The Los Angeles Lakers Were Far From Larry Bird’s Biggest Concern During the 1986-87 Season
The Los Angeles Lakers were hungry and motivated during the 1986-87 NBA season. Ralph Sampson and the Houston Rockets sent them packing in the ’86 Western Conference Finals, breaking a string of four straight NBA Finals appearances for LA. Meanwhile, the rival Boston Celtics sought their first championship repeat since 1969 after cruising to the championship in 1986.
Celtics star Larry Bird knew the Lakers would have that extra fire for the 1986-87 season. The Lakers, however, weren’t Bird’s biggest concern that year.
Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics had already played the Lakers twice in the last three years in the Finals
Back in the middle part of the 1980s, it was pretty much a given that the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers would clash in the championship round.
In 1984, the teams met in the NBA Finals for the first of three times in the decade. The Celtics were outplayed for much of the early part of the series. If not for Gerald Henderson’s late steal in Game 2, the Celtics likely would have been down 3-0 and staring at a sweep with Game 4 in Los Angeles. The Celtics outlasted the Lakers in seven games.
The following year, the Lakers eyed payback. They met again in the ’85 Finals, and the Celtics roughed up the Lakers in the series opener in a game known as the Memorial Day Massacre. In Boston, the Celtics cruised to a 148-114 victory. The Lakers, however, stole homecourt from the Celtics with a 109-102 victory in Game 2.
The Lakers became the first visiting team to win a championship on Boston’s home court, pulling out a 111-100 victory in Game 6. Years later, Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said remembering that celebration in Boston still makes him smile.
“That was our year,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a 2020 video put out by NBA History & Legends on CLNS. “We finally beat the Celtics. The Laker/Celtics thing was dead now because we went up there and whooped them in Boston Garden. We were the only team to win a championship in Boston Garden other than the Boston Celtics.
“They got to live with that forever. That’s awesome. That made my career. It was that good to me. I enjoyed 1985, and I’m still enjoying it.”
They clashed again in 1987.
The Lakers were the least of Bird’s worries in the 1986-87 season
Everything fell into place for the Celtics in 1986. They won 67 games, cruised through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, and didn’t have to face the Lakers in the Finals. The addition of veteran center Bill Walton proved to be exactly what the Celtics needed. He played in 80 games off the bench and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Things changed the following season. The oft-injured Walton was limited to 10 games during the regular season. Kevin McHale battled a foot injury throughout the season. Larry Bird had his own problems. Bird’s biggest concern was his own back injury suffered in a freak accident in his garage.
“It all came out of nowhere,” Bird recalled in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “We were playing the Clippers one night in Boston, and after our morning shootaround at the Celtics’ practice gym at Hellenic College, I went home to do some work in the yard. I had the leaf blower out, and when I was done, I put it back. Then I swept out the garage.
“Then I got into my Jeep to pull the leaf blower back into the garage, and — bam-o —my back started to hurt. I knew I was in trouble. (Wife) Dinah had cooked a big meal, and all I could think about was getting upstairs to bed. The sweat was pouring off my head, and I was in agony. I finally made it up the stairs, and then I couldn’t move at all. Dinah called (Celtics physical therapist) Dan Dyrek. Dan came over to examine me, and he said, ‘No way tonight.'”
Bird was never the same player mentally that year.
“From that point on, I was just not the same player for the rest of the season,” he said. “I was always worrying, what if my back goes out in the playoffs? I worried about it all the time.”
The Celtics managed to win 59 games. They outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons in seven games in the playoffs, but they didn’t have enough against the Lakers in the Finals, falling in six games.