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The Lakers, Celtics, LeBron James, and the Number 18

Ahead of their first meeting of the season, we look closer at the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and the significance of the number 18 in this matchup.

Brian Martin, for NBA.com

LeBron James and the Lakers won the last meeting with the Celtics 114-112 on Feb. 23, 2020.

The 2021 debut of ABC Saturday Primetime features the greatest rivalry in NBA history – the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics (8:30 p.m. ET). Ahead of their first meeting of the season, we look closer at the rivalry and the significance of the number 18 in this matchup.

Chasing Championship No. 18

When the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals, they clinched their 17th NBA championship, tying them with the Celtics for the most titles in league history.

The race for championship No. 18 is on with both the Lakers and Celtics considered among the contenders for the 2020-21 championship. The defending champion Lakers were favored by the league’s GMs to repeat as champions, while the Celtics are looking to reach The Finals after being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four seasons.

Forty-one of the NBA’s 74 championship series have featured either the Lakers, the Celtics or both teams. The Lakers have the most Finals appearances in history at 32, followed by the Celtics at 21, and the two have met with the championship on the line 12 times. The Celtics hold a 9-3 edge in head-to-head meetings in the Finals, but L.A. won the most recent meeting in 2010.

Lakers x Celtics: A historical rivalry

LeBron In Season No. 18

While the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics remains strong, the rivalry between LeBron James and Father Time has been dominated by LeBron, who continues to play at an MVP level in his 18th season in the NBA.

LeBron enters Saturday averaging 25.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists. He joins Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic as the only players in the league to average at least 25-7-7 so far this season. Luka is 21 years old and in his third NBA season; Jokic is 25 in his sixth season; LeBron is 36 and performing at a level never seen before by a player in season No. 18.

Kobe Bryant (22.3 ppg in 2014-15) and Karl Malone (20.6 ppg, in 2002-03) are the only other players in league history to average at least 20 points in their 18th season or later. LeBron is on pace to average at least 25 points for his 17th consecutive season.

Five players have averaged at least seven rebounds in their 18th season or later – Tim Duncan (2x), Karl Malone (2x), Kevin Garnett, Robert Parish and Moses Malone. Of that group, only Malone averaged at least 20 points in the same season.

John Stockton (7.7 apg in 2002-03, 8.2 apg in 2001-02) is the only other player to average at least seven assists in his 18th season or later. Reaching any one of these three marks in season 18 puts you in rare and elite company. For LeBron to do all three in season 18 leaves him no company at all.

At 36, LeBron has a chance to become the oldest player to ever win MVP honors, eclipsing Malone, who won the 1998-99 MVP at the age of 35. In that season, Malone averaged 23.8 points (3rd in NBA), 9.4 rebounds (14th), and 4.1 assists (32nd) in 37.4 minutes per game and led the Jazz to a 37-13 record (tied with San Antonio for the league’s top record) during the lockout-shortened season.

Through 20 games so far this season, LeBron ranks 15th in scoring, 27th in rebounding and 7th in assists while playing a career-low 33.1 minutes per game. LeBron is also shooting a career-best 41.7% from beyond the arc on a career-high 6.6 3-point attempts per game.

NBA Breakdown: LeBron James/Anthony Davis two-man game

Celtics Game No. 18

This is Boston’s 18th game of the season, but just the second with the trio of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown sharing the court together.

Walker missed nearly the entire first month of the season following offseason knee surgery before returning to the court on Jan. 17. In five games back, the four-time All-Star has averaged 16.4 points, 4.2 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 24.2 minutes per game.

Walker’s return came in the middle of a two-week absence for All-Star wing Jayson Tatum after he tested positive for COVID-19 in early January. Tatum made his return on Jan. 25, which came on the second night of a back-to-back for the Celtics, so Walker was held out as the Celtics manage his workload.

On Wednesday, the trio took the court together for the first time this season as they faced the Spurs in San Antonio. Tatum scored a game-high 25 points, Brown added 24, and Walker had 14, but it was not enough as the Spurs held on for a 110-106 win.

“It’s been an interesting season,” Brown said following the game. “We’ve had guys out, guys hurt. We are just trying to put everything together. Tonight wasn’t our best night.”

Dynamic Scoring Duos

While players have been in and out of the Celtics lineup, Brown has been the constant. He’s played in all 17 games and is having a breakout season, scoring 27.1 points per game (8th in NBA), shooting 52.2% from the field and 44.1% from 3.

Brown has scored at least 18 points in every game this season and has set and tied his career high with two 42-point games in the past month. While it was Walker and Tatum that represented the Celtics at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, Brown is on track to add the All-Star accolade to his resume in 2021.

Not far behind Brown in scoring is Tatum at 26.5 ppg, which ranks 12th in the league and represents a career high for the fourth-year pro. Brown and Tatum are the third-highest scoring duo in the league at 53.6 combined points per game, with the top three duos each having both players averaging at least 25 ppg. The Lakers duo of James and Anthony Davis ranks ninth at 47.4 combined ppg.

  • BKN – Kevin Durant (30.5) / Kyrie Irving (27.7): 58.2
  • POR – Damian Lillard (28.8) / CJ McCollum (26.7): 55.5
  • BOS – Jaylen Brown (27.1) / Jayson Tatum (26.5): 53.6
  • WAS – Bradley Beal (34.7) / Russell Westbrook (18.9): 53.5
  • LAC – Kawhi Leonard (25.8) / Paul George (24.0): 49.8
  • MIL – Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.5) / Khris Middleton (21.6): 49.1
  • PHI – Joel Embiid (28.3) / Tobias Harris (19.9): 48.2
  • NOP – Brandon Ingram (24.1) / Zion Williamson (23.8): 47.9
  • LAL – LeBron James (25.5) / Anthony Davis (21.9): 47.4
  • DAL – Luka Doncic (27.3) / Kristaps Porzingis (18.6): 45.9
  • GSW – Stephen Curry (27.7) / Andrew Wiggins (17.7): 45.4

Since Tatum and Brown became teammates, the Celtics are 26-8 (+18 wins) when both players score 20 in the same game. Since Davis and James became teammates, the Lakers have won 18 of the 21 games in which both players scored at least 25 points.

One of those Lakers wins came in the last meeting between these teams on Feb. 23, 2020 as Davis scored 32 points and LeBron score 29 to lead the Lakers to a 114-112 win. On the other end, both Tatum (41) and Brown finished with at least 20 points, but came away with the loss as both dynamic duos combined to score 61 points.

Rivalry History – Celtics Once Won 18 Straight

We touched on the Finals history between these two franchises earlier, but the rivalry dates back to 1948 when the Minneapolis Lakers and Boston Celtics first met on Nov. 9, 1948. Since then, the two teams have met 292 times in the regular season, with the Celtics holding a 161-131 advantage all-time.

The Celtics dominated this rivalry in the first three-plus decades of the NBA. From their first meeting in 1948 until the end of the 1978-79 season, the Celtics went 127-85 against the Lakers, including winning 18 games in a row from Nov. 6, 1957 to March 3, 1959.

However, the rivalry and the league changed significantly beginning in the 1979-80 season. Not only did that season add two of this rivalry’s biggest stars in Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the league also adopted the 3-point line and adjusted the schedule to emphasize divisional matchup, meaning the Lakers and Celtics from opposing conference would only meet twice per season as opposed to more than five games per season as they had done for years in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

  • 1940s: Lakers 3, Celtics 2
  • 1950s: Celtics 46, Lakers 36
  • 1960s: Celtics 57, Lakers 31
  • 1970s: Celtics 24, Lakers 18
  • 1980s: Lakers 11, Celtics 9
  • 1990s: Lakers 10, Celtics 8
  • 2000s: Lakers 13, Celtics 7
  • 2010s: Lakers 11, Celtics 9
  • 2020s: Lakers 1, Celtics 1

While the Celtics dominated the early decades of this rivalry – and the rest of the NBA, for that matter, with a run of 11 championships in 13 seasons – the Lakers have tilted the scales the other way since the 1980s. Over the past 40 seasons, the Lakers own a 46-34 advantage in head-to-head meetings during the regular season, and a 3-2 advantage when the teams have met in the Finals.

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