Blizzard 72-29 (0-2)
Stars 85-6 (2-0)
|Score (click for boxscore)||Game MVP||Hi Points||Hi Rebounds||Hi Assists|
|1. Stars 146, Blizzard 129||Magic Johnson||27 Mark Aguirre||14 Karl Malone||14 Doc Rivers|
|2. Stars 144, Blizzard 135||Magic Johnson||36 Magic Johnson||18 Michael Cage||15 Magic Johnson|
|3. Stars 154, Blizzard 147||Doc Rivers||28 Magic/Kersey/Malone||19 Blair Rasmussen||10 Doc Rivers|
|4. Blizzard 157, Stars 148||Mark Aguirre||35 Mark Aguirre||13 Michael Cage||11 Doc Rivers|
|5. Stars 163, Blizzard 155||Jerome Kersey||34 Clyde Drexler||19 Michael Cage||12 Magic Johnson|
Game 1 – The 1987-88 Vintage Hoops Finals offered an intriguing and classic matchup: in one corner were your East Finals and league defending champs from Fresno, the most prolific squad in this league’s storied nine-year history. The record during the past two seasons has been simply astounding: just six regular season losses in two years: after capturing the title last year with an 81-1 mark before it plowed through this year’s regular season with a 77-5 mark. In advancing through the playoffs this year, the Stars continue defending their title as they attempt to carve out the makings of a wonderous dynasty. Incredibly savvy roster moves by Joe Watkins has yielded a core of two dream teamers, Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing, complemented by Alvin Robertson, Jerome Kersey, Michael Cage and Doc Rivers. By contrast, in the other corner was a team with humble beginnings to say the least. Just making these finals presented a goosebump moment for a Buffalo Blizzard franchise that just four short years ago wrapped up a putrid 18-64 season. But then a fortuitous bounce of the ping pong ball brought Karl Malone to complement Tom Chambers and Clyde Drexler and then before this latest season began, Kevin Willis was shipped out for Mark Aguirre in a swing for the fences trade that has ultimately brought Buffalo to this very place. Buffalo required two game 7 playoff wins against outstanding El Paso and Costa Mesa squads to reach this Finals. The home-court advantaged Stars were the rightful four-point favorite as the teams tipped off in Fresno for Game 1. The Blizzard showed signs of first final jitters early, and despite an early 8-7 lead, the opening period was won by the host Stars, 38-31, capped off by a 7-2 Fresno run to close the quarter during a stretch in which Drexler was on the bench with foul trouble (two early personals). In the second period, it was Stars center Patrick Ewing who found himself on the bench with foul trouble; he exited with his third foul with 8:45 to play in the half and Buffalo was able to take advantage and tie the contest 65-65 with 3:08 to play before intermission. But the Blizzard again wilted late in the period, as the Stars scored the last 10 points (three of the baskets came on fastbreak opportunities which lifted Fresno to the 75-65 halftime lead. The momentum continued for the Stars as the Blizzard remained flat early in the third, and the Stars extended the lead five and a half minutes into the third quarter for a 94-76 lead. From there, the Blizzard couldn’t cut the lead closer than 13 points all evening and by the end of the third, Fresno led 113-95. What became clear as the Stars seized a stranglehold on this contest was that a deep bench has been an ingredient to this team’s two-year reign of dominance: nine of the 11 players it suited up scored in the third period and that seemed to wear down Buffalo for good. The outcome of this game was never in question through the fourth period as Fresno would roll 146-129 for a 1-0 series lead. While Aguirre held up his end of the bargain for the Blizzard (he had 25 of his 27 points by the end of the third), more was clearly needed from the rest of this team as the Mailman and others failed to deliver. Malone shot just eight of 18 for the night for 23 points and Drexler never got in the flow after his early foul trouble and finished with only nine points in 15 minutes of play while collecting five fouls. Buffalo shot just 42 percent from the field (Fresno at home converted 53 percent of its field goal attempts, by contrast). Ewing would ultimately foul out but still managed 18 points in 21 minutes (including eight in the fourth quarter). Fresno starters Doc Rivers (13 points) and Kersey (15 points) would also be plagued with foul trouble (each had five when the final buzzer sounded), but depth carried the night for the Stars with eight players in double figures in an incredibly balanced scoring clinic (and all 11 Stars who suited up would ultimately score). Even Paul Pressey, ninth off the bench, got into the act with 14 points in under 17 minutes (eight of those points came in the third period to help finish off Buffalo). Michael Cage held his own at power forward against Malone (20 points and 13 rebounds). Backup center Blair Rasmussen shined when Ewing was out, pouring in 18 points in 25 minutes. And your MVP for the Stars was Magic Johnson who displayed his normally steady presence with 23 points, nine rebounds and 7 assists in 37 minutes, mainly playing at shooting guard. The Stars, with late first and second quarter spurts and an opening third period that finished off the Blizzard, grabbed command of this series as this series remains in Fresno for Game 2.
Game 2 – Selland Arena was again the site of Game 2 of the VBA Finals where the host Fresno Stars, who have stampeded to an 86-6 record (including the playoffs where it is 9-1) sought to put themselves in the driver’s seat for a second straight decisive championship, following a 146-129 Game 1 win. As for the Buffalo Blizzard, who were continuing a storied season featuring 60-wins in the regular season followed by lots of playoff thrills in reaching these finals, it was back to the drawing board as coaches made some tweaks following the opening loss. After a bench letdown in Game 1 in which Fresno reserves dominated to ensure the victory, Buffalo coaches elected to tighten up the Blizzard lineup while still activating a retiring legend, World B. Free that had seen little time in these playoffs (perhaps the Blizzard was seeking a good luck charm more than anything else). At least in the first quarter, the adjustments seemed to keep the Blizzard alive as it looked to even things up, with both teams ending the opening period tied at 30. Mark Aguirre led the way for Buffalo with nine points in the period, while Doc Rivers and Jerome Kersey each had 7 for the Stars. But, as in Game 1, the Fresno Stars strung together an electrifying late second quarter surge: the game was tied 42-42 with 7 minutes left to play in the first half following a Buffalo John Battle basket but the Stars, led by Magic Johnson (a quarter-high 10 points) and Patrick Ewing and Kersey (eight points each) doubled the Blizzard the rest of the period, 26-13 for a 74-62 lead as the teams went to the lockers. Led by Clyde Drexler however (13 points in the third period), Buffalo showed its first signs of true fight in this series in the early stages of the second half: it outscored Fresno 35-27 in the third period to close the gap to 101-96 entering the fourth and with Drexler leading the way early in the fourth, the Blizzard reduced the deficit to 111-109 with 8:25 to play. But Buffalo seemed to lose steam in the bid for a comeback the rest of the way. Magic, not surprisingly, showed up when it mattered most and scored 16 points in the fourth and after Buffalo pulled within that basket the Stars blazed to a frenetic 15-4 run within the next three minutes to grab a 126-113 lead at the halfway point, then held serve the rest of the way. Buffalo couldn’t pull to within single digits until a basket by Tom Chambers with nine seconds left. In another incredibly disappointing showing, one in which the Blizzard were within striking distance of an upset that would ensure a split on the road against their world beating hosts, Buffalo faltered mightily at the end of both halves, and this time lost 144-135. Johnson (17 of 21 shooting) turned in a legendary performance, coming within a whisker of a triple double with 36 points 15 assists and nine rebounds. Kersey added 24 and Michael Cage and Ewing each poured in 22 points. Fresno shot 52 percent from the field and limited the Blizzard to 42 percent shooting as both Fresno’s backcourt and frontcourt gelled. Drexler, who had a dismal Game 1 showing, bounced back admirably and almost recorded a triple double of his own with 29 points 11 rebounds and nine rebounds to keep his team in this contest until the bitter end. Battle added 22 points, but Buffalo’s frontcourt was less than stellar: Karl Malone scored just 15 and fouled out after just over 23 minutes of play and Aguirre (after his torrid start), and Chambers finished with only 17 and 12 points respectively. The Stars seemed poised to lay claim to a second straight championship as they left Fresno for the chillier environs of Buffalo for Games 3 and 4 (and yes, those cooler temperatures hold true even in the summer). As other teams have discovered before it, the Blizzard may need to go through a painful post-season learning process before it can truly contend for a title of its own and join heralded teams like Fresno that have already climbed the mountaintop.
Game 3 – Fresno held serve on its home court and now heads to Buffalo, where it figured the Blizzard would be extremely tough. Buffalo came out strong, taking a 9-2 lead from the tip. Things looked better for Buffalo when Patrick Ewing had to go to the bench just 2:45 into the contest with 2 fouls. Despite Ewing’s absence, Fresno worked its way back into the game, taking its first lead, 28-27 at the 4:52 mark. The Stars got its lead up to 5 points before the Blizzard cut it to one. A Jawann Oldham bucket with 10 seconds left in the quarter left the score at 43-40 Fresno after one. Mark Aguirre and Jerome Kersey each scored 13 to lead their teams. Ewing picked up his 3rd foul just 15 seconds into the second quarter, and Buffalo took advantage, taking a 57-53 lead at the 5:46 mark and kept its momentum to take a 74-68 lead into halftime. Aguirre led all scorers with 21 points, supported by Drexler’s 15 and Malone’s 15. Kersey continued to lead Fresno with 16 points, supported by Rivers with 13 and Magic with 11. Buffalo came storming out of the lockers, outscoring Fresno 22-10 to take a 96-78 lead with 6:48 to play in the third behind a balanced attack. Fresno decided to employ a half-court trap. The adjustment worked, as Fresno cut the lead down to just 2 points, 106-104 with 59 seconds to play in the quarter. However, both Ewing and Cage had to sit with 4 fouls. Foul trouble started to affect Buffalo as well, with Cartwright and Chambers each with 4 fouls. Fresno was able to tie the score at 108 going into the fourth quarter. In the fourth, the Stars decided to keep up its trapping defense. The teams battled back and forth all quarter long, with neither team gaining more than a 6-point lead. With 2:18 left, the teams were tied at 141. Ewing, quiet for most of the game with foul trouble, hit one of two free throws to give Fresno a 142-141 lead. Magic followed that up with a fast break basket to give Fresno a 144-141 advantage. Sedale Threat hit two free throws to pull Buffalo within one at 144-143, but that was as close as Buffalo would get, as Fresno hit its free throws down the stretch to pull out a very tough 154-147 victory. Game MVP Doc Rivers scored 27 points and dished out 10 assists to lead Fresno. Buffalo had a balanced attack of Malone (28 points), Drexler (27), and Aguirre (26). Coach Joe Watkins was thrown out of the game with two technical fouls. The Stars, maybe not surprisingly, played much better in his absence.
Game 4 – In Game 3, the halfcourt trap helped Fresno come back for victory, so coach Joe Watkins thought he’d try it to start Game 4. Well, at the 5:10 mark, with Buffalo leading 24-19 on 69% shooting, Coach Joe decided to call off the trap. Not trapping didn’t help Fresno much either, as Buffalo led 43-38 after one. In the second, Fresno was able to tie the game 62-62 with 5:47 remaining. In the last 3 minutes, Buffalo went on a 14-6 run to take an 84-75 lead into the lockers. Buffalo’s offense continued to be unstoppable, shooting 61% from the field. Fresno was able to cut the score to 101-99 in the first six minutes of the third quarter. Both teams suffered from foul trouble. Michael Cage and Alvin Robertson were on the bench for Fresno; and Clyde Drexler, John Battle and Tom Chambers all had 4 fouls for Buffalo. It was turning into a battle of the benches. Buffalo won the battle, taking a 118-107 lead into the fourth quarter. Buffalo matched everything Fresno threw at them in the first 6 minutes of the 4th quarter, leading 136-123 with 5:45 to play. Fresno put on full court pressure, but the efforts were to no avail. Buffalo held on to win 157-148. Mark Aguirre led Buffalo with 35 points, supported by Karl Malone (29) and Drexler (25). The series heads back to Fresno for Game 5.
Game 5 – Buffalo entered Selland Arena in Fresno for Game 5 of the VBA Finals down 3-1 and wondering “what could have been.” Down 3-0, Blizzard coaches and players recognized there were missed chances in both games two and games three to pull out victories late in the game and pull closer in this series. Buffalo finally claimed the Game 4 win on its home court for its first of these finals. In game 3 the Stars rallied from a large deficit late in dousing Blizzard hopes and ultimately preventing Buffalo from holding serve with two home wins. Following the win in Game 4 that staved off elimination, Blizzard staff was confident it “had everything it needed” to solve the Stars on their own home court, force a game 6 and possibly come all the way back from the 3-0 series deficit. But before the first half had even concluded, all five of Buffalo’s starters and two top reserves ran into three-foul trouble. It forced the Blizzard to go deep into its bench and play all 12 on its roster in the first two quarters. Fresno capitalized with a late second quarter run, and despite multiple lead changes, the attrition wore down Buffalo, which trailed 78-71 at the half. The Stars’ first-half leading scorers were two players who shined late off the bench, Blair Rasmussen and Alvin Robertson (15 points apiece). It was yet another stark reminder how the Stars had assembled a total and awe-inspiring team effort throughout this series. In the third period, Clyde Drexler kept Buffalo in the game with 14 third-quarter points but Fresno continued dominating the boards surprisingly, and continued leveraging its depth, with nine players scoring in the third. That enabled the Stars to maintain that seven-point edge (119-112) entering the fourth. But the Blizzard rallied back in a big way early in the final period: Led by Bill Cartwright (15 points total) and Drexler, the Blizzard embarked on a 13-6 run and after Cartwright’s putback basket with 8:04 left in the game, Buffalo regained the lead 129-125. The game remained nip and tuck through the next four minutes and Fresno held a narrow margin 136-134 with 5:11 left when Cartwright fell on top of Stars Center Patrick Ewing and fouled out of the game. Ewing made the ensuing free throws to give Fresno a 138-134 lead and that was the beginning of a decisive 13-5 run that put the Stars ahead by 10, 149-139 with 2:13 left to play. The Blizzard, its season on the line, pulled out some stops late in attempting to pull of a miraculous comeback. Coaches drew up a three-point play for John Battle who drained the trifecta with 33 seconds left to close Buffalo’s deficit to 156-150, and there was hope after the Blizzard intentionally fouled Fresno center Mark Acres, a .640 free throw shooter, and sent him to the line. Acres, however, swished both free throws. Battle again hoisted up a three-pointer that found the net, that narrowed the lead to 158-153 with 21 ticks on the clock. Again, the Blizzard understandably fouled Acres immediately but again Acres swished both foul shots that gave the Stars a 160-153 lead with 18 seconds left and fans started to celebrate. Acres would make one more free throw (he finished by nailing five of six at the charity stripe down the stretch) and the one he missed was tapped in by Jerome Kersey (his 28th and 29th points) with six seconds left, closing the scoring at 163-155 as the Stars and their GM and Coach Joe Watkins celebrated a historic dynasty and successfully defended their title. Fresno’s greatness was plastered throughout the box score: no less then six players scored 20 points or more, led by Kersey who got the rare game MVP over Magic, even though the latter unleashed a triple double performance of 20 points 12 assists and 11 rebounds. Buffalo, outshot 50 percent to 46 percent from the field, simply could not overcome its foul troubles (39 personals) nor a 77-58 rebounding deficit to Fresno – a surprise as it had largely won the boards battle throughout this postseason to get this far. Michael Cage delivered a monster game for Fresno with 21 points and 19 rebounds. And when Rasmussen delivered 24 points, it was simply too much for the Blizzard to overcome (even with Drexler and Karl Malone offering 34 and 33 points respectively). Magic was named Finals MVP for the 2nd time, the only player to achieve that feat in the VBA’s 9-year history. He averaged 27.8 points, 9.4 assists, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot .524 from the floor and made 29-36 FTA (.806). The game capped off a glorious VBA season and sets the stage for a terrific 1988-89 campaign in which Fresno seeks a three-peat and multiple teams on the rise appear to be championship contenders.