The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have a rivalry that has been cultivated over decades, eventually becoming the greatest in basketball, and perhaps the entire professional sports world. That’s in large part due to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
While the two teams met regularly in the early days of the NBA, it wasn’t until the arrival of Johnson and Bird that the rivalry blossomed into one that would lead the league to new heights in popularity and propel the NBA to become the powerhouse that it is today.
The 1979-80 NBA season marked the debut of Johnson and Bird, who had been college rivals prior to jumping to the pros. Their first meeting came in Los Angeles on Dec. 28, 1979, in a game that turned out to be an easy 18-point victory for the Lakers.
However, when the purple and gold traveled to Boston on Jan. 13, 1980, things got decidedly more difficult. The Celtics had only lost one game all season at home, and the sold-out Boston Garden was filled to the brim with fans ready to cheer their team on to victory. Meanwhile, the road-weary Lakers were at the final leg of a five-game trip.
They had played in Detroit just two nights before in an emotional homecoming for Johnson, who grew up in Lansing and played his college ball at Michigan State. Johnson injured his groin against the Pistons and was clearly hobbled against the Celtics.
With Johnson’s mobility lacking, the Celtics, who had listened to the Lakers take on the Pistons on the radio to help prepare themselves, turned to the fast break early and often, blitzing the Lakers with a taste of their own medicine.
The Showtime days were still very much ahead of Los Angeles, but Boston managed to get one stop after another and dart out on fast breaks led by point guard Nate “Tiny” Archibald. Bird was as-advertised, splashing jumpers with a quick release that drove Lakers defenders crazy.
Despite a determined Celtics attack, the Lakers would eventually find their footing. With Johnson ailing, the team leaned on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who pumped in 33 points. Jamal “Silk” Wilkes notched 21 points of his own to keep pace with the streaking Celtics.
With the score tied at 98 and only seconds remaining, guard Norm Nixon was fouled on a drive and calmly sank a pair of clutch free throws. Celtics big man Dave Cowens missed a jumper at the buzzer to tie the game and the Lakers escaped the Garden with a two-point victory, 100-98.
Johnson struggled with his injury and scored only one point in the game while Bird went for 14. At the time, the thought was that the Lakers and Celtics would meet again in the NBA Finals, but it wasn’t to be.
Instead, the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win it all that year, but many classic games against the Celtics were still to come.
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