Despite neither the Staples Center nor TD Garden raising a new banner since 2010, these names still carry the most weight when it comes to championship pedigree.
When Did The Lakers-Celtics Rivalry Start?
The Lakers and Celtics each had their reign of dominance in the early days of the NBA. George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954. The Boston Celtics won their first title in 1957, led by Bob Cousy and Bill Russell.
The first time the Lakers and Celtics competed for an NBA championship was in 1959 when the Celtics ended the Lakers dynasty, then led by rookie Elgin Baylor, before the team drafted “The Logo” Jerry West and moved to Los Angeles in 1960. From that point, Boston won eight-straight titles. Russell would go on to become one of the most decorated players in NBA history with 11 championships between 1957 and 1969.
Los Angeles faced Boston in the NBA Finals six times in the 1960s despite losing every single time. In 1968, the Lakers traded for 76ers superstar Wilt Chamberlain to battle with Russell, creating one of the NBA’s greatest matchups of all time. Despite losing again in 1969, Jerry West was named Finals MVP and still the only player to achieve that feat.
The 1980s: Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird
The Celtics-Lakers rivalry reached new heights in the 80s when Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought their previously established rivalry from the 1979 NCAA Championship to the NBA. Magic’s Lakers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy first took on Larry’s Celtics including Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson in the 1984 Finals. It was a grueling seven-game matchup ultimately won by the Celtics. The heavyweights met again in the NBA Finals the following year when Los Angeles enacted their revenge by winning the series 4-2.
Johnson and Bird met in the Finals for the last time in 1987. Johnson’s skyhook in Game 4 became an iconic Finals moment that helped lift Los Angeles over Boston in six games.
After 1987, the two franchises went in different trajectories. The Lakers won another championship in 1988, defeating the Detroit Pistons in seven games. The Lakeshow and Bad Boys met again in the 1989 Finals. This time, Detroit brought their brooms and swept Los Angeles in four games. The Lakers reached the Finals again in 1991 but fell victim to Michael Jordan, ending the run of the Showtime Lakers. Johnson was diagnosed with HIV prior to the 1991-92 season that led to an abrupt retirement.
Meanwhile, the Celtics could never reach championship caliber again during Bird’s tenure. He battled back injuries in the late stage of his career and retired in 1992. The Celtics descended into mediocrity.
Kobe Bryant vs. The Big Three
The Lakers hired Bulls’ coaching legend Phil Jackson in 1999. Jackson, alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, led Los Angeles to three straight titles from 1999-2001. Paul Pierce became the new face of the Celtics in 1998 but couldn’t bring any titles to Boston by himself.
Enter the Big Three.
The era of uniting multiple NBA superstars began when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen prior to the 2007-08 season. These blockbuster acquisitions put the Celtics back on the map and immediately made them favorites to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Boston breezed through the regular season with a 66-16 record. They took down the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference playoffs only to meet a familiar foe in the Finals.
The meeting was the first between the two franchises in 22 years and sparked a new chapter in the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. Bryant led the Lakers alongside a fresh crop of teammates including Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Trevor Ariza. The Big Three proved too much for Los Angeles, who fell to Boston in six games.
In 2010, the old rivals met again in the Finals with the Lakers hungry to make up for the loss in 2008. They added Ron Artest (known now as Metta World-Peace) as a stout defender and knock-down corner shooter. This acquisition paid off with the Lakers winning the series in seven games. It was Bryant’s fifth and final championship.
Some might call the Big Three era in Boston underwhelming. They won a singular championship and only reached the Finals twice. The era officially ended in 2013 when Garnett and Pierce were traded to the Brooklyn Nets. The Big Three inspired a cultural shift in the NBA that led to the formation of other super-teams such as the Miami Heat with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, as well as the Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant.
Lakers-Celtics Rivalry Today
It’s been nine years since these two teams faced off in the NBA Playoffs. Both franchises had rebuilding periods in the early 2010s before coming on strong in recent years. LeBron James joined the Lakers in 2018 and was accompanied by six-time NBA All-Star Anthony Davis this offseason to form one of the most lethal duos in the league. The Celtics, thanks to asset hoarding Danny Ainge, built today’s team through the draft and savvy trades.
Near the midway point of the 2019 season, FiveThirtyEight’s predictions gave the Lakers a 46 percent chance to make the Finals, but the Celtics a five percent chance. The likelihood of these historic rivals meeting in the NBA Playoffs might be low, but as we know from past experience, anything can happen, especially when the purple/gold and green/white take the floor together.
The new decade has just begun, and with it, I’m hoping a fresh chapter in one of the most heated rivalries in sports will as well. Time to say my prayers to the basketball gods.