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

The Celtics are three wins away from their 18th NBA title -- one more than their biggest rival: the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

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.