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10 greatest Lakers championship teams: No. 3

Over a span of several decades, the Los Angeles Lakers became the gold standard of basketball by winning championship after championship. They did so with a formula that consisted of transcendent leaders, star players, selfless supporting contributors and a healthy team concept.

The Lakers are one of very few teams in sports that have had multiple dynasties. They had one in their embryonic years in Minneapolis, one during the Showtime era of the 1980s and yet another one in the first decade of the 21st century. As such, not every one of their championship teams can be put on a top 10 list.

We continue our ranking of the 10 greatest Lakers teams to win it all with one that solidified the decade of the 1980s as one that belonged to the franchise.

Upping the Ante

After being unceremoniously upset in the 1986 Western Conference Finals by the Houston Rockets, the Lakers recommitted themselves to their core values heading into the 1986-87 season — with a twist. They re-emphasized their commitment to fast-break basketball, but with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nearing his 40th birthday, head coach Pat Riley shifted the offensive burden to Magic Johnson, asking Johnson to become the team’s No. 1 offensive option.

It resulted in 65 regular season wins and the Lakers’ fourth NBA title of the decade, which was won in six games over the Boston Celtics.

But the team was heading into the late 1980s, and the wear and tear, both physically and emotionally, was building up for it. It had been done in by complacency in 1986, so Riley guaranteed at the championship parade that it would repeat as world champions in 1988.

No NBA team had gone back-to-back since 1969, back when there were 14 teams in the league. By the 1987-88 campaign, there were 23 teams, and it was thought to be nearly impossible to win two straight titles. But Riley didn’t care. He knew that if his Lakers were to make their argument as the greatest team in league history, they had to win it all again for a second straight year.

They started the season 8-0, then went into a slump that saw them lose six of their next nine games. It was starting to look like perhaps they were becoming old and tired and that the rest of the league was catching up with them. But they then recaptured their old mojo and ripped off 38 wins in their next 42 contests.

However, along the way, the signs of the wear and tear that had accumulated over the last several years became apparent. James Worthy struggled with knee problems that eroded his legendary explosion. Michael Cooper, L.A.’s invaluable sixth man, suffered a severely sprained ankle in February and was out for most of the next two months. Magic Johnson was forced to sit for 10 games late in the schedule with a groin injury that would continue to affect him afterward.

While the Lakers finished with a league-high 62 wins in the regular season, they looked a bit vulnerable going into the playoffs.

Seven, Seven, Seven — Jackpot

The Lakers were a lot healthier when the playoffs started than they were during the second half of the regular season. They swept the San Antonio Spurs in the first round — then ran into plenty of trouble in their quest to repeat.

The Utah Jazz, who had two young future Hall of Famers named Karl Malone and John Stockton, were L.A.’s second-round opponent. They took a 2-1 series lead over the defending champs, but Johnson and crew had just enough ability and resourcefulness to win Game 5 by two points, allowing them to survive and eventually prevail in Game 7.

The Lakers then faced the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Dallas had been building a contender for the past several years, and it felt like its time had come.

After the Lakers won the first two games at home easily, Dallas tied the series at two games apiece. The Lakers responded with a blowout win in Game 5, narrowly lost Game 6 in Texas and then put away the Mavs in Game 7.

Their opponents in the 1988 NBA Finals would be not the Celtics but the Detroit Pistons, another team that had been gradually building a winning program. The Pistons had also been building what many would consider a thug academy that reviled in physically beating up opponents and committing the type of fouls that would have them facing the prospect of arrest in this day and age.

Detroit won Game 1, causing concern that L.A.’s reign was about to end. The Purple and Gold won the next two games, even though Johnson was suffering from flu-like symptoms, then dropped the next two contests to fall behind 3-2 in the series. They were one game away from giving up the NBA crown to a team that was widely hated and the antithesis of Showtime.

Los Angeles survived a 25-point third quarter from a hobbled Isiah Thomas to scrape by in Game 6 by one point. It then rallied from a five-point halftime deficit in Game 7 to build a 15-point lead, only to see the Pistons fight back like a pack of ravenous animals and come to within one point with six seconds left.

But the Lakers ended up winning, 108-105, to claim basketball’s grand prize once again. Worthy had the game of his life with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, earning him the finals MVP award.

They were now firmly the team of the 1980s and quite possibly the best team the NBA had ever seen, or will ever see.

Story originally appeared on LeBron Wire