There are few professional sports teams that can boast the mystique and winning ways of the Boston Celtics. Since the franchise's first title in 1957, the Boston Celtics have won 32 percent of the NBA championships. Prior to their 22-season championship drought, the Celtics had compiled 16 championships in 32 seasons, 55 percent of the championships from 1957 to 1986. The Celtics currently have 22 retired jersey numbers retired, as well as 15 players and five coaches enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Boston Celtics dominated the first half-century of NBA history. It's not a surprise that as teams tried to get by the mighty Celtics year after year, some of the league's greatest rivalries were born. Here are five of my favorite matchups.
5. Boston Celtics vs Cleveland Cavaliers
Though this rivalry is in its infancy, it is worth mentioning as today's top Eastern Conference rivalry. They have only met once in the NBA playoffs once since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined the Celtics.
2008's seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals went the distance and LeBron James and Paul Pierce matched each other shot for shot in Game Seven. The Celtics would pull out a win as the game went down to the wire.
Though the teams have not met again (yet) in the postseason, their regular season matchups have been exciting and drama-filled as the two teams' hatred for each other is reminiscent of the bitter Celtics/Pistons and Celtics/Lakers of past generations.
Though this rivalry does not possess the historical references of the matchups higher up on the list, the drama and tension that mounts when the two square off is rarely matched in today's NBA.
4. Boston Celtics vs Milwaukee Bucks
These two teams would meet in the NBA Finals in the 1970s as the Kareem-led Bucks would fall to the Cowens/Havlichek led Celtics in 1974.
The rivalry took headlines again in the 1980s as the Bucks became the one and only team to sweep the Celtics during the Bird-era. In 1983 the Celtics were a strong team one season removed from an NBA title. Looking to return to the Finals, the Boston Celtics would shock everyone as they played poorly and were beaten by the Bucks in four games during the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
The teams would again meet in 1986 and 1987. Former Celtic Don Nelson would again coach his team to an Eastern Conference Finals berth. The Celtics would avenge their poor performance in 1983 by returning the favor and sweeping the Bucks.
Two series sweeps by both teams set up the best matchup of the two teams in 1987. The Bucks were looking to bounce back from their loss in four games of the Conference Finals a year earlier. Forcing seven games on the hobbling Celtics, Boston looked to be behind the eight ball and vulnerable as the game went to the closing minutes of the deciding contest. Trailing the Bucks by eight points with four minutes remaining in the competition, Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson, two of the most clutch players in Celtics history, would will Boston to comeback victory setting up one of the greatest Eastern Conference matchups of the '80s and No. 3 on our list.
3. Boston Celtics vs Detroit Pistons
Adding some of the most exciting matchups of the late '80s, the Pistons always seemed to be in the back pocket of the Boston Celtics. In six seasons, from 1985-1991, the Boston Celtics would meet the Pistons in the playoffs. Though the Pistons won in 1988, 1989, and 1991, the Boston Celtics are still perceived by history as the big brother to the upstart bad boy Pistons of that era. As the Pistons emerged as NBA champions in 1989 and 1990, they credited their hated rival as the team that taught them how to lose gracefully and win graciously.
The 1987 Eastern Conference Finals provided the most memorable highlights of the decade long battles. In 1987, the Boston Celtics would be facing the most adversity of any team of the "original big three era." Struggling through injuries to key players and battling age and advanced playing time, the Celtics would barely muster enough energy to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
The limping Celtics would enter the conference finals against a young and irreverent Pistons team, poised to dethrone the defending champs. Over the course of the seven-game series and culminating in Game Five, the Celtics and Pistons had created a hatred for one another that resulted in harsh words to the media and, at times, violent blows.
In the first half of Game Five, Bill Laimbeer shrank to the parquet floor fighting the ferocious fists of Robert Parish. Despite the physical nature of the contest and the hot shooting of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, the Pistons stayed close. As the game wound down to the closing seconds, Isiah Thomas would hit a 15-footer to put the Pistons ahead by one point. Larry Bird would have a chance to put the Celtics ahead with seventeen seconds on the clock. Bird would drive to the bucket, looking to force a foul. During an era of NBA basketball where physical play was not only acceptable but encouraged, Bird's drive would draw a lot of contact but no whistle was blown as the Pistons got the ball out of bounds.
As coach Chuck Daly would scream for a time out, Isiah could not hear him over the hopeless groan of the Boston Garden crown. Isiah would throw a lob to Laimbeer that was stolen by Bird and sent to Dennis Johnson for a layup to give Boston a one-point lead with one second left on the clock.
Boston would go on to win the series in Game Seven and Isiah Thomas would be haunted by that play for the rest of his career.
The Pistons got their revenge as they took the wins in the following three matchups. As the '80s gave way to the '90s, the rivalry would fade as both teams struggled through identity changes as their superstars would retire.
The rivalry would be reborn in the '00s as the teams would meet in 2002 and 2008. The uniforms had remained the same but the players had changed and, though the matchup was still considered marquee to the networks and scored high in television ratings, the contests would never produce the same drama as the teams that fought each other in the '80s and early '90s.
2. Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers
This rivalry was born in the 1960s and boasted the first ever playoff matchups between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain's 76ers of the '60s would be the first (and only team) able to knock the Russell-led Celtics out of the playoffs in 1967. As the Sixers eliminated the Celtics, the 76ers' fans chanted, "Boston is Dead, Boston is Dead."
Soon after, Chamberlain would be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, setting up the latter day matchup between Russell and Chamberlain.
In the 1980s, the Celtics would again meet the Sixers. Rookie forward Larry Bird would lead his Celtics to the largest single season turnaround in NBA history up to that point. He would meet the 76ers in the conference finals. Doctor J would lead the Sixers to victory.
The following season, with revenge on his mind, Larry Bird would be joined by Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to meet the 76ers again in the conference finals. Falling in the series 3-1, the Celtics would make a ferocious comeback and become the first team in NBA history to recover from a 3-1 deficit. The Celtics would go on to beat the Houston Rockets to win their 14th NBA title.
The Celtics and 76ers would meet three more times in the '80s. The Sixers would take the series in 1982, but Boston would win in '84 and '85.
1. Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
Thirty-two titles combined in 63 NBA seasons and 11 head-to-head finals matchups, Bird and Magic, Russell and Wilt, Johnny Most and Chick Hearn; these two teams provided the most memorable and marketable matchups in league history. This rivalry was, for 30 years, the face of the NBA postseason.
The Celtics would best the Lakers six times in the 1960s as Elgin Baylor would retire without a championship and Jerry West would have to wait for Bill Russell to retire to win his first. West's eyes still swell up with tears when he describes the frustration he felt at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
Russell's retirement seemed to also retire this marquee matchup of the '60s until it was resurrected in 1984. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had been rivals since they met in the NCAA championship in 1979. The NBA casting could not have been more fitting as Magic would be drafted by the Lakers and Bird would be drafted by the Boston Celtics. As the early '80s wore on, Bird would compile one title while Magic had taken home two. The fans of the NBA would patiently wait for Bird and Magic to go head-to-head and launch the dusty rivalry of the '60s back into the mainstream.
In 1984 the rivalry would burst back into action and put the NBA into the world sports media. As the traveling media circus would follow Bird and Magic's every move, the Celtics would beat the Lakers in seven of the most dramatic and hard fought games in NBA Finals history. It seemed the Celtics' strong hold over the Lakers would continue. The two teams would meet up again and Magic Johnson would avenge 20 years of heartbreaking Lakers losses to the Boston Celtics. Magic's Lakers of '85 would be the first team to beat Boston in the finals on the parquet floor.
After the Celtics beat the Rockets in the 1986 Finals, the Celtics and Lakers would meet up again in 1987 as Magic Johnson would slam the door on this rivalry for the next 21 seasons with a baby hook shot in Game Five of the series.
Possibly what makes this series so endearing to basketball fans are the visuals that have been etched in the minds of NBA fans, both young and old. The grainy images of Cousy dribbling out the clock, Don Nelson's miraculous high bounced jumper, Jerry West's Finals MVP award in a losing effort, Russell unable to find his words as the victory in 1969 overwhelmed him, McHale's clothesline on Rambis, Bird's jumper over Magic at the Forum, and the voices of Chick Hearn and Johnny Most relaying the story to us all.
Though the faces had changed and the voices telling the story had been passed to today's broadcasters, the images were resurrected as the Lakers and Celtics would meet up again in 2008. The Lakers/Celtics rivalry can best be described as an old friend that lost touch with you. After running into that friend in a pub, you crack open a beer and reminisce about the glory days. Though time has passed and the friendship has faded, nothing feels more right then having that beer, and it seems no time had passed at all since your last meeting.
The same can be said of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry.
In 2008, as the Celtics/Lakers story was uncovered after 21 seasons, nothing felt more right watching than the sights and sounds of that series. The colors of the uniforms, the bright lights shining on the parquet floor, the celebrity-filled audience in LA, and the Celtics celebrating a title while fans and players lit cigars in memory of the late Red Auerbach.
These two teams in the Finals are a basketball fantasy. It just seems fitting and, no matter how much time has passed since their last meeting, it just feels so right.