The Celtics–Lakers rivalry is a National Basketball Association (NBA) rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics and the Lakers are the two most storied franchises in the NBA, and the rivalry has often been called the greatest in the NBA. The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers have met a record 12 times in the NBA Finals, starting with their first Finals meeting in 1959. They would both go on to dominate the league in the 1960s and 1980s, facing each other six times in the 1960s, three times in the 1980s, and two times in 2008 and 2010.
The Lakers and Celtics are tied for the highest number of championships in the NBA at 17 apiece, (12 as the L.A. Lakers and 5 as the Minneapolis Lakers). Together, they account for 34 of the 74 championships (or 45%) in NBA history. As of 2018, the Celtics and Lakers have a .590 and .596 all-time winning records respectively. As of the end of the 2017–18 season, Boston is the only team with a winning overall record against the Lakers.
The rivalry has been less intense since the retirements of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the early 1990s. In 2008, the two teams met in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1987, with the Celtics winning the series 4–2. They met again in the 2010 NBA Finals, which the Lakers won in 7 games.
NBA Finals results
1950s: Minneapolis Lakers dynasty and Boston Celtics
During the first decade of the NBA in the 1950s, the Minneapolis Lakers had the first NBA dynasty. Minneapolis would win the first ever Championship Series of the newly formed NBA in 1950 (three BAA Finals were played between 1947–1949 and retroactively counted as NBA Championships, one of which was won by the Lakers in 1949). Under Hall of Fame head coach John Kundla, and with the NBA's first superstar in George Mikan, they would win three more titles in 1952, 1953, and 1954. The Celtics would emerge behind early NBA star Bob Cousy by winning the 1957 NBA Finals and losing in 1958.
The first NBA Finals match–up between the two teams was in 1959 when on April 9, the Boston Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers 4–0 for the first sweep in the history of the NBA Finals. This would mark the first Finals loss for the previously dominant Lakers, and the first of eight straight titles for Boston.
1960s: Boston Celtics dynasty and Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers relocated to Los Angeles in 1960. It was after this move, and during this decade, that the rivalry would truly escalate. The two teams emerged as the strongest in the NBA, featuring greats such as Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and head coach Red Auerbach for Boston and Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and coach/GM Fred Schaus for Los Angeles. However, it would ultimately prove to be the decade of the Celtics, who won the finals every year in the 1960s except for 1967. The Lakers would be the Celtics opponent in six of those series: 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969. The Celtics won all of those match-ups. Three of those series (1962, 1966, and 1969) went seven games. The Celtics win over the Lakers in 1966 marked an unprecedented eight consecutive championships, the longest streak of any North American professional sports team.
The Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, which brought the personal rivalry between him and Bill Russell, previously a feature of the Celtics-76ers rivalry, to Celtics-Lakers. The Lakers posted the best record in the West during the 1968–1969 season. By contrast, the aging Celtics struggled to obtain the fourth seed, with Russell and Jones playing in their final seasons. Despite this, the Celtics upset the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks and made it to the Finals. The Lakers had home-court advantage for the first time and won the first two games, but the Celtics rebounded to force and win a dramatic Game 7 at the Los Angeles Forum, defying Laker's owner Jack Kent Cooke's infamous prediction of a Lakers celebration. West was named Finals MVP despite being on the losing team, but it was small consolation in a decade where the Lakers went without a championship, every one of their Finals' losses in that decade coming at the hands of the Celtics.
The 1969 Finals also caused a deterioration in the relationship between Russell and Chamberlain, who had previously been friends despite their rivalry, into one of intense loathing, when Chamberlain took himself out of the decisive Game 7 with six minutes left, and Russell thereafter accused Chamberlain of being a malingerer and of "copping out" of the game when it seemed that the Lakers would lose. Chamberlain (whose knee was so bad that he could not play the entire offseason and ruptured it in the next season) was livid at Russell and saw him as a backstabber. The two men did not talk to each other for over 20 years until Russell attempted to patch things up, although he never uttered a genuine apology. When Chamberlain died in 1999, Chamberlain's nephew stated that Russell was the second person he was ordered to break the news to.
1970s: Championships but no rematch
The Celtics and Lakers both found success in the 1970s, but there would be no rematch between the two teams.
The start of the decade saw the Lakers' woes in the NBA Finals continue, with a loss to the New York Knicks in 1970. However, the Lakers rebounded two years later to win the 1972 NBA Finals and their first championship in Los Angeles, also against the Knicks. This would also prove to be Laker great Jerry West's only NBA title. The following year, the Lakers again faced the Knicks in the 1973 NBA Finals and lost. They would not make it to the Finals again in this decade, but in 1975, they acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Neither team won another championship until the 1980s. However, the foundation for the renewed Celtics–Lakers rivalry of the 1980s was actually laid down in college basketball of the late 1970s. During the 1978–79 NCAA season, Michigan State was led by Magic Johnson to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, where they faced Indiana State University, which was led by senior Larry Bird. In what was the most-watched college basketball game ever, Michigan State defeated Indiana State 75–64, and Johnson was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Johnson would go on to be drafted by the Lakers, and Bird by the Celtics. The personal rivalry formed by these two basketball greats during college would transfer to their NBA careers, and reignite the rivalry between the two storied franchises that they came to represent.
1980s: Showtime Lakers and Larry Bird
The Celtics–Lakers rivalry was renewed in the 1980s, in large part due to the personal rivalry between Bird and Johnson. Magic said of the games against the Celtics, "when the new schedule would come out each year, I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80." Similarly, Bird said that, "the first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn't care about anything else."
The Showtime Lakers struck the first blow, winning the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. The following year, behind the "Big Three" of future Hall of Famers Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, the Celtics won the 1981 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets.
The Celtics lost the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals to the 76ers, and along with it the possibility of a rematch with the Lakers. However, the final game of that series is memorable to the rivalry because Boston fans chanted for the 76ers, who were just about to eliminate their Celtics, to "Beat L.A.!" Despite the encouragement, the 76ers lost the 1982 NBA Finals to the Lakers, who were led by new head coach Pat Riley. However, the 76ers defeated the Lakers the following year in the 1983 NBA Finals in a sweep. The 1982–1983 season would also be the rookie year of Laker James Worthy, another Hall of Famer in the storied rivalry.
The Celtics would get a new head coach in K.C. Jones, who was also a former Celtics player, and two teams finally had their long-awaited rematch in the 1984 NBA Finals, a grueling seven-game series that had many memorable moments, including a 137–104 blowout in Game 3 that led Bird to call his Celtic teammates "sissies", the Kevin McHale takedown of Laker forward Kurt Rambis which led to increased physical aggression by both teams, the sweltering heat of the infamously un-airconditioned Boston Garden in Game 5, and Cedric Maxwell's 24-point performance in Game 7. The Celtics went on to win in seven games, increasing their record of Finals' series victories against the Lakers to 8–0.
The following year, the Lakers finally had their revenge, winning the 1985 NBA Finals by taking Game 6 in Boston Garden, becoming the only visiting team to win an NBA championship in that arena. Lakers owner Jerry Buss famously remarked that "this has removed the most odious sentence in the English language. It can never again be said that 'the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics'".
The Celtics rebounded the following year to win the 1986 NBA Finals against the Rockets to win their 16th NBA championship. In the 1987 NBA Finals, the two teams met for a tie-breaker of their 1980s Finals matches, and the Lakers once again emerged victorious in six games, with the iconic image of Johnson's junior sky hook. This series marked the end of an era for the Celtics. They did not reach the Finals again until 2008. The Lakers, meanwhile, went on to win the 1988 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, before losing to the Pistons in a sweep the following year in 1989, and win titles again in 2000, 2001, and 2002, all while the Celtics wallowed in mediocrity.
Several journalists hypothesized that the Johnson–Bird rivalry was so appealing because it represented many other contrasts, such as the clash between the Lakers and Celtics, between Hollywood flashiness ("Lakers Showtime") and Boston/Indiana blue-collar grit ("Celtic Pride"), and between blacks and whites. A 1984 Converse commercial for its "Weapon" line of basketball shoes (endorsed by both Bird and Johnson) reflected the perceived dichotomy between the two players. In the commercial, Bird is practicing alone on a rural basketball court when Johnson pulls up in a sleek limousine and challenges him to a one-on-one match. Despite their on the court rivalry, the two became friends after filming the commercial together.
The rivalry was also significant because it drew national attention to the faltering NBA. Prior to Johnson and Bird's arrival, the NBA had gone through a decade of declining interest and low TV ratings. With the two future Hall of Famers, the league won a whole generation of new fans. The rivalry between Bird, Johnson, and their teams contributed greatly to the success of the league during the decade; according to Bryant Gumbel, "Magic and Larry saved the NBA." Sports journalist Larry Schwartz of ESPN asserted that Johnson and Bird saved the NBA from bankruptcy. In every single NBA Finals series during the 1980s, either the Lakers or the Celtics were present.
Playing off their rivalry in the NCAA and NBA, Johnson and Bird reunited to promote Game 5 of the 2018 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers (of which Johnson is a part-owner) and Boston Red Sox. In contrast to the frequent Lakers-Celtics championship match-ups, the Dodgers and Red Sox were meeting in the World Series for the first time (since the Dodgers franchise relocated to Los Angeles).
1990s: Lull and rebuilding
During the 1990s, the rivalry died down. Only the Lakers made an appearance in the NBA Finals that decade, losing in five games in the 1991 NBA Finals to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the first championship in the Bulls' dynasty. This would prove to be a defining moment of the NBA, a changing of the old guard as the Lakers and Celtics fell into mediocrity, while the Bulls won six titles led by Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and coach Phil Jackson, who would cement their respective reputations as the greatest player and coach in NBA history. Both teams also faced setbacks in the form of personal misfortune. On November 7, 1991, Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV and would retire immediately. Celtics star Reggie Lewis died of a heart attack in his prime in 1993, further marring the team in tragedy since second overall pick Len Bias died of a drug overdose two days after he was drafted in 1986. In 1994, neither the Lakers nor the Celtics made the playoffs, marking the first time in the history of the NBA that both teams missed the playoffs in the same season.
However, the Lakers began the rebuilding process in 1996 by trading for Kobe Bryant, who was drafted from high school that year by the Charlotte Hornets. That same year, the Lakers signed Shaquille O'Neal. Meanwhile, in 1998, the Celtics drafted Paul Pierce, a native of Inglewood, California who had grown up as a Lakers fan. The following year, in 1999, Phil Jackson joined the Lakers as head coach.
2000–2007: Lakers championships
The Lakers returned to prominence in the early 2000s. Under Jackson's guidance, and with O'Neal and Bryant leading the way, the Lakers won three straight championships in 2000, 2001, and 2002. The Lakers' title in 2000 came against the Indiana Pacers who were coached by Celtic legend Larry Bird. Paul Pierce's nickname, "The Truth", was accorded to him by Shaquille O'Neal after a 112–107 Lakers' victory over the Celtics on March 13, 2001 in which Pierce scored 42 points on 13 of 19 shooting. O'Neal pulled a Boston reporter over and gestured toward his notepad. "Take this down", said O'Neal. "My name is Shaquille O'Neal and Paul Pierce is the [expletive] truth. Quote me on that and don't take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn't know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth." In 2002, the Celtics, with Pierce and Antoine Walker, made an impressive run for the Finals and the two teams narrowly missed each other. However, the Celtics eventually fell in six games to the New Jersey Nets in that year's Eastern Conference Finals.
The Lakers returned to the Finals in 2004, but lost at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in five games. Thereafter, O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat. Without O'Neal, the Lakers missed the playoffs the following year and failed to advance to the Finals for the next three years.
The Celtics likewise made little playoff progress after their near Finals run of 2002. In 2004, they hired head coach Doc Rivers. In 2007, they made blockbuster trades for All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who complemented career-long Celtics star Paul Pierce and emerging star Rajon Rondo.
2008–2010: Rivalry renewed
With the addition of Allen and Garnett alongside Pierce to become the new "Big Three", the Celtics returned to the top of the NBA in the 2007–2008 season by posting the best record in the league and reaching the Finals. The Lakers also returned to the Finals with the help of the mid-season acquisition of Pau Gasol, and the two teams finally met again in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Celtics won in six games with an impressive come-from-behind victory in Game 4 and a blow-out of the Lakers in Game 6. The next season, the Lakers and Celtics played a regular-season game on Christmas Day. The Lakers won that game, making Phil Jackson the fastest coach to win 1,000 games. They went on to win the 2009 NBA Finals in five games that season, but the Celtics were eliminated by eventual Eastern Conference champions Orlando Magic. In 2009, the Lakers signed Ron Artest (now Metta Sandiford-Artest).
The summer before the 2009–2010 season, Phil Jackson ran into Paul Pierce and told him, "Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals." The Lakers ended the season with the West's best record, while the Celtics would enter the playoffs as the number four seed. Build up for a rematch began with the Lakers taking a 2–0 lead over the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals, with chants of "We Want Boston!" erupting in the Staples Center. Likewise, chants of "Beat L.A.!" erupted up in TD Garden as the Celtics took a commanding 3–0 lead over the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Both teams fended off late series surges from their opponents, but won their respective series 4–2, setting up a rematch in the 2010 NBA Finals.
The 2010 series had many memorable moments, including impressive performances from Bryant who led in points for six of the seven games, Ray Allen's Finals' record eight 3-pointers in Game 2, Derek Fisher carrying his team to victory and then crying in Game 3, a hard-fought Game 4 where Glen Davis screamed so loud he drooled while Nate Robinson rode on his back, a dominant Lakers performance in Game 6, and a close Game 7 that became the highest-rated NBA game since Michael Jordan's second retirement in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. The Lakers won Game 7 against the Celtics for their very first time, bringing their total number of NBA championships to sixteen (they have one NBL championship in 1948), just one fewer than the Celtics' seventeen.
2010s: Roles reversed
The Celtics signed Shaquille O'Neal for the 2010–2011 season to replace the injured Kendrick Perkins, adding to the rivalry by bringing the Shaq-Kobe feud to the Celtics-Lakers. During a game against the Lakers on February 11, 2011, Ray Allen became the all-time NBA leader in total 3-point field goals made. However, both the Lakers and Celtics would be eliminated in the second round of the playoffs that year by the 2011 NBA Finals participants, the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat, respectively. The following year they would again both be eliminated by the eventual 2012 NBA Finals participants, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, respectively. With the disbanding of Boston's Big Three, and anticipated changes to the Lakers' roster, some believe that the 2011–12 NBA season was the last chapter of the current Celtics–Lakers rivalry.
On February 20, 2013, the Lakers played their first game since the death of long time owner Jerry Buss who had died two days earlier, paying tribute to him at the Staples Center before facing off against the Celtics. The Lakers won 113-99 in a game that saw Steve Nash pass former Lakers star Johnson for fourth on the all-time NBA assist list.
On December 30, 2015, the Boston Celtics honored the Los Angeles Lakers' star Kobe Bryant in his final game in TD Garden. The Lakers would beat the Celtics 112-104.
Both the Celtics and Lakers missed the playoffs in the 2013–14 season, marking only the second time it has happened in the rivalry's history. With the New York Knicks also failing to make the playoffs that season, it marked the first time in NBA history that neither the Celtics, Lakers nor the Knicks qualified for the playoffs in the same season.
But while the Celtics were able to return to the playoffs over the next three seasons and even made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017 and 2018, the Lakers found themselves in a lengthy rebuilding process. Prior to 2014, the Lakers only missed the playoffs four times since moving to Los Angeles, and five times in franchise history. However, the Lakers proceeded to miss the playoffs a record six consecutive seasons, highlighted by four straight seasons with over 50 losses and a franchise-low 17–65 mark during the 2015–16 season.
Nevertheless, the rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers remained fairly even during this recent period, with the two teams managing a split in the season series four of the last six times. However, battles between the Celtics and the Lakers took a back seat to the emerging rivalry between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, who met in four consecutive NBA Finals between 2015 and 2018, where the Cavaliers were led by a "Big Three" of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, while the Warriors were led by a "Big Four" of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Notwithstanding the Celtics' success and the Lakers' struggles during this period, both teams would make their presence felt in subsequent offseasons. The Lakers' run of futility rewarded them with several high first-round picks (D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball were selected second overall), while the Celtics benefited from the Brooklyn Nets' ill-fated 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with their top-three selections of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. In addition, the Celtics went on to sign All-Star free agents Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in addition to acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers. The Lakers would counter by signing LeBron James in the 2018 offseason. The two teams continued to retool in the 2019 offseason; the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans while the Celtics brought in Kemba Walker from the Charlotte Hornets after Irving left to join the Nets.
In the 2020 playoffs, the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami, losing in 6 games, while the Lakers defeated the Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals in six games to become NBA champions, ending a 10-year drought and tying the Celtics for most NBA championships in league history at 17. In the 2021 NBA Playoffs, both teams were the 7th seed and both teams got eliminated in the 1st round by the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns respectively.
One of the lasting effects on the Lakers–Celtics rivalry was the usage of the famous "Beat L.A.!" chant, sung by fans in opposing arenas whenever a Los Angeles-based team plays in their home venue. The chant originated during Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference Championships at Boston Garden when the Boston fans urged the victorious Philadelphia 76ers to "Beat L.A.!"
In January 2011 before an upcoming Celtic-Lakers regular-season matchup, Celtic forward Kevin Garnett with shoe company Anta released a "Beat L.A." green shoe which featured on the tongue the numbers "152–120", which was at the time the Celtics all-time record against the Lakers. The Celtics won the game, 109–96.