There are rivalries and then, there are Rivalries. And, in the NBA, the marquee one is the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers. This one’s got a capital "R". But, this rivalry became this way not from name or longevity but from the heat of battle.
And, the only wars that ever counted between these two franchises were their historic contests, on basketball’s center stage, with a championship on the line: The NBA Finals.
The descriptions run the gamut. Sweat. Force. Overwhelming Dominance. Heartbreak. Blood. Stiff arms. Exhilaration. Devastation. A Picket Fence. Last second shots. A Massacre. A baby skyhook. Redemption. A Comeback. And, a rebirth.
The players from both teams are legendary, birthed from the fire of these great battles: Cousy, West, Russell, Wilt, Jones, Baylor, Bird, Magic, Garnett, and Kobe.
However, legends aren't born or even made. They are cut, like a diamond. And, the greatest games are forged the the same way: through pressure, like a piece of coal that becomes the precious stone. This is what the meetings between the Lakers and Celtics created—unforgettable games and the players that made them so.
But, it didn’t start out that way. The rivalry between these two teams might have been called that but began with utter control by one team.
The Celtics and Lakers have met a total of 11 times in the NBA Finals, with Boston winning the first eight series, Los Angeles taking the next two, and Boston winning their most recent meeting.
In the 1960s, it was entirely one-sided. Actually, it was heartbreaking. And, the player's heart that ripped the most was the Lakers’ Jerry West. The Celtics defeated the Lakers six times in eight years (1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969) to claim the championship. In three of those Finals ('62, '66, and '69) the series went to seven games, with the Celtics winning each time.
It seemed year after year that the Lakers and Celtics met with the title on the line, but the results were the same: a Boston Championship. Pure defeat. Jerry West’s Lakers kept meeting the beast that was Red Auerbach’s Celtics and could never get to the top of the mountain. He was even MVP in 1969 in a losing effort.
Just because the 1960s Celtics walked away with title after title, it didn’t mean there weren’t great games.
But the rivalry wouldn’t really get that capital "R" until the Lakers could notch one on their side of the scorecard. And, it would take magic to finally stem that tide, turn the tables, and get the ghosts of Celtic legends past off the Lakers back.
The 1980s brought the Lakers-Celtics war back to the forefront. Ushered in by the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and the Celtics’ Larry Bird, both players would be responsible for making the NBA what it is today.
And, Bird would win the first encounter, taking the first series between the future Hall of Famers, when in 1984, Bird’s Celtics would claw out a victory over Magic’s favored Lakers.
The two teams would meet again the following year in 1985. That year, Magic Johnson would pull the best rabbit out of his hat and redeem all Lakers losses by winning the NBA title on the hallowed ground of Boston's parquet Garden floor. After 1985, no one could say the Lakers couldn’t beat the Celtics.
In 1987, the teams would meet one more time, in a final epic series, a last breath of the Bird-Magic rivalry. But, the Lakers simply overpowered an injury plagued and inferior Boston team to take the title. The decade would end with Magic winning the head to head Finals battles against Bird, two to one.
After the epic battles of the 1980s between Magic and Bird, the rivalry fizzled, smoldering like some eternal flame, with every NBA fan hoping, waiting, for it to one day rise again. But the 1990s passed with neither franchise showing anything, let alone battling each other for a title.
The early 2000s brought a Lakers return to glory but where were the Celtics? Still mired in early playoff exits.
Then, as the decade neared to a close, the Celtics found rebirth in three future Hall of Famers; Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce came together to breathe life back into the Celtics.
On the opposite coast, the Lakers would finally give Kobe Bryant the missing piece to his championship wishes. Pau Gasol would arrive midseason in LA via one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. Gasol would team with Kobe to take the Lakers to a new level and put them on a collision course with Boston.
That year, 2008, brought once again a clash of the legendary franchises, with Boston using experience and a relentless defense to take the title in six games from the Lakers.
So, what will this year bring? What remarkable and memorable moments will occur? What legends will be cut from the heat of these battles? Will Kobe join Magic as a Lakers leader to snatch a title from their bitter rival? Or, will Boston’s Big Three make one last stand and add another title to their growing legend?
Here are the epic games: the 10 Greatest Battles between the Lakers and the Celtics. The epics.
No. 10—2008, Game Six: Closeout Blowout. After taking one of the three middle games of the series in LA, Boston looked to close out the Lakers on their home court. LA came to play, but only in the first quarter. From that point on, Boston destroyed the Lakers, propelling the Celtics to their 17th title as a franchise in what turned out to be a blowout of a game.
No. 9—1984, Game Four: The Close Line. The Lakers would lose this critical game with a series of execution mistakes in the game’s closing seconds. LA’s Magic Johnson would throw the ball away to the Celtics' Robert Parish and miss two crucial free throws as Boston took this game in OT, 129-125. The game also is the one where Boston’s Kevin McHale clotheslined the Lakers’ Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup, putting a capital "W" into the war between these two teams.
No. 8—1962, Game Seven: The Beginning Of Dominance. In the first meeting of these franchises with the Lakers now in LA, Frank Selvy would miss a game-winning shot for the Lakers, sending the game into OT. Boston would go on to win the game and take the series in seven games. The Celtics’ Bill Russell put up mind-boggling stats in this game of thirty points and forty, yes forty, rebounds. But the game is best remembered for Bob Cousy famously dribbling out the clock.
No. 7—1969, Game Four: The Picket Fence. As if scripted out of some movie, Boston ran what they called “the picket fence” to take this game and propel themselves to a series win. In the final seconds of this game, the Celtics ran Sam Jones off a multitude of screens, freeing up the clutch shooter to nail the winning shot.
No. 6—1962, Game Three: Last Second Shot. With the game evened up at 115 apiece and four seconds remaining, the Celtics looked to inbound and run out the clock. But the Lakers’ Jerry West stole the pass, raced fullcourt, and scored the game-winning layup as time expired, giving the Lakers a two to one lead in the series. It wouldn’t hold up as the Celtics would take the title in a Game Seven OT victory.
No. 5—2008, Game Four: The Comeback. After pulling a near reenactment of New York Knicks' center Willis Reed’s injury and return to the court in the 1970 NBA Finals in the 2008 opener, Boston’s Paul Pierce would lead the Celtics to the biggest comeback in Finals' history in LA in Game Four. Kobe Bryant’s Lakers would roll out to a 24-point lead in the third quarter until Pierce and the rest of the Celtics would mount the comeback of the ages. They would take this game and go on to win the series in six.
No. 4—1984, Game Two: The Steal. The Lakers took Game One in Boston. In this second battle, LA had the ball and led the Celtics 113-111 with only 18 seconds left. But Boston’s Gerald Henderson stole a James Worthy lazy cross-court pass and took it in for a tying layup, sending the game into OT, where Boston would win.
No. 3—1987, Game Four: A Junior Sky Hook. Coming into this game, the Lakers led the series two to one, but this battle would be played in Boston. The Celtics looked like they would roll the Lakers as they broke out to a massive 16-point halftime lead. But LA would chip away, led by Kareem and Magic, setting up the ending of all endings. Magic would hit a running “baby sky hook,” as he would later call it, over the outstretched arms of Boston’s Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The win would propel LA to the title that year and leave the head to head scorecard between Magic and Larry Bird at two games to one.
No. 2—1969, Game Seven: Heartbreak. In LA, the favored Lakers cut what looked like an overwhelming Boston lead to only two points in the closing minutes of this Game Seven. And, as the clock ran down, the Celtics’ John Havlicek lost the ball but got a lucky bounce as it squirted into the hands of his teammate, Don Nelson. Nelson immediately put up a desperation shot from the free throw line that hit the rim, bounced straight up and then back down through the net. Boston held on for a 108-106 victory as the Celts closed out the decade and Bill Russell’s career with another title at the hands of Jerry West’s Lakers.
No. 1—1985, Game Six: Redemption. The series opened with Lakers center Kareem Adbul-Jabbar giving a subpar performance in Game One of the series en route to Boston destroying LA 148-114 in what came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre. But Kareem would have the last laugh, responding by giving a MVP performance in Game Six as the Lakers redeemed all the losses of the past by winning the title on Boston’s hallowed parquet floor.