LOS ANGELES – Magic Johnson had one final piece of business to tend to before he left Staples Center late Tuesday. He picked up his cell phone and called in an order for a new, expensive blue suit. Johnson didn’t acquire his latest wardrobe addition for a wedding, graduation or important business meeting. He needed it to wear to a much more selective event.
Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have pushed the NBA’s most storied rivalry into another epic, winner-take-all game to decide the championship. Johnson, as much as anyone, understands the importance of looking your best when history calls.
“The world stops on Thursday because it’s Game 7,” said Johnson, whose Lakers lost the 1984 title to the Celtics in a Game 7. “You look so forward to it. You know everybody’s watching. You know every possession is a big possession. You know every shot is a big shot. You know every free throw is a big free throw. You know every rebound is a big rebound.
“You just look forward to being in a game like this because this is something that you talk about for the next 40, 50 years.”
This will be the 17th Game 7 in Finals history, and all but five have included either the Celtics or Lakers. The Celtics have won all seven of their appearances, including all four against the Lakers.
“When you have a rivalry that goes back this far, just the tradition … it’s like any gigantic rivalry, Dodgers-Yankees when they used to go at it every autumn,” said former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was on the ’84 team that lost to the Celtics. “It has its own cache.”
Said former Celtics forward Kevin McHale, who also played in the ’84 game: “It’s going to come down to heart, soul and the team that wants it the most.”
The Finals’ format allows for just one off-day between Games 6 and 7, but that’s more than enough time for the tension to build. Game 7 veterans often talk about not sleeping the night before the decisive contest.
Celtics Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn won Game 7s in the 1957, ’60 and ’62 Finals. The Celtics beat the Lakers for the ’62 title with a memorable 110-107 overtime victory in Game 7. Heinsohn said he would relax by going to lunch. Bob Cousy didn’t leave his hotel room. No one had a clue how legendary center Bill Russell spent his day.
“You might not sleep for two days,” Heinsohn said. “Some guys lock themselves in their room. Everybody deals with it in a different way.”
Even the effervescent Johnson, who beat the Detroit Pistons for the 1988 title in Game 7, tried to calm himself as much as possible on the day of the game.
“For me, it was just being quiet, being to myself, thinking about everything and getting ready for an incredible game,” he said. “Your mind has to be clear of everything. You have to spend the whole day getting off your feet, relaxing, just conserving your energy. You’re going to see the starters and the stars play a lot more minutes than you ever see. You can rest after Thursday night.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battled seven games for the NBA title in 1984.
Game 7 historical primer
The NBA Finals has reached a seventh game 16 times with the Celtics beating the Lakers four times. (Game 7 home team in bold)
|2004-05||San Antonio Spurs||Detroit Pistons||81-74|
|1993-94||Houston Rockets||New York Knicks||90-84|
|1987-88||Los Angeles Lakers||Detroit Pistons||108-105|
|1983-84||Boston Celtics||Los Angeles Lakers||111-102|
|1977-78||Washington Bullets||Seattle SuperSonics||105-99|
|1973-74||Boston Celtics||Milwaukee Bucks||102-87|
|1969-70||New York Knicks||Los Angeles Lakers||113-99|
|1968-69||Boston Celtics||Los Angeles Lakers||108-106|
|1965-66||Boston Celtics||Los Angeles Lakers||95-93|
|1961-62||Boston Celtics||Los Angeles Lakers||110-107 (OT)|
|1959-60||Boston Celtics||St. Louis Hawks||122-103|
|1956-57||Boston Celtics||St. Louis Hawks||125-123 (2OT)|
|1954-55||Syracuse Nationals||Fort Wayne Pistons||92-91|
|1953-54||Minneapolis Lakers||Syracuse Nationals||87-80|
|1951-52||Minneapolis Lakers||New York Knicks||82-65|
|1950-51||Rochester Royals||New York Knicks||79-75|
“I think it will bring out the best in Paul Pierce(notes) and Kobe Bryant(notes). … What it’s really going to come down to is will. Who has the most will? In ’84 the Celtics out-willed us. In ’88, we out-willed the Pistons. This isn’t about ‘X’s and ‘O’s. This is about superstars who have to play like superstars. They got to deliver in the big game.”
The home team has lost only three of the previous 16 Finals’ Game 7s, which should make the Lakers happy. Two of the three road victories, however, were won by the Celtics, including the famous 1969 game against the Lakers. Armed with a roster that included Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, the Lakers entered the game as heavy favorites.
Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so confident his team would win that he put thousands of balloons into the rafters of the Forum and hired a marching band for the victory celebration. The Lakers lost 108-106 after coach Butch van Breda Kolff refused to put Chamberlain back in the game in the final two minutes.
“Having a sense of fear is the biggest thing, overcoming that,” said former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell, who scored 24 points in the ’84 victory over the Lakers. “Fear paralyzes the average player. It’s incumbent on the guy that has been there and done that before to step up and play big minutes.”
Twenty-six years after their battle of ’84, the Celtics and Lakers meet again for a Game 7. The Celtics are seeking their 18th championship and second over the Lakers in three years. The Lakers want their 16th title.
One game, one more epic chapter. To the men who have played in this historic rivalry, Thursday should be a night to remember.
“Your emotions are so high and so raw that it’s almost like cutting into a thousand-volt line,” Maxwell said. “You hook yourself into it, you wet your fingers and you touch it. That’s the sensation you get stepping onto the floor for the seventh game.”