How the 1979-80 warned the Lakers of the rise of the small ball

HBO’s “Time to Win” ended the first season of the Los Angeles Lakers’ premiere story. The second season is supposed to focus on the Laker-Celtic battles of the 1980s, with the possibility of a third season about the Shaq-Kobe miniature dynasty and its collapse. The TV series deserves its own season.

The first season of “Winning Time” was admired and cursed, fun and disappointing, funny and stupid, subtle and inaccurate. The show’s portrayal of Lakers legend Jerry West was particularly controversial, though the show toned down his character as the season went on. Other photos looked more accurate. In particular, the actor playing Magic Johnson was able to perfect Magic’s smile and personality, and even imitate his unique style of basketball.

Since I’m a basketball coach and not a TV critic, this will focus on the basketball portion of the series, and in particular, “Winning Time’s” handling of the last game in the 1979-1980 Finals. Die-hard fans may remember that the Lakers’ 1979-1980 season began with Samaa hook Kareem Abdul-Jabbar winning the first game of that season. As with the first game of the season, Karim was a key component of how the last game of the Magic’s rookie year turned into a defining game in NBA history. While Karim’s presence was key to the first game, his absence was the story of the last game, both in reality and in the re-creation of “Winning Time”.

In a Lakers 5 win over 76, Karim rolled his ankle and sprained him severely. (Cream often hit his ankles, but not his knees. He said he wore low tops for this reason—accepting the risk of spraining the ankles to avoid a more serious injury traveling from top of the leg to the knee. I have no idea if that theory has medical validity, but it I swear it.) ‘Win Time’ accurately captured the injury – and Karim returned to the field to lead the Lakers to victory.

His badly injured ankle means he won’t be able to play in Game 6 in Philadelphia. The Lakers kept him in Los Angeles to avoid the effect that two long trips would have on his swollen ankle – the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6, back for Game 7. (The league has yet to move to 2-3. Figure -2 for the Finals, which reduces travel.) The scene in which In it, magical flight pioneers board a Lakers plane to Philadelphia and take a generous “Captain” seat on the made-for-good-TV flight, and it looks like it really happened.

Both on the show and in reality, everyone expected the 76ers to win Game 6, and for good reason. Despite the show’s focus on Magic, Karim was the Lakers’ best player all season. In the playoffs, he averaged 31.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 3.9 blocks — and that was all from a 33-year-old. People forget how good Karim was, probably because our last memories of him came when he was finishing his career in his forties. But he was the best college player ever, won a championship with the Bucks, and won a record-breaking NBA MVP award six times. He was also the only player to win MVP while playing for a team that didn’t play the playoffs, the Lakers 74-75.

Important to our story, and to the plot of “Winning Time”, one of Kareem’s best players in the 1979-1980 season. When the Lakers went on the road for that Game 6 in Philadelphia, he was without the league’s best player: top player, scorer, soccer player, blocker, and captain.

To add to the problem, the Lakers faced a very good 76ers team led by Julius Irving, as well as other notable players like Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones. For Lakers fans, the 76ers twin towers of Caldwell Jones and Daryl Dawkins have caused the most concern. Without Karim, the Lakers only had one real player, Jim Shones, to try and cover their two VIPs. Much of the basketball world agreed – which is why (almost) everyone (almost) at the time and in the “Winning Time” version assumed the 76ers would win Game 6 and force Game 7 back into the forum, with squiggly cream on the ankle.

I recently rewatched actual Game 6, and Bill Russell’s pre-match analysis gave me a new appreciation for it. Instead of focusing on how the smaller Lakers will cover the 76ers, he asks a very recent question: How will the 76ers cover the Lakers? If Dawkins covers Chones, who can Caldwell Jones cover? Russell predicted the Lakers would win because they would be too fast for the 76ers to cover them. It seems to have traveled back in time from the present, when teams try to take advantage of slower big players. Before everyone understood, Bill Russell in 1980 realized that sometimes fast is better than big.

Using current slang, the 1980 Lakers went for a “little ball” on the bigger and stronger 76ers team — and it worked.

If you go back and watch the actual game (not the “Winning Time” version) with modern basketball eyes, you’ll see why Jones and (especially) Dawkins didn’t beat the smaller Lakers. Remember, the Lakers replaced 7’2″ Karim with 6’6″ (and about 190 pounds) Michael Cooper: a fast, excellent defender.

Just like the Lakers, 76 players scored a zero in Game 6. Without the three-point shot threat, the faster Lakers were able to fill in the paint, making it difficult for the 76 players to get the ball to their greatest. When the defensive team doesn’t have to spread out to guard the three-point line, they can more easily crowd post players, making it very difficult for players who aren’t from Karim to dominate inside. When the 76ers got the ball, the Lakers were quick to sweep them. As a result, Dawkins, who Lakers fans feared being fed inside, ended up with just 14 points, with 5 turns and 5 fouls.

The older players also had problems with boxing the fastest players, especially after the movement of the ball. To be sure, the Lakers had 17 offensive rebounds in 47 missed shots, while 76 players had only 7 of 42 fouls.

While “Winning Time” doesn’t address actual stats from the game, Magic scored 42 points with 15 boards and 7 assists, including 14-14 on free throws.

It also helped that the Lakers always had Jamal Wilkes, who won the crown with the Rick Barry Warriors when a rookie Jamal was known as Keith Wilkes. In this game, the player known as Silk scored 37 points (16 against 30 from the floor) and 10 rebounds. Wilkes’ treatment is the biggest “mistake” in the “Winning Time” version of the game. The TV show largely ignores Silk, focusing instead on Norm Nixon. The show made it seem like Nixon, not Silk, was the second best player on the Lakers that night. In fact, Nixon had a terrible shooting game (1 for 10, for 4 points) even though he had 9 assists.

Since the Lakers did not have Kareem for Game 6, people often say that Magic played the Lakers center. “Winning Time” interferes with this story, with injured coach Jack McKinney even coming up with a game plan inviting Magic to play center, but that’s not an accurate description of what actually happened that night.

Magic jumped as the center of the game’s start. He did it almost as a joke, perhaps to get rid of the 76ers, but for the rest of the game, he did what he did all year—splitting point guard duties with Nixon, running the floor, and only occasionally posting when the mood suited him. In essence, Magic played all the positions and played none, like many of the lesser-signed stars today. Perhaps, like Bill Russell, Rookie Magic also traveled back in time to Philly for the game.

But please correct anyone who tells you the Magic Quarterback. Don’t let the myth repeated in “time to win” overwhelm the truth. The truth is wonderful enough.

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