Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics held numerous memorable on-court battles against Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. The intense rivalry led to sustained success behind their respective playing styles and talent. More than two decades after his last NBA game, Bird revealed that if he had played in the Lakers’ playing style, it would have resulted in a significant off-court life change.
Showtime Era Lakers dominated the 1980s
Johnson‘s arrival to the Lakers changed the franchise’s course as he elevated it to sustained excellence.
Johnson anchored the transformation into the Showtime Era team that thrived on a fast-paced offensive playing style. The Lakers’ identity came through their dominance in transition behind the star point guard’s court vision and passing.
Their Hall of Fame trio of Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy guided Los Angeles. The Lakers’ dominated much of the 1980s with that group, earning 10 Pacific division titles, winning more than 50 games in each campaign, and earning five NBA titles in eight Finals appearances.
Johnson continued the sustained success into the 1990-91 campaign with a ninth Finals berth, but it all came to a screeching halt after stepping into retirement. Nonetheless, the Lakers could be strongly argued as the gold standard over the decade.
Larry Bird knew adopting the Lakers’ style of play would’ve changed his off-court habits: ‘I would have gotten a lot of sleep’
During the 1980s, the Celtics became the Lakers’ biggest rivals, fueled by the fierce competition between Johnson and Larry Bird.
The two became the face of the league, combining for five NBA titles and 13 Finals appearances in the decade. In the three matchups on the grandest stage, Johnson got the upper hand twice. All those factors made the two teams extremely familiar with each other down to their respective approaches to the game.
During an interview on The Dan Patrick Show in 2015, Bird voiced that if he played the Lakers’ Showtime Era playing style, it would have resulted in a considerable off-the-court change.
“I would have gotten a lot of sleep after the game I can tell you that,” Bird said. “It’s a lot of running. I can remember in 84′ in the championship game we were playing them and they had us down in the series. Cedric Maxwell said something about ‘Hey you can’t beat what you can’t catch.’ They were running so fast.”
The Lakers weren’t always run-and-gun as the team could work effectively in the half-court through Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy in the low post. Although Bird could excel in transition with his passing, the Celtics played the more traditional style. They worked the ball inside out, utilizing the low block with Kevin McHale and the mid-range game with Bird.
“That wasn’t our style,” Bird remarked. “We could do both styles. If we did it all year long, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. When we would go on a West Coast trip for two weeks, we knew it was going to be up and down, run and gun and all that. But then you go through the playoffs, you score 105, 108 points per game then all of sudden you’re up to 125 that’s a whole different ball game.”
The Celtics and Lakers differed in playing styles, but the two franchises experience some tremendous success.
Lakers and Celtics rivalry lifted the NBA to tremendous popularity
Beyond the playing styles, the Lakers and Celtics became the gold standard throughout the 1980s.
Johnson and Bird served as the linchpins that elevated the NBA to popularity it hadn’t reached before. The two all-time greats saved the league from a disastrous fate as it now holds worldwide recognition.
Their rivalry forever changed the game while creating everlasting legacies that transformed the NBA into what it has become.