The Celtics-Lakers rivalry is one of the most colorful rivalries in the history of the NBA and is considered by many to be the best rivalry, period. The East Coast-West Coast clash of the titans has drawn fans to stadiums and TV set since their first Finals meeting in 1959.
The two teams would dominate the league together in the 1960s and ’80s, and have met in the Finals a total of 12 times, an NBA record. They clashed six times in the ’60s, three times in the ’80s, and twice in the late-2000s. It is the one rivalry that can be met with equal enthusiasm by grandparents, parents, sons, and grandsons at the same time.
The two teams combined have the two highest numbers of championships – the Celtics have 17, and the Lakers 16. This means that out of the 69 championships in NBA history, the Lakers and Celtics have won almost half.
The Celtics were a powerhouse early on, winning eight championships in a row from 1959-1966, but of the last four encounters the Lakers have won three. The current record is 9-3. In every single NBA Finals in the 1980s, one of the two teams was present.
The Lakers, located in Minneapolis at the time, won the first-ever NBA Championship series in 1950. The franchise would dominate the ’50s, before being swept (the first sweep in NBA history) by the Celtics in 1959. Once the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, the rivalry escalated and featured stars such as Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn John Havlicek, Sam Jones and head coach Red Auerbach for Boston, and Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and coach/GM Fred Schaus for Los Angeles. The Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1969, who brought over the 76ers-Celtics rivalry and intensified the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
Things started to get more exciting in the 1980s, with the budding rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The foundation for the ’80s rivalry started in NCAA college basketball in late-1970s, as Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, faced Indiana State University, led by Larry Bird in the most watched college basketball game of the era. Johnson and Michigan State prevailed. Johnson got drafted by the Lakers, Bird by the Celtics. The personal rivalry between the two added fuel to the fire of the Celtic-Lakers rivalry for the next two decades.
Magic said, “when the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was ‘The Two’ and the other 80.”
Similarly, Bird said that, “the first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.”
The rivalry was so significant that it attracted fans from across the globe not only to the Lakers and Celtics teams, but helped to grow the NBA. The NBA had been going through a decade of declining interest and low TV ratings, but the two superstars essentially brought a new resurgence of fans.
The retirement of both greats in the early-1990s lowered the intensity of the rivalry. The ’90s were a period dominated by Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and the Celtics and Lakers both cooled off into mediocrity. In 1996, the Lakers acquired Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the latter staying with the franchise until he retired in 2016. In 1998, the Celtics drafted Paul Pierce. In 1999, under coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers would win three back-to-back championships from 2000-02.
In 2008, the Celtics’ ‘Big Three’ – consisting of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen – met the Lakers, led by the MVP Kobe Bryant, in the Finals for the first time in 21 years, and the Celtics won 4-2. They clashed again in 2010, with the Lakers winning in seven games.
Both teams are going through another rebuilding process, but they are both filled with young talent and the rivalry will surely be reborn in the not-too-distant future.