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NBA

Scoring the rivalry: How Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played in their legendary head-to-head matchups

You can't tell the story of the 1980s without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Between 1980 and 1989, there were only two seasons that ended with someone other than Johnson or Bird winning the title. In 1980, 1982, 1985 and 1988, Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to championships, winning three Finals MVPs along the way. In 1981, 1984 and 1986, it was Bird who led the Boston Celtics to championships, with him taking home two Finals MVP awards.

Those other two times? The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Lakers in 1983 and the Detroit Pistons snuck by the Lakers in 1989. So for an entire decade, the NBA Finals included one of the two marquee franchises.

Furthermore, Johnson and Bird earned five of the 10 MVP awards handed out during the 1980s. Bird won three in a row between 1983 and 1986, whereas Johnson closed the decade out with a pair of MVP awards.

It's clear the two dominated the decade, but who got the better of who?

Let's start with the regular season.

Regular season

According to Basketball Reference, Johnson and Bird played against each other 18 times in the regular season throughout their careers. Johnson won 11 of those games, posting averages of 19.4 points, 11.5 assists and 6.8 rebounds in their head-to-head matchups compared to 21.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game for Bird.

Magic vs. Bird (regular season head-to-head matchups)
Player Wins PTS REB AST FG% 3PT% FT%
Magic Johnson 11 19.4 6.8 11.5 49.6 31.6 85.6
Larry Bird 7 21.7 10.9 6.2 50.0 47.4 81.5

Some of Johnson's notable performances against Bird:

  • Feb. 23, 1983: 20 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. The significance? It was the only time Johnson had a triple-double against Bird in the regular season.
  • Feb. 15, 1987: 39 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. The significance? It was the most points Johnson ever scored against Bird.
  • Dec. 15, 1989: 16 points, 21 assists, six rebounds and six steals. The significance? It was one of 23 times in his career that Johnson dished out 20 or more assists. According to Basketball Reference, only John Stockton (38) had more 20-assist games in his NBA career.

As for some of Bird's notable performances against Johnson:

  • Feb. 16, 1986: 22 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists. The significance? It was the most rebounds Bird collected against Johnson in the regular season.
  • Dec. 11, 1987: 35 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and five steals. The significance? It was Bird's highest scoring game against Johnson.
  • Feb. 15, 1991: 11 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. The significance? It was the only time Bird had a triple-double against Johnson. It was also the last time they played against each other in the regular season.

Playoffs

Johnson and Bird played against each other 19 times in the playoffs over the course of three NBA Finals. Bird won the first Finals meeting between them in 1984 and Johnson won the two others; one in 1985, the other in 1987.

As for their averages, Johnson posted 20.7 points, 13.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game in their head-to-head matchups in the Finals compared to Bird's 25.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

Magic vs. Bird (playoffs head-to-head matchups)
Player Wins PTS REB AST FG% 3PT% FT%
Magic Johnson 11 20.7 7.5 13.5 53.3 40.0 83.8
Larry Bird 8 25.3 11.1 4.6 46.0 47.8 86.4

Some notable games between the two of them:

  • Game 4 of the 1984 Finals: Bird goes for 29 points and 21 rebounds. According to Basketball Reference, Bird is one of only seven forwards in NBA history to have a 20-20 game with points and rebounds in the Finals.
  • Game 7 of the 1984 Finals: Bird leads the Celtics to their first championship since the Bill Russell era with 20 points (6-18 FG), 12 rebounds and three assists in Game 7, resulting in the first of two Finals MVP.
  • Game 4 of the 1985 Finals: Bird scores 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to defeat the Lakers in Los Angeles and tie the series at 2-2.
  • Game 2 of the 1987 Finals: Johnson gives the Lakers a 2-0 series lead with a 22-point, 20-assist double-double. According to Basketball Reference, Johnson is the only player in NBA history to have a 20-20 game with points and assists in the Finals.
  • Game 4 of the 1987 Finals: Johnson's sky hook - one of the defining plays of his career - in the closing seconds gives the Lakers a 3-1 series lead.

In case you need to be reminded...

The final score

It's got to be Johnson, right?

At least when it comes to how they fared in their head-to-head matchups.

Johnson had the winning record in the regular season and playoffs, and he took down Bird twice in their three Finals showdowns - although Johnson having the better team had something to do with that.

Which player is ultimately better all-time is a different conversation because that includes a lot more than their individual matchups. Regardless, Johnson and Bird are widely regarded as being two of the greatest players to have ever played the game and they made for one of the greatest rivalries, one that will never be forgotten.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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