The Greatest Lakers of All-Time: James Worthy

(Image/Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the eleventh in a series of articles featuring a countdown of the Top 16 Greatest Lakers of All Time, as decided by the followers of Lakers UK on Twitter and Instagram.

Continuing with number 6 – James Worthy. We’ll take an in-depth look at his best Finals performance as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

A true Laker legend, Worthy played his whole 12 season career with the purple and gold. In his time with the franchise he played 35,298 minutes in 1,069 games, scoring 19,342 points. After retirement Worthy has gone on to work for Spectrum SportsNet as an analyst, furthering his image as a Laker great and making him a recognisable figure to fans of all ages.

Worthy played a major role in the Showtime Lakers era, becoming the third star as the Lakers formed a formidable big three of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Worthy. Playing a major role during the ’80s, the team won three championships using Worthy as a rim runner and low post scorer.

Nicknamed ‘Big Game James’, it’s more than obvious that Worthy had a ton of big moments in Los Angeles. One would be his 33 points and 9 rebounds against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the 1987 NBA Finals, leading the Lakers to victory. Another would be his brilliant performance against the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. The Lakers were down 3-2 and facing a win or go home scenario. Worthy recording 28 points and 9 rebounds, leading LA to a 103-102 win, and setting the stage for Worthy’s greatest playoff performance.

This performance would be his triple-double in Game 7, a performance more than deserving of this play-by-play review.

Big Game James’ Biggest Game:

(Image/Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

It’s the 21st of June 1988. It’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Lakers are tied at 3-3 in the series with the Detroit Pistons. LA had been behind twice in the series, already having to fight to bring it to a Game 7. Magic Johnson and James Worthy had been excellent throughout the series and were now at the precipice of their 3rd championship together. The Lakers 5th of the decade.

Worthy’s first opportunity to score came as he grabs his first rebound, passing it off to Johnson as he brings the ball up the floor. Johnson goes straight into a post up as he backs down the much smaller Joe Dumars. Adrian Dantley, who is guarding Worthy, digs towards the ball. Worthy is left wide open as Johnson kicks it out, hitting him in rhythm as he knocks down the jump shot from 19 feet.

The game continues as both teams struggle to finish, going a combined 3-12 from the field to start. The Lakers up 4-2. Worthy’s next chance comes as he attacks the rim on the fast break. Bill Laimbeer shows why the Pistons earned their ‘Bad Boys’ nickname as he throws himself into the body of the jumping Worthy, sending him leaping into the stands to avoid trampling a photographer. The Forum audience rejoices as they rally around theor goggle adorning hero. He goes 1 of 2 at the line, his total now at 3 points.

The 1st quarter goes on as the Pistons go on a quick 8-2 run to take the lead, the score now sitting at 10-9 in their favour. Dantley misses a contested jumper from the short left corner, Worthy picks up the loose ball and sets off on the run. To no surprise, he attacks the rim as he finishes over the top of Dantley, who had no way of dealing with Worthy’s mix of length and speed.

His next scoring chance comes a couple possessions later as the Pistons are scrambled defensively. Abdul-Jabbar draws three defenders in the left low post, kicking it out to the open Michael Cooper who then spots the open Worthy in the right low post. Worthy takes 1 dribble, jump stops, and finishes with a little floater. He now has 7 points.

After a 1-8 start in the first 4 minutes, the Pistons had rallied in the last 6 minutes, going 6-11 from the field. Worthy gets another fortuity as Johnson delivers him the ball in the right low post. Up against the slightly taller John Salley, Worthy palms the ball outwards a couple times as he sizes up his opponent. Taking two dribbles to the left he moves towards the paint, his back still turned on Salley. Dantley then attempts to dig at the ball, sending Worthy into a controlled 180 spin towards the baseline, finishing with the hook shot over the top of an outstretched Salley.

Worthy then gets another opening the next time down the floor as he picks the ball up on the right-wing. He takes a breath then retreats a step, dribbling with his right hand. He then drops his right shoulder, takes a quick double hesitation dribble before crossing to his left and driving into the paint. Gathering the ball, he finishes with his right hand, earning a free throw in the process. Unfortunately, he was unable to convert from the line. That would be Worthy’s final involvement in the 1st quarter, as it ends 23-21 in the Pistons’ favour. Worthy finished the quarter with 11 points.

Worthy’s first involvement in the 2nd quarter presents itself in the post once again. He receives the ball from Cooper as he starts to back down Dennis Rodman into the right high post. He takes a few dribbles before pivoting 180 towards the baseline he fakes the shot, sending Rodman into the air. Going up and under, he rises up and sinks the shot with his right hand.

Worthy’s next score would come as Cooper misses a jumper from the top of the key. The ball bounces off the rim to the left of the paint as Worthy grabs the open rebound, takes one dribble towards the rim and tries to finish inside but misses. Mychal Thompson then gets that rebound and attempts another putback, which he misses. Worthy is then in the right position for the third rebound, and he tips it up and in, earning a free throw in the process. He would convert at the line, giving him his 16th point.

Worthy would then take a short breather on the bench before checking back in a couple minutes later. He is carried for a few possessions as Detroit go on a 12-4 run, putting them in the lead. Worthy’s next bucket would come on the fastbreak once again, as the Pistons turn the ball over and it finds it way into Johnson’s hands. He launches an overhead pass 3 /4 up the court and hits a streaking Worthy who attacks the paint from left to right and finishes over the top of Laimbeer.

The Pistons now lead 44-41 as Worthy gets another break inside. Magic Johnson attacks the block as Worthy side steps toward the rim, Johnson sees him and makes the pass. Worthy takes one dribble and finishes over the top of Laimbeer once again, bringing it back to a 1 point game as the clock strikes 2 minutes left in the quarter.

That would be Worthy’s final highlight in the 1st half as the teams continued to go back and forth for the next 120 seconds. At half time the score was 52-47 in favour of the Pistons. To this point in the series the team that led at half time in each game had won the game. The Bad Boys were definitely in the driving seat as Worthy finished the half with 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists.

Worthy’s first score of the 2nd half comes about a minute in as Abdul-Jabbar is doubled in the low post. He spots Worthy who is left open at the top of the key, he rises up and hits the 2 point jumper. Big game James would then score again a couple of possessions later as Johnson attacks the basket on the fastbreak. He draws Worthy’s man as Worthy receives the hand-off in the dunker spot and lays it up and in. He now has 24 points.

Worthy’s 25th point would come from the foul line, after being fouled hard by Dumars underneath the rim, converting 1 of 2. On Detroit’s next possession, the Lakers retrieved a long rebound and set off on a 4-on-2 fast-break. Johnson finds Worthy once again as he finishes at the rim under strong contention from Laimbeer. Worthy now has 27 points, giving the Lakers a 56-54 lead.

The purple and gold go on a 21-8 run and open up a 70-62 lead in the process. As they conduct a symphony of scoring, with Magic Johnson playing the role of orchestrater. Worthy’s next involvement would come on the inside as Johnson delivers him the ball in the paint. Worthy takes 1 dribble and puts it up over tough defence. Missing, he battles for the rebound and puts it straight back up, finishing the play. Now with 29 points and 12 rebounds.

Worthy would earn his next 2 points at the line after being fouled with a hard smack to the face while trying to finish in the paint, commentary stating Worthy “windes up with his goggles under his chin”. Connecting on both at the line, Worthy’s stat line now reads 31 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists. With the game score now at 78-68 in the Lakers’ favour.

The Lakers next score would create a little iconic moment. As Worthy posts-up on the right-hand side Detriot send a double. This leaves Cooper open at the top of the 3 point line. Worthy finds Cooper as he catches and rises up in one motion and swishes home a 3. The camera cuts to a ground shot of the Lakers bench celebrating. Everybody in the picture with arms aloft, but one, as Pat Riley goes into his famous crouching position, focused on the next play. The quarter would end as the Lakers lead 83-73, the camera pans up at the championship banners hanging in the Forums rafters.

Worthy and Johnson would start the 4th before coming out after 3 minutes, the score at 90-77. When they come back in, 2 minutes later, the score is 94-84. Worthy’s first bucket would come not long after as Johnson delivers him the ball in the left low post. He takes a couple of dribbles toward the paint as he backs down Salley, he gathers and puts a shot up with his right hand. It bounces on the rim twice before dropping through, Worthy now has 33 points as he puts the Lakers up by 12 with 6 minutes left in the game.

The Pistons would then proceed to go on a 10-2 run over the next 3 minutes as the Lakers call for time. The score is now 98-94 with the Lakers on the back foot, both Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar have 5 fouls with 3 minutes left in the game. Following the timeout Detroit steals the ball, as Rodman streaks away and cuts the lead to 2, 2:46 left.

On the next possession, Johnson attacks from the left corner, using the screen from Abdul-Jabbar he drives to the paint. He gathers and spins 360 degrees clockwise, losing his man, he puts up the floater but misses off the back of the rim. Worthy is underneath the cylinder and jumps for the rebound, he throws a hand at the ball once and it hits the front of the rim. He jumps a second time, getting 2 hands to it this time, he puts up a more controlled shot. It drops through, sending the Forum into jubilation, giving Worthy 35 points and giving the Lakers a 4 point lead. 100-96, 2:26 to go.

On the next possession, Vinnie Johnson comes up and hits a mid-range jumper, cutting the lead it back to 2, 2:09 left. Magic Johnson comes up and heads to the basket, he is fouled as he goes up for the lay-up. He goes 2/2 from the line and puts the Lakers back up by 4, 1:54 left. Vinnie Johnson then comes up and misses a 3, but Laimbeer gets the long rebound resetting the shot cloak, 1:33 left. The Pistons kick the ball around before Dumars hits an open mid-range shot, lead back down to 2, 1:17 left.

Rodman then makes the mistake of fouling Magic Johnson in the backcourt, sending him to the line. He goes 1/2, putting the lead up to 3, 1:14 left as the Pistons call timeout. Detroit comes back and draw up a play to get Laimbeer an open 3, which he misses. The ball is knocked into the Pistons backcourt off the rebound and bounces out of bounds, 1:05 left. Laker ball.

Lakers call a timeout and draw up a play to isolate Worthy on the left-wing. He drives into the paint and rises up for the lay-up but is blocked. The Pistons have the ball back, they run the fastbreak as the ball comes to Rodman, who shoots a poorly advised mid-range jumper which the sophomore misses. Byron Scott comes down with the rebound, running a give and go with Johnson to get into the frontcourt, where he is fouled, 103-100, 0:30 left in the game.

Scott goes to the line and hits both, the Great Western Forum is rocking, Lakers lead by 5 as Chuck Daly calls timeout.

When the teams come back out security can be seen lining the perimeter of the court in anticipation of what is about to happen. Rodman inbounds to Laimbeer, who throws a cross-court pass to Dumars. The pass is overthrown and Dumars attempts to save it but the ball lands in the hands of Magic Johnson. LA tries to run down the clock as Cooper is fouled with 20 seconds left. Fans are already invading the court as the Lakers fifth championship of the decade is now insight.

Cooper misses both free throws and Detriot calls their final timeout. They draw up a play and Vinnie Johnson shoots a prayer of a 3 point shot and misses. Dumars gets the follow-up and puts it in, 105-102. Lakers give the ball to Worthy who is fouled with 0:14 left. Commentary remarks “these will be the biggest free throws of the season for the Lakers and maybe in franchise history.”

Its a 3 point game, Worthy has to hit 1 of the free throws to put the game out of reach. He misses the first as it bounces in and out. He takes a minute to compose himself, steps to the line and hits the second. 4 point game with 0:14 left, Pistons have no timeouts as Worthy has just completed his stat line for the night, 36 points, 10 assists, and 16 rebounds.

The Pistons sprint the ball up the court in the hope of doing the seemingly impossible. The ball ends up in Laimbeers hands as he throws up a hopeful contested 3 pointer, which hits! 6 seconds left, 106-105 as the Lakers inbound quickly, Magic the recipient, he launches the ball the length of the court to A.C. Green who lays it in with 0:02 left in the game. Laimbeer tries a full-court heave as security staff attempt to hold back the ecstatic crowd but he can’t connect. The buzzer sounds! The floor fills with people as celebrations begin.

Worthy recorded a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Only 3 players have recorded such a feat in NBA history. With the others being Jerry West and LeBron James. A truly amazing performance to answer the call of such a huge moment, and secure himself as Finals MVP.

(Image/Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

After being selected with the number 1 overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, by the Lakers, Worthy would go on to play 12 seasons with the franchise. In that time he earned a Rookie First Team Selection, 7 All-Star selections, 2 All-NBA Third Team selections, an NBA Finals MVP award, 3 NBA Championships and later induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

In 1995, the Lakers made it so no other Laker would wear number 42 again, hanging his jersey in the rafters of The Forum, and now the Staples Center. Becoming the 6th player to have his number retired by the purple and gold. A ceremony held during half time of a game between the Lakers and the Pistons, a fitting tribute to the legendary performances Worthy had against the team.

All these achievements truly show that he deserves his place on this list as a true Laker great!


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