Skip to main content

The Boston Celtics found out just how difficult it was going to be to repeat as champions after the first two games against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1987 NBA Finals. The Celtics were banged up, and the Lakers were clicking on all cylinders.

LA dominated the first two games of the series, winning 126-113 in the opener and then taking Game 2 141-122. Boston pulled out a Game 3 win at home, but after Magic Johnson’s junior, junior, junior skyhook won it for the Lakers in Game 4, the Celtics had one goal heading into a do-or-die Game 5.

The Boston Celtics sought a championship repeat in 1987

A.C. Green of the Los Angeles Lakers grabs a rebound in front of Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics during an NBA basketball game circa 1987 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Everything clicked for the Celtics during the 1985-86 season. Larry Bird won his third straight MVP after guiding the Celtics to a 67-win season and their third championship of the decade. Bill Walton, acquired in an offseason trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, played 80 games off the bench and won the Sixth Man of the Year award. They knocked off the Houston Rockets in six games in the ’86 Finals.

The 1986-87 season was a bit different. Injuries took over. The oft-injured Walton played just 10 games during the regular season before limping his way into the postseason. All-Star forward Kevin McHale played through a fractured foot throughout the Finals. Still, the Celtics managed to reach the championship round for the fourth straight year.

After the Houston Rockets eliminated them in the Western Conference Finals in ’86, the Lakers were hungry to return to the Finals, and it showed. They made quick work of the Celtics in the first two games at home. They hung with the Celtics in Game 3 in Boston, but the Celtics pulled out a 109-103 victory.

The Celtics appeared to be on their way to tying the series as they held a 16-point lead in the third quarter and led 103-95 before turning the ball over three straight times. LA scored the next nine points. After Bird hit a basket to give Boston a 106-105 lead with 12 seconds left, Johnson hit his running skyhook in the lane as the Lakers won 107-106.

Down 3-1, the Celtics really had one realistic goal

With the 2-3-2 Finals format, the Celtics needed to win three straight, including the final two in Los Angeles. While he didn’t come right out and say it, Bird knew the Celtics had little chance.

“I know that when I’m up 3-1, I say it’s over,” Bird said, according to Sports Illustrated.

With little realistic hope of beating the Lakers in three straight, Bird and the Celtics had one goal.

“If they want to celebrate, let’s not let them do it on the parquet,” he told his teammates.

Back in 1985, the Lakers thwarted another Celtics attempt at a repeat. They knocked off the Celtics in six games in the Finals, winning Game 6 in Boston. More than 35 years later, that Game 6 win still brings a smile to former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s face.

“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 Lakers/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.”

The Celtics did prevent the Lakers from another celebration in Boston, but the Lakers closed out the series in convincing fashion in Game 6, winning 106-93.