WASHINGTON - The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers will square off in the NBA finals for a record 11th time this week, evoking either glorious or painful memories for generations of basketball fans.
"During the regular season, that's all we watched. 'Where are the Celtics? Did they win last night?'" Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson said on Tuesday during a teleconference.
"We didn't even celebrate the Western Conference final. That was nothing to us. It was about winning the championship.
"It was about 'Where Boston?' We always wanted to play the best. And that was the Celtics."
Television ratings for the NBA's two most storied franchises are expected to be up when the best-of-seven series begins in Boston on Thursday.
Boston has won eight of its NBA-record 16 titles against Los Angeles but the Lakers won the last two, in 1985 and 1987, when Johnson and the Celtics' Larry Bird went toe-to-toe.
"It was great to be in that heated rivalry for so many years," said Johnson. "The cities disliked each other, the teams disliked each other but we respected each other."
Bird, also a Hall of Famer, said he remembered watching the 1986 Western Conference final when the Houston Rockets knocked off the Lakers to reach the finals against Boston.
"I remember when Ralph Sampson hit that shot to beat them with one second on the clock," he said. "I know all of us felt down because we wouldn't be able to play the Lakers again."
Before the Magic-Bird duels, there were epic battles in the 1960s between two teams, including the 1969 final featuring the Celtics' Bill Russell and the Lakers' Wilt Chamberlain.
This year's championship pits the teams with the best record in the East against the top mark in the West.
Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant has won three titles but captured his first MVP trophy this season.
Boston All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are appearing in the finals for the first time after leading the Celtics to a 66-win season. Last year, Boston won just 24.
Bird, currently the head of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, thinks Bryant's big-game experience might be the difference.
"Kobe Bryant's been there before," he said. "He's won three championships. So he'll be a steadying force for the rest of the players. They look up to him so much when things get tough he might be the one that can pull him through."
Johnson said the players outside of the spotlight, like the Lakers' Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and the Celtics' Allen, may make the difference.
"You know Kobe is going to play well and Paul (Pierce) is going to play well," he said. "It's going to come down to Garnett and Allen and Gasol and Odom.
"It's always the other guys (that make the difference). Like with Larry and me. You knew Larry was going to do his thing, I was going to be able to do my thing.
"It always came down to the other guys. And this series will be the same."