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NBA – Special – Greatest NBA Rivalries – Boston Celtics VS Los Angeles Lakers


The Celtics–Lakers rivalry is an National Basketball Association (NBA) rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers….as both teams are the two most storied franchises in NBA history….and the rivalry has been called the best ever in the NBA….for the Celtics and Lakers have met a record 12 times in the NBA Finals….starting with their first Finals meeting in 1959….as both teams would go on to dominate the league in the 1960s and 1980s….while facing each other six times in the 1960’s….three times in the 1980’s….as well as two times in the late 2000’s.

The rivalry had been less intense since the retirements of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the early 1990’s….but in 2008 it was renewed as the Celtics….who were led by the big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen….and the Lakers…who were led by NBA MVP Kobe Bryant….met in the Finals for the first time since 1987….with the Celtics winning the series 4–2. They would meet again in the 2010 NBA Finals….which the Lakers won in 7 games. The two teams have won the two highest numbers of NBA championships….with the Celtics winning 17 and the Lakers 16 (11 as the L.A. Lakers and 5 as the Minneapolis Lakers)….who together account for 33 of the 71 championships in NBA history.

During the first decade in the 1950’s….the Minneapolis Lakers had the first NBA dynasty….who would win the first ever Championship Series of the newly formed NBA in 1950….after three BAA Finals were played between 1947–1949 and retroactively counted as NBA Championships….in which one was won by the Lakers in 1949 under Hall of Fame head coach John Kundla with the NBA’s first superstar in Center George Mikan….as this Laker team would win three more titles in 1952, 1953 and 1954.  The Celtics would emerge behind early NBA star Bob Cousy by winning the 1957 NBA Finals and then losing in 1958.

The first NBA Finals match-up between the two teams was in 1959….when on April 9th, the Boston Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers 4-0 for the first sweep in the history of the NBA Finals….as this would mark the first Finals loss for the previously dominant Lakers and the first of eight straight titles for Boston.

The Lakers relocated to Los Angeles in 1960….after which and during this decade….that the rivalry would truly escalate….as the two teams emerged as the strongest in the NBA….with the Celtics featuring greats such as Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and head coach Red Auerbach…while the Lakers would showcase Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and coach/GM Fred Schaus….however, it would ultimately prove to be the decade of the Celtics….who won the finals every year in the 1960’s except for 1967….as the Lakers were the Celtics opponent in six of those series in 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969….as the Celtics won all of those match-ups….when three of those series (1962, 1966, and 1969) went seven games. The Celtics win over the Lakers in 1966 marked an unprecedented eight consecutive NBA championships….which still stads as the longest streak of any North American professional sports team.

The Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968….which brought the personal rivalry between him and Bill Russell from the Celtics-76ers long standing rivalry back to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry….as the Lakers posted the best record in the West during the 1968–1969 season…..while by contrast, the aging Celtics struggled to obtain the fourth seed with Bill Russell and Sam Jones playing in their final seasons….but despite this, the Celtics upset the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks….and thus made it to the Finals….where the Lakers had home court advantage for the first time….and won the first two games….but the Celtics rebounded to force and win a dramatic Game 7 at the Los Angeles Forum….thus defying Laker’s owner Jack Kent Cooke’s infamous prediction of a Lakers celebration….Lakers G Jerry West was named Finals MVP despite being on the losing team….but it was small consolation in a decade where the Lakers went without a championship,…with every one of their Finals’ losses in that decade coming at the hands of the Boston Celtics.

The 1969 Finals also caused a deterioration in the relationship between Russell and Chamberlain….who had previously been friends despite their rivalry….into one of intense loathing when Chamberlain took himself out of the decisive Game 7 with six minutes left….and Russell thereafter accused Chamberlain of being a malingerer and of “copping out” of the game when it seemed that the Lakers would lose….as Chamberlain was livid at Russell and saw him as a backstabber….when the truth was that Chamberlain’s knee was so bad that he could not play the entire offseason and ruptured it in the next season….and the two men did not talk to each other for over 20 years….until Russell attempted to patch things up, although he never uttered a genuine apology….but when Chamberlain died in 1999, Chamberlain’s nephew stated that Russell was the second person he was ordered to break the news to.

The Lakers and Celtics both found success in the 1970s, but there would be no rematch between the two teams.

The start of the decade saw the Lakers’ woes in the NBA Finals continue….however, the Lakers rebounded to win the 1972 NBA Finals and their first championship in Los Angeles against the Knicks….which would also prove to be Laker great Jerry West’s only NBA title. The following year, the Lakers again faced the Knicks in the 1973 NBA Finals and lost…..and would not make it to the Finals again in this decade.  The Celtics won the NBA Finals in 1974 and won again in 1976 under the leadership of coach Tom Heinsohn and players Dave Cowens, Paul Silas and Jo Jo White.

Neither team won another championship until the 1980’s….however, the foundation for the renewed Celtics–Lakers rivalry of the 1980’s was actually laid down in college basketball of the late 1970’s…..for during the 1978–79 NCAA season….Michigan State was led by Magic Johnson to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament….where they faced Indiana State University, which was led by senior Larry Bird…..in what was the most-watched college basketball game ever….as Michigan State defeated Indiana State 75–64 and Magic was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four….who would then go on to be drafted by the Lakers and Larry Bird by the Celtics. The personal rivalry formed by these two basketball greats during college would transfer to their NBA careers….and reignite the rivalry between the two storied franchises that they came to represent.

The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was renewed in the 1980’s, in large part due to the personal rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson…as the Showtime Lakers struck the first blow by winning the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers….then in the following year behind the “Big Three” of future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish….the Celtics won the 1981 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets….then the Celtics lost the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals to the 76ers, and along with it the possibility of a rematch with the Lakers. However, the final game of that series is memorable to the rivalry because Boston fans chanted for the 76ers, who were just about to eliminate their Celtics, to “Beat L.A.!”.  Despite the encouragement, the 76ers lost the 1982 NBA Finals to the Lakers….who were led by new head coach Pat Riley. However, the 76ers defeated the Lakers the following year in the 1983 NBA Finals….as the 1982–1983 season would also be the rookie year of Laker James Worthy….another Hall of Famer in the storied rivalry.

As 1984 rolled around….the Celtics would get a new head coach in former Celtics player K.C. Jones and the two teams finally had their long-awaited rematch in the 1984 NBA Finals…which was a grueling seven game series that had many memorable moments, including a 137–104 blowout in Game 3 that led Larry Bird to call his Celtic teammates “sissies”….the Kevin McHale takedown of Laker forward Kurt Rambis….which led to increased physical aggression by both teams….due in part to the sweltering heat of the infamously un-airconditioned Boston Garden in Game 5….and then there was Cedric Maxwell’s 24-point performance in Game 7….as the Celtics went on to win in seven games….and thus increasing their record of Finals’ series victories against the Lakers to 8–0….but in the following year, the Lakers finally had their revenge….winning the 1985 NBA Finals by taking Game 6 in Boston Garden….and becoming the only visiting team to win an NBA championship in that arena….as Lakers owner Jerry Buss famously remarked that “this has removed the most odious sentence in the English language. It can never again be said that ‘the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics'”.

The Celtics rebounded the following year to win the 1986 NBA Finals against the Rockets. and then in the 1987 NBA Finals, the two teams met for a tie-breaker of their 1980’s Finals matches….as the Lakers once again emerged victorious in six games, with the iconic image of Magic Johnson’s junior sky hook….for this series marked the end of an era for the Celtics….as they did not reach the Finals again until 2008. The Lakers, meanwhile, went on to win the 1988 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons….before losing to the Pistons the following year in 1989….and then would win titles again in 2000, 2001 and 2002….while the Celtics wallowed in mediocrity.

The renewal of the Celtics vs Lakers rivalry of the Magic / Bird era was also significant because it drew national attention to the faltering NBA….as prior to Johnson and Bird’s arrival….the NBA had gone through a decade of declining interest and low TV ratings….but with the two future Hall of Famers….the league win a whole generation of new fans….as the renewed rivalry between the Bird-led Celtics and the Magic-led Lakers contributed greatly to the success of the league during the decade….and according to Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel….“Magic and Larry saved the NBA.”….while Sports journalist Larry Schwartz of ESPN asserted that Johnson and Bird saved the NBA from bankruptcy…for in every single NBA Finals series during the 1980’s….either the Lakers or the Celtics were present.

To date, Boston has won nine series, including all of the first eight, while Los Angeles has won three of the last four….and any way you cut the pie….this HBO special on the NBA’s greatest rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers is simply one of the many “nuggets of gold” in the treasure chest of Imasportsphile vintage videos.

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