Greatest Sports Rivalries: Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
To take on a monumental rivalry like this is almost impossible in a single article. However, in the interests of giving it proper notoriety, it is a task that must be undertaken. There is no basketball rivalry like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. It is the perfect balance and counterbalance. The tough, blue-collar East Coast against the sleek, white-collar West Coast. The fundamental, team-oriented style against the fast break points machine. Rivalries such as this are hard to find in any walk of life, let alone sports. The fact it has lasted since the NBA began makes it even more incredible.
George Mikan and Bob Cousy Era
The roots of the clash really got started when the Lakers were still in Minneapolis. Back in the early 1950s, the NBA had just formed. Under the leadership of head coach John Kundla and superstar center George Mikan, the Lakers dominated the early years. Between 1947 and 1956, the pair led the team to five titles. Mikan led the league in scoring five times and averaged 22 points and 13 rebounds for his career. It wasn’t until after the Hall of Fame center left that the Lakers started to peak over their shoulder at an upstart team out east.
The Celtics broke onto the NBA scene in 1957 with their first championship behind point guard Bob Cousy. After losing in the Finals the next year, it set up the first showdown between the two teams in 1959. Experts fully expected the dominant Lakers to put Boston in its place. Instead, the Celtics gave the basketball world a taste of things to come when they swept Minneapolis in four games. This loss stung badly for the Lakers. So when they moved the franchise to Los Angeles a year later, it started an arms race that would last for decades.
Bill Russell and Red Auerbach Set the Standard
The Lakers had no idea of the nightmare they were about to endure in the 1960s. Despite assembling a cast of unbelievable talent, including Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, it wasn’t enough. Under the guidance of coach Red Auerbach and led by center Bill Russell, Boston won the championship every year in the decade except for 1967. This included a run of eight-in-a-row, a mark that hasn’t been sniffed since. Los Angeles was the opponent six of those series. Three of them went all seven games. Somehow, the Lakers couldn’t break through. This with 14-time All-Star West and career 27-point scorer Baylor. Somehow Boston always had the answer. A lot of that was talent of their own. Even after Cousy retired, another young star named John Havlicek stepped in and kept the run going.
By 1968, Los Angeles was so desperate for a championship that they acquired star center Wilt Chamberlain from Philadelphia. This took the rivalry to new heights since he had a personal rivalry with Russell. Fittingly, the two teams met again in 1969. By that point, the Celtics were getting old. The Lakers had the home-court advantage after posting the best record in the league. They went on to win the first two games. Yet somehow Boston dug deep into their championship mettle, forced Game 7 and upset the Lakers in L.A. The two teams would not meet again in the Finals for fifteen years.
That didn’t mean it lost any heat. Both teams continued their dominance through the ‘70s. West and Chamberlain finally broke through in 1972. After they retired, Los Angeles was forced to rebuild. Their biggest move came when they signed a young center named Kareem Abdul-Jabar. Meanwhile, the Celtics had spent the past few years reloading. Behind new stars like Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, and Jo Jo White, they won two more titles in ’74 and ’76.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird–The High Water Mark
Nobody thought the rivalry could get any better after the blood feuds of a decade ago. That is until the two teams entered the 1978-79 NBA drafts. Los Angeles, in need of an athletic young guard who could give their roster some energy, took a young man out of Michigan State named Irvin Johnson. Most basketball fans by that time knew him by his nickname, Magic. At the same time, Boston, looking for a front court presence, schemed to pluck NCAA Player of the Year Larry Bird from Indiana State. What made these moves so momentous was Bird and Magic already had a budding rivalry of their own after the two met in the national title match. Michigan State proved their superiority in the game, shutting Bird and his weaker team down.
This inevitable resentment between the two players only grew when Los Angeles and Boston began to recover in the ‘80s. It didn’t take long for things to escalate. Johnson burst onto the scene in 1980 when he stepped in for an injured Abdul-Jabar during the Finals against Philadelphia. Magic’s legendary Game 6 performance of 42 points and playing all five positions lifted Los Angeles to its first title in eight years. At the same time, Bird had orchestrated a remarkable turnaround for Boston, taking them from a 29-53 record in ’79 to a 61-21 mark a year later. His incredible season (21 points and 10 rebounds per game) earned him Rookie of the Year honors.
A year later, the Celtics had their roster set when Bird was joined by two promising youngsters named Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Boston overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Philadelphia in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals and defeated Houston for the championship. Johnson and the Lakers returned the serve in ’82, winning their second title in three years over the 76ers. Philadelphia made one last run a year later and beat both teams in 1983. By then, their time was at an end, setting up the first Finals meeting between Magic and Bird in ’84.
The series did not start pretty for Boston. Lakers head coach Pat Riley and Magic were very aware Los Angeles had never beaten the Celtics in the Finals. Through the first three games, their fast break “Showtime” offense left Boston speechless, including a 137-104 blowout in Game 3. Bird was so upset afterward that during a live interview on television, he told the world his team played like a bunch of “sissies.” Though no one knew it at the time, the comment served to change the series.
In Game 4, the Celtics countered Showtime by playing a more physical brand of defense. Magic and the Lakers clearly weren’t prepared for it. As the game wore on, Boston’s tenacity seemed to get in their heads. Johnson reflected that when he turned the ball over late and then missed two key free throws. The Celtics won in overtime to even the series. Two days later, in a scorching 97-degree Boston Garden, they took control with a 121-103 win. By the time Los Angeles recovered and won Game 6, it was too late. The Celtics closed things out in Game 7 in Boston. It was the ninth-straight Finals loss for the Lakers to them.
Thankfully for Johnson, he quickly got a chance at redemption. A year later, the two teams met again in the 1985 Finals. Los Angeles was far more prepared than the year before, and Bird later remarked that he felt his team had become too complacent after their victory in ’84. Following a brief stalemate through four games, Johnson and Jabar helped the Lakers take control, winning decisively in Game 5 and clinching the title in Game 6 at the Boston Garden. It was the first time any team had ever done that in NBA history.
The Celtics rebounded from that defeat to steamroll their way to the championship in 1986. Los Angeles suffered an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets that year. Still, it didn’t take long for things to come back around. The two teams reunited in 1987 to settle the issue once and for all. Los Angeles jumped out to a two-game lead before Boston took the third game, setting up a monumental Game 4.
The match went back and forth all night. It seemed like things would pull all even when Bird hit a huge three-pointer for a 106-104 lead with 12 seconds left. Then, after a free throw from Jabar cut it to a one-point lead, Johnson took advantage of a Celtics late switch on defense to hit an iconic sky hook shot that put the Lakers on top 107-106. It still wasn’t over.
On the last play of the game, the Lakers inexplicably let Bird get wide open for a three-point shot. The ball was right on line but caught just a little too much of the rim. Experts later said it was 1/8 of an inch from being a swish. Instead, the ball bounced away. Los Angeles took a 3-1 series lead and clinched their fourth title of the decade in Game 6.
Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett Renew the Spark
After that epic series, the two teams started to decline. L.A. won their fifth title a year later but would lose two of the next three Finals after that. Boston wilted even faster thanks to the rise of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons and a growing list of injuries. By the early 1990s, Bird and Magic were gone. Neither team made it to the Finals for the rest of the decade. This time it was the Lakers who recovered first. A
fter signing superstar center Shaquille O’Neal in free agency and trading for guard Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles returned to their dominant form in 2000. They won three-straight championships with that pairing before a very public split in 2004. What a lot of people don’t remember is they almost played Boston for the championship in 2002. Their new superstar, a young kid named Paul Pierce, got the team back to the playoffs that year but fell just short in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Nets.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the rivalry got the last needed boost to really get going again. Boston executed a flurry of brilliant trades for All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Pierce and a rising young point guard named Rajon Rondo. The Celtics stormed to the best record in the league that season and found Los Angeles waiting for them in the Finals. Though the series had plenty of drama, the long-denied Pierce and Garnett led a 24-point comeback in Game 4. That allowed them to close things out in Game 6 with a resounding 39-point win.
However, as had happened so many times before, the rivalry swung back around. Los Angeles got their rematch two years later. The two teams went back and forth all series. Each scored over 100 points once. By comparison, in 1984, both teams scored more than that in every game. Boston took a 3-2 series lead, but the Lakers used their home-court advantage to win the last two games, including a ratings record Game 7.
Since then, the two hallmark franchises have slipped into older, less dominant forms of late. If history is any indication, though, the rest of the league should prepare for when this classic rivalry flairs up again. It is just a matter of time.