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The Two and Only
Bob Ryan
December 14, 1992
During their glorious 13-year rivalry, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson measured themselves by one standard: each other
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December 14, 1992

The Two And Only

During their glorious 13-year rivalry, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson measured themselves by one standard: each other

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They would never be even again. Magic's talents were peaking, and he was assuming more and more of the offensive burden for the Lakers. In 1984-85 he scored 37 points to outdo Bird's 33 as the Lakers won the second L.A.-Boston meeting of the season 117-111. That was a prelude to the Finals rematch in the spring.

The Celtics won the first game of that series 148-114, but the humbled Lakers rallied around their captain, Abdul-Jabbar, to win Game 2, in Boston. After the teams split Games 3 and 4, Kareem had 36 points and Magic contributed 26 points and 17 assists as L.A. took control of the playoffs with a 120-111 victory at the Forum. The Lakers regained the championship in Boston, beating the Celtics 111-100 with series MVP Abdul-Jabbar scoring 29 and Magic turning in a triple double of 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.

The next season was a triumph for Bird and a frustration for Magic. Boston had 67 regular-season victories and then won the championship by defeating Houston in six games. Bird was now even with Magic where it counted most: Each had won three championships in his seven years in the league. The Lakers had been upset by the Rockets in the Western Conference finals, and Riley speculated aloud that perhaps Los Angeles fans should start lowering their sights.

That judgment turned out to be premature, for the 1986-87 Lakers turned out to be one of the best teams of all time. Magic, unquestionably the league's best player, won the first of his three MVP awards. "For overall contributions, nobody else was close," said Bird. He would know; he had three regular-season MVP titles of his own.

Among Magic's sweet triumphs in the 1986-87 season was the victory that snapped a 38-game Celtic winning streak at Boston Garden. Even more spectacular was a February meeting between the two teams in Los Angeles. Entering the game, the Celtics and the Lakers had identical records (37-12). L.A. rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit behind Magic's heroics (39 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists) to sweep the season series. "I don't remember many regular-season games," Riley says, "but I remember that one. I can still see Magic coming out of a spin for a key three-point play and then running by our bench with a big grin."

The Lakers were prohibitive favorites in the 1987 Finals, both because they were so good and because the Celtics were plagued by injuries and lacked depth. And, indeed, it turned out to be a Magic show from start to finish. He began with 29 points and 13 assists in L.A.'s opening-game victory and followed that with 22 points and 20 assists as the Lakers went up 2-0. He added 32 points in Game 3, even though the Celtics pulled out a victory. Then came that epic fourth game.

The hook shot that won the game was Magic's newest trick. He had been working on it with Abdul-Jabbar and called it his "junior, junior skyhook." One of the hallmarks of the Magic-Bird rivalry was the way each expanded his game over the years. Magic added a hook and lengthened the range on his set shot—he was one of the few modern players not to shoot a jumper—to three-point land. Bird became a far better post-up player and perfected his lefthand dribble. The college performances of Magic and Bird that had seemed so extraordinary were almost primitive by comparison.

Boston, playing on pride, salvaged the fifth game and sent the teams back to L.A., where Magic capped off his year with 16 points and 19 assists as the Lakers won the title in six games. "He's the best player in the game," said Riley, and no one could argue, least of all Bird, the New England regional president of the Magic Johnson Fan Club. "Magic plays basketball the way you should play the game," he said. "He's the greatest all-around team player in basketball."

The two would never meet at the summit again. L.A. successfully defended its title in 1988 against the Detroit Pistons, while Boston began a slow decline. But there was one more dazzling duel. In Boston Garden on Dec. 12, 1987, Bird threw in 35 points, to go with eight rebounds and nine assists, and led the Celtics to a 114-113 edge with two seconds left. That was just enough time for Magic to take an in-bounds pass and sink an off-the-wrong-foot, 22-foot banker to win the game. "I must say, they gave him the right nickname," said Abdul-Jabbar.

For the rivalry, though, that was the beginning of the end. A series of injuries began to rob Bird of his greatness. He missed virtually all of 1988-89 while recuperating from heel surgery, and he tasted only one more victory in direct competition with Magic. On Feb. 15, 1991, Bird put together a modest triple double (11-11-11) in the Forum as the Celtics beat the Lakers 98-85. The next time the two would be on the playing floor together would be as 1992 Olympic teammates.

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