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Steve Aschburner

Bill Russell, Jerry West and John Havlicek know the Lakers-Celtics rivalry intimately.
Dick Raphael/ NBAE/ Getty Images

Lakers-Celtics: History shows, it doesn't get any better

Posted Jun 1 2010 10:51PM

LOS ANGELES -- There is nothing like it in professional sports, two franchises whose fates and histories, whose highs and lows are so intertwined across so many years. It says a lot that the Boston Celtics and the Los Angles Lakers have dominated the NBA almost from its inception, winning 32 of the 63 championships, with a 33rd guaranteed over the next two weeks or so. It says even more that the rivalry has challenged, driven, grown and defined both teams through the years.

Since the 2010 version starts in Hollywood, let's put it in terms those folks can appreciate: The Celtics are the Tom Cruise character, portrayed for our purposes by Larry Bird.

"You ... you complete me," Bird says, a little hesitantly. "And I just ..."

"Shut up, just shut up," interrupts Magic Johnson, handling the Renee Zellweger role for the Lakers. "You had me at, 'Hello.' "

Among the greatest rivalries in team sports, no other comes close. The New York Yankees and the Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers have met 10 times in the World Series, yet their arch enemies are undeniably the Red Sox and the Giants, respectively. The NFL offered up six championship games between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, yet that doesn't even register among pro football's, what, top 20 rivalries? Hockey, for all of the Canadian dominance early, gave us only five Montreal-Toronto showdowns in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Celtics and the Lakers, by contrast, have met 11 times in the NBA Finals. Eleven times across six decades in a series of West Coast vs. East Coast throwdowns, most of which seem to be in perpetual play on ESPN Classic every spring.

Here are reminders of all that has been at stake when Green and White clash with Purple and Gold for pro basketball's highest stakes:

1959: The biggest mismatch

Celtics 4, Lakers 0

This storied rivalry got off to a dreary start, as one team revved up its championship dynasty while the other was waving bye-bye not only to its early NBA domination but soon enough to its home market. The Lakers were on their way out of Minneapolis, the stars and titles of the George Mikan-era gone, the lack of a proper facility turning them into vagabonds (24 games on neutral courts in 1958-59). They finished 33-39 that season, 25-50 a year later and, by the summer of 1960, would be headed to Los Angeles.

The Celtics were on their way as the squad that would dominate the 1960s. They finished 52-20, boasted five of the league's top 20 scorers and had the rebounding(Bill Russell, 23) and assists (Bob Cousy, 8.6) champs. When Boston survived a grueling seven-game semifinal against Syracuse and Minneapolis upset West Division champs St. Louis, the first Celtics-Lakers Finals was set.

Uh oh ... Boston had won 18 straight over two seasons in the series, including a 173-139 beatdown in February that was so bad, it sparked point-shaving suspicions (unfounded).

From that perspective, the '59 Finals qualified as a moral "W" for the Lakers -- sure, they got swept but the total margin of victory for the four games was 31 (three decided by five points or less). Boston's depth and general excellence was too much, even for a stellar Lakers rookie named Elgin Baylor (24.9 ppg, 15.0 rpg, 4.1 apg in the regular season).

1962: Thing of theirs heats up

Celtics 4, Lakers 3

These days, the Celtics and the Lakers look forward to facing each other in The Finals for the chance to add another chapter to their rivalry. But back in 1962, the Lakers were hoping to get Boston in the championship round because they feared Philadelphia more. The Warriors had Wilt Chamberlain, wrapping up his incredible 50.4 ppg season, and L.A. felt it lacked the manpower to cope with The Dipper. Russell? Sure, great player, but not quite other-worldly as the Lakers saw it for a matchup with mortals Jimmy Krebs and Ray Felix.

Little did anyone know that these teams would meet in The Finals six times over the next eight years or that this would provide the first of four series in the rivalry to go the maximum seven games. Game 3 ended with some controversy, adding spice to things, when Lakers guard Jerry West stole an inbounds pass with four seconds left and drove for a layup to win 117-115 (how come we never hear any "Havlicek stole the ball!"-like audio on that?). Boston coach Red Auerbach smelled something fishy with the game clock at the L.A. Sports Arena, but when the Celtics won Game 4, 115-103, they merely tied the series.

Each team won on the other's court after that, Baylor blowing up in Game 5 (a Finals-record 61 points and 22 rebounds), the Celtics taking Game 6 back in L.A. Game 7 was tied, 100-100, with five seconds left, Lakers' ball, and Rod Hundley found Frank Selvy open on the left baseline. Cousy, who had double-teamed West, rushed over to contest Selvy's 8-foot shot and might have fouled on the play. No whistle. Baylor set up for a rebound but said he got shoved to the baseline. No whistle (the Lakers legend said years later that Sam Jones admitted pushing him).

In overtime, Boston jumped in front en route to its fourth consecutive championship. But the rivalry truly was ignited.

1963: Hmm, Celtics not 'too old'

Celtics 4, Lakers 2

Boston winning NBA championships was getting a little old for the rest of the league. Even Celtics fans were taking the team for granted at the turnstiles. Meanwhile, the Celtics themselves were getting old, too. Little did critics realize that Auerbach had fresh legs -- notably Havlicek -- coming in, even as Cousy was heading out.

The dazzling playmaker was 34, ancient by pro sports' standards then, but still had enough left -- and so did the Celtics. In the 1963 postseason, Cousy averaged 14.1 ppg, 8.9 apg, made 35.3 percent of his shot and 83 percent of his free throws in 30.2 mpg (compared to career averages of 18.5, 8.6, 34.2 percent, 80.1 percent and 38.5 mpg). When he fouled out of Game 5 at Boston, the Lakers were able to avoid an early elimination (it helped that Baylor and West combined for 75 points in a 126-119 L.A. victory).

In Game 7, Boston led by nine points early in the fourth quarter when Cousy tripped and sprained an ankle. By the time he was able to return -- needed to return -- the Lakers had closed within one. The soon-to-retire point guard organized the Celtics again, got them a little cushion and dribbled out the final seconds of the 112-109 clincher. Sure, some of the Celtics were old, but as Cousy said during the series, "We are not the oldest men alive."

1965: No Elgin, no chance

Celtics 4, Lakers 1

Boston, even after a 62-18 regular season, had been toughened in the playoffs by a seven-game series against Philadelphia (and Chamberlain, returned to the Eastern Division in a midseason trade from San Francisco). Los Angeles, after finishing atop the Western Division at 49-31, was headed the other way when Elgin Baylor blew out a knee in the opener of the conference finals against Baltimore. Just like that, the Lakers lost 27.1 ppg from their lineup; from there, it was West (31 ppg) and role players.

The result: The last Celtics-Lakers Finals to end in less than six games. The average margin of defeat in L.A.'s four losses was 21 points -- coincidentally, the precise margin by which the Lakers won Game 3, at least avoiding a sweep. But the mismatch-ups were too great, and in Game 5 the Celtics led 72-48 at halftime and went on a 20-0 run over the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. Final score: 129-96, which provides a little perspective on that Game 6 rout to end the 2008 Finals.

1966: Auerbach plays last card

Celtics 4, Lakers 3

You might think that an overtime victory in Game 1, with Baylor and West combining for 77 points on the Celtics' parquet floor, would put the Lakers in control both mentally and physically. After all, Baylor -- relegated to 16.6 ppg after his injury the previous spring, his bum knee leaving him at "75 percent" for the rest of his career, by his own estimation -- had stirred some echoes. And the Celtics hadn't even won their division in the regular season, getting edged by Philadelphia.

But after L.A.'s 133-129 OT victory, Auerbach stole the attention and the momentum by announcing that Russell would take over as Celtics coach in 1966-67. It was a huge deal -- the first black head coach in a major American sport, an aging legend as player-coach -- and it overshadowed what was going on in the series. The Celtics won the next three games, while exploiting the matchup problem Havlicek posed (too big for guards, too quick for forwards).

Lakers coach Fred Schaus countered with a three-guard lineup and his team managed to win Games 5 and 6, forcing a finale at Boston. At that point defense kicked in: The teams had averaged 120 points per side in the first six games, but Boston won Game 7, 95-93. Auerbach, after lighting his last official victory cigar for his ninth NBA title, then took a seat in the rivalry. Of course the seat was an executive perch, from which he could stay just as involved and devious as ever.

1968: Peaking at right time

Celtics 4, Lakers 2

Boston had been eliminated in 1967 in five games by a dominant Philadelphia team. The 76ers still were the class of the East a year later, with Chamberlain as regular-season MVP. The Celtics were old and allegedly done, but saw the playoffs as a new season. Starting to sound familiar yet, with a 2010 vibe?

The Celtics dug out of a 3-1 hole to beat Philadelphia in seven games, then focused on a Lakers club that again was glad to have ducked Chamberlain. New coach Butch van Breda Kolff was demanding, with a pace that played away from the post (and the personnel was limited, too). After four games, the Finals was tied, 2-2. From there, West felt the Lakers gave away Game 5, falling behind by 19 in the first quarter before losing 120-117. Boston closed out Game 6 on the Lakers' court, 124-109, leading by 20 at halftime.

Afterward, Celtics forward Bailey Howell said: "We weren't a dominant team. Unless everyone was playing well and together, we couldn't win. And so we wouldn't have won without every guy on that team." That's what Doc Rivers and the current Celtics have been stressing.

1969: Was it balloons? Or bricks?

Celtics 4, Lakers 3

Everybody remembers the balloons. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, so convinced that his team would take care of Game 7 at the Forum, had rigged nets in the rafters to stage a celebration when his team defeated the hated Celtics. Of course, Boston used that schtick for motivation and jumped to a 24-12 lead. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Celtics were up 91-76.

By that point, Chamberlain -- the answer to the Lakers' soft middle through the years -- had five fouls and, defensively, was determined to avoid a sixth. Then, midway through the final quarter, he landed badly on a rebound, hurt his knee and asked out. The Lakers coach, van Breda Kolff, obliged ... and obliged, declining Chamberlain's request soon thereafter to re-enter. West and the others had drawn within a point, but the Lakers' sharpshooter still was angry when he learned of van Breda Kolff's decision.

Many fans also remember Don Nelson's fortunate jumper -- the ball bounded high off the back rim, then dropped through -- near the end that helped seal Boston's 108-106 victory and 11th championship in 13 years. What most folks forget is that the Lakers missed 19 of 47 free throws in Game 7, 10 of them by players besides the famously freebie-challenged Chamberlain. West won the inaugural Finals MVP award, still the only time it has gone to a member of the losing team. Russell announced his retirement a few months later, exiting with 11 rings as the greatest winner in team sports.

1984: Rivarly renewed, enlarged

Celtics 4, Lakers 3

Fifteen years had passed between Finals showdowns. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry had yielded to the NBA's checkered decade of the 1970s, which saw both highs (the Knicks' two titles, the NBA-ABA merger that delivered Julius Erving and other new stars) and, uh, highs (notorious drug issues) and lows (tape-delayed Finals games). But Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought the vitality of their 1979 NCAA rivalry to the pros and, after five years of chasing rings against others, they were poised to do it against each other.

Both had the making of powerhouse teams behind them that would meet in three of four Finals by 1987. L.A.'s victory in Boston in Game 1 had the Lakers thinking "sweep" when they led Game 2 with 18 seconds left, 115-113, but backup Boston guard Gerald Henderson flashed in to steal a crosscourt pass from James Worthy to Byron Scott and ran down for a layup. Johnson dribbled out the clock without getting his guys a final shot and the Celtics won in overtime.

The loss stung worse after the Lakers crushed Boston 137-104 in Game 3. The beating was so thorough that it challenged the Celtics' character, not just their basketball skills, and they responded. What some consider the turning point came when Kevin McHale, in the second quarter of Game 4, clotheslined Kurt Rambis on a fast break. L.A. still led late and Boston needed OT to win and reclaim home-court advantage, but much of the starch in the rivalry came from that brutal "playoff foul." (By today's standards, McHale might have been suspended for the series.)

The Celtics won Game 5 in sweltering heat at Boston Garden, the Lakers regained their cool back at the Forum in Game 6. That set up Game 7, with forward Cedric Maxwell -- about to yield to Boston's emerging Big Three -- dominated inside (24 points, eight rebounds, eight assists). And Dennis Johnson, whose defense on Magic from mid-series on altered things, finished strong in a 111-102 clincher.

1985: Finally, it's L.A.

Lakers 4, Celtics 2

Much as the Game 3 beating in 1984 woke up the Celtics, the Lakers' tissue-like effort in Game 1 the next year -- a 148-114 humiliation, quickly dubbed the Memorial Day Massacre -- pushed L.A.'s players to dig deep. Aging center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in particular, vowed to never again let himself be so embarrassed and the Lakers planted their heels. Abdul-Jabbar fired back with 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks in a Game 2 victory, swiping home-court edge and possibly the whole series from Boston in the new 2-3-2 format.

In Game 3, Los Angeles leaned on Worthy for a 27-9 run in the second quarter, then pumped up their lead from there to win by 25. The Celtics again flexed their savvy in the close ones, winning 107-105 in Game 4. In Game 5, it was the Lakers who responded, turning a 101-97 game with six minutes left into a comfortable nine-point victory (36 points from Abdul-Jabbar).

Los Angeles' skyhooking captain was key in Game 6, too, getting 18 of his 29 points after halftime in a 111-100 series clincher. Not only had the Lakers finally beaten the Celtics, they had won their championship on Boston's court, where they had been so disappointed -- jinxed even -- in prior playoffs. Finals MVP: Abdul-Jabbar.

1987: Rubber match, Lakers!

Lakers 4, Celtics 2

What we remember most is Magic Johnson's "junior, junior sky hook." If the series had ended on that basket, it would have been appropriate because it said so much about where the respective teams were at that point in their 1980s life cycles.

Boston was a year removed from arguably the greatest season ever by an NBA team, with its 63-19 record, its 50-1 mark at home (including playoffs) and a healthy Bill Walton coming off the bench. Walton no longer was healthy, Kevin McHale was playing on a broken foot near the end and the Celtics were breaking down. The Lakers, on the other hand, were on their way to becoming the NBA's first back-to-back champion since Russell's Celtics in 1968 and '69. Before they could beat Detroit in '88, however, they had to get back Boston in '87.

With an offense built around Johnson, previously content to be the playmaker, the Lakers did just that. The Magic man had 29 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and zero turnovers in the 126-113 Game 1 victory, then scored 20 points with 22 assists (exploiting Boston's increased defensive focus on him) in a 141-122 Game 2 laugher. It was Game 4, on the Celtics' parquet floor, where Johnson drove into the lane late and pulled off his memorable, Abdul-Jabbar-in-miniature hook shot over the outstretched arms of Bird, McHale and Robert Parish. Talk about your metaphors.

Game 5 was all about the Celtics not going out in front of their fans, Game 6 was strictly TCB for the Lakers after halftime as Johnson finished with 16 points, 19 assists, eight rebounds, the Finals MVP trophy and a forever 3-1 edge over Bird in head-to-head championships (counting college). But the indelible image of this Finals came two games earlier.

2008: Anything is possible

Celtics 4, Lakers 2

From the start, this was billed as the Big Three vs. the Chosen One. No, not LeBron James in that singular role -- we're talking about Kobe Bryant, burning to prove his ability to lead a team to a championship without the help of massive, in-his-prime center Shaquille O'Neal, the anchor of those Lakers title teams from 2000 to 2002. Bryant had taken heat for essentially running the big man out of town and even L.A. coach Phil Jackson had blistered the Lakers' scoring star in a book after their 2004 break-up.

In Bryant's way were some rather legendary obstacle. The Celtics, the Lakers' longtime nemeses. And the trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, three proven veterans -- even potential Hall of Famers -- who had yet to experience the ultimate success. Nothing had stopped the newly configured Boston club in the regular season and, after some hiccups in the playoffs' early rounds, nothing seemed likely to stop the Celtics in the postseason either.

Across yet another six-game, Celtics-Lakers Finals, nothing did. The rivalry was revived but controlled by Boston's defense, which held the Lakers -- who had averaged 108.6 ppg in the regular season -- to 92 points or less. In the Game 6 clincher, a 131-92 smackdown that surely will be remembered by L.A. in these 2010 Finals, the Celtics had trailed by a point in the first quarter but should have been down worse on 3-of-14 shooting. By the end, the Lakers coughed up 19 turnovers (18 steals for the Celtics). Sure, the 131 points was nice for Boston but the 92 allowed were sublime.

"When you see us beat teams and beat teams bad," Garnett had said, calmed down after his crazed on-court antics immediately after the horn, "it's because we play defense for 48 minutes and we put our offensive game together to go with it."

He and the Celtics will try to do that again beginning Thursday. The rest of us, we'll be watching.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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