If you’re looking for an illustration of why Celtics-Lakers is the best rivalry in the NBA – and perhaps the most enduring of any in the four major pro sports – then read the piece below.
Before each game throughout the NBA Finals, we have been encapsulizing the top five Game 1s, Game 2s, etc.
As the Thunder and Heat steel themselves for what should be a pretty intense Game 4 tonight, we offer you our top five Game 4 showdowns in recent NBA history.
All five games include the Lakers, and all but one of the matchups includes the Celtics.
Keep in mind that our historical cut line is 1984, when David Stern first became commissioner and the playoffs first went to a 16-team format that required all teams to play four postseason rounds. So we are not even including some of the classic Celtics-Lakers matchups of the 1960s, when the teams met a staggering six times in the Finals.
All of those showdowns were won by the Celtics. The rivalry has been much more balanced during Stern’s reign, as you will see below.
5. THE CELTICS STORM BACK: In 2008, the Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals for the first time in 21 years. Neither team broke through on the road through the first three games, and that trend looked like it would continue in Game 4 as the Lakers opened a 35-14 lead after one quarter. The lead grew to 24 points with less than five minutes before halftime and was still 70-50 midway through the third period when the Celtics finally awoke. Boston got a huge boost from bench players Eddie House, James Posey and P.J. Brown while LA was getting nothing from reserves Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf. The Celtics closed the quarter with a 21-3 run, and when Leon Powe scored to open the final period, the game was tied. “The air went out of the building,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. The Lakers briefly rebuilt a four-point lead before the Celtics took control for good with an 11-2 burst triggered by Posey’s 3-pointer as a swarmed Kobe Bryant went without a shot for three minutes. Posey stuck in the dagger with another 3 for a 92-87 lead at the 1:13 mark, and the Lakers never again had the ball with a chance to tie. Posey scored 18 points, three more than LA’s reserves. The Lakers were limited to 33 second-half points in a crushing 97-91 loss that virtually assured Boston’s 17th championship, which the Celtics secured five days later on their home floor.
4. DJ DRILLS A DAGGER: The 1985 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers featured huge momentum swings. Boston won the first game on its home floor by 34 points, then abruptly lost the next two and found itself fighting for its series life in Game 4 at the Fabulous Forum. In the final minute of a tense fourth quarter, the Celtics forced a miss on a baseline skyhook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Magic Johnson – who had a triple-double with 20 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds – sneaked in for the offensive rebound and putback that tied it, 105-105, with 17 seconds to go. With the luxury of holding for the last shot, the Celtics initiated their set with Dennis Johnson at the top and Larry Bird coming off a right side curl. On the catch, Bird was doubled by Magic. He took one dribble to freeze Magic, then pitched back to Dennis Johnson, who buried an 18-footer at the horn for the win that evened the series. The shot capped a simply spectacular game for Dennis Johnson, a Finals MVP in 1979 with Seattle who had 27 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds while adding to his resume as a clutch performer. The Finals went 12 years before seeing another pure buzzer-beater.
3. KOBE BRYANT COMES OF AGE: Despite Kobe Bryant’s meteoric rise to superstardom over his first four years, the Lakers were still Shaquille O’Neal’s team when they met the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 Finals. O’Neal won MVP honors that season, and Bryant was still the beta dog, intermittently picking his spots in and around O’Neal’s dominance. But in Game 4, he fully emerged from Shaq’s shadow. Bryant badly sprained his ankle in Game 2 and sat out Game 3, which the Pacers won on their home floor to get back in the series. O’Neal was his usual unstoppable self with 36 points and 21 rebounds. But he missed a potential game-winning jumphook at the end of regulation and fouled out with 2:33 left in overtime, handing the reins to Bryant, who wasted no time proving he was up to the challenge. On consecutive possessions, he answered baskets by Rik Smits with jumpers. After the second one, he retreated on defense while pushing his palms downward, as if to tell his team, “Calm down, I got this.” Which he did, putting home a reverse layup off Brian Shaw’s miss with 5.9 seconds to go. The Lakers survived a potential game-winning 3-pointer by Reggie Miller and held on for a 120-118 win, regaining control of the series in one of the more underrated Finals games in NBA history. At practice the following day, I bumped into Bryant as he left his media session and headed down a back corridor for treatment on his ankle. I told him that Game 4 would always be remembered as the day when he emerged from Shaq’s shadow. “Really?” he responded, sincerely pleased. “I hope so.”
2. THE JUNIOR, JUNIOR SKYHOOK: In 1987, the Lakers and Celtics met in the Finals for the third time in four years. The Lakers were rested and won the first two games at home rather easily, averaging 133.5 points. The Celtics got back in the series with a home win in Game 3 and appeared positioned to win even the series as they opened a 16-point lead in the third quarter. The Lakers staged a furious rally to tie the game with 5 1/2 minutes to go, then rallied again after Boston rebuilt an eight-point lead two minutes later. An alley-oop dunk from Magic Johnson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gave the Lakers a 104-103 lead with 29 seconds to go. Larry Bird drilled a 3-pointer to reclaim the lead for Boston, and LA went to Abdul-Jabbar, who was fouled. He made the first shot and missed the second, and the ball was ruled out of bounds off Kevin McHale, allowing the Lakers to retain possession with seven seconds to play. The Lakers called timeout and went to Johnson, who used a hesitation dribble to get into the lane and floated a running hook – which he later called a “junior, junior skyhook” – over the outstretched arms of McHale and Robert Parish with two seconds left, silencing the Boston Garden crowd. Bird was able to get free of James Worthy for a 3-pointer from the left corner that bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded, giving the Lakers a 107-106 win and a 3-1 series lead. In the moments after the game, James Brown of CBS interviewed Johnson in the cramped corridors of Boston Garden. During the interview, shouting could be heard in the background. It was Celtics GM Red Auerbach, reading the referees the riot act.
Go to the 3:45 mark of the video below for Red’s rant.
1. THE CELTICS BULLY THE LAKERS: The 1984 Finals began with the Lakers nearly taking the first two games on the road from the Celtics, who were rescued by a timely steal by Gerald Henderson to win Game 2. Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers pounded the Celtics in Game 3, and Larry Bird called out his team in the media, calling it “a bunch of sissies.” Only he didn’t say “sissies.” He said a word that begins with P and is a synonym for a cat. The Celts decided that they would go down fighting. Bird shoved Michael Cooper in the second quarter and nearly came to blows with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the third period. But the most memorable altercation was Kevin McHale’s clothesline takedown of Kurt Rambis on a fast break that resulted in several scuffles with multiple players coming off both benches. In today’s game, McHale would have been suspended for at least five games, and many others would have been facing bans of at least one game. But incredibly, no one received as much as a technical foul. Despite the rough stuff, the Lakers led by five points with a minute to play but allowed a three-point play on a follow shot by Robert Parish, who later stole a pass by Magic Johnson after Larry Bird sank the tying free throws. In overtime, a three-point play by James Worthy gave the Lakers a 123-121 lead before Bird tied it with two free throws and – after Magic missed a pair from the line – gave the Celts the lead for good with a turnaround jumper with 16 seconds left. Worthy drew a foul, but when he missed the first free throw, Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell walked across the lane and made the “choke” sign. Boston held on for a 129-125 win as Bird had 29 points and 21 rebounds, Parish added 25 and 12 and Dennis Johnson had 22 and 14 assists. Abdul-Jabbar scored 32 points, Worthy had 30 and Magic Johnson had a triple-double with 20 points, 17 assists and 11 rebounds. It is inarguably one of the greatest Finals games of all time.