On July 31, 2007, something happened that set the course for the next half-decade of American professional basketball: the Boston Celtics traded five players and two draft picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett. Then about six months later, the team’s age-old rival from across the country, the Los Angeles Lakers, responded by upping the ante, trading three players and two draft picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. The two trades, and the ensuing personnel moves they helped make possible, would fortify the two teams into perennial powerhouses, in the process reviving a feud that had once (twice, even) defined the NBA, and would result in the teams combining to win the next three championships — two of which even featured the clubs squaring off against each other, as they did six times in the ’60s, and three times in the ’80s.
That’s all over now. If one more nail in the coffin of Lakers-Celtics, Mk. III was needed, it was certainly provided in this year’s postseason, when for the first time since the Pau and KG trades, both teams have lost in the first round, in series that neither were expected to win. Both teams are in a state of personnel-related turmoil that they largely managed to avoid over the first five seasons of their resurgence; now, of the many players who have defined the two franchises, it’s unclear if any of them will be back and healthy at the start of next season. The Lakers and Celtics will almost certainly be really good again, possibly at the same time, and possibly even soon, but it won’t be with this same cast of characters, or anything close. It’s time to move on.
Still, upon the death of this latest incarnation of the NBA’s oldest and greatest rivalry, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the significance that Lakers-Celtics III played in re-shaping the NBA over its half-decade of prominence, how it helped revive the league from one of its deeper lulls, and how it now leaves the league in a much better place than where it found it. Not to mention, the many memories it provided, the careers it validated, and the mythology it helped re-perpetuate.
Consider what the league was like just before the Kevin Garnett trade. The reigning powers in the West and East were the Spurs (who won three championships in five seasons) and Pistons (who made five straight conference finals, soon to be six), seemingly because no other franchise had come along that was talented and consistent enough to totally dethrone them. The Pacers once appeared to be building a championship-caliber team, but they were derailed by the Malice at the Palace, and gutted by the ensuing suspensions and trade demands. The Heat and Mavericks both made the Finals in 2006, but fell apart shortly afterwards, neither team winning a single playoff series for another three years. The Suns tried to prove you could do it without defense, and very well might have if not for the basketball gods (and/or the Spurs, and/or David Stern, and/or their own cheapskate owner) constantly getting in their way. And whether or not he was personally ready, it’d take the Cavs another couple of years to realize LeBron James needed more than Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden as “help” to win his first title, though he did manage to drag Cleveland to their first and only Finals appearance in franchise history, anyway.
It might not have been a state of chaos in the NBA, exactly, but it had precious little in the way of order or narrative. Average NBA fans found it tough to muster excitement for history-devoid Finals matchups like Heat-Mavericks or Spurs-Cavaliers, and not even diehard NBA fans could make a whole lot out of the resulting games from the latter, four low-scoring games all won by San Antonio, which produced the lowest ratings in NBA Finals history. Though teams like the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and the We Believe Warriors gained well-deserved followings, there was no big market, powerhouse team to really capture the nation’s imagination the way the Jordan Bulls or Shaq Lakers had — and that’s exactly what the NBA suddenly needed to distract fans from the Tim Donaghy scandal, which broke just about a week before the KG trade and threatened to undermine the integrity of the entire sport. (“After the most damaging NBA season in three decades … we reached the tipping point with Tim Donaghy,” wrote a noted Lakers-Celtics anthologist for ESPN. “Guilty or innocent, we will never watch an NBA game the same way.”)
While all this was going on, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant were toiling away on subpar Celtics and Lakers teams, either just scraping their way into the playoffs and losing in the first round, or missing the postseason entirely, as Kobe did in ’05 and Pierce did in ’06 and ’07. By summer ’07, both franchise players were growing impatient and gritting their teeth through their team’s lean years. Adrian Wojnarowski reported in June of that year that Paul Pierce would request a trade shortly after draft night were he not paired with “a talented veteran co-star,” and Kobe actually did request a trade, very nearly being sent to Detroit. But both stars were talked off the ledge, with Pierce particularly assuaged by the Celtics’ draft night deal for perennial All-Star Ray Allen, and Bryant eventually comforted by the improvement of big man prospect Andrew Bynum in his third season, a player who Kobe had previously insisted the Lakers deal for veteran help. Soon, of course, both players would get the blockbuster deal to validate their hard-earned patience.
By the end of the season, Lakers-Celtics had completely taken over the league. The Celtics’ newly united trio of ringless veteran stars — uncreatively but succinctly dubbed “The Big Three” — provided the primary storyline for the beginning of the NBA season. The three held endearing press conferences, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview, and even filmed a couple of their own SportsCenter commercials. What’s more, once the season actually started, the C’s quickly proved that the hype was warranted, winning an incredible 29 of their first 32 games, meshing faster and more seamlessly than even their harshest critics could have predicted.
Meanwhile, after the drama of Kobe’s offseason demands had waned, attention quickly turned to how well the Lakers were playing with their emerging star center, with LA going 24-11 in their first 35 games, their best start to the season since the Shaq days. Enthusiasm waned some when Bynum was ruled out for the season with a knee injury, but picked back up when GM Mitch Kupchak improbably turned a set of middling players and late-round draft picks into Gasol, drawing the ire of many around the league in the process. With Pau in tow, the Lakers were off, winning 11 of their first 12 games with the Spaniard, and seemingly setting the Lakers on a crash course to meet the Celtics, the franchise they’d faced off with 10 times before, in the NBA Finals.
Remarkably enough, it actually happened that way, with the Lakers and Celtics symbolically laying waste to the old-guard Spurs and Pistons in the conference finals to face off in the final round. Suddenly, we had basketball that everyone could understand. It took an absolute minimum of knowledge of NBA history to grasp the significance of a Lakers-Celtics finals. I remember explaining the possibility of Lakers-Celtics to my roommate at the time — a writer and poet who hadn’t voluntarily watched a sporting event of any kind since elementary school — and what a big deal it was, and he responded “Is that because of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird?” No one needed to force-feed storylines down our throats, nobody had to refer to this as a “thinking man’s Finals,” nobody needed to make excuses for anything. This was basketball that sold and marketed itself. Unsurprisingly, the ratings boomed, with the series drawing more viewers than any Finals since 2004, when the last gasp of the Shaq-era Lakers was extinguished by the ascending Pistons.
Things got even better for the league from there. Though a potential Lakers-Celtics rematch in 2009 was undone by a season-ending knee injury to Garnett, the Celtics still gave the NBA arguably the most entertaining first round series in playoff history that year with their epic seven-game showdown against the Bulls. And the Lakers, while unable to properly avenge their loss against the Celtics, were at least able to even the score Finals-wise with their five-game victory over the Orlando Magic, setting the stage for a rubber-match showdown in the 2010 Finals. An underwhelming regular-season performance from the Celtics in ’09-’10 seemed to preclude that possibility, but the C’s turned it on in the playoffs, unexpectedly getting past the Cavaliers and Magic to meet the Lakers in the Finals, as hoped for.
That series, an extremely emotional, physically grueling battle, probably served as the watershed moment for Lakers-Celtics III, and arguably all of 21st-century basketball. The 10.6 rating on average was again the highest since 2004, but this series had something that neither the 2004 series nor any other of the Shaq-era Lakers (or Jordan-era Bulls) Finals had: a Game 7. The series-capping game garnered 28.2 million viewers, more than any other since Jordan’s last game for the Bulls in the ’98 Finals, and served as one of the most controversial, memorable games in recent NBA history — so much so that most NBA fans can probably still quote exactly what Kobe’s final shooting line was on the night.
And really, it was never about the individual games themselves when it came to Lakers-Celtics III. When you look back on them, there weren’t a lot of “classic”-type games played between the two teams over these years — the Celtics’ 24-point comeback in 2010 arguably registers, but even that game ended somewhat anti-climactically, and aside from that and the ’10 Game 7, there aren’t a lot of games whose events you could recall offhand, or refer to as “The _____ Game” and have everyone understand what you mean. There weren’t many buzzer-beaters, or games where one player went off for 40 or 50 points, or even games where fights broke out or injuries took place. The most famous physical toll of either series came when Pierce hurt his leg on an incidental play and was dramatically rolled off on a wheelchair, only to return to gameplay a couple minutes later, totally unfazed, much to the consternation of skeptical Laker fans.
But there was drama, and there was history. When the two teams fought, you felt the weight of 50 years of such battles behind them. And even though there was little actual backstory between Kobe and Pierce, or Pau and Garnett, the players all seemed to buy into the rivalry anyway, accepting that they were writing the next chapter in this story and understanding the historical significance of what it represented. It helped that all of the principal players had so much to prove individually, even outside of the rivalry. Each of Boston’s Big Three came to the Celtics with the stigma of having been a superstar who had never made it to the Finals “on their own,” and Kobe had long carried the burden of having never won a championship without Shaq, something the Big Aristotle was more than happy to remind him about after his 2008 loss. The players cared — none moreso thatn Garnett after the ’08 win – so it was easy for the fans to care along with them.
After the peak of that 2010 Game 7, the Lakers and Celtics no longer quite cast the same shadow over the league. Both teams bowed out in the second round of the ’10 postseason, having regressed due to a combination of injuries, aging, and questionable personnel moves, and neither team has made the Finals again to date. But it’s worth remembering this last season, both were still being discussed as contenders, the Celtics having restocked their bench in the offseason, adding an impressive array of young talent and veteran savvy after coming just one game short of making the Finals the year before, and the Lakers having traded for two future Hall of Famers, seemingly guaranteeing them a return to contention, at the very least. But both teams underperformed out of the gate, and were then hit with an array of injuries, leaving both teams unable to reach anywhere near their full potential, whatever that may have been.
Really, though, you could say that the end of the third Lakers-Celtics era in the NBA came on July 8th, 2010, when LeBron James announced he would join fellow stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat to try to chase the championship ring he was unable to win in Cleveland. In Miami, LeBron was finally able to get past the Celtics (who had dispatched his Cavs team twice in the last three postseasons) in the playoffs, and permanently put to bed whatever “Kobe or LeBron?” arguments lingered throughout the NBA, assuming his unquestioned place as the best player in the league on the best team in the league. What’s more, with his free agency move (and the controversy he garnered with his “The Decision” special announcing it), the trials and tribulations of LeBron and the Heat instantly became the dominant story in the NBA, with whatever the Lakers and Celtics were doing being distant seconds and thirds, if that.
And it’s worth noting that had the Celtics and Lakers not congealed as they did in ’07-’08, LeBron might never have made that switch at all. Not only because LeBron would need an upgrade in surrounding talent to potentially beat the Celtics or Lakers in the postseason, but because the two teams (the Celtics especially) made the “super-team” concept a viable one in the NBA, proving that assembling a team of stars well into their respective careers was an efficient way to win big. (Garnett even advised LeBron not to be loyal to his own detriment, something KG did for years on the Timberwolves.) Soon after, Chris Paul was toasting to the possibility of winning championships with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire on the Knicks, even though Amar’e was the only one actually on the Knicks at the time — and indeed, by the start of the ’11-’12 season, both ‘Melo and CP3 had forced their ways out of their small-market franchises and onto big-market teams with stars already in place, though only Anthony actually made it to the Big Apple.
It’s safe to say that even without Lakers-Celtics, the NBA is in a very good place right now — not just with LeBron and the Heat, but with another possible dynasty formed around another possible league-defining talent out West in Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as resurgent, star-driven teams in big markets like the Bulls, Knicks and Clippers. Each of the last three Finals has averaged a double-digit rating, and this year’s playoffs, while injury-depleted, are certainly not short on stars or storylines, from Stephen Curry’s breakout in Golden State to Durant’s one-man show in OKC. It’s a rich enough postseason that the absence of the Celtics and Lakers this early on isn’t nearly as deeply felt as it would have been three or four years ago.
Still, it’s gonna be hard to say goodbye to these teams. They brought so much greatness, so much drama, so much prestige to the league these last five years, and have been involved in so many great moments and games and playoff series — that Bulls-Celtics series in ’09, Kobe dropping 61 at MSG, Ray Allen setting the all-time three-point record … the list goes on and on. Even this season, as the two squads reached their lowest points in six years, it was so much fun to watch the Lakers as they clawed their way into the playoffs over the final few weeks of the season, nearly killing Kobe in the process, or to see the Celtics battle back from 3-0 to win the next two and give the Knicks a real scare in Game 6, showing every bit of the heart we’d grown accustomed to seeing from the veteran team. They’ve been fixtures in the league, and it’s going to be tough to see them re-enter irrelevance, or at least to officially start rebuilding for the future.
And really, rebuilding might not take all that long. Rajon Rondo, the young point guard who became the unlikely leader for the Celtics a couple years into the Big Three era, should be back from his ACL injury at some point next year, as will Kobe from his Achilles tear. Jeff Green proved a worthwhile building block for the C’s over his hot end to the season and his fine playoff run, averaging a team-high 20.3 points per game in the six-game series, while re-signing Dwight Howard (not long ago considered a top five player) will undoubtedly be the Lakers’ biggest offseason priority. But key players from both teams’ resurgences have already been lost, with Ray Allen signing with the Heat last offseason and Andrew Bynum being jettisoned in the trade for Howard, and this season, they’ll surely be joined by more, as even the two players whose arrival started all this are said to be likely departees, Kevin Garnett through retirement and Pau Gasol through long-rumored trade. By the time the Lakers and Celtics are both competing for championships again, it’ll mark the start of an entirely new era in the feud’s history.
Still, the impact of Lakers-Celtics III was gigantic, and continues to be felt today. It pulled the NBA out of the directionless morass it was stuck in between the end of the Shaq-Kobe dynasty and the official throne-claiming of LeBron James, giving casual fans a reason to care again and giving NBA superfans some of the most compelling high-stakes basketball of the 21st century. It changed the way teams are built, and it made every star stuck on a losing team yearn for something better, something more. For better or worse, without Lakers-Celtics, there’s no Decision, there’s no Melodrama, no Dwightmare. And it assures that by the time we’re ready for Lakers-Celtics IV, there’ll be a new old generation of hoops fans willing to bore the kids with rhapsodies about what a great rivalry this really is.