The Celtics and Lakers have met 10 times in the NBA Finals. That's more times than any other team has even made the finals. So here's everything I think you need to know about the history of this rivalry, most of which isn't made up. I think.
1959: This series marked the first time the two teams met for the NBA title, and it was the first of Boston's eight straight championships. That said, it kind of doesn't count. First of all, the Lakers were still based on Minneapolis (yaaaaaaaawn). Second, other than Rookie of the Year Elgin Baylor, the Lakers roster was filled with largely forgettable characters like Vern Mikkelsen, Dick Garmaker, Larry Foust and Hot Rod Hundley, who's better known for what he's done as a broadcaster than anything he accomplished in the NBA. The Celtics, meanwhile, had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey, K.C. Jones — Hall of Famers every one.
That season, the Celtics set a league record for victories (52), while the Lakers had finished 33-39. Moreover, the last time the teams had met during the regular season, the Celtics scored 173 points. It was a beating so brutal that NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff investigated the game to determine whether there had been any point tampering (there hadn't; the Lakers just sucked that bad).
All the games were close, but the series wasn't: Boston won 4-0. It was the first sweep in NBA Finals history.
1962: Now this was when the rivalry really began. The Lakers had moved to Los Angeles and added Jerry West, Rudy LaRusso and Frank Selvy. Elgin Baylor was called into active duty by the army, but he was allowed enough leave time to play 48 games (averaging 38.3 PPG). The Lakers finished the season 54-26, best in the Western Division.
Boston, though, finished 60-20. Led by MVP Bill Russell and his Hall of Fame teammates, the Celtics had already won three straight titles and were hungry for more. And they had a fever for the flavor of a Pringle. But that's beside the point.
L.A. put Boston on the brink of elimination by winning Game 5 in Boston Garden. That was the game in which Elgin Baylor played like a man among tiny, crushable insects, scoring an NBA Finals record 61 points and grabbing 22 rebounds. And the Lakers could have won it all at home in Game 6. But they didn't. They also had a chance to win it all in Game 7 at the Garden, but Frank Selvy boned a wide-open eight-footer at the end of regulation. The Celtics went on to win in overtime, 110-107.
1963: Prior to the playoffs, Sports Illustrated boldly — and by "boldly" I mean "stupidly" — stated that: "The Boston Celtics are an old team. Tired blood courses through their varicose veins." I guess that was the magazine's subtle way of saying the Celtics were too old and tired to win it all for the fifth straight year. Good call, Sports Illustrated.
Boston ran out to a 3-1 series lead, inexplicably lost Game 5 at home, and then finished off the Lakers in L.A. in Game 6. Bob Cousy retired with the best possible gift: Another NBA Finals win over the Lakers. However, the Celtics were so bored with winning by this point, they didn't even celebrate. Unless you count the bottle of bourbon Frank Ramsey bought for the flight home as "celebrating."
1965: Elgin Baylor's knee freaking exploded in Game 1 of the Western Division Finals against the Baltimore Bullets. This effectively eliminated any chance the Lakers had of beating the Celtics in the Finals. But those plucky can-doers tried anyway. And failed.
The Lakers avoided a sweep by winning Game 4, and the L.A. crowd showed their stay and sophistication by pelting Red Auerbach with cigars. Way to stay classy, Los Angeles. Their team's reward was a 126-96 mercy killing at the Garden in Game 5. Boston beat the Lakers so badly that Bill Russell almost cried. "We were not just beating this team. We were destroying it. It was my worst moment in sports. There was the horror of destruction, not the joy of winning. We knew — and did not know — we sensed, and did not completely comprehend, that we had taken sports out of the realm of the game." Wow. I guess sometimes winning hurts.
1966: In the summer of 1965, Red Auerbach announced that the coming season would be his last as the coach of the Celtics. But he wouldn't have been Red Auerbach without using the announcement as a chance to spit in everybody's eye. "I'm announcing it now so no one can ever say I quit while I was ahead. I'm telling everyone right now — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, everyone — that this will be my last season. You've got one more shot at Auerbach!"
And that's what everybody did, especially the fans, who took delight in pelting Auerbach with peanut bags, beer cans, and cigars. Some people even ran down from the stands to confront Red himself (one women, who blew cigar smoke in Auerbach's face, got her cigar snatched and received a faceful of ashes from the feisty coach).
The Lakers and Celtics engaged in another seven-game clash in the Finals. Boston lost the first game, won the next three, and then lost the next two. But Game 7 was in Boston Garden and it looked like the Celtics were going to run away with the title (Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were only 3-for-18 in the first half).
The Celtics were up by 10 with a minute left when Massachusetts governor John Volbe leaned over and lit Red's victory cigar. And if you're wondering, the answer is: Yes, the stat curse dates all the way back to the 1960s. The Boston fans went berserk and flooded the court before the game could officially end. It was crazy. Bill Russell — who was actually playing on a broken foot — got knocked on his ass. Satch Sanders had his jersey torn off his body. Orange juice containers were spilled all over the floor. In short: Bedlam.
The referees managed to get the fans off the court, for the most part, and restored a semblance of order. But the Celtics were in trouble. One Boston defender slipped on some orange juice and fell over, which allowed Jerry West to score a quick bucket. Mr. Clutch then stole the ball from Russell and scored again. Boston lost the ball on an offensive foul and L.A. scored again. The lead was down to four. Sam Jones, who was pretty clutch himself, got a case of the yips and bobbled a pass out of bounds. The Lakers had the ball back yet again, and their center, Leroy Ellis, hit a jumper to cut the Celtic lead to only two with four seconds left.
But it was too little, too late. The ball was inbounded to K.C. Jones, who dribbled out the clock on Boston's 95-93 victory. And like Cousy before him, Red Auerbach celebrated his retirement with yet another win at the Lakers expense. It was the Celtics eighth straight championship (remember that next time you get all googly-eyed over a three-peat). Said Auerbach: "If they were going to beat me, this was their shot. And they couldn't."
1968: In 1967, the Celtics got bored with winning championships, so they took a year off. Rumor has it some of the Boston players weren't even aware they didn't win. "Wha...what?!" said one unnamed player. "Don't you know who we are? We're the Celtics."
Stunned by their unexpected non-championshipness, the Celtics decided to go ahead and win it all again. But first they had to go through Wilt Chamberlain and the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers. Which is exactly what they did, winning Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals in Philly as The Big Dipper — who had once averaged 50 PPG — attempted only two shots in the second half.
The Lakers had actually been rooting for the Celtics. After all, they reasoned, it would be easier to face off against Bill Russell than Wilt Chamberlain, right? Right?! Uh...wrong.
The two teams exchanged victories for five games, but then, in Game 6, Lakers coach Butch van Breda Kolff decided to abandon his team's primary advantage — speed and youth — to employ a bigger (and slower) lineup. That worked. (I'm kidding; it didn't.) The Celtics once again ran away with the game (124-109) and the championship.
Jerry West, who was sick and tired of losing to Boston in the Finals every year, said: "To be frank, we gave them the championship. We gave them the first game, and we gave them the fifth." Of course, West was quick to add: "But I take nothing from them."
1969: During the offseason, the Lakers added Wilt Chamberlain to an all-star cast that already included Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, making them the most talented basketball team in the universe. Meanwhile, that Boston team that was ancient all the way back in 1963 had almost completely fossilized. (The Smithsonian was openly lobbying to put Bill Russell on display as soon as the season ended.) But they made the playoffs, which was all that really mattered to them.
L.A. stormed through the Western Division while Boston upset the 76ers and Knicks in the East. The Lakers won the first two games and would have gone up 3-1 had Sam Jones not hit a miracle shot in Game 4. The teams exchanged a couple victories and so it came down to another climactic Game 7. But for the first time in this rivalry, Game 7 would take place in Los Angeles.
Of course, Lakers owner infamously stat cursed his team when he planned a large victory celebration for the inevitable championship: The USC band was going to play "Happy Days Are Here Again" while 5,000 balloons fell from the ceiling. And there was champagne. Lots of it.
The Celtics go a hold of a post-game program and that turned out badly for the Lakers. Boston ran out to a huge lead which the Lakers couldn't cut into until Wilt Chamberlain begged out of the game (he supposedly tweaked a knee). By the time Wilt was ready to check back in, Butch van Breda Kolff was to pissed off to comply, choosing instead to stick with Mel Counts. (If you're thinking "Who?" then you aren't alone.) Boston got another miracle shot, this time by Don Nelson, and held on for a 108-106 victory. Bill Russell was upset that he didn't win it with Chamberlain on the floor, but he took the win and — like Cousy, like Auerbach — retired after winning a ring on the Lakers' tab.
1984: Fast forward almost two decades. Times had changed. The Lakers didn't have Wilt, Jerry or Elgin, but they did have Kareem, Magic and Worthy. The Celtics didn't have Russell, Cousy or Havlicek, but they had Bird, McHale and Parish. And it was on.
Or so we thought. The Lakers jumped all over the Celtics in Game 1, and then they would have won Game 2 if not for a lazy cross-court pass by James Worthy that Gerald Henderson stole to tie the game and send it into overtime. L.A. blasted Boston 137-104, prompting Larry Bird to call his teammates "sissies" and suggest that the Celtics needed "12 heart transplants."
Bird's harsh words may or may not have incited Kevin McHale to clothesline Kurt Rambis in Game 4, but that's exactly what McHale did. And it changed the series. Said Cedric Maxwell: "Before Kevin McHale hit Kurt Rambis, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted. Now, they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light, and look both ways."
Even though they had never led at the end of regulation over four games, the Celtics tied the series at 2-2 with an overtime win in Game 4. Red Auerbach then ordered God to hit Boston with a heat wave for Game 5. With temperatures in the Garden reaching nuclear levels, the Celtics cruised to 121-103 victory while Kareem and the other Lakers sucked on oxygen masks.
L.A. took Game 6 at home and came back from a huge deficit to make Game 7 competitive, but they couldn't handle Maxwell (24 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) and learned — like Jerry West before them — what it was like to be humiliated by the Celtics.
1985: The Celtics opened the Finals by demolishing the Lakers 148-114 in what would be dubbed "The Memorial Day Massacre." Unfortunately for Boston, those extra points didn't carry over into the next game. Even more unfortunately, Larry Bird had injured his hand in a bar fight during the Eastern Conference Finals — although that fact didn't come out until later — and his shooting went to hell.
The Lakers rebounded to win Game 2 and then blew the Celtics out in Game 3. The Leprechauns win Game 4 on a last-second shot by Dennis Johnson and they should have gone home for Game 5...but this was the first year of the 2-3-2 Finals format, which meant the Celtics were staying put. They lost that game and then succumbed quietly in Game 6 as Bird shot 12-for-29. Lakers owner Jerry Buss stated "This trophy removes the most odious sentence in the English Language. It can never be said again that 'the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics.'"
1987: In 1986, the Lakers purposely lost to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals in order to avoid getting hammered in the Finals by one of the best Celtics teams ever. But by the next season, that team was breaking down. Bill Walton's leg fell off, Kevin McHale broke his foot, Robert Parish had tendonitis so bad he couldn't even make a fist, Larry Bird had a bad elbow and a worse back, and Dennis Johnson was slowly turning into stone.
This was a bad time for the Celtics to run into the best Lakers team of the 80s, but that's exactly what happened. In Games 1 and 2, L.A. huffed and puffed and blew Boston out of their house. The Celtics pulled out Game 3 back in the Garden, but Larry Bird stat cursed his team afterward by saying: "This (Game 3) was the most important game of the series for us. If we lost, it might've been tough to get up for Game 4. Now it's going to be easy."
The Lakers let the Celtics have Game 5 because, hell, why not win it at home? And that's what they did in Game 6, 106-93. Thus ended the rivalry.