There was a pretty good chance Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics would face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals for 1986-87 season. The Celtics were coming off a title the previous year after downing the Houston Rockets in six games. The Lakers were hungry after getting eliminated by those Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
From 1980-86, the Lakers reached the NBA Finals five times, while the Celtics were there on four occasions. In February 1987, the San Antonio Spurs made a trade with the Lakers that didn’t go over quite well with Bird and the Celtics.
Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were eyeing a repeat in 1987
The Celtics finished the 86-87 season with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 59-23. They were a dominant group but very thin on the bench. Led by arguably the best frontcourt in all of basketball in Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, Boston made quick work of the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the postseason. The Celtics then outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons in seven games to reach the championship.
During the postseason, the Boston starters carried the team, especially with reserve center Bill Walton hobbled. In fact, during Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the starters combined for 105 of the Celtics’ 109 points in a 109-103 win over the Lakers. Darren Daye and Fred Roberts each had a field goal off the bench.
In Game 4, a 107-106 Lakers win, only three Celtics reserves played. They saw a combined 25 minutes of action and scored four total points.
The previous season, the Celtics brought along Walton, who provided them with big minutes filling in for Parish. In the entire series against the Lakers, Walton played 24 minutes and scored six points.
Larry Bird wasn’t too happy with the Spurs after a February trade with the Lakers in 1987
It wasn’t the biggest of trades, but it may be one that very well pushed the Lakers past the Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals. With the Lakers looking to solidify their roster for the playoff push, they made a deal that strengthened their frontcourt and bench.
The Lakers acquired 6-foot-11 center Mychal Thompson from the Spurs in exchange for Petur Gudmundsson, Frank Brickowski, a first-round pick (Greg Anderson), a second-round pick in 1990 (Sean Higgins), and cash. It may seem like quite a bit, but it was a whole lot of nothing in exchange for a guy who successfully spelled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The trade didn’t go over too well with Bird.
“If San Antonio needed money, we would’ve sent them money,” said Bird, according to Sports Illustrated. “But to go and help the Lakers like that is just terrible.”
Walton had undergone ankle surgery in December and it was unknown when he was going to return. The Lakers swooped in and made their move, giving them a distinct advantage over Boston in the frontcourt among reserves.
Mychal Thompson helped the Lakers claim the championship
The Celtics struggled without Walton. Greg Kite was their lone big man off the bench, and he was hardly an offensive threat. In the series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Celtics, the Lakers rode Thompson to the tune of 37 minutes. He finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Walton played 10 minutes in that game and was a non-factor, scoring two points and pulling down three rebounds.
The bench was the Celtics’ problem all season. During a February meeting with the Denver Nuggets, McHale even joked about Boston’s lack of depth. McHale scored the team’s first 11 points in a 119-105 win.
“The game plan was for me to score the first hundred and twelve, but I got a little tired,” McHale said.
The Lakers capitalized on that lack of depth with the Thompson deal and it helped pay off in the form of a championship.