A Closer Look at the Celtics vs. Lakers Rivalry

By Joshua Schnitman

The Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry is considered by many to be the greatest rivalry in all professional sports. The Boston Celtics and the Lakers (combining both their five Minneapolis and 12 Los Angeles titles) are tied as the two winningest franchises in NBA history, each having amassed 17 championships over the years. Amazingly, almost half of the combined championships throughout NBA history have been won by one of these two franchises. And many of their wins fueled this epic rivalry – the teams clashed 12 times in the NBA Finals. These 12 NBA Finals battles have featured some of the game’s greatest legends in their prime such as Celtics greats: Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C Jones, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett; and Lakers legends: Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol. The person who holds the most unique position in the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry is Bill Sharman, whose No. 21 hangs up in the Celtics rafters, but who also turned out to be the one-and-only constant, in various capacities, in the first 11 Lakers championships in Los Angeles.

The Celtics and the Lakers (then still located in Minneapolis) first met in the NBA Finals in 1959. The brilliant team play of the Red Auerbach-masterminded Celtics proved to be way too much for the Lakers. Led by Bill Russell, the cornerstone of their developing dynasty, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, the duo considered by many to be the greatest backcourt tandem in NBA history, Frank Ramsay, who fabricated the “sixth man” concept in basketball, and other greats like Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics easily cruised to a four-game series “sweep” past sensational, groundbreaking NBA Rookie of the Year Elgin Baylor and the Lakers. 

The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960, the same year the team drafted Jerry West. West, whose silhouette was eventually used for the NBA’s official logo, proved to be another one of the NBA’s all-time bests, complementing Baylor exceptionally well. Baylor and West, each of whom compiled an astronomic array of statistics, led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals in the franchise’s second season in Los Angeles. This 1962 NBA Finals displayed some of NBA history’s most iconic moments and plays, including West’s clutch steal and game-winning layup in Game 3 of the series and Baylor’s NBA Finals record 61-point performance in Game 5 of the series. But behind Russell’s 30 points and 40 rebounds in the deciding Game 7, the Celtics were victorious, punctuated by Cousy dribbling out the clock in the final seconds of their 110-107 overtime victory. 

Even though Auerbach’s roster changed over time, the Celtics continued to rack up wins. Russell’s overpowering defense propelled the Celtics to defeat Baylor, West, and the Lakers in each of their many Finals meetings throughout the 1960s, even as the Lakers came so close so many times. 

The Lakers’ most painful loss to the Celtics, perhaps, was the 1969 series. The Lakers had just traded for Wilt Chamberlain, one of the most gifted athletes of all-time, and were posied to finally overthrow Russell. Not only had the Celtics and Lakers forged such a heated rivalry throughout the 1960s, but Chamberlain and Russell, the two dominating “big men” of the NBA, had also forged their own individual rivalry throughout the decade. 

The Hollywood-script 1969 NBA Finals showdown between the now-aging Celtics and revamped Lakers fittingly came down to a seventh game; in spite of West’s valiant 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, Russell and the Celtics defeated them by a score of 108-106. This Game 7 victory turned out to be Russell’s last game with the Celtics, marking his astounding 11th championship in 13 seasons — a run accomplished by no other professional athlete. It also turned out to be legendary Celtic Sam Jones’ last game, marking his 10th championship in 12 seasons. West’s individual excellence in this tormenting 1969 Finals loss earned him the distinction of being the first awarded NBA Finals MVP, and still to this day, the only player on a losing team in the Finals to win this award. Ironically, the dominating Russell never won the Finals MVP award, now named after him, simply because the award did not exist before 1969. Due to West’s haunting memories of never being able to defeat the Russell-led Celtics in the Finals, he notoriously refused to wear anything green for many years.

In the summer of 1971, the Hollywood Lakers finally got a much-needed championship framework provider, and it ironically came in the form of a Boston Celtic legend, Bill Sharman. Sharman, now in the midst of his second Hall of Fame career — coaching, was able to convince Chamberlain to approach the game the way Russell had while promulgating the Lakers to run the fast break and play like the ol’ Celtics had. Sharman was able to guide West and Chamberlain, in the twilight of their playing careers, alongside the rest of the 1971-72 ensemble, to the franchise’s first championship since their move to Los Angeles — as the team recorded a professional sports record of 33 consecutive victories during that historic season. The wisdom from an innovative Celtic had surely rubbed off on the Lakers. Their 33-game winning streak was a professional sports team record that gave the franchise significant stature, just as the Celtics professional sports record of eight consecutive championships (from 1958-59 to 1965-66) had given them significant stature.

Sharman later became the Lakers general manager and his astute basketball mind constructed what was to become a most electrifying 1980s dynasty, highlighted by his most significant draft selection, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, No. 1 overall in 1979. Meanwhile, Auerbach, the shrewd decision-making executive of the Celtics, had reserved the rights to eventually acquire Larry Bird (in between his junior and senior year of college), before continuing to assemble a tremendous supporting cast around him. The stage was set for a renewed era of the Celtics and Lakers being the two dominating teams of their respective conferences, with Johnson and Bird being the two faces of these franchises.

Johnson and Bird proved to be two of the most crowd-pleasing superstars and all-around team-leaders in league history, as well as in sports history, as they picked up from exactly where they had left off in their iconic 1979 NCAA Championship game matchup. While continuing to forge what so many consider to be the most compelling rivalry between two athletes in sports history, these two transcendent stars were the epicenters in spearheading the NBA to its phenomenal rise in popularity throughout the 1980s decade.

During this golden era of the 1980s, the Celtics and Lakers would meet three times in the NBA Finals. In the first NBA Finals matchup between these two franchises since 1969, the Celtics, once again in 1984, got the better of the Lakers, defeating them in seven games. The so-dubbed “Showtime” Lakers, led by Johnson’s magic and the turn-back-the-clock performance of the legendary 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, resiliently bounced back in 1985 — finally defeating the Celtics in the Finals. This victory provided overwhelming relief for the Lakers, after having lost to their arch-rival Celtics in all eight of their previous Finals meetings. The Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals for the third and final time of the 1980s era in 1987. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the Magic vs. Bird era came in Game 4 of that series. Responding to Bird’s go-ahead three-point basket to give the Celtics the lead with 12 seconds remaining in the game, Johnson countered by hitting the game-winning “junior skyhook” — one of the most iconic game-winning baskets in NBA history — which put the Lakers up 3-1 in the series. The Lakers closed out the Celtics in Game 6 of that series, giving Magic and the Lakers the 2-1 NBA Finals meeting edge over Bird and the Celtics. Magic and the Lakers wound up capturing a total of five titles throughout the decade, while Bird and the Celtics captured three. 

It was to be another 21 years before a new chapter involving the Finals rivalry between these two franchises would be unveiled again, involving a new generation of all-time great players. The Paul Pierce/Ray Allen/Kevin Garnett-led Celtics defeated Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in their 2008 Finals meeting in six games. The legendary Bryant would complete perhaps the biggest challenge of his storybook career in the Lakers 2010 Finals rematch against the Celtics, courageously leading them to revenge in a hard-fought seven-game series. Game 7 of that series was known to be one of the most physically grueling games in NBA history, with the Lakers coming out on top, 83-79. Bryant, surely one of the greatest NBA players and athletes of all-time, who would eventually turn out to be one of the few ever to play 20 seasons with the same organization, famously, upon accepting the 2010 Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award, referred to his 2010 title as “by far the sweetest” of all of his championships, since it was against “them,” the hated-Celtics. The appreciation for what it means for either of these two franchises to beat each other in an NBA Finals series will never go away. 

The Celtics, the Lakers, and their storied rivalry has included some of the professional sports’ most iconic figures, moments, and memories. The Celtics started off with an 8-0 NBA Finals record against the Lakers. But, ever since the Lakers turning point 1985 Finals victory over the Celtics, the Lakers have now come up victorious in three of their four most recent NBA Finals meetings against their arch-rivals. It seems just a matter of time before another generation of players in Celtic “green and white” will be facing another generation of players in Laker “purple and gold” in the NBA Finals. If history has proven one thing it’s that more legendary battles seem inevitable. 

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