In 1980, a struggling NBA was awash in low TV ratings and sagging attendance. The league was revitalized by the arrivals of rookie greats Larry Bird and his nemesis Earvin Johnson to the two most fabled franchises in the league in Boston and Los Angeles, respectively.
The NBA almost received its most fervent dream gift: a renewal of the storied Celtics/Lakers championship series rivalry and a continuation of the Larry Bird vs. Earvin Johnson storyline from their ballyhooed 1979 NCAA title showdown.
The revived Celtics, behind Rookie of the Year and first team all-leaguer Bird, improved from 29-53 to 61-21, the best record in the NBA. The Lakers, bolstered by Johnson, improved from 47-35 to 60-22 behind league MVP center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The two rivals appeared headed for a title-round showdown.
Los Angeles won both regular season meetings in 1979-80, highlighted by a memorable mid-January Sunday afternoon CBS special. A few weeks earlier in LA, the Lakers convincingly beat Boston in a game marred by a late-game hard foul when Bird and Rick Robey mauled a driving Johnson in the lane.
Back in Beantown for the nationally televised rematch, Bird came out smoking and canned each of his first six field goal tries, several of which were difficult shots. The Celtics raced to a big lead, but then the Lakers blitzed Boston with an incredible 21-0 third-period run to turn a big deficit into a seven-point lead.
Hobbled by a leg injury incurred at Detroit two nights earlier, Johnson scored just one point. Helped by some very questionable late calls (two Bird baskets were disallowed, and coach Bill Fitch was called for a technical arguing the second call), LA clung to the lead.
Yet two clutch Dave Cowens baskets and a pair of Tiny Archibald foul shots got Boston within two.
Bird then rebounded a missed hook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led the break and dished to Cedric Maxwell, who converted a tough baseline drive off glass to tie it 98-98 with under 20 seconds left.
The Lakers called tiemout and isolated Norm Nixon on Nate Archibald out front in a 1-4 set-up. When the speedy Nixon drove left and rose to shoot from the elbow, Archibald reached in and poked the ball free. But he was called for a foul with three seconds remaining.
Even worse, Boston had no timeouts left to advance the ball to half court and set up a final play, having used their breaks trying to stem the Laker second half run.
Nixon canned both shots. Bird grabbed the ball and threw it in to Archibald, eliminating the clutch sharpshooter from taking the last shot.
Nate pushed the ball up fast and hit an open Cowens deep on the left wing. With his foot just inside the three-point line (it was the first season the three was in effect in the NBA), Dave let fly with a long jumper to tie it.
Having scored 22 points on 11 baskets, 11-year veteran Dave was considered the guy to take the last shot. The 22-footer was perfectly on line but just long and missed off the side back iron to preserve the improbable Laker comeback win.
CBS officials could only hope for a repeat of this game in the Finals, a much-anticipated battle. The previous year's Bird/Johnson, Indiana State/Michigan State NCAA finals was the highest-rated basketball game in history.
Adding the Celtics/Lakers rivalry and other key matchups only served to whet the appetite of basketball fans the world over.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the 76ers about it. Boston romped past Houston 4-0 in their Eastern semifinal series, while 59-23 Philadelphia got past Atlanta, 4-1.
In the Eastern Conference finals, the 76ers took away the home-court advantage by taking game one in the Garden. The Celtics salvaged game two as Bird sank nine first half shots in a row and scored a game-high 31 points for a 96-90 win.
But at the Spectrum in game three, the veteran Sixers pulled out a 99-97 game three win despite 22 points and 21 rebounds by Bird. Philly then rode that momentum to a 12-point victory in game four and a 3-1 lead.
Boston's relative playoff inexperience showed as well. Late-season 76er free agent pickup Lionel Hollins, a defensive ace guard who helped Portland beat Philly in the 1977 Finals, scored a season-high 24 points in game five to offset 22 by Cowens as the Sixers won 105-94 to deny a Celtics/Lakers showdown.
It turned out to be the last game in Celtic green for Cowens, who retired in pre-season the next season before making a 40-game comeback two years later with Milwaukee.
"We didn't even play one good game all series," a dispirited and disgusted Bird said after the defeat. The high-powered Celtics never scored 100 points in any game of the series after averaging 113.5 ppg in the season and 113 ppg in the Houston sweep by an average of 18.5 ppg.
Adding insult to injury, Bird even accidentally tipped in a Dawkins jumper that was well short in the fourth quarter of the game five clincher.
Thus the 76ers advanced to face the Lakers and lost a good championship series, 4-2. However, with the two combatants playing a similar fast-breaking style, the series lacked the contrast and fire—not to mention hype and attention-getting buildup and intriguing matchups—that a Boston vs. LA Finals would have provided.
But what would have happened had Boston advanced to the 1980 Finals against the hated Lakers?
1979-80 BOSTON CELTICS (61-21, 5-4 playoffs, head coach Bill Fitch)
35-6 home, 26-15 road (3-2 home playoffs, 2-2 road)
113.5 ppg (5th of 22); Opp 105.7 ppg (6th of 22)
FG pct.: 49.0 (7th of 22); FT pct.: 77.9 (5th of 22); 3-pt pct. 38.4 (1st of 22); Def FG pct. 47.0 (8th of 22)
Rebs-44.9 to 42.2 (+ 2.7)
Turnovers-18.8 vs. 19.9 (+1.1)
1979-80 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (60-22, 12-4 playoffs, head coaches Jack McKinney 10-4, Paul Westhead 50-18)
37-4 home, 23-18 road; (8-1 home playoffs, 4-3 road)
115.1 ppg (2nd of 22); Opp 109.2 ppg (11th of 22)
FG pct. 52.9 (1st of 22); FT pct. 77.5 (6th of 22); 3 pt pct. 20.0 (19th of 22); Def FG pct. 47.0 (7th of 22)
Rebs-45.6 to 43.3 (+2.3)
Turnovers-20.0 to 17.3 (-2.7)
The Lakers led the league in field goal percentage because they got so many easy transition baskets due to their system and the more wide-open style of play in the West, as well as the dominating inside play of Jabbar. Wilkes and Nixon were also excellent mid-range shooters.
Because of Cowens's great athleticism, Boston possessed a five-man break, but the Laker transition game was even more lethal due to its dual point guards and Johnson's ability to quickly start the break himself off of his own defensive rebounds.
Even though Boston was a running team itself under Bill Fitch, they had a slightly better halfcourt offense due to better perimeter shooting and ball movement. The Celtics were also a better rebounding team, especially on the offensive boards. Maxwell, Bird, Cowens and Robey excelled on the offensive glass.
Cowens always gave Jabbar trouble due to his superior speed, quickness, intensity and all-out style of play. The languid Jabbar enjoyed a big height and reach advantage which he took advatage of on offense inside, but he could not guard Dave on the perimeter. Cowens was a much better shooter, and when Jabbar reluctantly would come out to guard him, Dave would blow by him.
The Lakers later countered by putting Jabbar on Maxwell and having Chones guard Cowens.
LA's best rebounder was 6’8” backup power forward Mark Landsberger, arguably the league's best rebounder pound for pound and minute per minute. The offensively challenged Landsberger averaged 7.1 rebounds a game in just 16.3 minutes, and was simply relentless on the boards.
Jabbar was still a solid rebounder (this was his last double-digit rebound average campaign) and Johnson, at 6-8.5, added his versatility on the boards as well.
One big edge Boston had was in three-point shooting. With Ford, Bird and later Maravich, they were the top-shooting club in the league from beyond the arc in the first year of the rule at over 38 percent.
The Lakers rarely shot the three (they made just 20 out of 100 treys all season!). Their best marksman from deep was little-used UCLA rookie sharpshooting guard Brad Holland, who hit several big shots vs. in limited minutes vs. the 76ers in the 1980 Finals.
The Lakers were a better shot-blocking team, although the late-season suspension of former All-Star Spencer Haywood negated some of this edge. However, with 6-11 former Cavalier center Jim CHones taking Haywood's place at power forward, LA boasted the tallest starting lineup in the league due to large height advantages with Jabbar, Chones and Johnson.
Boston had an edge off the bench, particularly after the addition of Pete Maravich as a free agent acquisition down the stretch.
Still in his prime, swingman M.L. Carr was not just a towel waver—he was arguably the NBA's best sixth man that season. Hustling Rick Robey was probably the best backup center in the league, scoring 11.5 ppg with over six rebounds off the bench and as a spot starter in place of the aging Cowens.
Boston (with three future head coaches in their starting lineup and five overall on its roster, as well as a hoops savant in Maravich) was one of the smartest and most competitive teams in the NBA. Few players ever could match Bird and Cowens in terms of intensity. Four of the Celtics were also named to the NBA's 50 Greatest players list (Bird, Cowens, Archibald, Maravich), while LA boasted two (Jabbar, Johnson).
Meanwhile the Lakers were also an intelligent club led by Jabbar, Wilkes and Johnson. Shakespearean scholar Paul Westhead took over as head coach after a life-threatening, early-season bike accident left Jack McKinney sidelined with a severe head injury which put him in a coma.
With LA playing well under its young interim mentor, Westhead was made permanent head coach even after McKinney recovered, one of a few controversies on the club. Established star Nixon and rookie Johnson feuded at times over who was to be the primary ballhandler.
And during the Finals, Westhead suspended Haywood, who fell asleep in practice and was struggling with a severe drug problem. Haywood was so incensed by the suspension that he actually hired a hit man from his native Detroit to kill Westhead, but his mother caught wind of th eplot and convinced Haywood to call the hit off, which was reportedly going to be via car bomb.
The insertion of veteran Chones into the lineup for Haywood actually helped LA. Although he was not as talented as Haywood, he was far less selfish and needed fewer shots while providing size, tough defense inside and a good shooting touch.
Along with the loss of Haywood, the Laker bench was weakened a bit more when they traded ex-starting forward Don Ford, the prototypical California blonde beach boy (and a former high school teammate of Wilkes) to Cleveland after the All-Star break for Butch Lee and the Cavalier number one pick in 1982. Ford was an athletic 6-foot-9 forward who was a good shooter, ran the floor and jumped well, but did not like to rebound much.
The trade paid off handsomely two and a half years later when the Cavaliers, mis-managed so badly by owner Ted Stepien that the league had ot take over running the franchise before it went belly-up, fell to the bottom of the NBA to give the Lakers the top pick in the 1982 draft.
LA parlayed that pick into Hall of Fame forward James Worthy.
(Position, height, age, player, key stats)
CENTER: 7-2 age 33 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (NBA MVP, 24.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.5 apg, 3.4 bpg, 60.4 FG%, 76.5 FT%) slight edge over
6-8.5 32 Dave Cowens (14.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 45.3 FG%, 77.9 FT%)
FORWARD: 6-9 23 Larry Bird (1st team All-NBA, 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 47.4 FG%, 40.6 3-pt, 83.6 FT%) slight edge over
6-6 28 Jamaal Wilkes (20.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 53.5 FG%, 80.8 FT%, 17.6 3 pt%)
FORWARD: 6-8 24 Cedric Maxwell (16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 60.9 FG% 1st in NBA, 78.7 FT%) slight edge over
6-11 30 Jim Chones (10.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 48.9 FG%, 74.0 FT$)
GUARD: 6-8.5 20 Earvin Johnson (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, 53.0 FG%, 81.0 FT%, 22.6 3 pt%) edge over
6-4.5 31 Chris Ford (11.2 ppg, 2.9 apg, 46.5 FG%, 75.4 FT%, 42.7 3 pt%)
GUARD: 6-1 31 Nate Archibald (14.1 ppg, 8.4 apg, 48.2 FG%, 83.0 FT%, 22.2 3 pt%) even vs.
6-2 24 Norm Nixon (17.6 ppg, 7.8 apg, 51.6 FG%, 77.9 FT%, 12.5 3 pt%)
6th MAN: G/F 6-6 29 ML Carr (11.1 ppg, 47.4 FG%, 73.9 FT%, 29.3 3 pt %) even vs. G/F 6-6 23 Cooper (8.8 ppg, 52.4 FG%, 77.6 FT%, 25.0 3 pt%)
C: 6-11 24 Robey (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 52.1 FG%, 68.4 FT%) slight edge over 6-8 24 F/C Mark Landsberger (7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 48.2 FG%, 51.8 FT%)
G: 6-5 32 Pete Maravich (11.5 ppg, 49.4 FG%, 90.9 FT%, 75.0 3 pt%) edge over 6-3 22 Brad Holland (2.8 ppg, 93.8 FT%)
G: 6-1 24 Gerald Henderson (6.2 ppg) edge over 6-0 23 Butch Lee (1.3 ppg)
G/F: 6-6 23 Jeff Judkins (5.4 ppg, 50.7 FG%, 40.7 3 pt%) slight edge over F 6-7 23 Marty Byrnes (2 ppg, 86.7 FT%)
G 6-5 33 Chaney (2.8 ppg)/C-F 6-10 26 Fernsten (3.1 ppg) vs. F 6-8 30 Spencer Haywood (9.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 48.7 FG%, 77.2 FT%)-suspended during 1980 Finals by Lakers.
The difference between when the Celtics lost to the Lakers twice in mid-season, and a potential Finals meeting in June? Boston added Maravich, and the Lakers lost Haywood to suspension.
Tune in tomorrow for an analysis of Games 1 and 2 in the hypothetical 1980 Celtics/Lakers Finals matchup.
To contact the author, you can email Cort reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.