The Greatest Lakers of All-Time: Magic Johnson


This is the fifteenth 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 2 – Magic Johnson. We’ll take an in-depth look at perhaps his greatest plays as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Earvin Johnson, nicknamed Magic because of the things he could do with a basketball, played his whole 13 season career with the purple and gold. In those 13 seasons, he played 40,783 minutes in 1,096 games, scoring 21,408 points and accumulating 12,487 assists (1st all-time among Lakers). Since his early retirement in 1991, due to his HIV diagnoses, Johnson has worked for the Lakers as Head Coach, General Manager, an ambassador, and as President of Basketball Operations. He would also make a brief return as a player in 1996.

Following his arrival in Los Angeles in 1979, Johnson became a key piece of a dynamic duo, pairing his playmaking and court vision with the consistent greatness of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This would result in one of the most revered basketball pairings of all-time, bringing the Lakers 5 championships in their 10 seasons playing together.

In his years with the purple and gold, Magic had some truly legendary moments. One would come in his rookie season, Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. He would start at center due to an injury Abdul-Jabbar sustained in the game prior. A young Johnson would lead LA to victory, totaling 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. Another truly memorable moment from Johnson’s career would be his performance in the 1992 NBA All-Star game, finishing the game with 25 points and 9 assists. As he turned back the clock and created a brilliant highlight reel for fans to remember him by.

But for this recap, we have decided to look at the running hook shot he hit over Kevin McHale with 2 seconds left in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.

Magic Johnson’s Sky Hook:

It’s June 9, 1987. It’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Lakers are up 2-1 against the Boston Celtics. The vicious rivals had already met in the Finals twice in the 80s, splitting championship honours as Boston won in ’84 and LA won in ’85. Going in, this finals series had the potential to be the deciding factor in answering the question ‘which team is better?’. Furthermore, ‘which player is better, Magic or Bird?’.

Going into Game 4 the teams had obviously already shared the court in 3 games prior. The first 2 were played in The Great Western Forum. The Lakers would take Game 1 as Magic Johnson and James Worthy would combine for 62 points and 23 assists, in a 126-113 victory. Game 2 would see Los Angeles hold home court once again as 5 players scored at least 20 points, Byron Scott (24), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23), James Worthy (23), Magic Johnson (22) and Michael Cooper (21). Magic would also have 20 assists in his 31 minutes, as the Lakers won 141-122. Game 3 would see the series move coasts as the teams flew to Massachusetts. Boston would claim one back as Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson combined for 56 points, winning the game 109-103.

With the series at 2-1, Game 4 would act as a decider to whether the finals would become a 3 game series, or would the Lakers be able to put their foot on Boston’s neck. The 1st quarter ended in the Celtics’ favour, 29-22. As the Lakers leading scorer in the ’87 Playoffs, Worthy, didn’t score in the first 12 minutes.

The 2nd quarter would be more of the same as the Celtics kept the Lakers at arm’s length. It would conclude with a coming together between Worthy and Boston big man Greg Kite, as Worthy attacked the bucket. There is about 15 seconds left in the half as Worthy rises for the lay-up, Kite fouls him hard as he bounces on the parquet floor. Clearly annoyed, Worthy jumps to his feet and turns to begin an assault on Kite as the Lakers bench invades the court in their own expression of anger. Worthy swings a right hook at Kite’s head as he squares up himself, bodies flood the space between the two as they try and defuse the situation. Both coaches, Pat Riley and K.C. Jones, enter the court as they attempt to break up the skirmish. Riley puts his 6’4” frame into the body of the 6’11” Kite, in an attempt to protect his scoring wing.

The situation slowly cools from boiling point, both players are awarded technicals as Worthy steps to the line to shoot a pair of free throws. He hits both with the clock at 15 seconds. The Celtics come up the other way as McHale hits a fade-away jumper with 1 second left, concluding the 1st half, 55-47. Johnson led the Lakers in scoring in the first 24 minutes, with 19, the next best was Worthy with 7.

The 3rd quarter would first see the Celtics extend their lead further, going 8/9 and putting themselves up by 16, with 6 minutes gone in the half. A common problem the Lakers found when facing the slower-paced Celtics of the 80s was when they weren’t missing the Lakers wouldn’t get the fast-break opportunities their offence was built for. In an attempt to counteract this, Riley would make his team quicker. Going with a lineup of Cooper, Scott, Worthy, A.C. Green, and Mychal Thompson. As Magic leaves the game with 3:30 left in the quarter, he has 27 points. Boston continues to rally as the Lakers call a timeout, 2:55 left, 81-67 in the Celtics’ favour.

LA would come out with a reviewed defensive game plan. They would begin to run doubles at the ball handler, forcing the Celtics to make rushed offensive decisions. This paired with the elite speed of the line-up allowed a defensive player to leave their man, to double and return to the open offensive player before they had the opportunity to put up an open shot. This would work as intended, as the Celtics began to miss shots, the Lakers began to find fast-break opportunities. Something particularly effective with the quick foot speed of the group Riley had put on the floor. A specific game plan LA would use when Magic was on the bench, as Riley didn’t like using up Johnson’s energy chasing the ball around on the defensive end. Something both Scott and Cooper were built for.

This was working well before another fight broke out with a minute to play in the 3rd. Scott would be fouled by Bird as he went up for the lay-up on the fast-break. A.C. Green would follow up the court, applauding the officials’ decision. McHale took issue with this as he comes up behind Green and shoves him. Scott then shoves him back as he defends his teammate. The players then get into a pushing match as the Boston bench flood the floor and separate the 3. Yet another example of the burning rivalry between the two teams. This would see out the 3rd as the Lakers had managed to cut a 16 point deficit to 7. Boston lead 85-78.

The 4th quarter starts with a scare for the Lakers as Magic Johnson collides with Larry Bird and they bump knees. Johnson had chronic knee problems throughout his career and the Lakers couldn’t have hoped for a worse time for it to rear its ugly head. He would leave the game as his teammates tried to hold down the fort in his absence. This would only last a few possessions as the Lakers were desperate to get their MVP ball handler back on the floor. He returns after about a minute, suffering from a clear limp.

8 minutes left in the game and the lead sits at 93-86 in Boston’s favour. By the time the clock strikes 6 minutes left the Lakers have tied the score 93-93, thanks to a parade to the line powered by Boston’s foul trouble. The Lakers had pulled a 16 point deficit back level as they looked to assert some dominance in the 4th quarter. A call that the Celtics would answer first, going on an 8-2 run and forcing Riley to call a timeout. 4:22 left, 101-95.

The momentum is well and truly with the home team at the Boston Garden as the players come back. The clock continues to tick as the Lakers struggle to score. 2 minutes left, the score is 103-96. Los Angeles call another timeout. Mychal Thompson would go to the line to shoot 2 as the teams returned, he goes 1 for 2 as the score is 103-97.

Boston comes up the other way and gives the ball to Robert Parish in the post, something that had worked throughout the game for them. LA double him and snatch the ball as they run out on the fast-break. The ball finds Magic as he runs for the paint. He gives it up to Cooper on the right-wing as he is wide open. He shoots it from behind the arc and connects, 103-100, 1:30 left.

The Celtics come up the floor and throw it out of bounds 10 seconds into their possession. The Lakers inbound and run the ball up the court in a rush to make something happen, giving it to Worthy at the right short corner. He’ll dribble into the paint before he is doubled, pitching up a hook shot from the center of the paint as it snugs through. 103-102, 1 minute left. Boston calls for time.

They come back and the Celtics decide they are going to live and die with their star Small Forward, Bird. They bring it up the floor and Bird ends up throwing up a contested right short corner fade-away. It bounces off the rim as Thompson retrieves the rebound, 44 seconds left. Johnson brings the ball up the floor and sets up shop at the right-wing, letting his teammates initiate the play. Cooper sets a screen deep in the paint, allowing Abdul-Jabbar to catch-and-slam a wide-open ally-oop. The Lakers take their first lead since the first 3 minutes of the game, 104-103, 29 seconds left. K.C. Jones calls for time.

They’ll come back out as Boston has advanced the inbound into the frontcourt. Dennis Johnson will start with the ball, and he runs a pick-and-roll with Parish as they get the switch. He delivers the ball into Parish as he is doubled in the post. Parish bounces it back out to the open Johnson who is then doubled himself. Johnson gives it to an open Ainge as LA chase the ball around the floor. Bird is open in the left corner as the ball is projected towards him, he puts up the 3 and laces the net as it drops through. The Garden erupts as the Lakers call a timeout. 106-104 to Boston, 12 seconds left.

Cooper inbounds the ball when the teams come back. He gives it to Magic on the left wing who immediately floats the rock to Abdul-Jabber in the left high post. He backs down Parish and tries to put up a hook shot but is fouled, he’ll shoot 2 at the line, a chance to tie the game. The Boston crowd wave everything they can in an effort to distract the NBA’s All-Time leading scorer. He hits the first but misses the second as the ball is knocked out of bounds on the rebound. Lakers ball. The camera shows Riley checking with his bench that he has a timeout left. Confirmation given, he calls his final timeout. 7 seconds left, 106-105.

They come back in as Cooper will inbound once again. Magic and Worthy run a split play as they force the Celtics to switch. Magic receives the ball on the left corner as he is now guarded by McHale. He fakes a shot before dribbling in-and-out, 5 seconds left. LA spread the court as Magic drives towards the center of the paint. He picks up the ball with 3 seconds left, taking 2 quick steps as he runs across the paint. He jumps off his left foot with the ball in his right palm, McHale and Parish jump with him as they try and stop the ball. Magic floats up a hook shot as he swings his arm around to 12 o’clock and releases. The Spalding ball floats towards the rim as the clock strikes 2 seconds left. If this misses the Celtics have the ball game. But it doesn’t. The ball laces the net, creating the beautiful ‘swish’ sound as Magic connects for his only 2 points of the quarter. 2 seconds left, 107-106 to the Lakers.

Celtics call timeout as the energy is sucked out of the crowd inside the Boston Garden. When they come back they manage to get Bird an open shot from the same corner he had connected from just 10 seconds of game time before. He misses however, as the final buzzer sounds. Commentary exclaims “and the Lakers have won and Pat Riley and the Lakers dance off the court”.

The Lakers would go up 3-1 in the series, eventually winning 4-2 in 6 games. Magic Johnson would win his 3rd Finals MVP with averages of 26.2 PPG, 13 APG, 8 RPG and 2.3 SPG. A huge achievement that continues to be a key point between Bird and Magic fans to this day. A statistic that sits in Magic’s favour. This would also see an end to the Boston Celtics dominant period in the 80s, as the Lakers went on to win another championship the following season. Another key piece of history in a war that rages between the Lakers and Celtics to this day.

(Image/Andrew D. Bernstein/1985 NBAE)

In the summer of 1976, the New Orleans Jazz (later the Utah Jazz) would sign former Laker Gail Goodrich. At the time league rules stated that the signing of a high-level free agent required the team losing out to be compensated, this came in the form of draft picks. One of these draft picks would turn into the number 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft. The Lakers would use it to select a young Magic Johnson.

In his time with the purple and gold he a earned an All-Rookie Team selection, 2 NBA steals titles, 4 NBA assist titles, 12 NBA All-Star Selections, 2 NBA All-Star MVPs, an All-NBA Second Team selection, 9 All-NBA First Team selections, 3 NBA MVPs, 5 NBA Championships, 3 NBA Finals MVPs, and later an induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

In 1992 the franchise made it so no other Laker would wear number 32 again. Hanging his jersey in the rafters of The Forum, and now the Staples Center. Becoming the 5th player to have his number retired by the Los Angeles Lakers. All these achievements more than cement his number 2 place as a true Laker great!

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