The 5 Toughest Championship Runs in Los Angeles Lakers History, Ranked

Brad Sullivan
13 Min Read

On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers captured their 17th championship in franchise history. 11 of those titles have occurred within the past four decades, with some of those title runs turning out to be more challenging than others.

Below is a list of the five most difficult championship paths that were forged by the Lakers. Each of these runs saw instances where the Lakers were in danger of being eliminated only to change course and bring a title back to Southern California.

5. 1985

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

Prior to facing the Boston Celtics in the finals for the second year in a row, the Lakers had no problems dispatching their Western Conference foes. Following a 62-20 regular season, the Lakers started off with a three-game sweep of the Phoenix Suns, followed by 4-1 series victories over the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.

While revenge for their seven-game loss the year before against the Celtics was on the Lakers’ mind, so was the psychological barrier of never having beaten Boston in the finals. On eight previous occasions, the first coming when the team was still in Minnesota, the Lakers only knew heartbreak against the Celtics.

That mental aspect reared its ugly head in Game 1, when the Celtics destroyed the Lakers, 148-114, in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. The Lakers did bounce back to win the next two games but then dropped Game 4 at home in a tough 107-105 defeat.

Pat Riley’s squad won Game 5, but still faced the prospect of having to clinch the title in the house of horrors known as Boston Garden.

In Game 6, a 55-55 deadlock at halftime gave way to the Lakers finally opening up a nine-point lead by the end of the third quarter. With Finals MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the way, the Lakers took advantage of the Celtics’ Kevin McHale fouling out to salt away the win and capture the title on the infamous parquet floor.

4. 1980

1980 Lakers

With Abdul-Jabbar starting his fourth season with the Lakers and the addition of rookie Magic Johnson, the Lakers were hoping that new head coach Jack McKinney could lead them to a title.

However, McKinney nearly died in a biking accident just 14 games into the season, elevating Paul Westhead to the head coaching role. Under Westhead, the Lakers finished with a Western Conference-best record of 60-22 and eliminated both the Phoenix Suns and the defending champion Seattle Supersonics in five games.

That success put them in the finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that had seemingly been destined for a title for the past four seasons but had come up short.

The Lakers took Game 1 at home, but then watched the Sixers race out to a 59-41 halftime advantage in Game 2. That huge deficit was too much overcome and the Lakers dropped a 107-104 decision, with two games in Philly next on the docket.

Putting together a strong first quarter helped the Lakers win Game 3, but the 76ers evened things up with a 105-102 win to send the series back to Los Angeles.

In the third quarter of Game 5, Abdul-Jabbar suffered a sprained ankle. Yet, despite the pain, he ended up scoring the winning basket in the final minute of the Lakers’ 108-103 win.

For Game 6 in Philadelphia, the Lakers were forced to use Johnson at center, but the move paid off with an iconic performance. Johnson finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in the 123-107 Lakers victory, marking the start of a legendary decade for the franchise.

3. 2010

Lakers and Celtics

Facing the Celtics in the finals for the second time in three seasons, the Lakers were hoping for a better result than their six-game defeat two years earlier.

The Lakers finished 57-25 in the regular season, then eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder in a tough six-game series. That was followed by a sweep of the Utah Jazz, which led to a matchup against the Phoenix Suns in which the two teams split the first four games.

In Game 5, the Lakers blew an 18-point lead and needed a buzzer-beating put-back by Ron Artest to win 103-101. Two nights later in Phoenix, the Lakers built a 17-point lead after three quarters and clinched the series with a 111-103 win.

Defense would be the Lakers’ calling card in this finals, with Boston only breaking the 100-point threshold once in the seven-game series.

The two teams split the first four games, with the Celtics taking a 3-2 advantage with a 92-86 victory. In that loss, Kobe Bryant scored 38 points and Pau Gasol collected a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds for the Lakers.

Intent on extending the series, the Lakers delivered a huge defensive effort in Game 6 by allowing only 31 first-half points to the Celtics en route to an 89-67 win.

In a tension-filled Game 7, the Celtics took a 57-53 advantage into the final quarter, but Bryant’s two free throws with 5:56 left gave the Lakers the lead for good.

Still, the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo drilled a 3-pointer with 16.2 seconds remaining to chop the Lakers’ lead to 81-79. Sasha Vujacic’s two free throws then provided breathing room in the 83-79 victory, marking the last of five titles during the Bryant era.

2. 1988

Isiah Thomas Lakers

Trying to become the first team since 1969 Celtics to win consecutive NBA titles. the Lakers entered the postseason after finishing 62-20 during the regular season and started off with a three-game sweep of the San Antonio Spurs.

From that point, the road to another championship became more perilous, beginning with a seven-game series against the Jazz.

The two teams split the first four games, with Game 5 being decided in the final moments. Trailing by a point, Michael Cooper’s only basket of the game with seven seconds left helped the Lakers emerge with a 111-109 win.

After a blowout loss in Game 6, the Lakers advanced to the conference finals on the strength of Byron Scott’s 29 points and Johnson’s double-double to win 109-98.

Facing the Dallas Mavericks, home-court advantage meant everything in the series, with each team winning three games apiece to set up Game 7. Clinging to a one-point halftime lead, the Lakers took control and headed to the finals following a 117-102 win.

Against the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers dropped the opener and found themselves having to win the final two games of the series to win another title.

Both of those games would be played in Los Angeles, with Game 6 evolving into a stress-filled classic. Trailing 102-99 with one minute left, the Lakers fought back as two free throws by Abdul-Jabbar with 14 seconds to go kept their season alive.

The victory came despite an incredible performance by Detroit’s Isiah Thomas, who scored 43 points, including an NBA-record 25 during the third quarter. Unfortunately, he also suffered an injured ankle that affected his Game 7 performance.

In that all-or-nothing contest, the Lakers held a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter, but with six seconds left, that margin was a single point. Johnson’s baseball pass to A.C. Green clinched the game and gave the Lakers another title.

1. 2020

LeBron James Lakers

The path to this year’s title was seemingly littered with roadblocks at different points along the way. The sheer length of the season saw the season begin with the start of training camp in late September 2019 and end with the finals on Oct. 11, 2020.

During the team’s training camp, injuries cropped up and during the Lakers’ preseason trip to China, the team inadvertently became entangled in international politics. That prompted an ill-advised tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, making new head coach Frank Vogel’s life more complicated.

Once the season began, the Lakers thrived and had a 36-10 record on Jan. 25, but were about to experience an unimaginable tragedy the following day.

News of the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven other people in a helicopter crash, stunned the basketball world and devastated the Lakers’ organization.

After regrouping to win 13 of their next 16 games, the Lakers and the rest of the NBA then saw the season abruptly stop on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With no indications if the 2019-20 season would even be resumed, the Lakers remained in limbo until the NBA bubble setup began in July.

Over a three-month span, the Lakers first completed the shortened regular season before starting off the postseason against the Portland Trail Blazers. After dropping the first game, four consecutive wins sent them to the Western Conference semifinals.

Following the same pattern against the Houston Rockets, an opening game loss was followed by four straight wins.

The Lakers were no doubt expecting to face their fellow Staples Center tenants, the Los Angeles Clippers, in the conference finals. However, the Clippers watched a 3-1 lead in their series against the Denver Nuggets disappear, ending their season.

While the Lakers won their series against the Nuggets in five games, they needed a clutch 3-pointer at the buzzer by Anthony Davis to win Game 2.

Then, facing an aggressive Miami Heat team in the finals, the Lakers won the first two games but had no answer for the Heat’s Jimmy Butler in Game 3.

The Lakers captured Game 4, but their bid to end the series last Friday night failed after a 3-point attempt in the closing seconds missed.

In Sunday night’s Game 6, the Lakers didn’t miss much, jumping out to a 64-36 halftime lead and coasting to a 106-93 triumph.

While the twists and turns of the season were exhausting, this particular championship run was a testament to perseverance.


Every championship team experiences pitfalls over the course of a season, making a title run all the more satisfying. The Lakers have now had the luxury of experiencing the joy of a championship 12 times since arriving in Los Angeles in 1960 and are hoping that this latest title is the start of another era of success

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Brad is a freelance writer for, who can clearly recall watching Lakers games in 1972 as they captured the first of their 11 Los Angeles-based titles. The franchise's evolution into a beloved and iconic franchise among its fan base since that memorable year allows for a wider perspective to be a part of his writing about the team's current fortunes.