Boston Celtics' 10 Most Hated Opponents in Team History
The Boston Celtics are the most decorated franchise in NBA history with 17 championship banners, and they have picked up plenty of enemies along the way. From the Russell-Wilt rivalry to the Bad Boy Pistons to Kobe Bryant, every great era of Celtics basketball has had its antagonists.
The athletes and coaches on this list possessed varying characteristics and degrees of irritation, but they all had consistently acrimonious relationships with Celtics' players, coaches and fans. Whether through sheer greatness, plain dirtiness or simply being clad in purple and gold, they have earned an infamous reputation in the hearts of Celtics' Nation.
Without further ado, here is a look at 10 figures who have foiled and frustrated the Celtics throughout the team's illustrious history.
*Unless stated otherwise, all stats were taken from Basketball-Reference.com. Career splits vs. Celtics only available from 1985-86 on.
These two figures just missed the cut because their rivalry with the Celtics was/is brief and not as caustic as those who made the cut.
Ralph Sampson is infamous for his bizarre fight with Boston reserve guard Jerry Sichting in Game 5 of the 1986 NBA Finals. After Sampson shot a pair of free throws, Sampson's frustrations boiled over. The 7'4" center elbowed the 6'1" Sichting in the back of the head, opening the floodgates for a bench-clearing brawl.
Although the Rockets would win the game, Sampson paid a heavy price when the series returned to Boston in Game 6. Clearly rattled, he shot just 4-of-12 from the field and managed only eight points. Says Bill Simmons of Grantland/ESPN of the incident:
For Game 6 of the Finals in Boston, my father and I were sitting right on the tunnel where the players walked on and off the court. People were holding "SAMPSON IS A SISSY" signs and the entire building was chanting "SAMPSON SUCKS!" even before Houston came out for warm-ups. When Ralph came out to earsplitting boos, there was legitimate hatred in the air. Ralph walked right by us and I remember thinking, That guy's done. He looked rattled. You know the rest — Ralph played terribly, Bird played out of his mind and the Celts blew them out. But Celtics fans never stopped holding a grudge after the Sichting fight — they booed Ralph every time he came to Boston.
Dwyane Wade, meanwhile, has earned vitriol in Boston for a recent string of questionable plays. Of course, everyone remembers the infamous takedown in Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Rondo dislocated his arm and effectively extinguished any chance the Celtics had to pull the upset.
Tensions were reignited this season when Rondo committed a flagrant foul on Wade in the season opener. A war of words ensued, with Wade calling Rondo's foul "a punk play" and Rondo responding by proclaiming the Heat guard "a dirty player."
Though Wade has certainly gotten under the Celtics' skin recently, his impact is slightly lessened by his second fiddle role on the Heat. Unlike the first player on the countdown, he was not the alpha dog of the Celtics' rival.
10. Carmelo Anthony
In just two-and-a-half seasons in New York, Anthony has already earned the enmity of the Celtics' players and fans. Not only did Melo's Knicks end Boston's run of five consecutive Atlantic Division titles, they also eliminated the C's in the first round for the first time in the Garnett-Pierce era.
Carmelo's field-goal percentage against the Celtics is tied with the Rockets for his lowest against any team, and he shot just 35 percent in New York's first-round win this year. That the Knicks are now starting to beat the Celtics is a source of frustration for Boston fans.
Though Carmelo may one day prove himself capable of carrying a team to a title, losing to him served as the signal that Boston's stubborn championship window has finally closed.
Signature Moment: Honey Nut Cheerios
The animosity between Carmelo and the Celtics manifested itself when Kevin Garnett purportedly taunted that his wife tasted like a certain breakfast cereal. The bizarre post-game confrontation at the team bus only added to fire.
With the Miami Heat's level of play in another stratosphere, this moment propelled the Knicks to become the Celtic's biggest rivals. In addition, it rekindled the classic Knicks-Celtics rivalry of the early 1970s, though those teams were championship contenders who had greater respect for each other.
Still, Carmelo earns a place on this list for extinguishing the most recent era of Celtics greatness.
9. Andrew Toney
Though Toney has the least remarkable statistics of any player on this list, a historic playoff performance that earned him the nickname "The Boston Strangler" earns the former Sixer guard a spot on this list.
As noted by Mark Perner of Philly.com, Toney began building his reputation as a Celtics killer well before his signature moment:
...in the 1980-81 Eastern Conference finals against Boston, Toney scored 61 - in the first two games. The Sixers would go up 3-1 in the series. But with Toney scoring a total of 17 points in the last two games, which the Sixers lost by a total of three points, Boston completed another improbable comeback against the Sixers and advanced to the NBA Finals against the surprising Houston Rockets.
The next season, Toney had become a star and his performance and reputation for being a Celtic killer was increasing. In five regular-season games against the world champs, Toney shot 54.1 percent from the field, 88.9 percent from the line and torched them for 25.2 points a game. On March 21, 1982, Toney put up 38 on the Beantowners in just 26 minutes.
Armed with a deadly jump shot and ankle-breaking agility, Toney was the type of offensive catalyst that gave the Celtics guards fits. His play was a large reason why the Sixers emerged as Boston's toughest Eastern Conference rival in the early-to-mid-1980s.
Signature Moment: 1982 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7
Arguably the pinnacle of Toney's fame and career, he pumped in 34 points on 14-of-23 shooting and led Philadelphia to a resounding 120-106 win. His performance is unarguably one of the most clutch in playoff history, saving the Sixers from the ignominy of squandering 3-1 series leads to Boston in back-to-back seasons.
8. Dennis Rodman
"The Worm" lived up to his slimy nickname against the Celtics. Honestly, you could probably copy and paste his name onto numerous other teams' most hated lists.
Rodman's primary skirmishes with the Celtics came during his time with the Pistons, Boston's greatest Eastern Conference rival at the tail end of the Larry Bird era. The 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, one of the most physically intense series in NBA history, left Rodman as one of several "Bad Boys" reviled by Celtics fans.
During the series, Rodman feuded with Dennis Johnson. He taunted the guard by constantly waving his right hand over his head throughout the series.
At the conclusion of the Celtics' Game 7 win, DJ mocked Rodman by mimicking his high-stepping celebration, his glee evident after seven heated games. Still, what Rodman said after the loss made even more headlines.
Signature Moment: The Larry Bird Comments
In the aftermath of Game 7, Rodman claimed that Bird was overrated and had won three consecutive MVPs "because he [was] white," courtesy of the LA Times.
Rodman's comments at the end of his rookie season were just the tip of his crazy iceberg, foreshadowing a lifetime of eccentric behavior (talk about an understatement).
7. Magic Johnson
Though it may come as a surprise that Larry Bird's primary antagonist is not higher on this list, the tremendous respect between the two lessens the hate factor in my opinion. Part of what makes this list is not only skill, but personality.
Still, Magic has to make this list for co-starring in the era's preeminent rivalry. There's no need to rehash all the well-known history between the Lakers and Celtics, but it's worth noting that Bird's Celtics could have come close to matching the Russell era's lofty championship count if not for their Western Conference rivals.
Signature Moment: 1987 NBA Finals, Game 4
The "Baby Sky Hook" was the conclusion to an epic game in the last finals meeting between the two franchises for 21 years. Though the Celtics may have won the game if not for a botched rebound and a near miss by Bird at the buzzer, Magic's clutch shot put the Lakers up 3-1, effectively capping one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.
The series victory also broke the tie between Magic and Larry in Finals meetings, giving Magic's Lakers a 2-1 edge over Bird's Celtics.
Still, at least he only tortured Boston for one decade, unlike the next man on this list.
6. Pat Riley
Pat Riley is the only non-player to earn a spot on this list, and it's well-deserved considering that he's constructed two generations' worth of Celtics rivals.
His suave persona and slicked-back hair has personified the glitzy style of the Showtime Lakers and South Beach Big Three, both in strong contrast to the traditionally gritty, blue-collar Celtics.
More recently, his animosity towards the Celtics reappeared when the Heat president told Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, quite bluntly, STFU. As ESPN Boston's Peter May pointed out, the incident was partially a byproduct of three decades' worth of animosity:
[Riley] (cue Tommy Heinsohn voice here) loathes, loathes, LOATHES the Boston Celtics.
Red Auerbach is long gone, but the antipathy remains. Riley has exchanged the sun of one coast for the sun of another, but he still reviles the Celtics. (A personal note: Riley was most helpful when I asked him for an interview for a book I wrote on the 2007-08 Celtics' championship season. I wanted his thoughts on two Celtics who had played for him: Eddie House and P.J. Brown. He was terrific in talking about them. But, he said before the interview started, he was not going to say anything nice about the Celtics. "I rooted for the players, not the team," he said.)
The Celtics have often been the team standing in the way of Riley's aspirations, and vice versa. As much as Riley probably detests the color green, there is equal hostility amongst Celtics fans for the glut of hair gel shining from his head.
5. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt and Russell made up the NBA's first great rivalry. Unlike Magic and Bird, however, the competitive balance between their respective teams simply did not exist.
Russell's nine rings to Wilt's one may very well be the result of the Celtics' superior coaching and supporting cast. In 142 head-to-head meetings, Chamberlain averaged 28.7 PPG and an astounding 28.7 RPG. There is certainly a viable case to be made for Wilt being a greater individual player than Russell.
But in terms of the hate factor, it doesn't help when you beat your opponent nearly every time.
Signature Moment: 1969 NBA Finals, Game 7
Perhaps no game best personified the nature of the rivalry. For once, Wilt had the talent edge over the aging Celtics, who would see the retirements of Russell and Sam Jones at season's end.
However, a twisted knee knocked Chamberlain out of the game, and he has taken heavy criticism ever since for not playing through pain as the Lakers staged a furious fourth-quarter rally.
One additional factor to consider when measuring Wilt's "hate factor" involves his off-court relationship with Russell. Though the two did not speak for years due to a misunderstanding about Russell's opinion of Wilt's Game 7 situation. Still, per Bernard Fernandez of the Daily News, Russell said at Chamberlain's funeral that "[they] would be friends through eternity."
Much like with Magic, the mutual respect between rivals diminishes the hatred here a little.
4. LeBron James
LeBron has dominated the Celtics throughout his career. But unlike Wilt, he was finally able to get over the hump in 2011, dispatching of Boston in five games.
For a while, the parallels between LeBron and Wilt were astonishing. Both were bullied around by Boston, putting up mind-boggling statistics while ultimately coming up short. LeBron's 45-point performance in a Game 7 loss during the Celtics' championship run encapsulated his early career.
He even jumped ship from his original team to play with more talent, reminiscent of Wilt joining Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
But despite being a once-in-a-generation talent, LeBron had not yet learned how to win.
Signature Moment- 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6
Of course, that all changed last year. It is not hyperbole to suggest that his 45-15 performance is one of the most important playoff games in NBA history. It is this generation's equivalent of Michael Jordan finally defeating the Bad Boy Pistons.
With that performance, LeBron submitted the type of clutch career-changing game that erased any doubt that he will likely be this era's greatest player.
Since then, Miami has gone into dynasty-launching mode, while the Celtics are now on the precipice of a painful rebuild. Nevertheless, for about five seasons, LeBron and the Celtics were each other's primary competition for Eastern Conference superiority. It is safe to say that such competition pushed both sides to greatness.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Teaming up with Magic, Kareem made up the other half of the classic guard-center combo (though, of course, Magic was no ordinary guard) that rivaled Bird's Celtics. Unlike Magic, however, Kareem did not possess the charisma to earn him any sympathy from Boston fans.
Whereas Magic's disarming smile should soften even the most hardcore Celtics fans, Kareem's gangly physique and clockwork playing style only earned antipathy, even as he aged and his hairline receded. In his book, Bill Simmons went as far as to call him a "ninny."
Nonetheless, his sky-hook may be the most automatic two points in NBA history, an awkward yet unstoppable move that flummoxed the league for decades. Indeed, as it turned out, the Celtics were victimized by one of Kareem's final masterpieces.
Signature Moment: 1985 NBA Finals, Game 6
At the ripe age of 37, Kareem turned in a 29-point performance in the clinching game, the first time the Lakers had defeated the Celtics in the finals and the first time any team had won a championship on the hallowed parquet.
Kareem won MVP, marking 14 years between Finals MVPs—an astounding record that Tim Duncan could potentially match this year.
And that connection would be fitting, because Kareem is arguably the most consistent player in NBA history. He averaged double-digit rebounds for the first 12 years of his career, no fewer than 20 points per game for the first 17, and no lower than 50 percent from the field until his final season.
For many Celtics fans in the '80s, Kareem was the purple-and-gold zombie who would not die.
2. Kobe Bryant
If Kareem was mechanical in his domination, Kobe is nothing short of menacing.
For many Celtics fans, the beginning of Kobe's career was dispiriting to watch. Apart from a surprise 2002 conference finals playoff run, the Celtics languished while Antoine Walker bricked threes and trade rumors swirled around Paul Pierce (hey, some things never change).
Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq brought in yet another golden era in Lakers basketball, winning three consecutive championships. The only positive byproduct of the classic rivalry from a Boston standpoint was Paul Pierce receiving his now-familiar nickname, being dubbed "The Truth" by Shaq. Kobe's rivalry with Boston would not bubble up until the late aughts.
Signature Moment: 2010 NBA Finals
It feels strange that Kobe did not have a truly remarkable performance in the 2010 Finals. In fact, his most memorable moment may have been his 6-of-24 shooting performance in Game 7, a fact that many Celtics fans still bitterly point out while lamenting the loss.
Still, the series was redemption for Kobe, avenging a humiliating 39-point loss that capped the Celtics' 2008 championship.
Meanwhile, Celtics fans now lament what turned out to be the last championship series of the Big Three era. I won't rehash the painful memories from that game here, but when it comes to the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, it should be noted that Kobe has now narrowed the Celtics' edge in championships to just one.
1. Bill Laimbeer
This clip epitomizes most players' feelings towards Bill Laimbeer.
Laimbeer's alienation of others stemmed not from his physical play, but from his shady tactics and remorseless attitude. Like a pest in hockey who could also score, Laimbeer was frustrating because he played like a goon while still being one of the league's best centers.
His patented flopping techniques were laughably hypocritical. More than any of the Bad Boy Pistons, he truly crossed the line with his dangerous tendencies and brash attitude, characteristics that made him hated not only in Boston, but virtually every other NBA city as well.
Signature Moment: Brawls in 1987 Conference Finals
Fittingly, Laimbeer is often remembered more for the punches he threw than the rebounds he snagged or buckets he made. In the hotly contested 1987 conference finals, Laimbeer got in two separate fights, one with Bird in Game 3 and one with Robert Parish in Game 5.
There have even been stories (though unsupported) that Laimbeer deliberately stepped on Kevin McHale's fractured foot throughout the series.
Above all, Laimbeer seemed to welcome the ire of opposing fans and players, one of the rare players who truly did not care if he went too far. For that, his spot at the top of this list is well earned.