A Despondent Magic Johnson Eventually Admitted What Held Him Back During the Crushing Loss to the Boston Celtics in the 1984 Finals

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Earvin Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball.

Nearly 40 years after losing to the Boston Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, the pain still stings for the Los Angeles Lakers. What could’ve easily been a sweep in favor of the Lakers, turned into a nightmare for LA as the Boston Celtics overcame an ugly start to the series to outlast LA in seven games.

James Worthy still cringes thinking about his errant pass that was stolen by Gerald Henderson in Game 2 just as it appeared the visiting Lakers were headed back to LA with a 2-0 series lead. Magic Johnson admitted the Lakers lost their edge after Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis in Game 4, a play that shifted the momentum of the series. Johnson was despondent after the Celtics won the championship. He later admitted what hampered him for most of that series.

Magic Johnson and the Lakers let one get away in 1984

The LA Lakers made instant noise in the 1984 NBA Finals by storming in and stealing homecourt advantage from the Boston Celtics with a 115-109 victory in Game 1. They nearly did it again in Game 2.

Leading 113-111 with 18 seconds left, the Lakers had the ball. They expected immediate pressure and then a foul, but Worthy lofted a cross-court pass intended for Byron Scott. Henderson picked off the pass and drove in for the game-tying layup. With 13 seconds left, Magic Johnson and the Lakers failed to get off a shot in regulation, and Boston escaped with a 124-121 overtime victory.

LA responded with a convincing 137-104 win at home in Game 3. If not for Henderson’s steal, the Celtics would likely have faced elimination by sweep in Game 4. In Game 4, the Lakers led 76-70 in the third quarter before Boston’s Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, who was headed in for a layup.

Benches cleared. The game was briefly put on hold. The game was chippy the rest of the way and momentum swung in Boston’s favor. The Celtics rallied and pulled out another overtime win. Through four games, the Lakers dominated, yet they headed back to Boston for Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece.

After both teams won on their home floor, the Celtics clinched the series with a 111-102 win in Game 7. Cedric Maxwell, who told his team to get on his back, led Boston with 24 points. He added eight rebounds and eight assists.

Magic explained what held him back during the ’84 Finals

In the Game 5 loss to the Celtics, Magic Johnson finished with 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting. Part of that was the defensive effort by Boston guard Dennis Johnson who got better as the series went on. The other part of it was Magic’s mental state.

“I don’t think I ever recovered from Game 2,” Johnson said, per Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours. “I never felt in control after that. It was the first time I failed in a big situation. I’m used to coming through, and I didn’t, and I handled it the wrong way.

“Instead of just saying, ‘That was one game. I’m moving on,’ I kept thinking about it. I couldn’t let it go, and it carried through the whole series.”

Although it was painful for Magic and the Lakers, they exacted revenge the following season. The Lakers clinched the 1985 NBA Finals in Boston in Game 6. They became the first visiting team to clinch a championship on Boston’s floor.