Between long-fought seven-game-series and chippy matchups that vexed a long-term competition, here are five of the greatest rivalries in the NBA.
5. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
The on-and-off rivalry between the 76ers and Celtics first ignited during the 1950s when two of the NBA’s greatest players in history – Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – convened on the court in four consecutive playoff games. Even though Russell and the Celtics walked away victorious from three of their four meetings, the duo’s rivalry would come alive once again in the 1980s during a new era starring Larry Bird and Julius Erving (aka Dr. J). The Sixers beat Boston in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals in just five games but would fall short once again in the following season 4-3. It wasn’t until 2012 and 2018 where these two old foes would meet once more in series that would both be determined by game seven. This classic tug-o-war rivalry may only materialize depending on the decade, but it certainly does so with no shortage of chippiness or drama.
4. Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs
From the late 90s to the 2000s, the Spurs and the Lakers dominated the NBA. However, the association wasn’t big enough for the two of these top dogs, who battled it out for supremacy over the rest of the association. Between 1999 to 2014, both teams each took home five championship titles out of a possible 15. Of these combined 10 wins, four were pitted against each other and five were out of six playoff matchups between 1999 to 2004. The rivalry has also featured its fair share of dramatic moments, including Derek Fisher’s 0.4 second buzzer win during the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals. Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson were two of the best coaches in NBA history. At the same time, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan were some of the greatest players. Needless to say, this rivalry has seen it all.
3. Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
If Michael Jordan was the Superman of the NBA, then the Detroit Pistons were his kryptonite. The Pistons had established rule over the Eastern Conference and the-then mighty Chicago Bulls were no exception. During the age of Detroit’s Bad Boys, they relentlessly pestered Jordan whether he had possession of the ball, or not. The sight of their star player under heavy duress, stirred the Bulls to retaliate in more ways than one. This stimulated one of the chippiest rivalries to date. Former Bulls players admit that there was hardly a sliver of mutual respect or admiration despite the fact that Detroit had already acquired two titles referring to them as a dirty team. It’s almost more accurate to refer these two not as rivals, but as enemies.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
These modern era powerhouses have one of the newest and greatest rivalries to grace the NBA. Beginning in 2015, these two squared off four back-to-back times in the Finals. The Cavs came up short during the first matchup in 2015 after Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both dropped out due to injury. The following year, however, James and company came back ready to avenge their previous loss in dramatic fashion. They ended the Warriors 73-game win streak after coming back from a 1-3 series deficit. Though James is no longer on his first team’s roster, the rivalry between Cleveland and Golden State is very much alive one for the books.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The historic rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, two of the best competitive teams in basketball, not only stands as one of the greatest the NBA has ever known, but also one of the greatest in all of sports. These long-time foes have met over the course of 12 NBA Finals. It has seen the coming and going of star players including Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and the Big Three of the Celtics (Paul Piece, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen), as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers. There is not a single moment, characteristic, or period of players to define the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. It has seen too many nail-biting finishes, bitter engagements, and talented competing rosters to pinpoint a definitive classification. For this reason, the Lakers and the Celtics share one of the most beautiful brute rivalries of the NBA, and of any sport, throughout history.