Through their first four seasons, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird had become the unquestioned faces of the NBA. Johnson and Bird transformed the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics into powerhouses.
All that lined up the intense rivals to face off first time in the 1984 NBA Finals. The Celtics star’s win over his adversary on the grandest stage not only grabbed his second championship but led the star point guard to emotionally break down privately.
Magic Johnson and the Lakers suffer disappointing 1984 Finals loss to the Celtics
In Magic Johnson’s fifth season, he finally got his taste of the heated Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
Johnson entered the matchup having already won two NBA titles in three Finals appearances. Meanwhile, Bird led the Celtics to the 1981 NBA title in his second campaign. That elevated the meeting against his rival as an opportunity to add to Boston’s championship legacy while tying Johnson’s championship total.
The Lakers blew key opportunities to take an overwhelming command in the series. With a two-point lead with 18 seconds left in regulation in Game 2, James Worthy’s errant pass attempt to Byron Scott allowed Gerald Henderson to tie the game and send it to overtime, where the Celtics won. Los Angeles then failed at the chance to grab a 3-1 series lead after a late-game collapse in Game 4.
The Lakers held a five-point advantage with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter, but Johnson committed a turnover, opening the door to Boston’s comeback. The star point guard also missed two key free throws in overtime that sealed the loss and led Celtics fans to call him “Tragic Johnson.”
Despite that, Los Angeles forced a Game 7 behind a strong fourth-quarter showing in Game 6. The all-or-nothing Game 7 featured the utmost playoff intensity in the notoriously non-air-conditioned Boston Garden. The contest saw back-and-forth action, but the Celtics took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Lakers cut the deficit to three points with over a minute remaining in regulation, but a critical turnover by Johnson sealed his team’s fate.
Although Bird, who won the 1984 Finals MVP, didn’t acknowledge it publicly, the win gave him the much-desired validation over his rival. However, it was Johnson’s reaction to the Game 7 loss that stood out for his friend Isiah Thomas.
Magic Johnson privately broke down after crushing 1984 NBA Finals loss to Larry Bird and the Celtics
The 1984 Finals loss may have marked the second straight defeat on that stage for Magic Johson and the Lakers, but losing to Bird and the Celtics struck a different cord.
During a recent episode of The Ringers’ “Icons Club” podcast, Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas revealed that he and fellow childhood friend and Dallas Mavericks All-Star Mark Aguirre saw Johnson privately emotionally break down
How the Lakers lost the series was what likely weighed on Johnson the most. Los Angeles came up frustratingly short in crucial moments to swing the series entirely. Instead, those mistakes allowed Bird and the Celtics to claw their way to winning an NBA title.
Johnson had never lost a championship in that manner, leading to his emotional reaction. However, it didn’t take long for him to avenge that crushing defeat.
Lakers star point guard avenged his loss to Larry Bird
Johnson used the crushing defeat to fuel him to avenge the loss.
The two teams matched up in the 1985 Finals, where Boston opened the series with the “Memorial Day Massacre” blowout. Johnson and the Lakers responded by winning four out of the next five games. Los Angeles topped it off by winning the championship in Boston Garden in Game 6. That remains the only time an opposing team won an NBA title on their court.
Johnson and Bird faced each other one last time in the 1987 Finals. The Lakers quickly grabbed control by winning three wins of the first four games. Boston forced a Game 6, but Los Angeles cruised to a comfortable win to earn their fourth NBA title with the star point guard. Johnson received his third Finals MVP award after averaging 26.2 points, 13.0 assists, and 8.0 rebounds.
The NBA Finals loss marked the last time Larry Bird reached that stage in his career. He also admitted that the Lakers’ star point guard was the greatest player he had ever seen. Johnson would win his fifth and final championship against the Detroit Pistons the following year. However, he lost his last two Finals appearances against the Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
More importantly, Johnson forever holds the upper hand over his rival.