Skip to main content

The NBA couldn’t get enough of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. After the teams met in the 1984 NBA Finals — their first championship meeting since 1969 — and again in 1985, they squared off four times in the 1985-86 preseason.

The battle between the Celtics and Lakers in the ’84 Finals was heated. There were bench-clearing fights and skirmishes between stars Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the intense, seven-game series. The Bird and Magic Johnson rivalry took center stage for the first time as professionals. The NBA needed more and got it. It went according to plan.

The Boston Celtics and LA Lakers brought the NBA to a new level in 1984

Gerald Henderson of the Boston Celtics goes in for a layup in front of Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers circa 1984 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

While Bird and Magic gave a jolt to the NBA when they came in after their epic 1979 NCAA championship game, it didn’t peak until they met in the NBA Finals for the first time in 1984. Every year of the 1980s, either the Celtics or Lakers reached the championship round. They met for the first time in 1984 and squared off again in 1985 and 1987.

The ’84 Finals showed just how intense the rivalry was. It also showed how evenly matched the teams were.

The Lakers dominated the first half of the series but found themselves tied 2-2. Gerald Henderson’s late steal in Game 2 sent the game into overtime and prevented the Lakers from taking a 2-0 lead with the series shifting back to LA. After blowing out the Celtics in Game 3, the Lakers held a 76-70 lead in Game 4 before Boston’s Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, who was heading in for a layup.

The hard foul resulted in the benches clearing and was a precursor to Bird and Abdul-Jabbar getting into it minutes later. It also seemed to swing momentum in favor of the Celtics, who rallied to tie the series at two games apiece.

The Celtics won the series in seven games. The Lakers got their revenge when the teams met again the following season. LA also beat Boston in 1987.

The Celtics and Lakers met four times in the ’85 preseason


Larry Bird and the 1985-86 Boston Celtics — the Best Starting 5 Ever?

The NBA needed more Celtics vs. Lakers, especially after seeing them match up in the Finals in ’84 and ’85. Two times during the regular season wasn’t enough.

A few months after meeting in June for the ’85 title, the league had the Lakers and Celtics play four preseason games leading up to the 1985-86 season. These meetings were far from your typical preseason games. These were just as heated.

Benches cleared in October 1985 when they played each other in Providence, Rhode Island. The Lakers held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, but when the Celtics cut their deficit to eight, Lakers coach Pat Riley put Magic and James Worthy back in the game. The Lakers won 124-111.

“This was not just an exhibition game,” Riley said after the game, per The Los Angeles Times. “It had a little more heat to it.”

“It’s a little too early in the season to be that intense. It’s only two weeks since summer. And to have to cope with that. I could personally do without it.”

Mitch Kupchak of the LA Lakers in 1985

Fights broke out when Boston newcomer Bill Walton knocked Kupchak to the ground. Rambis was elbowed. Bird and Abdul-Jabbar went at it again. According to Universal Press International, six Celtics players and three Lakers players were fined.

This was the first time Walton experienced the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry up close.

“My very first Celtics/Lakers game was an exhibition game in 1985,” Walton told Brian Scalabrine for Celtics on NBC Sports Boston in April 2021. “There was four of them that year.

“In the very first one, on the opening tip, a fight broke out. It lasted for 20 minutes. Everybody was involved. K.C. Jones ultimately came back to the bench all bloodied and cut and scratched up because Michael Cooper would never cut his fingernails.

“His (Jones) clothes were all ragged, and he looked at me with this gleam in his eye, and he said, ‘I love this game.’”

Have thoughts on this topic? Keep the conversation rolling in our comments section below.