Lakers-Celtics, the NBA’s premier rivalry. The two team have met in the NBA Finals 12 times, and between them account for over half of the NBA titles won throughout the history of the league, combining for 33 of the leagues 64. (Boston 17 Los Angeles 16) Just mention the two teams in the same sentence and images ingrained in basketball lore come to mind. Whether it’s Kevin McHale clothes lining Kurt Rambis, or Larry Bird throwing Byron Scott into the stands. Perhaps it’s Magic Johnson and his baby skyhook in the 1984 Finals, or Pat Riley and his tailored suits pacing the sidelines, there is one thing in common; an absolute dislike of the person in the other uniform. Until very recently the rivalry had been dormant. The Celtics never really seemed to recover from the retirement of the Big Three (McHale, Bird and Parish) or the death of Reggie Lewis. The Celtics mediocrity finally culminated in the 2007 season. Hoping to win the Kevin Durant/Greg Oden lottery they finished the season with a dismal 24-58 record. The basketball gods were not pleased, and the Celtics did not end up with any of the lottery picks that year, and picked fifth, drafting Jeff Green out of Georgetown, and promptly trading him to the then Seattle Supersonics for some veteran player named Ray Allen, who will within the next three or four games break the record for all time three point field goals made, currently held by Reggie Miller. Along with that move the Celtics also brought in The Big Ticket, Kevin Garnett. Garnett had spent the bulk of his career in Minnesota achieving all sorts of individual accolades and awards, but one thing was missing from the future hall of famers resume, and NBA Title. The moves that year paid instant dividends, as the Celtics defeated the Lakers in the NBA finals and brought “Banner 17” to the rafters of the T.D. Banknorth Garden.
The Lakers road back to glory wasn’t nearly as harsh as the Celtics’. Magic Johnson’s sudden retirement after contracting the HIV virus sent shockwaves throughout not only the NBA, but all of professional sports. The year after Magic’s retirement the Lakers still made the playoffs, but was eliminated in the first round by Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns, who would go onto the finals, but eventually succumb to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Randy Pfund had the unenviable task of trying to recreate “Showtime” but was let go in March of 1994, and was replaced on the bench by Magic Johnson for the rest of the season. After a failed Magic “un-retirement” 1996 was a turning point in the Lakers fortunes. They traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets (now New Orleans) for their first round draft pick Kobe Bryant, a 17 year old player straight out of high school. The year they also signed free agent center Shaquille O’Neal, traded of “Iceman” Robert Horry, and drafted Derrick Fisher. The pieces for NBA titles were in place as far as the players were concerned, only one thing was missing, enter Phil Jackson. Kurt Rambis was slated to become the Lakers head coach but public outcry caused G.M. Jerry West to look at a bigger name. Phil had won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, and in all reality, may have been the only coach who could handle the Lakers at that time. Phil didn’t disappoint, he led the Lakers to the finals that first year where they defeated Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers for their first title since 1988. The next year they defeated Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 79ers to repeat, with Shaq winning the finals MVP award both years. The next few years saw early departures from the playoffs, but in 2004 the Lakers put together a “dream team” signing two time league MVP Karl Malone, and former defensive player of the year Gary Payton. The team didn’t fare so well though, as each superstar suffered various injuries throughout the season. They did win the Pacific Division again, but were eliminated by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 finals. There was discontent among the Lakers that sent the team into a mini tail spin, specifically with Shaq and Kobe not getting along. Shaq left via free agency, and signed with Miami, winning yet another championship with Dwayne Wade. When the Lakers would finally reach the Finals again, an old familiar foe would be waiting.
The story of the 2007 season for the Boston Celtics is one of redemption. Beginning in the late 80’s (according to former Celtic Players it happened in 1987) Lucky the Leprechaun was dead. The Celtics had the number two pick in the 1986 draft, and with it they selected Len Bias out of the University of Maryland. He promptly overdosed on cocaine, and died within 48 hours of being selected. The Celtics went on to win the NBA title, defeating the Houston Rockets in 6 games. They also set the standard for best home record at 40-1. The next year was the last time the Celtics would appear in the NBA finals for 20 years, as they lost in 6 games to the Lakers. Larry Bird was never the same after that. Years of devil may care playing were taking their toll on Bird and his ailing back. Bird finally retired in 1992 after the Barcelona Olympics because of his back. Larry’s heir apparent Reggie Lewis was on the cusp of superstardom, but during the 1993 playoffs Reggie fainted during a game against the Charlotte Hornets. He was diagnosed with a heart defect, but managed to find a doctor who would clear him to play. Reggie died of a heart attack shooting baskets at Brandeis University later that year and his number 35 was retired in a ceremony that I myself still have on tape. That year also marked the retirement of Kevin McHale, and the end of the original Big 3 era ended when Robert Parrish signed with the Charlotte Hornets the next season.
The next few years were a series of failures for the Celtics, perhaps best represented by the 1996-97 team that lost a franchise high 67 games. The following year, Rick Pitino took over the coaching reigns, and also take over as team president, replacing Celtic legend Red Auerbach. Pitino’s biggest contribution to the team was the drafting of Paul Pierce (now team captain) and resigned his position in 2001. In 2003 the team was bought by H. Irving Grousbeck, Wycliffe Grousbeck, and Steve Pagliuca. 2004 brought Doc Rivers into the head coaching position, and Danny Ainge to the G.M. position. One of Ainge’s first moves was to ship Antoine Walker off to Dallas. The Celtics won their first Atlantic Division Title in the 04-05 season since the 91-92 season, but were knocked out of the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers in the first round. The following season the Celtics looked to keep building through the draft, bringing in Sebastian Telfair, and trading a first round 2007 draft pick for guard Rajon Rondo. The next season did not go well at all for the fabled Celtics. The season began with the death of the Celtics patriarch Red Aurbach, at the age of 89. They went 2-22 in the month of December, and eventually lost Paul Pierce to injury for much of the season. The Celtics ended up with a 24-58 record, second worst in the NBA, and had a franchise high 18 game losing streak. The Celtics were hopeful to at least secure a lottery pick, but ended up with the fifth pick in the draft, but we’ve covered that.
So, we come to the renewal of basketballs greatest rivalry. The Celtics and Lakers were on a collision course for the NBA trophy. The acquisitions of K.G. and Ray Allen made the Celtics a multi-dimensional team again. Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson found the chemistry to allow Kobe to be the superstar he needs to be to win without Shaq. The first meeting of these two teams in twenty years ended in seven games with the Celtics winning their record 17th NBA title. The next year the Lakers were in the finals again, defeating the Orlando Magic for their 15th NBA title. Last year, the Lakers and Celtics met again in the finals, with the Lakers winning in 6 games, and Phil Jackson won his record 11th title as a head coach, surpassing Red Auerbach for the record. The Lakers and Celtics will meet Sunday for the first time SINCE the Lakers defeated the Celtics, and the rivalry couldn’t be stronger, if only for some of the supporting cast.
Since leaving L.A. Shaq has made it his goal to retire with more NBA championships than Kobe. Shaq is now a Boston Celtic (The Big Shamrock), and he’s more motivated than he’s been in a long time. It seems that to watch the two of them would be enough. But there isn’t anyone in the league more competitive then Kevin Garnett, and the taste of losing doesn’t sit well with The Big Ticket. Let alone the fact that Ray Allen is on the cusp of breaking Reggie Miller’s record, and it’s possible that it could happen at the Staples Center this Sunday. Regardless of whoever wins, it’s going to be a hell of a game, and more than worth watching.