One of the most heralded rivalries in all of sports, and certainly the most storied in the NBA, is that of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Celtics have won a record 17 NBA titles, the Lakers are just one behind. At 33 championships between them, these two franchises have claimed a staggering 50% of all the titles in league history.
Their head-to-head rivalry began in 1959, when the Celtics beat the Lakers to win their first of an astonishing eight straight titles, and ten of eleven. It was the “Bill Russell era,” aptly named that in honor of the team’s starting center and possibly the most tenacious player of all time. Russell’s star-studded supporting cast, all coached by the legendary Arnold “Red” Auerbach, included Bob Cousy, Sam and KC Jones, John “Hondo” Havlicek, and Tommy Heinsohn.
By 1972, the Lakers had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles (though they kept the evidently-Minnesotan team name), Lew Alcindor had changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the prolific sky-hooking center left the Milwaukee Bucks for Tinseltown. That’s the year the Lakers won their first of 16 titles, and never looked back.
The 1980s – considered by many the last of the NBA’s glory days – featured the incredible Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivarly, saw the two teams capture an astonishing share of NBA finals slots (Lakers 8, Celtics 6), with the Lakers taking it all five times, the Celtics three.
In head-to-head finals matchups, the Celts won 9 out of 12.
To look at their records now, one would think they haven’t played against each other since Larry and Magic were still playing. But it was a mere four years ago when these two teams were kings of their respective conferences, having met in a thriller of a series in 2010: the Celtics led 3 games to 2, the Lakers had to win the last two games to win it all – and they did, edging the Celtics in the seventh and deciding game by a mere four points.
That’s not going to happen this year. With 20 games left as of this writing, the teams are an identical 21-41, meaning they would need to win 20 of their next 20 games, just to break even. Oh – that’s not going to happen, either – not by a longshot.
Their common destination – hoping for a high lottery pick and watching the playoffs from home – did not arise from similar roads taken. For the Celtics, it’s been a conscious effort to rebuild. They shed their aging talent for young, athletic players with an upside (i.e., nowhere to go but up) and boatloads of future draft picks, so as to avoid repeating their lost couple of decades between the time Larry Bird retired and the new Big Three (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen) converged.
The Lakers, though, made it to Slumsville in a peculiar manner of many trials and many errors. Last year they assembled what looked like an all-star team that could give the vaunted Miami Heat a run for their money, but barely landed a playoff spot and were summarily dismissed in the first round without winning a single game. This year, there won’t even be that.
It will be the first time in 20 years, and the second time – EVER – that both the Celtics and the Lakers miss the playoffs.
But you can bet that before you know it, they’ll be facing each other in the NBA finals once again – adding new chapters to their fabled feud.