There have been many solid NBA rivalries over the past 10 years. The Robert Horry forearm shiver lit a fire under San Antonio-Phoenix. Shaq misidentifying royalty brought the cowbells out in force at Arco Arena. But no matchup will ever stand on level ground with the Lakers and the Celtics.
Geographically, it’s an anomaly; Boston Garden and the Staples Center are about as far away as two arenas can be from one another in the continental United States. But the periodic success of the territorial rivals to the Celtics (the Knicks and Sixers) over the years created a need for a worthy competitor to the Boston dynasty, and the Lakers more than answered the bell.
In the past 4 years, both teams have had their distinct identities. The Lakers have been Kobe’s team since Shaq left town, mostly to their benefit once a legitimate team was constructed around him. The Boston Big Three are perfectly content to defer to each other on a nightly basis, but are still noticeably reticent to turn over the reins to their dynamic point guard since he blossomed into a superstar.
Because of the distance between them (and hence playing in different conferences) there is only a yearly home and home between the two teams to build some excitement for a possible postseason series, although in the past few years those games have been some of the most entertaining the two teams have played.
But that is part of what makes Lakers-Celtics so compelling, and also somewhat limits it. On the one hand, there is such a small sample size to judge the rivalry on. Even though the majority of the Finals games have been very good, there have been some definite awful performances on both ends. Unfortunately, those performances can’t be glossed over like they would be for North Carolina-Duke because there’s really only 13 games to look at.
When the two teams have clashed in the regular season, there was little on the line besides bragging rights; both were lock playoff teams playing out the string of an 82 game season.
This is the only rivalry on the list that has teams that squared off in a championship game, and absent a solid history, Lakers vs. Celtics would have just a little more juice than Mavericks-Heat. The Lakers have been a consistent force over the course of the decade, but it was only after the Celtics assembled the Big 3 that the “BEAT LA” chants resurfaced in the TD Bank North Garden.
On the other hand, when the teams have met, the stakes have been stratospheric. Bragging rights are indisputable after a best of 7 series, and the meteoric high of winning a championship versus having to watch your most hated enemy celebrate theirs means every game has carried momentous weight.
Paul Pierce ripped off his all-time underrated label with a brilliant 2008 Finals, in which he outperformed the best player of the past 15 years in 5 out of 6 games. Kobe cemented his legacy as one of the best ever by leading the Lakers past the Celtics in 2010, even eliciting Jordan comparisons from a few overeager media members.
The 2008 series really showed off two teams with very different offensive philosophies. The Celtics had a hot hand by committee approach with their Big 3, with three different players leading the team in shots during the series. Kobe predictably lead the Lakers in shots in every game whether he was on (12-20 in Game 3) or off (a terrible 7-22 in the series ending Game 6, and 9-26 in the closer Game 1).
2010 had a resurgent Kobe averaging a gaudy, but somewhat inefficient (40.4%) 27.1 points, and a Perkins-less Celtics team getting mauled in the post from Game 6 on by the scoring of Gasol and the physicality of Bynum.Regardless of the fact that no game really came down to the wire (first 6 games decided by 6 points or more, and Game 7 was decided in a frantic 3rd quarter rally by LA, and then crawled to a finish with missed shots and rebounds), it was a seven game series with a championship and the hopes of the two biggest fan bases in the NBA on the line.
But scoring carried second billing between these two teams. What set this series apart from so many others was the defense on both ends Both teams scored under 100 points in 8 of the 13 games, and a of it was due to the defensive talent on the court. Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are some of the best defenders at their respective positions ever. Ron Artest and Paul Pierce aren’t exactly slouches either. Rajon Rondo’s dimensions make him look like an escapee from Area 51, who can seemingly close two passing lanes at once.
Both Finals showcased starters ranging from above average to outstanding on defense, all in 5th gear from the opening tip. Although there were definitely some cases where the lack of scoring hinged more on some wretched shooting performances, what was routinely on display was some of the best defense I’ve ever seen played at the NBA level.
Why it’s not higher:
Because for all of the talent on the court, both of the series didn’t live up to their considerable billing. ESPN seems to agree, seeing as how neither Finals are ranked in their top 50 playoff series of all time. Fundamentally, both teams played outstanding two-way basketball (a rarity in the NBA), and for basketball purists it was a welcome and impressive sight.
But there was little in the way of drama. The 2008 Finals was defined by an overmatched Lakers team really only outplaying their rivals for only one game (an extremely well-balanced Game 5) and one half (the first half of the eventually disastrous Game 4).
The Lakers also won Game 3, but only two players played to their capability (Allen going 5-7 from 3 and Kobe turning in his paramount performance), and unless you enjoyed the stylings of Sasha Vujacic (20 points on 7-10 shooting), Game 3 was just flat out ugly. The rest of the series saw Pau Gasol getting mugged on a nightly basis by the combination of Garnett and Perkins, and the Lakers following up on their best performance with an all-time garbage fire game (they were blown out by 39 in Game 6).
2010 was a 7 game series, one of only five since 1985, but in the last two games, the offenses were at times indefensibly abysmal. In the last two games of the series, Boston shot 36.7% from the field and 28% from 3-point range. In possibly the biggest game of his career, Kobe Bryant shot 6-24 from the field. If not for a great team performance on the boards, and a similarly Masonic performance by the Celts top two scorers (9-29, 4 assists, 7 turnovers combined from Pierce and Allen), Kobe’s clutch reputation would have taken a huge hit.
This rivalry is probably pushed up the list because of what it has been to the NBA, but it’s also limited by the high standards it had to live up to. At any point, there were at least four first ballot Hall of Famers on the floor, with a possible 5th and 6th depending on how the rest of Gasol and Rondo’s careers play out. There was no game in which both teams executed flawlessly down the stretch, or played to the peak of their offensive capabilities. No overtime games (in the playoffs), and really just too many duds including the final game of 2008.
Taking away the name value of these teams, the series just wasn’t the over the top entertainment that everyone pictured it would be. Both Mavericks-Heat finals had more entertaining basketball, so did a few divisional round series (Rondo vs. Rose in Celtics-Bulls, or Pistons-Cavaliers). By the time 2010 rolled around, every single one of the hall of fame caliber players were either banged up or nearing the end of their prime.
Truth be told, every rivalry from here on up to #1 matches Celtics-Lakers in terms of tensions between the two teams and shared history. What separates them from Celtics-Lakers is they all had defining moments, usually in a few outstanding games. These teams briefly reached the highest level of two-way basketball I’ve been witness to, but there were too many valleys between the peaks, and the peaks didn’t stretch high enough, especially when compared to the Lakers-Celtics series of the 80’s and 60’s.
The defining moments I remember from Lakers-Celtics are Ray Allen’s bewildering ice cold streak, Kobe’s ugly win in Game 7 (2010), and the Lakers completely falling apart in the second half of a seemingly locked up Game 4 (2008). All in all, Lakers-Celtics has a lot of very good moments, but very few that elevate it to great. That’s why I can’t put it any higher than 6.