86 Boston Celtics vs 85 Los Angeles Lakers
It goes without saying that the 80’s were dominated by the Lakers and Celtics, with both teams combining for 8 of the 10 championships during the decade. So with this familiarity, this should be an easy answer as to who wins, right?
If you’re new to the site and this series, you might be asking why the 85 Lakers are in this list and not the 87 Lakers despite the popular thoughts that the 87 Lakers were the best team during the Showtime era. The answer is simple for me, and that was the dominance of Kareem. In 87, you had the emergence of James Worthy as one of the very top players in the league, as well as Byron Scott who was a brilliant scorer. But Abdul-Jabbar was only a shell of himself in 87, and hardly used in the offense. In 85, however, he was still the Lakers primary option and produced some big numbers. Have a look at his line in the 85 finals against the Celtics frontline after the Memorial Day Massacre: 28.4 PPG (on 61% shooting), 9.9 RPG, 5APG, and 1.3 BPG.
And this was against Parish and McHale. So what can the 86 Celtics do differently than the 85 Celtics to slow this man down? Well, the obvious answer is Bill Walton. He joined the Celtics early on, and was a brilliant 6th man (maybe the best in the history of the game) in terms of changing the flow of the game. He was a big body that fearlessly protected the rim. He, along with Parish, would undoubtedly split minutes in an attempt to wear down Kareem, who was 38 years old in 1985. Kareem surprised everyone with his heart and ability to outsmart the Celtics to get his buckets in that finals performance, but Walton was just as hungry when he joined the Celtics in 86. There’s no way Kareem dominates (at 38) going up against 2 Hall of Fame centres who prided themselves on defense. If Cap is tearing up one, or they get into foul trouble, simply bring in the other. At some point, he has to slow down. For what it’s worth, in the two regular season matches in 86, the Celtics made Kareem a non-factor, holding him to 23 points on 7/17 shooting in the Forum, and 17 points on 6/20 shooting in the Garden. So there is evidence that the Celtics centre duo could (at the very least) slow him down.
And that’s just mentioning the impact Walton had defensively on the game. On offense, he was the second best playmaker (at least in terms of creating shots for his teammates) on that Celtics team after Larry Bird. It’s funny that I’ve written nearly 500 words on the 85 Lakers vs the 86 Celtics and haven’t mentioned Bird or Magic yet. This really where the fun begins. Magic’s production was incredible (18.3 PPG on 49% shooting, 14 APG, 6.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG), but Bird was tearing the NBA up in ways we really haven’t seen since. In a 3-year period, in which he claimed 3 straight MVP awards, Bird averaged 26.2 PPG (50% FG, 39% 3PT, 89% FT), 10.1 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1 BPG. Those numbers are mind-blowing, but a better question is what he did against the Lakers in 84 and 85 in the finals:
84 Finals: 27.4 ppg, 14 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.1 bpg
85 Finals: 23.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.7 bpg
A huge reason for the decline in those numbers was the maturity of James Worthy, along with the hounding of Michael Cooper. Can you see the impact a tandem can be on a superstar player? Now have a look at what Bird did in the 86 finals:
86 Finals: 24 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 9.5 apg, 2.7 spg
Holy crap! Bird came within a whisker of averaging a triple-double for the finals. But we also saw a continued reduction in Bird’s scoring. An underrated factor for this was the emergence of McHale and his arsenal of post moves. In the 85 finals, McHale averaged 26 ppg. In the 86 finals, 25.8 ppg. And that might be the most underrated aspect in all of this; how do the Lakers account for McHale on the block? With Bird, you can make him work for everything he gets with Cooper and Worthy hounding him. Dennis Johnson can do the same on Magic. As discussed earlier, Parish/ Walton can make life difficult for Kareem. But what can the Lakers do to stop McHale in the post? Rambis was a good rebounder and serviceable defender, but McHale was one of the best post-up players in NBA history.
So do the Lakers have any chance here?
Any team with Magic, Kareem, and Worthy, will be competitive against anyone in NBA history. But with the Celtics frontline controlling the boards (and with it the tempo, thus nullifying their ability to get out on the break), and also stifling them in the half-court, I don’t think they can win more than 2 games, and the 86 Celtics advance to the semi-finals to face the 96 Bulls.
Verdict: 86 Boston Celtics defeat 85 Los Angeles Lakers 4-2