On this day in NBA Finals history: The last Celtics-Lakers series of the ’80s tipped off
After 1987, the classic Finals rivalry wasn’t renewed until 2008
June 2, 1987, marks the beginning of the end for one of the greatest eras in NBA history.
On this date (coincidentally, the same day the Seattle Mariners selected Ken Griffey Jr. No. 1 overall in the MLB draft), the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers began their best-of-seven NBA Finals series at The Forum in Inglewood, California. The matchup featured the two best teams of the 1980s, led by two of the greatest adversaries in league history: Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
The 1987 NBA Finals were a rubber match. For the third time in four years, the Celtics and Lakers would square off for a championship. Boston bested Los Angeles in seven games in the 1984 Finals before the Lakers found redemption by defeating the Celtics, 4-2, in the Finals the following year. Crushed by the Houston Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference finals, the Lakers fell short of playing for another championship, which the Celtics claimed, 4-2, over Houston in the Finals.
Come 1987, the rivalry was restored.
”It’s what the people wanted,” Lakers head coach Pat Riley told The New York Times on May 31, 1987. ”It’s supposed to be a magical matchup. It’s history.”
The Lakers dominated Games 1 and 2, winning by a combined 32 points on their home floor before the Celtics recovered with a 109-103 win in Game 3 at the Boston Garden. Johnson delivered the signature moment of the series in Game 4 after taking a page out of teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book and connecting on a game-winning “junior, junior skyhook,” as he called it, in the game’s final moments to give Los Angeles a 107-106 win and a commanding 3-1 lead.
With the Lakers on the brink of winning the series on Boston’s home court in Game 5, Bird had some words for his team. “If they want to celebrate, let’s not let them do it on the parquet,” he famously declared before the game, to which the Celtics responded with a 123-108 win to shift the series back to Los Angeles.
There, in Game 6 on June 14, 1987, the Lakers closed out the series, 106-93, propelled by a 16-point, 19-assist and eight-rebound performance from Johnson, who was named Finals MVP. After the game, Bird spoke with finality, as if, somehow, he had a feeling that the Celtics-Lakers championship era had come to end on that night.
“I guess this is the best team I’ve ever played against,” Bird said. “In ’85, they were good. In ’84, I really thought they should have beaten us. I don’t know if this team’s better than they were, but I guess they are.”
The Celtics and Lakers wouldn’t meet in the Finals again until 21 years later in 2008. They also faced off in the 2010 Finals. But, now, who knows the next time the teams will play each other for a championship? The drought of a Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup is seven years and counting, although the rivalry still remains at the forefront of our minds. During this year’s Finals between the Golden State Warriors and defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, ESPN will debut a two-part 30 for 30, covering the throwback battles between the Celtics and Lakers. The documentary, titled Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies, will air June 13-14 between a potential Games 5 and 6.
“At the 30th anniversary of the last meeting in the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers in the 1980s, we thought it was a great time to take an unprecedented look at the rivalry that helped shape what the league has become,” 30 for 30 executive producer John Dahl said in a press release. “And now with two new dominant teams — the Cavaliers and Warriors — meeting in the Finals for the third straight year, we believe this story is more relevant than ever.”
As the 2017 Finals series is played, we can only hope that Cavs-Warriors III lives up to the third and final 1980s installment of Celtics-Lakers that tipped off 30 years ago today.