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Could we be on course for another Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers Finals matchup? Both are in the NBA’s version of the Final Four as we make our way through the final rounds of the 2022-23 NBA season. Celtics vs. Lakers in the 2023 NBA Finals would surely stir up some memories.

The two iconic franchises are tied for the most NBA championships with 17. They haven’t faced each other in the championship round since 2010, but their battles in the 1980s, led by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, were epic.

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers dominated the 1980s

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers guards Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics during the 1985 NBA Basketball Finals at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson didn’t waste any time when they made their NBA debuts in the 1979-80 season. After an epic 1979 NCAA championship meeting between the two stars, they carried their personal rivalry into the NBA, Bird heading east to the Celtics and Magic going west to LA.

In their first year in the league, Bird captured Rookie of the Year, while Magic guided the Lakers to a championship. Bird took a 29-win team and turned it into a 61-win season in Boston. Johnson was named MVP of the 1980 NBA Finals.

In every year of the decade, either the Celtics or Lakers played in the NBA Finals. The Celtics and Lakers squared off against each other three times. In 1984, the Lakers outplayed the Celtics for much of the early part of the series, but the Celtics bounced back to win in seven games.

The Lakers got revenge the following season when they met again. LA won in six games and became the first visiting team to celebrate a championship on Bostoin’s home court. In 1987, they squared off again, with the Lakers outlasting the Celtics in six games.

In all, the Celtics captured three championships in the 1980s and went to the NBA Finals four straight times between 1984 and 1987. The Lakers won five titles during the 1980s.

Were the ’86 Celtics better than the ’87 Lakers?

Celtics vs. Lakers was must-see basketball in the ’80s. It was a true rivalry. Players didn’t like each other, and it showed. Each time they squared off, it was a physical series that had the run-and-gun Lakers matching up with the more physical Celtics.

Boston’s best team of the decade came during the 1985-86 season. After losing to the Lakers in the 1985 NBA Finals, the Celtics went to work in the offseason. They traded for oft-injured center Bill Walton, who had already won an NBA title and had been named MVP with the Portland Trail Blazers. They also brought in guard Jerry Sichting. Both Walton and Sichting helped shore up a bench the Celtics desperately needed to be bolstered.

The Celtics won 67 games that season, losing just once at home all year. Walton played 80 games — more than he ever had in a season in his 10-year career. He averaged nearly 20 minutes off the bench and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. Bird captured his third straight MVP award. Boston knocked off the Houston Rockets for its third title of the decade.

The following year, the Lakers showed they were motivated and hungry after falling to the Rockets in the ’86 conference finals. During the 1986-87 season, the Lakers were the lone team to surpass 60 victories. They finished 65-17. As the Celtics did with Walton, the Lakers brought in veteran big-man Mychal Thompson, who averaged 10.1 points in 20.6 minutes off the bench. LA cruised through the Western Conference playoffs before knocking off the Celtics in six games.

The Lakers were the team of the 1980s, but that 1985-86 Celtics team was the best of the decade. With four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup (Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson) and another in Walton off the bench, that team could arguably be considered the best ever. Those Celtics were a bunch of unselfish players who did whatever it took to win, sacrificing stats for victories. In that 1986-87 season, injuries caught up with Walton, who played in just 10 regular-season games.

“Everybody played off each other,” McHale said in a 2020 video that celebrated the ’86 team. “Everybody could pass, and everybody moved. We had great spacing. We just had an entire group of guys that understood spacing and movement.

“In the end, us being a great team meant much more than any individual. Had we all been on different teams, we would’ve scored more but won less.”


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