Celtics vs. Lakers: A Tale of Two Cities

by Bernard Frei on May 18, 2019

Few rivalries in the history of sports have managed to transcend the game quite like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers rivalry has. Separated by nearly 3,000 miles and opposites in nearly every way imaginable, the cities of Boston and Los Angeles serve as the respective hubs for a variety of sports on the east and west coasts. This has inevitably led to consistent battles and rivalry between many of the two cities’ respective teams. In the game of basketball, however, the Celtics and Lakers take this intense competition to a new level. Since the conception of the NBA, the Celtics and Lakers have been at the center of the professional game, and their intense rivalry across multiple decades has produced some of the greatest games and championship moments ever witnessed, meeting 12 times in the Finals, and together accounting for 33 of the 72 total Finals ever played. In particular, the 1980’s saw perhaps the greatest sect of the Celtics Lakers rivalry, with 3 Finals matchups and some of the greatest individual players the game has ever seen.

Setting the Stage

The seeds for the 1980’s matchups were sown in the 1978 and 1979 NBA drafts, as the Celtics drafted Larry Bird, and the Lakers drafted his college rival, Magic Johnson. Though a number of other great players filled the rosters of both respective teams, the headlines and magic swirled around these two generational players. Their competitive spirit and consistent banter proved to be a major focal point of the rivalry, and with both teams boasting a new, game changing star, the matchups were obviously tantalizing. In many regards, the individual matchup fit the team matchup. The Hollywood, “Showtime Lakers” were led by Johnson, a young and boisterous individual with a flare for the dramatic. On the other side, the Blue-collared Celtics were led by the hard nosed and unquestionably tough Bird, who was quick to trash talk and physically impose his will on the game. The stage was set by these two players for some of these most incredible games in NBA history.

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Back to Back Matchups

The teams were on a collision course at the turn of the century. With a Lakers lineup that included players such as Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy and Kurt Rambis amongst others, and the Celtics revamped lineup including Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale, their inevitable journey to the Finals came to a completion in the 1984 season. The series proved to be the opening act of what would become one of the most dramatic stories the league had ever seen. In a back-and-forth fight, the Celtics ultimately prevailed in the 1984 series, besting the Lakers 4 games to 3. In what became the turning point of the series, game 5 is infamously remembered as “the heat game” in the Boston Garden. With temperatures reaching 97 degrees inside the building, players on both sides looked depleted and flat. However, Larry Bird’s outstanding performance in that game ultimately gave the Celtics the 3-2 series edge, and according to many, won them the series. Bird’s 34 points in game 5 was an awe-inspiring performance. After the game, Bird jokingly remarked “Oh, it was always a lot hotter back in French-Lick” referring to his hometown in Indiana. Although the Lakers battled back to win a contested game 6, the Celtics grit proved to be too much, and the Celtics ultimately took game 7 on their home court, with Bird named the Finals MVP.

It was clear during the 1985 season that a rematch between the Lakers and the Celtics was inevitable. With both teams claiming the number one seeds in their respective conferences, the Finals matchup was solidified long before the playoffs ensued. The series began in shocking fashion, with game 1 being called the “Memorial Day Massacre,” as the Celtics trounced the Lakers 148-114. The Lakers would even the series in game 2 behind a solid performance from Jabbar, and then deliver a blowout themselves in game 3 to take the 2-1 series lead. Although the Celtics battled back with a clutch performance and game winning buzzer beater from Dennis Johnson in game 5, the depth and size of the Lakers proved too much in this series. The Lakers would beat the Celtics soundly in game 6 to take the series and the title, with Jabbar named the oldest Finals MVP in NBA history at 38 years old.

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The Last of the Decade

With the Lakers bounced out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals in the 1986 season, the rivalry took a year long hiatus in the Finals, with the Celtics prevailing over the Houston Rockets in 6 games. However, more determined than ever to get back to the Title series, the Lakers blew past competition in the 1987 season, and the final Lakers-Celtics matchup of the decade was set to begin. Clearly, the Lakers were riding serious momentum into the series, as the Magic Johnson-led team stormed to a 2-0 series lead, defending their home court soundly from the start. The reigning champion Boston team was not ready to relinquish their title so easily, however, as Bird stuffed the stat sheet in game 3 with 30 points and 12 rebounds to capture game 3. The stage was set for a series tilting game 4 in Boston, with all on the line for both teams. The Celtics stormed to an early lead, and continued to apply the pressure after the half, leading by as many as 16 points in the 3rd quarter. However, as was per-usual in the storied rivalry, comebacks and dramatic endings were to be expected. The Lakers stormed back in the fourth quarter, and in the closing minute of the 4th quarter, Johnson hit what would become one of the most famous shots in Finals history. With three players around him, Johnson drove sideways across the lane and tossed up what he called “a baby sky hook,” named after the famous shot of his teammate Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. The Lakers won the game, and although another two games were played before they could officially claim the title, the Lakers game 4 win is the focal point of perhaps one of the greatest Finals ever. The Lakers took the series in 6 games, and with the 1987 series closed, the decade of historical matchups between the Lakers and Celtics came to a close.

Remembering Greatness

Undoubtedly, the matchups between the Celtics and Lakers during the 1980’s were some of the greatest in NBA history. The back and forth competition that came to define that decade between Boston and Los Angeles solidified perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history. In many ways, the Celtics and Lakers are credited with ushering in the modern day NBA, as players such as Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson filled the void left after these dominant teams. The culture of the NBA today and the increased reach of the sport owes much to these historical franchises. History recognizes their contribution, and we look back today on these battles as some of the greatest in the history of sports.


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