For the second time in three years and the 12th time overall, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics will compete against each other in the National Basketball Association Finals.
For the Celtics, it is a quest for the franchise’s 18th league title. For the Lakers, it is an opportunity for revenge, as the Celtics defeated them in six games in June 2008. Boston trashed Los Angeles in the sixth game, 131-92. It was the most lopsided margin ever in a title-clinching game.
The Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant, showed little competitive spirit in that game, while the Celtics established an early lead and stayed on top. Former Inglewood High School star Paul Pierce, the Celtic catalyst throughout the 2008 Finals, was named Most Valuable Player of the series.
In overall championship competition, Boston has beaten Los Angeles nine of the 11 times the teams have dueled in the Finals. In fact, the first eight matchups between the two storied franchises caused Lakers players and fans great anguish–the Celtics won all of them. The most painful of these were the 1969 and 1984 battles that saw each series go the full seven games with the Celtics driving a deep, symbolic dagger through the hearts of Lakers Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and James Worthy.
Turnovers, missed free throws, and unlucky bounces on the rim went against the Lakers in almost surreal fashion that sent the team and their fans into summer-long funks with the only solace being the possibility of seeing the Celtics again the next season. What was particularly frustrating about the ’69 and ’84 losses was the consensus among basketball fans across the country, was the Lakers were the better team.
“In the years prior to 1969,” Jerry West reflected, “I always had to admit to myself, as painful as it was, that Boston was a better team. Primarily because they had Bill Russell at center and we had no one to match him. But in 1969, that was not the case.
“When we acquired Wilt Chamberlain, we beat them every time we played them in the regular season. We had a better record than them, which meant for the first time ever, we had homecourt advantage. Game seven, if necessary, would be in L.A. We were the better team. Period. And that was the most frustrating part of that loss.”
In 1984, the teams engaged after a 15-year Finals’ hiatus from one another. Through the first four games, although the Lakers displayed greater skill, the series was tied 2-2. The Celtics took games two and four due to turnovers and missed free throws by Johnson and Worthy. Additionally, a breakaway, clothesline tackle by Celtic Kevin McHale on Laker Kurt Rambis in the open court in game four fueled the bitterness in the series and distracted the Lakers. It also served as a turning point for Boston. Beantown took two of the next three games, including a game seven victory in Boston.
“I was depressed,” Johnson says now. “Although it was a great seven-game series, all I read about was how bad I was.” The Celtics’ constant taunting and chatter (spurred on by Larry Bird, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, McHale, and M.L. Carr) ridiculing the point guard as “Tragic” Johnson and the team as the “Fakers” only added to Los Angeles’ frustration. “It still gets to me,” Johnson said. “We should have beaten them four straight.”
In 1985, the teams matched up in the Finals again, with the same cast of characters for both sides. After suffering through the Memorial Day Massacre, a 148-114 game one annihilation that saw Boston seemingly make every conceivable shot, center Abdul-Jabbar and head coach Pat Riley refocused the team and the Lakers took four of the next five games. Los Angeles clinched the NBA title in Boston, no less, and Abdul-Jabbar was named series Most Valuable Player. That was the first ever Lakers team to defeat the Celtics in the NBA Finals.
“The previous year,” the Hall of Fame center says, “we basically gift-wrapped two games to them. In ’85, after the Memorial Day Massacre, we were able to turn the tables on them. After we beat them in game six, that whole psychological thing–the jinx, whatever–it all died at that point.”
The 1985 Lakers dedicated that championship to all the previous Laker teams that suffered defeat at the hands of the Celtics. “All those Celtic skeletons came out of the closet,” Riley fondly said.
In 1987, the teams faced each other for the third meeting of the 1980s. The Lakers prevailed in six games, the defining moment being Johnson winning game four in Boston with “the junior skyhook.”
When the teams met in 2008, both featured a new cast of players. The Celtics had the “Big Three”–forwards Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and guard Ray Allen–while the Lakers featured Bryant, center Pau Gasol, and forward Lamar Odom. To many observers, the Lakers lacked the toughness, mentally and physically, to compete with the Celtics. This was apparent in Los Angeles’ game four home-court loss to Boston, as the team squandered a 24-point second-half lead to lose the game and created a 3-1 Finals deficit that it could not overcome.
“It’s no different than it was two years ago,” Bryant said. “The Celtics are standing in the way of what we want, and that’s the championship.”
The Celtics, however, are conceding nothing. As the Lakers won the NBA title last year by defeating the Orlando Magic, Pierce commented, “Watching the 2009 Finals was like watching a German Shepherd (the Lakers) eat up a Poodle (the Magic).
“This year,” Pierce continued, “the Rottweiler (the Celtics) is back. And you know what a Rottweiler does to German Shepherds.”