again went on to win in overtime. In Game 7, as the Lakers were making a comeback, Magic had the ball stolen at a critical time.
Revenge came a year later, but it was a series remembered mostly for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's performance. The Lakers won in six, and for the first time, Magic was on a world champion without being the playoff MVP.
Johnson always was able to add weapons to his game. He became a 3-point threat. And because of his height, he developed an affinity for posting up smaller guards and learned the baby sky hook from Abdul-Jabbar.
That move came in handy in Game 4. The Lakers had crushed the ailing Celtics in the first two games and, save for Greg Kite, might have won Game 3. Boston built a double-digit lead into the third quarter in Game 4 and seemed destined to tie the series.
But Magic stepped forward. With the Celtics leading, 106-105, Johnson posted up and tossed in a baby hook from the lane. LA took a 3-1 lead and closed out the Celtics at home in Game 6.
Johnson also had one dramatic game-winner against Boston in the regular season. The two teams met early in the 1987-88 season, and both were struggling. The Celtics had lost three of four, and LA was on an Eastern swing, having lost to Cleveland.
Magic won the game for the Lakers at the buzzer with a banker off an inbounds pass. The Lakers then went on a 15-game winning binge and eventually won their second straight NBA title.
Ainge was on all three Boston teams, as was DJ. Ainge ran into Johnson again last year in the Western Conference finals.
"I felt we had a great team last year in Portland," Ainge said. "We won 63 games and we might have won a championship. But Magic Johnson beat us. Magic Johnson has been the roadblock to a few championship rings for me.
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