Forever Rivals: Lakers vs. Celtics
The popular belief is that the Lakers-Celtics rivalry began when Larry Bird joined the Celtics, Magic Johnson joined the Lakers, and the two teams spent the decade of the 1980s trading NBA championships.
Oh, it sure heated up during that glorious era, but these two teams have been swapping haymakers since the Lakers were based in Minneapolis in the 1950s.
During the NBA’s first eight years of existence, the Lakers won five championships while the Celtics were competitive, but unable to make their mark in the postseason. It wasn’t until Red Auerbach’s seventh season as head coach that Boston would win its first NBA title, beating St. Louis in a seven-game thriller in 1957.
But once the Celtics got a taste of the NBA Finals, they refused to rinse their mouths. They lost the next year to St. Louis, won the next eight titles in a row, missed the Finals in 1967, then won two more championships to close the 1960s. That added up to 11 titles in 13 years, and the Lakers – first Minneapolis and later Los Angeles – were the victim seven times.
Now that’s grounds for a full-blown rivalry, and it’s what made the 1969 NBA Finals so intriguing. The Lakers had won the Western Division with a record of 55-27, a marvelous team led by Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, arguably the best guard, center and forward of this era. Boston had struggled to a fourth-place finish in the East at 48-34 with Bill Russell and Sam Jones planning to retire at season’s end.
Each team worked its way through the first two rounds without much trouble, but the Lakers certainly seemed like the stronger squad, and it appeared that they would finally snap their Finals jinx against the Celtics.
West exploded for 53 points in a 120-118 Game 1 victory, then was “held” to 41 during a 118-112 triumph that gave Los Angeles a 2-0 series lead.
The teams traveled to Boston for Games 3 and 4, and the Celtics won both, with Game 4 coming down to a buzzer-beating 18-foot jumper by Jones that delivered an 89-88 win.
West pumped in 39 during Los Angeles’ Game 5 victory, but the Celtics responded back home with a 99-90 decision, sending the team’s back to Southern California for the deciding Game 7.
Before the game, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, so confident that his team would win, ordered thousands of balloons to be blown up and suspended by nets in the rafters above the court. When the Lakers won, the balloons were to be released and Happy Days Are Here Again would play over the loudspeakers.
Boston played superbly and opened a gaping 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, and though the Lakers cut the deficit to 103-102 with three minutes left, that was as close as they would get and they eventually fell 108-106.
“Red mentioned that before the game,” Celtics forward Don Nelson said of the balloons. “It was definitely a mistake on their part to do that.”
It is no surprise that of the 16 championship rings Auerbach owns, the one from 1969 was the one he always wore.
“Most of the years we played, they were better than we were,” said West, who became the first player from a losing team to win the MVP award. “But in ‘69, they were not better, period. And we didn’t win. That was the toughest one.”
The Lakers would eventually get their revenge, but it would take 16 years to do it.
Bird and Johnson entered the league together in 1979, fresh off their showdown in the NCAA Championship Game, won by Johnson and Michigan State. That season Bird won rookie of the year honors as he helped the Celtics win 32 more games than the year before. However, Boston was upended by Julius Erving and the 76ers in the Eastern finals, preventing a Lakers-Celtics final. Johnson stole the show against the 76ers, scoring 42 points while playing center for injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the title-clinching Game 6 victory.
Boston won the title in 1981, Los Angeles captured the ‘82 crown, and after Philadelphia took the championship in 1983, the Lakers and Celtics finally squared off again in the Finals in 1984.
“When you have the No. 1 and 2 teams meeting in a championship, that’s terrific,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “And when you have the tradition of Boston and Los Angeles and the great stars these two teams have, it’s almost more than we should be permitted to hope for.”
Said West, by now the Lakers general manager: “It’s like the opening of a great play. Everyone’s waiting to see it.”
And what a spectacle it was. Bird and Johnson held a deep respect for each other’s abilities, but at this point in their careers they didn’t exactly like each other. Their rivalry was intense and their two regular-season meetings per year were usually epic battles.
Now on the grandest of stages, two of the NBA’s greatest players put on a show that no one would ever forget.
“We had heard a lot about the Boston jinx, but it wasn’t something we were worried about,” said Los Angeles forward James Worthy. “We knew we could win.”
But as usual, they didn’t.
Los Angeles won Game 1, then had Game 2 seemingly wrapped up when Worthy threw an errant inbounds pass which Gerald Henderson stole and converted into a tying layup, and the Celtics eventually won in overtime, 124-121.
Over to the left coast they went and the Lakers romped to an easy win in Game 3, prompting Bird to say that the Celtics played like a bunch of “sissies.” Inspired by their leader, the Celtics took Game 4 as they overcame a five-point deficit in the final minute.
By all rights, Los Angeles should have swept the series in four games, but now it was going back to Boston for Game 5. Bird pumped in 34 and Boston won in a rout, but the Lakers evened the series with a gutty 11-point win at the Forum, setting up another Lakers-Celtics Game 7 back in the sweaty Garden.
And for the eighth straight time, it was Boston hoisting the trophy. Before the game, Danny Ainge walked around the Boston locker room with a stethoscope checking each player’s heartbeat. When he got to Cedric Maxwell, he proclaimed he had no beat and that he wasn’t ready to play. Maxwell jumped up, said he was, and told the Celtics to hop on his back and enjoy the ride.
Maxwell had 24 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to lead a 111-102 victory, prompting Auerbach to say, “Whatever happened to that Lakers dynasty I’ve been hearing so much about.”
Enough was enough, and in 1985, the Lakers finally exorcised more than two decades worth of ghosts.
Boston won 63 games in the regular season, Los Angeles 62, and their date in the Finals was almost a lock. The Lakers won 11 of 13 games to ease through the first three rounds, Boston won 11 of 15, so when the teams took the floor for Game 1 in the Garden, anticipation was at a fever pitch.
Incredibly, the opener failed to live up to the hype as the Lakers were horrid and Boston produced a shocking 148-114 rout. “That game was a blessing in disguise,” said Lakers coach Pat Riley. “It strengthened the fiber of this team.”
The Lakers bounced back with a strong performance to win Game 2, then returned home under the new Finals format to play three in a row on their own court. The next two games were split as Los Angeles inflicted a 136-111 rout in Game 3, sweet payback for the Game 1 embarrassment, before Dennis Johnson drilled a game-winning jumper with two seconds left for a 107-105 Boston win.
The pivotal fifth game was owned by Abdul-Jabbar as he scored 36 points to key a 120-111 triumph, and now the Lakers had two cracks in Boston to end their misery against the Celtics. All they needed was one as Los Angeles managed a 111-100 victory, the first time Boston had ever allowed an opposing team to clinch a championship on the hallowed parquet floor.
“All those Celtic skeletons came out of our closet,” said Riley.
The rubber match of the 80’s came in 1987. During the regular season Los Angeles won its only game in Boston, snapping the Celtics’ 38-game homecourt winning streak, and that proved to be a precursor for the playoffs.
The Lakers won the first two games at home as Magic went for 29 points and 13 assists in Game 1, 22 and 20 in Game 2. Boston took Game 3, but lost Game 4 at home when Magic hit his infamous “baby skyhook” from the lane with two seconds left for a 107-106 victory that wasn’t secure until Bird’s heave at the buzzer went in and out.
The Celtics stayed alive with a 123-108 cruise in Game 5, but back in the Forum for Game 6, the Lakers smelled blood, and they closed the series out with a 106-93 triumph as Abdul-Jabbar scored 32 and Magic had 19 assists.
“It’s like the ultimate, beating Boston and Larry,” Johnson said late in his career. “It’s special, and it’s always going to be special. When we’re old and playing checkers and I kick his ass, it’s going to be special then, too.”
Two decades would pass before the rivalry re-ignited. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen led the Celtics to the 2008 title, and then Kobe Bryant guided the Lakers to the crown in 2010.
While it isn’t the same these days, the history is what the history is, and Lakers-Celtics will likely stand forever as the league’s greatest rivalry.