Commentary

1984 Finals: Their night, their town

Originally Published: June 17, 2010
By Bill Woten | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is reprinted from "Game 7: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown" by Bill Woten.

EAST COAST VS. WEST COAST. Blue collar vs. glitz and glamour. Celtics vs. Lakers. Power vs. Showtime. Bird vs. Magic.

The 1984 Finals divided the sports world. Game 7 determined the champion.

"For all the marbles," recalled Boston's Cedric Maxwell. "All the bragging rights. It was just a huge game. The first thing that comes to mind is that the game started at 9 o'clock Eastern Time. And it was prime time all over the country, so it didn't get any bigger than that particular game. It was one of the first NBA series that really galvanized and polarized."

Since their famous meeting in the 1979 NCAA championship game -- when Magic Johnson's Michigan State team won the title against Larry Bird's Indiana State -- the two superstars remained linked. In the NBA, Johnson had helped the Lakers to titles in 1980 and 1982, and Bird's Celtics had won it all in 1981. None of the victories, however, had come against each other.

It took five years for their first meeting in the NBA playoffs, but the wait only added to the hype.

Once the series started, the Lakers outplayed the Celtics early, winning Game 1 in Boston, losing a late lead in Game 2, blowing out Boston in Game 3, allowing another lead to slip away in Game 4. Add it all up and Los Angeles was a few points away from a sweep.

"So many things that happened we had control of," recalled the Lakers' Byron Scott. "We just let them get away."

With the series tied 2-2, Bird shot 15-for-20 in Game 5 on a 97-degree evening inside Boston Garden. The Lakers' second-half surge in Game 6 knotted the series at three-all, and both teams traveled back to Boston for the clincher.

With a doctor's stethoscope in tow, Celtics guard Danny Ainge monitored teammates' heartbeats in the locker room prior to Game 7. After Ainge announced that Maxwell's heart wasn't even beating, Maxwell stood up and made a proclamation.

"Everybody was talking about, 'Yeah, we're going to do this, going to get the ball here. And move it to Robert (Parish), maybe give it to Larry,'" Maxwell recalled. "I was like, 'No, no, we don't need to do that.' And no coaches were in there. Just the players. 'You just give me the ball. You get on my back. I'll carry you to victory.'"

True story?

"Yeah," said teammate Dennis Johnson. "Cedric was the official leader in terms of verbal jabs of talking on our team. When he went out, I mean that type of stuff pumps yourself up, that you know you have to go out and perform. You made a statement. And that statement was, 'Hey, everybody, if you can't do it, bring it here. And I'm going to be the one to do it, because I said it.'"

At the same time, Johnson wryly disclosed, it was not the first time Maxwell issued such a boast. "Cedric always tells everybody to get on his back. He's got a pretty big back."

On this night, Maxwell showed from the beginning that he was ready to back up his words -- even before tip-off. When his name was announced during player introductions, Maxwell took the floor with both of his arms raised high and a spring in his step.

To counter the early-on boost that the home crowd gave the Celtics, the Lakers turned to reliable center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 12 points in a first quarter that ended with the score tied at 30 apiece.

At 37 years old, Abdul-Jabbar was still going strong. He had averaged 21.5 points and shot nearly 58 percent from the field during the season. He was the main cog in Los Angeles' halfcourt offense. And in pressure games, the 7-foot-2 center wasn't about to be flustered. By this stage of his career, no player had experienced more big games than Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer who had won six MVP awards and been on three championship teams.

Thanks to Bird, who had two free throws, an inside basket and a laser outlet pass that led to a fast break basket by Quinn Buckner, the Celtics ripped off an 8-0 run early in the second quarter. It was Maxwell, however, who kept the momentum going.

The gangly 6-8 forward from Kinston, N.C., repeatedly posted up near the basket or waded in from angles just outside the paint. His primary victim was James Worthy, who couldn't handle a motivated Maxwell's strength and awkward, twisting drives. Maxwell, who smiled at Worthy and shook his head on one occasion after the Lakers forward fouled him, had additional motivation. Near the end of the Lakers' Game 6 victory, Worthy had shoved Maxwell into the basket support. It was a cheap shot, Maxwell said, and it was still on his mind.

Maxwell's 3-point play gave the Celtics their biggest lead of the first half at 47-38. By intermission, Maxwell already had put in a full day of work with 17 points -- he had averaged 11.2 over the first six games of the series -- and, as evidence to his aggressiveness near the basket, was 11-for-13 from the free-throw line.

In the third quarter, Boston guard Gerald Henderson heated up from outside, scoring nine points early as the teams traded baskets. The Celtics then put together two surges that threatened to turn the game into a runaway. The first ended with Parish's basket and free throw for a 78-72 lead that brought the Celtics' bench to its feet and triggered a Garden din that continued non-stop until long after the game's end.

Then, minutes later, Boston closed the third quarter with an 8-0 spurt for a 91-78 lead. Ainge made a jumper, Parish made three free throws after a pair of offensive rebounds, and Kevin McHale added two more free throws after sprinting past the Lakers on the fast break.

By now, the world's largest Garden party was in full swing. Years later, Maxwell tried to describe being on the court at that time.

"I think it's akin to a giant wave coming at you and you ducking under that wave, so you don't hear nothing but that muffled sound," Maxwell said. "You don't hear any words, just that muffled sound. And because of that, you don't hear any of the outside crowd. When you are in tune, in a screaming cauldron of people going crazy, you can literally hear the ball bouncing. You can hear what your coach is saying, you can hear your teammates saying stuff to you. You hear all these things. You are oblivious to what is going on around you. Those senses of outside influence just aren't there."

Celtics backup guard -- and designated crowd-igniter -- M.L. Carr maniacally waved a towel. Ditto for Bird, who smiled and pumped his fist at quarter's end. Celebrities Jack Nicholson and Dionne Warwick, loyal Lakers fans who had traveled East for the game, suddenly had nothing to cheer about.

As a side note, how Warwick got seats behind the Lakers bench while Nicholson, who watched in his Lakers gold T-shirt from a skybox well above the floor -- at a time long before skyboxes were luxurious -- is one of the world's unsolved mysteries.

It is rare for participants to celebrate a hardly insurmountable 13-point advantage with still a quarter left to play. Were the Celtics that confident? Perhaps -- but even they believed that the outcome wasn't yet decided. Their collective joy at that moment, however, simply couldn't stay bottled up inside. It was evident how desperately both teams wanted to win, an intensity that reached its crescendo in the second half of Game 7, but had begun to build much earlier in the series.

In Game 2, Los Angeles had led 113-111 and had the ball with 20 seconds left. But Worthy, after scoring 29 points while shooting 11-for-12, threw a soft, arching pass that was intercepted by Henderson, who scored to send the game into overtime, which Boston won to even the series.

In Game 3, Magic Johnson set a Finals record with 21 assists as the Lakers won 137-104 with a lightning fast break that demoralized Boston. After the game, a dejected Bird said the Celtics "played like sissies."

Though again outshot -- this time 59 percent to 43 percent -- the Celtics won Game 4, 129-125, in overtime. Bird's comment had pushed the series, and particularly, his teammates, to a higher level of toughness. Game 4 was marked by even more physical forceful play as Boston outrebounded the Lakers 27-12 on the offensive boards. Bird delivered with 29 points and 21 rebounds, including nine offensive.

The aggressiveness peaked when the Lakers' Kurt Rambis was taken down by a clothesline hit from McHale while driving in for a fast break layup. Moments later, Bird and Abdul-Jabbar squared off and exchanged harsh words after Abdul-Jabbar's elbow clipped Bird's chin while the two jostled for a rebound.

Lakers Coach Pat Riley later said McHale's hit on Rambis "changed the mood of the whole series" from basketball to war. And Magic Johnson said in his 1992 biography My Life that "when the Celtics intimidated us with their physical game, we just rolled over."

Recalled Scott: "McHale on Kurt Rambis changed that series because we started thinking more about being physical than playing basketball, almost trying to get back at them."

In Game 6, the Celtics led by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, but the Lakers, led by Abdul-Jabbar -- who scored nine of his 30 points during the last 5:19 of the game -- forced the winner-take-all showdown with a 119-108 triumph.

As Game 7 began its final quarter, the Celtics calmed down and returned to business. Dennis Johnson made a couple of jumpers, and his two free throws with 7:50 to play gave Boston its biggest lead of the night at 99-85. The words, "This is our night" -- commentary that would be echoed after the game -- flashed on the scoreboard.

But just when it seemed their lead was safe, the Celtics turned tentative. Three possessions ended empty with 24-second shot-clock violations. The Lakers, meanwhile, were making one final push. Abdul-Jabbar scored nine points, including six on three of his picturesque skyhooks, and Worthy's short jumper following an incredible blocked shot by Michael Cooper, pulled Los Angeles to within 105-102 with 1:14 to go. Then, the Lakers got the ball again on the break, but Magic Johnson was met in the lane by McHale and Parish, and his turnover led to two free throws by Dennis Johnson. Bird added four free throws during the final 45 seconds, which were chaos.

In between Bird's free throws, a shirtless, bandana-wearing fan -- understandable, because it was the mid-1980s and because the courtside thermometer in the non-air-conditioned arena read 91 degrees at game time -- ran onto the court to congratulate Bird. Then, with 26 seconds still on the clock, fans lined the edge of the court, prompting Ainge and other Celtics to walk over to the boundary lines and urge their supporters to back up and stay off the court.

After the final horn sounded, the Celtics somehow fought through the unrelenting mosh pit to their locker room, where Red Auerbach grabbed the microphone first. As noted earlier, Auerbach wasn't a gracious winner.

"Whatever happened to the Los Angeles dynasty?" Auerbach asked.

Bird was named series MVP to go along with his regular-season MVP award. After five years in the league, Bird had indeed resurrected the Celtics, who, in that stretch, won two league championships, four division crowns, and averaged nearly 61 wins per season. Still, when asked whether or not this victory got him even with Magic Johnson for their showdown as collegians, Bird's comment proved that neither time nor distance could pull him away from his roots.

"I won this one for Terre Haute," he said, alluding to the Indiana State campus.

Boston's victory was born of assertiveness and effort. The Celtics made only 39.5 percent of their shots (L.A. shot 48.8), but they won the battle of the boards, 52-33, including 20 on the offensive end. The Celtics were rewarded with 51 free throw attempts (and made 41) to 28 (18) for Los Angeles.

Leave it to Riley to sum up an evening on which it seemed the whole world had been watching. The game drew a 19.3 rating and 33 share -- the best ever for an NBA game at the time.

"It was their night, their town, their fans, their friends," Riley said.

The victory was Boston's seventh in a row in a Game 7 in the Finals, with four of those victories against the Lakers. The Celtics also improved to 8-0 in playoff series against the Lakers.

In the decisive game, the Celtics were determined to play their bruising style, which also suited Parish, who had 14 points and 16 rebounds, including eight offensive.

"We figured out earlier on when we had to be aggressive, and all that stuff happened out in Los Angeles," Dennis Johnson recalled. "The Lakers at that time still had a very great team, but the East Coast was known more for a physical type of play. The West Coast was known as more laid-back, showy. For us, it worked at that particular time to be extra physical. We just got out and did it, and their response back to it wasn't that good, and a few more skirmishes broke out."

But that's how the Celtics had to play to beat the Lakers.

"We made a rule in the practice for the fourth game that there were going to be no more layups," Maxwell recalled. "No more Showtime during this particular series. And if there was going to be Showtime, somebody was going to get taken out of the air. Or knocked down. And it so happened, Kevin McHale, the most timid of all the players we had, wouldn't hurt a fly, takes Kurt Rambis out of the air. Well, we kind of practiced what we talked about, we did it, and during that fourth game, Kevin McHale takes Kurt Rambis out of the air, you know, a very hard foul, and everybody kind of just followed suit. The series became a no-layup series.

"It was just one of those series. That changed the Laker fans to what they are today. For the longest time, any time you went to L.A., everybody, the beautiful people would always come in the second quarter, and they'd leave early in the fourth quarter so they could be seen coming and going. But during that particular series, everybody was there, they stayed the whole time. And even the beautiful people got to be ugly with their words and their language. It was just a very heated series."

Maxwell, who said he got nervous before most games, also felt he was going to have a good -- make that great -- game.

"I knew I was going to have a great night," recalled Maxwell, who finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. "I didn't think I was going to have a good night. I thought I was going to have a great night. Sometimes as a basketball player or an athlete, you just know things are going to be your day. And it doesn't make any difference about what happens, you wish you could bottle that up and do that every single time, but that particular night I knew. I thought Worthy's foul (in Game 6) was a flagrant foul, and I was upset with him. I knew I was going to come back emotionally charged, physically charged, so I knew I was going to have a great game."

Given how close they were to winning the series much earlier, the Lakers lamented their opportunities missed.

"I really felt when that game was over that the best team didn't win the series," Scott recalled. "I didn't believe that they were better than us, but the thing that I do remember was sitting in that locker room after that series was over, after I showered, and after I got dressed, just sitting there reflecting on that series and thinking about not allowing it to feel this way next year. I remember thinking, 'I don't like this feeling. I don't want to feel this way again.' That was my main thought. We really felt in our hearts that we should have been the champions. We kinda let them get us out of the game with their physical tactics, and we knew next year that wasn't going to happen again."

In the wake of the final game, the series' style and the clothesline foul by McHale, Riley made it a priority for the Lakers to get tougher. They didn't change their fast break style, but they did become more committed to rebounding and standing their ground. "The next year we got to the point where we were the aggressor, we were physical, we were banging, but we were still playing Lakers basketball," Scott said. "And they were complaining about us being too physical, too aggressive."

Magic Johnson, in particular, had some reputation repair to do. After this game, he was dubbed Tragic Johnson. The key turnover late in Game 7 was one of seven during the night for Johnson, who also allowed the clock to run out in Game 2 that forced overtime, and missed two free throws in overtime of Game 4.

Johnson reportedly didn't leave his apartment for three days and later said it still bothers him to this day that the Lakers lost that series, despite the fact that Los Angeles beat Boston for the title in 1985 and 1987.

The Lakers, who were without Bob McAdoo in Game 7, got little production for their reserves, who totaled 13 points. McAdoo, who averaged 12.5 points and 24 minutes over the first six games, injured his Achilles' tendon in the second half of Game 6. Perhaps even more important than his offensive output, the 6-9 McAdoo, who averaged 5.5 rebounds in the series, could have helped Los Angeles on the boards.

Injuries, turnovers, lack of toughness. Despite their shortcomings, the Lakers weren't about to recognize the Celtics as the superpower of the basketball world.

"We just didn't feel they beat us. That made it hard that whole summer," Scott said. "We had to go around carrying that until October, until training camp started. It was hard for us to swallow that we lost to a team, not that we didn't consider to be a great basketball team, but we just felt that we were better. Most of the games we lost were because of our own undoing. For the summer it was just a very, very bad taste in our mouths because we knew we were a better basketball team than what we displayed out there."

Riley said he thought they'd never live through the summer. So, instead, he worked it to death.

"Riles would send us little messages during the summer that would get us thinking about the series and why we lost that series and things that we needed to do for next year, not only for next year's playoffs and regular season but for training camp," Scott said.

"We had to get mentally tougher and physically tougher as a basketball team, and going through that process of losing that series to the Celtics, the reason we felt we lost was because we weren't physically or mentally tough enough. And that's something we felt we were going to be much better at, and we were."

Bill Woten is an NBA historian. To order the book, click here.