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March 11, 2012
Celtics vs. Lakers
A Brief History

by Bradford Doolittle


Nothing dances off the tongue of an NBA commercial narrator like the words, "Celtics-Lakers." It's a rivalry that is deeply embedded in our collective sports consciousness, unrivaled across the athletic spectrum. Not only have these franchises combined to win 33 of the NBA's 65 championships, but it seems like each generation over the last 50 years have been able to enjoy their own version of this historic showdown, because they have often been good at the same time.

1950s       1st/2     3rd/4   1
1960s       1st/9     3rd/0   6
1970s       4th/2     2nd/1   0
1980s       1st/3     2nd/5   2
1990s      17th/0     7th/0   0
2000s       9th/1     3rd/5   2
WN: league rank in wins
CH: championships in decade

It started in the late '50s, before the Lakers had even moved west, with Bill Russell and Bob Cousy going against Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. By the end of the '60s, it had morphed into Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain. The 1970s was a dry patch in the rivalry, though both franchises won titles during the decade. The 1980s came back with a vengeance during the Magic vs. Bird years, before the 1990s turned into a nadir for both franchises. The drought extended well into the last decade.

Just when we thought Celtics-Lakers had become fodder for folklore, Boston general manager Danny Ainge, himself a key figure in those 1980s matchups, patched together the Celtics' new big three and the rivalry was reborn. In the four full seasons since, the Lakers and Celtics have ranked first and second, respectively, in regular season wins, accounted for three of the four championships and, of course, given us two more chapters in the ongoing Boston-Los Angeles Finals storybook.

The Celtics and Lakers have been in a similar boat this season. Both have aging rosters and are clinging more to the idea of championship hopes than the actual possibility. Boston has hovered near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff ladder and with Chicago and Miami gearing up for a titanic clash in a couple of months, the Celtics aren't expected to get out of the first round. Right now, the rumor mill is kind of quiet, but it's entirely possible that the Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett triumvirate will not exist at this time next week. Even if it does, it's almost certain that it will be broken up after the season.

The Lakers are also in transition. Phil Jackson retired, along with the Triangle offense, Lamar Odom was traded and Pau Gasol may be on his way out as well. L.A. is leaning heavily on Kobe Bryant, who is leading the league in scoring in his 16th NBA season. He's clearly got something left in the tank, but it's unclear what's going to be around him going forward. In the short term, the Lakers are borderline contenders in a tightly-packed West race but it's looking more and more like Oklahoma City has risen above and beyond everyone else in the conference.

So in many respects, Sunday's Celtics-Lakers matchup represents something of a last gasp for this edition of the league's most-storied rivalry. While either, or both, franchises may emerge from their transitional phases in good shape, it's exceedingly unlikely that they'll meet in the Finals again, not this season, or anytime soon.

For Boston, the problem is the Bulls-Heat twin obstacle, which promises to block the Finals path for the other East teams for at least the next half-decade. In the postseason, you might be able to knock one of them off in a given season, but it's going to be tough to get them both.

The Lakers not only have Oklahoma City to contend with, but they face the specter of Bryant turning into an ordinary player. Already, his considerable production is coming more in more at the expense of efficiency. He leads the league in usage rate, but his true shooting percentage is a career low. It's not going to get better from here. Los Angeles is always going to be an attractive option for NBA free agents and star players trying to force trades to big markets. But the Lakers also have to contend with their ownership transition and the possibility that Jim Buss simply won't commit the same level of resources as did his father.

So Sundays' game might be it, the last big-time Celtics-Lakers matchup until who knows when. If so, how does this last edition of the rivalry matchup with those before it?

1. Eighties: In terms of cultural impact and the effect on the NBA, nothing can beat the Bird vs. Magic years. For most of that decade, the only NBA games aired nationally were the Sunday games of the week on CBS, with Dick Stockton and Tom Heinsohn usually calling the action. CBS managed to air some combination of the Sixers, Celtics and Lakers every week. The Magic/Bird rivalry began at the college level of course and was the impetus behind the league's soaring popularity in the 1980s.

The Celtics and Lakers combined to win eight of the 10 championships that decade but actually met in the Finals only just two occasions, which is the only drawback for this edition. However, this was the only decade in which Boston and L.A. ranked 1-2 in regular-season wins and in terms of personalities, you're talking Bird, Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Byron Scott--it's unforgettable.

2. Oughts: Clipped though it was, the last four years have been an apex for the Lakers-Celtics matchup. Things have changed since the '80s and, certainly, since the '60s. There is more parity in the NBA and the league is enjoyed by more people around the world, on more platforms, than ever before. Boston and L.A. have outpaced everyone else in regular-season wins the last four seasons, and the two Finals matchups actually matches the total from the 1980s. It's unfortunate that Kevin Garnett's 2009 knee injury likely cost Boston another East title, because we would have gotten the one thing the '80s version lacked: a rubber match.

Besides duration, the difference between this edition and the 1980s is that it has more of a Sanka feel to it. Instant and ready-made. The Celtics didn't grow together as a team, they were slapped together -- masterfully -- all at once. In doing so, Boston skipped almost all of the steps we've always deemed necessary for a rising championship contender. But they also skipped a lot of the buildup.

3. Sixties: Old-time NBA fans are probably ordering us off their lawns right now, but the there are some overrated qualities to the 1960s version of the rivalry. First of all, the league had a serious problem with concentration of talent, which is going to happen when you have just nine teams. The Celtics had so many of the best players, their run to the championship became almost an annual foregone conclusion. It's to Red Auerbach's credit that he was able to build such a dynasty but let's face it, in a 30-team, lottery, salary cap scenario, that stuff wouldn't have happened.

The Celtics and Lakers may have met for the championship six times, but Boston won them all. Where's the fun in that? That wasn't even the best rivalry of the decade. The Celtics-Warriors rivalry was even better, featuring the top two teams in regular-season wins and lots of Russell-Chamberlain matchups.

4. Fifties: The proto-rivalry was late-forming. The Celtics didn't emerge as a force until the last half of the decade after Russell arrived in Boston. The Lakers were still in the Midwest, and it's unlikely fans in the old Boston Garden were chanting, "Beat Minneapolis! Beat Minneapolis!" The Lakers were dominant in the pre-Russell years behind George Mikan. The teams did meet in the 1959 Finals, setting the stage for what happened after the Lakers moved to Los Angeles.

5. Seventies: The early part of the decade saw the Celtics reforming in the wake of Russell's retirement, while the Lakers were enjoying the final years of Chamberlain, West and Baylor. By the time the John Havlicek/Jo Jo White/Dave Cowens teams emerged, the Lakers were rebuilding. They landed Abdul-Jabbar but didn't get back to championship level until the very end of the decade when Magic arrived in Tinseltown.

6. Ninties: Best forgotten.

(A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

(Get your copy of the most comprehensive guide to the new NBA season. Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 is now available in .PDF and paperback format.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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