Lakers vs. Celtics: Rivalry History
The rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics dates back to the very beginning of the NBA. The fierce competition between the now-two-most-decorated teams in the league could serve as a great starting point in most conversations about the Association’s history.
Did the Lakers or Celtics win the first NBA title? Did the Celtics or Lakers win more NBA Finals series between them? Were the 1986 Celtics good? Who was part of the “Showtime” Lakers? And when did the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry even begin?
Countless questions can be asked about the storied rivalry, which arguably reached its apex in the 1980s.
Let’s take a trip down the memory lane, examining the tales of some of the best players to have ever graced the league. The Celtics vs. Lakers history shows how powerful these two basketball strongholds are and how they’ve dominated the NBA in the league’s first four decades — culminating in a fascinating, decade-long duel for glory in the ‘80s.
Beginning of Rivalry
Prior to the ‘80s, both franchises had already enjoyed a golden era of their own, producing teams that would turn into legendary NBA dynasties. The Lakers dominated the league in the 1950s, rising like a phoenix from ashes after navigating a major organizational crisis.
In 1947, the Detroit Gems franchise nearly folded after failing to stir up interest in Michigan. To preserve its existence, it relocated further West to Minnesota, becoming the Minneapolis Lakers.
Having avoided bankruptcy, the Lakers capitalized on the struggles of their competitors to secure the services of star center George Mikan — who led the team to the National Basketball League (NBL) title in the refreshed organization’s debut year.
Ahead of the 1948-49 season, Minnesota joined the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which would merge with the NBL to become the NBA in 1949. The Lakers dominated the competition from their very first season in the new league. They again celebrated their debut with a championship — and would win four more over the next five years.
The Mikan-era became the NBA’s first dynasty, which had a profound impact on today’s game. The Lakers’ superiority over other teams facilitated the league’s introduction of the 24-second shot clock and the goaltending rule.
The Celtics rose to the top in the late 1950s following the arrival of head coach Red Auerbach at the beginning of the decade. Over the next years, Auerbach added key pieces to Boston’s roster through the NBA Draft, selecting Bob Cousy with the No. 3 overall pick in 1950 and Bill Russell with the No. 2 overall pick in 1956.
That same year, the Celtics beat the St. Louis Hawks to claim their first NBA championship — before the Hawks took their revenge in the Finals next season. Boston found another gem in the 1958 NBA Draft, selecting K.C. Jones in the second round.
In 1958-59, the Celtics swept the Lakers in the Finals to win their third NBA title. They would defend it seven times in a row, setting a record of consecutive championships triumphs that remains unmatched in North American professional team sports to this day.
Boston ended up winning the chip in all but one season during the ‘60s, falling to Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers in the 1967 Eastern Conference Finals. Six of those triumphs came at the Lakers’ expense. Having moved to California in 1960, the Lakers conquered the Western Conference with the likes of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Chamberlain on the roster.
Chamberlain’s arrival in L.A. only fueled the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry in 1968. Wilt and Russell had been perennial MVP favorites, altogether claiming the award eight times during the ‘60s. Although rivals on the court, the two big men remained friends — until they faced off in the 1969 NBA Finals.
The Lakers took the first two games, but the Celtics recovered, tying things up twice to take the series to Game 7. In the win-or-go-home showdown, L.A. fell 15 points behind the Celtics in the third quarter before pulling off a spectacular fourth-quarter run.
The late push turned out to be short-lived with the Lakers having to play the final six minutes of the clash without Chamberlain, who had injured his knee.
Wilt’s absence infuriated Russell, as he thought his once-friend “copped out,” putting an asterisk next to the Celtics’ title victory — in Boston’s big man’s last game of his illustrious career, no less.
New Chapter, New Protagonists
The Lakers put together one of the most dominant teams in NBA history to win the 1971-72 title, featuring Chamberlain, Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Pat Riley, and Jerry West. But the victory would be L.A.’s only title in the three decades that separated the Minnesota era and the arrival of Showtime.
The Celtics entered the ‘80s with a major advantage over the Lakers when it came to the size of their trophy cabinets. The C’s had won 13 NBA championships, over twice as many as L.A. with six.
What’s more, Boston still led 7-0 in Finals meetings with the Lakers. The history between the two sides carried into the rivalry’s next chapter — heating things up between two new protagonists.
“I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80,” said Magic Johnson, whom the Lakers selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
“During the season, I’d check out Larry’s line first thing. If he had a triple-double, I knew what I’d want that night. But what would get me would be his big ones, say, when he had 20 rebounds. I’d say, ‘I’d better get me 20 assists tonight.’”
The guys in green shared the sentiment.
“The first thing I would do every morning during the season was look at the box scores to see what Magic did,” said Larry Bird, the No. 6 pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, who joined the Celtics the following year after graduating from Indiana State.
“I didn’t care about anything else.”
Multi-layered Clash of Giants
The competition in the NBA was getting stiffer during the ‘80s, as the league grew from 23 teams in 1980 to 27 in 1989. But again, the majority of the Association could only watch the two basketball giants battle it out for the Larry O’Brien trophy — named after the league’s former commissioner in 1977.
Only now, neither team had a monopoly on the championship.
Instead, the Lakers and Celtics kept taking the title away from one another in the rivalry’s arguably the fiercest and most exciting period that involved countless subplots. Those stretched far beyond the basketball court, where L.A.’s razzle-dazzle basketball met Boston’s gritty and calculated game.
The rivalry became a clash of cultures, West Coast vs. East Coast, headlined by two generational talents in Magic and Bird — who also happened to be of a different skin color, which mattered due to the racial tensions in America at the time.
The Celtics and the Lakers finished the 1979-80 regular season with the two best records in the NBA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the MVP award, the sixth and last one of his career.
Bird pipped Magic to the Rookie of the Year award — but Johnson had the last laugh that year, claiming the 1980 NBA Finals MVP and winning the championship in his debut season with the Lakers.
As of 2022, no other player has ever managed to earn the honor in his first year in the league.
Injuries and internal disagreements derailed the Purple and Gold’s title defense bid, leading to a first-round playoff exit next season. The Celtics won their 14th championship that year, capitalizing on the turmoil in L.A. — which carried over into 1981-82, resulting in head coach Paul Westhead’s dismissal and Pat Riley’s takeover in November.
Following Riley’s promotion, the Lakers steadied the ship and went 50-21 over the remainder of the season, before meeting with the 76ers in the 1982 Finals. Philadelphia beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, ending Boston’s title defense hopes.
Still, “Beat L.A.” roared from the Boston Garden stands as the C’s headed for a loss in Game 7, marking the beginning of a chant that would spread across the league in the years to come.
The Lakers defeated the 76ers in the Finals to reclaim the title, but Philadelphia avenged the loss in 1982-83, becoming one of just two other teams that would win a championship during the ‘80s alongside the Detroit Pistons. But until Detroit’s win in 1988-89, the Larry O’Brien trophy would travel between L.A. and Boston for the remainder of the decade.
The Lakers and the Celtics decided three Finals series between themselves during that stretch. The C’s came out victorious in 1984, extending their run of consecutive Finals wins over the Purple and Gold to eight. The series highlighted the dislike between the two sides, proving the rivalry wasn’t just a product of narrative.
In Game 4, Kevin McHale floored Kurt Rambis with a clothesline foul to prevent the Lakers from scoring an easy layup in transition. The play led to an altercation between the two teams and a war of words afterward.
McHale’s foul would be remembered as a momentum-changing incident. The Lakers were six points ahead — and held a 2-1 lead over the Celtics in the series — when Rambis charged down the court to get a deuce. But after McHale sent him tumbling to the ground, Boston came from behind to chalk up a crucial win after double overtime and, having leveled the series, went on to enjoy the taste of victory yet again.
L.A. didn’t have to wait long for a Finals rematch, as they ended up facing the Celtics in the 1985 playoffs. And they finally managed to defeat their bitter rivals, closing out the series in six games.
Once the Lakers broke the curse, they followed up with another Finals victory over Boston two years later — beating a C’s team that kept the core of the championship-winning 1985-86 group, generally considered to be the best Celtics side of the Bird era.
Not only Boston lost the title to the Lakers that season. They wouldn’t appear in the Finals for another 21 years — until basketball gods pitted them against L.A. again in 2008.
The Showtime brought in five NBA championships for the Lakers: in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. Even if only slightly, the Purple and Gold closed the gap on the Celtics in the number of championship banners they had won. They wrapped up the ‘80s with 11 titles to their name while Boston had 16, after triumphs in 1981, 1984, and 1986.
L.A. players won three MVP awards during the ‘80s as, in addition to Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson claimed it in 1987 and 1989. Bird had received the honor in back-to-back-to-back seasons between 1984-86, but Magic would catch up with the Celtics star’s feat in 1990, winning his third and last MVP title.
Meanwhile, Michael Cooper scooped the 1987 Defensive Player of the Year, remaining the only ever Laker to claim the honor as of 2022.
What was the best basketball team in the ‘80s? The question would surely elicit different answers on the East Coast as it would in the West — although it can be said with a clear conscience that there are only two options to choose from.
Several would-be Hall-of-Famers played for the two sides in the ‘80s: Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, Spencer Haywood on the Lakers; Bird, McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton, Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, and Pete Maravich on the Celtics.
The greatness of the two sides can’t be denied. However, the Lakers did win more titles and managed to beat their arch-enemies in the NBA Finals for the first time during the ‘80s. Besides, Showtime enriched the game with exciting new ideas — and became a cultural phenomenon of sorts, transforming basketball games into a spectacle.
Perhaps in the eye of a neutral observer, that’s why the ‘80s Lakers likely edge the ‘80s Celtics in terms of the collective uniqueness of the team. There’s a reason why that part of franchise and NBA history has been known as the Showtime era while Boston remembers it as the Bird era.
Nevertheless, the NBA entered a golden age in the ‘80s, courtesy of both the Lakers and the Celtics.