Heart. History. Quality of play and personality of the players. In all these respects and more, the Celtics–Lakers rivalry is the greatest ever to grace NBA. Just consider some of the draw-dropping facts that justify this distinction: These teams faced off in three NBA Finals in the 1980s, and their starting lineups included at least seven Hall of Famers each time. Lest we forget the bad blood runs deeper, remember these teams dominated the playoffs in the ’60s and ’70s as well. Heck, even their 2008 and 2010 championship duels made for high drama, with Bryant and Garnett trying their best to honor the battles of Bird and Magic.
As we consider the longstanding tensions between these teams, it’s easy to marvel at the lore (the fire alarm prank on the Lakers in ’84) and lineups (Russell, West, Abdul-Jabbar – the list goes on). But there’s one hard fact that most of us lose sight of: Over all these team’s memorable meetings, who’s won more often?
We set out to find out, doing the math on each franchise’s victories against the other since 1960. Ready to learn which team comes out on top after the rollercoaster ride of this rivalry? To borrow a phrase from the Lakers, it’s showtime.
A Duel of Dynasties
From the moment the Lakers moved out west in 1960 (their name makes more sense once you know the team began in Minnesota), they were a force to be reckoned with. There was only one problem: The Celtics were better, thanks to the sublime play of Bill Russell. The teams met in the finals six times during the ’60s, and Boston won every time. The Celtics’ head-to-head lead widened across that decade, and the trend continued through the ’70s. The Lakers did capture a title in 1972, with an all-star squad including Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Frazier, and Jerry West. But the decade was even better for the Celtics, who took home trophies in 1974 and 1976.
The Celtics’ lead contracted slightly during the ’80s, which some consider the single greatest era in the rivalry. During those 10 years, every single NBA Finals included at least one of the two teams, and they faced off on three occasions. In this era of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Lakers won two of the three finals in which the teams met. In the ’80s and ’90s, Los Angeles made up a little more ground, including a 1988 ring for a squad that included Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar. As of November 2017, the gap stood at 22 games, although the Lakers’ struggles to field a winning team in recent seasons hasn’t helped matters much.
Scoring Against Sworn Enemies
Although most fans can name the iconic stars of past Celtics-Lakers clashes, the players who inflicted the most scoring damage often have humbler reputations. Sure, Bird and Russell rank among the top Celtics scorers against the Lakers, but the No. 1 spot goes to hardworking guard John Havlicek, who matched up against Los Angeles in 112 contests over his 16-year career in white and green. Similarly, Sam Jones deserves far greater notoriety. Many of his 1,498 points against the Lakers came from the playoffs in the ’60s, earning him the nickname “Mr. Clutch.”
On the other side of the rivalry, the ranking reads like a list of Laker greats (West, Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar) except for some notable big men: Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Shaquille O’Neal didn’t find a spot in the top five. Shaq’s teammate Kobe Bryant did – thanks in part to heroics in the NBA Finals against the Celtics in 2008 and 2010. Rounding out the Laker’s list was Gail “Stumpy” Goodrich, whose relatively short stature didn’t prevent a long record of damage against the Celtics.
Hardwood Hard Feelings
Our findings show just how deep the mutual enmity between these teams has been in decades past, but is the rivalry still alive and well today? After all, the leagues bonafide “super teams” no longer reside in either Los Angeles or Boston, although recent finals clashes between the Cavaliers and Warriors do have the air of excitement and inevitability that the Lakers and Celtics once possessed. But for all the attention focused elsewhere currently, don’t count the Lakers-Celtics tension out for good. In today’s NBA, you never know when a blockbuster trade just might make history – or restore the game’s greatest rivalry to its rightful place atop the league.
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To compile the data presented in this project, we utilized information from basketball-reference.com, a database of historical statistics on the performance of professional basketball teams and players. We included information only from games in which the Celtics and Lakers competed against each other, dating from November 1960 through November 2017. No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on raw win totals alone.