NBA Finals 2022 — Why there’s much more than a title at stake for the Celtics — and it begins with the Lakers

NBA Finals 2022 — Why there’s much more than a title at stake for the Celtics — and it begins with the Lakers post thumbnail image

Inside the Auerbach Center, the Boston Celtics‘ new training facility, the team installed two sets of championship banners to match the official ones in their arena seven miles down the Mass Pike.

To say those 17 banners are sacrosanct to the organization might be an understatement. So why not have as many duplicates as possible?

On a morning at the building last June, as team owner Wyc Grousbeck was preparing to formally announce his decision to promote Brad Stevens to team president, the two men made a pact under those symbolic flags.

“We committed to one another that we’re going to win banner 18,” Grousbeck said, “or die trying.”

Banner 18. It’s the vogue rallying cry for the NBA’s two legacy organizations: the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

That championship fight, wrapped in a decades-long rivalry, makes the Lakers a shadow opponent to the Celtics during these unfolding 2022 NBA Finals. Both teams are sitting at 17 and it’s a deep-seeded, high-stakes race to take the league’s all-time lead.

The Lakers have won six titles to the Celtics’ one since the turn of the century, shortening the historical gap. When the Lakers won in 2020, it tied the teams for the first time since 1963 (the Minneapolis Lakers won six of first eight titles in league history).

This season in LA, there were high hopes the acquisition of Russell Westbrook would get the Lakers to add an 18th star to their center court logo, a driving force for the Buss family to fulfill a dream of their late patriarch.

“It was always Dr. [Jerry] Buss’ goal to pass Boston,” says Laker great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who led the Lakers to five of those championships. “The Lakers never want the Celtics to win.”

“Dr. Buss always would say losing is bad enough but losing to the Celtics was not tolerable,” says Mychal Thompson, who won two titles in LA including one over Boston in the 1987 Finals.

“We are all Warriors fans now,” he said. “They have to do us a favor and keep us tied with Boston. We can’t let them get to 18 before us.”

The longtime rivalry has been told in a long string of books, movies, Broadway plays and, most recently, the HBO series “Winning Time,” which featured some dramatized trash talk between Buss and Celtics’ legend Red Auerbach. This Finals, though, is just an example of the many proxy battles that have been fought between the two sides over the years.

It has taken many shapes and forms. In the 1982 Eastern Conference finals, for example, when the Philadelphia 76ers had Game 7 in hand in Boston Garden, the crowd dropped its disappointment to chant “Beat LA” as encouragement to the 76ers and their coming matchup in the Finals. The Lakers won in six.

When Doc Rivers, who coached the Celtics to the 2008 title over the Lakers, joined the LA Clippers as team president and coach in 2013, he ordered the Lakers’ championship banners covered up during Clipper games at the shared then-Staples Center. It was part of a branding move aimed at giving the Clippers their own identity … with the added benefit of covering up the Lakers’ success.

It still goes on today. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who grew up a Lakers fan in Southern California, very much would like to help keep the Celtics stuck on 17.

“I grew up watching Magic and [Larry] Bird go at it in the ’80s,” Kerr said. “I was sitting literally in the last row of the Forum when Kevin McHale took out Kurt Rambis and changed the series [in 1984].”

Warriors guard Klay Thompson, Mychal’s son, feels the same desire.

“I was watching [Lakers vs. Celtics] in college, Game 7, at Staples Center, with my dad in 2010, and now it’s 12 years later, and I get to play the team that I was rooting against,” Thompson said. “So life comes full circle, now being able to play them in the Finals.”

There are endless such stories — of the slights the sides have taken at each other through the years.

When former Lakers coach Pat Riley published his book, “Show Time,” in 1988, he put it this way: “The ‘Boston Mystique’ encourages the lowest common denominator of fan behavior. It grows directly out of the low-rent attitudes of Boston management. They’re the Klingons of the NBA.”

In 2004, when coach Phil Jackson got the Lakers to the Finals and was within sight of passing Auerbach’s record of nine championships, Auerbach complained in an interview with the Washington Post: “Why can’t he just say, ‘I’m a lucky SOB that [general manager] Jerry West got me these guys?'”

The Pistons won in five games. Four years later, when the Celtics won their only title in the past 36 years by beating Jackson and the Lakers in six games, Grousbeck pronounced: “This win is for Red Auerbach,” who had died two years earlier.

In 2019, Grousbeck and current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss collaborated with fellow owners Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets and Wes Edens of the Milwaukee Bucks to launch a high-end tequila brand. But when Grousbeck attended a launch event at a Lakers-Phoenix Suns game, the Celtics owner made it known he was not there to support LA.

“I’m cheering for the Suns tonight,” he said in an interview on Spectrum SportsNet. “If I cheer for the Lakers, Red Auerbach will come out of his grave and strangle me.”

With the Celtics now three wins from No. 18, the rhetoric is likely about to get ramped up again. And, notably, the trash talk.

“It always means everything when you’re going up against the Lakers,” says Cedric Maxwell, who won two titles in Boston, including MVP of the 1981 Finals, and is known for tossing barbs at Laker great James Worthy both in the media and in private.

“They’re supposedly tied with us,” he said. “People say they’re the standard-bearer of the NBA but the Celtics have been that since the start. And James Worthy, after we win this championship, I want you to smell our ass as we’re going by.”

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