Years Active: 1965 – 1980
Regular Season Stats: 1254 games, 27.9 mpg
9.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.1 apg, 43.2% FG, 67.3% FT
Postseason Stats: 163 games, 28.3 mpg
6.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.1 apg, 39.7% FG, 69.2% FT
Accolades: 2x All-Star (1972, ’75), 2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1975-’76), 3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1971-’73), 3x NBA Champion (1974, ’76, ’79)
While Havlicek is a quiet, gentlemanly sort, Silas is a cordial, beaming man who could teach smiling at a stewardess school. And while Havlicek is exacting of himself and his teammates, Silas may be doubly so.
In 1972, Paul Silas was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Boston Celtics. The 6’7″ forward wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of moving from sunny Arizona to Massachusetts. It wasn’t just the weather that he was wary of, however. Already an 8-year veteran, he had heard tall tales of the Celtic mystique all his career. His skepticism soon dissipated:
“To be truthful, I thought it was a lot of nonsense. But when I arrived it was amazing. It’s almost like a collegiate atmosphere in a pro world, an atmosphere of total sacrifice for the good of the team, on and off the court. It’s a way of life. You just fall into it.”
Those Celtics of John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens fell into Silas at the right moment. Just a year earlier in 1971, Silas had shed a commendable 30 pounds to drop his weight from 240 to 210. Before, during his days with the St. Louis Hawks, Silas was known as one of the NBA’s premier tough guys. A mountain of a man patrolling the lane and dominating the boards. It was an era overly focused on beefing up frontlines to thwart Wilt Chamberlain. After the weight loss, Silas stunned opponents with a new-found ability to gracefully run the court and beat his man for easy buckets. And in the halfcourt set, his lighter frame allowed better lift on his jumper. His defense remained almost as stout as it was before, but he did concede his lost weight allowed opponents to sometimes get him out of rebounding position.
Watching Silas’s transformation was Red Auerbach who exchanged Charlie Scott’s draft rights for Paul. Red correctly surmised that Silas was just what the Celtics needed. Already a 56-win team the season before, the Celtics had arisen from the short slumber following Bill Russell’s retirement in 1969. They needed a veteran ready to contribute immediately alongside center Cowens. The addition of Silas catapulted the Celtics to 68 wins.
Despite the waxing they put on the regular season, Boston did not win or even reach the NBA Finals that year. The New York Knicks were able squeeze by in a grueling 7-game series, in no small part due to Hondo separating his shoulder mid-way through the series. Silas surely carried his load opposite Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere:
[Silas] was an unlikely hero in Boston’s 98-97 victory in game no. 5 Wednesday night. He scored just nine points – but they included a 30-foot bank shot that was the Celtics’ only basket in the final eight minutes, and two free throws with seven seconds left on the clock which put the Celtics on top for good [...]
His 71 rebounds for the five games tie Cowens for most in the playoffs. He has grabbed 43 of them in the last two games.
Returning the next season, Boston wasn’t quite able to keep up the torrid 68-win pace and settled back to 56 wins. More importantly, though, they throttled the Knicks in 5 games in the Eastern Conference Finals and got a date with the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. It was a titanic see-saw with the teams exchanging victories the whole series. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sank a game-winning skyhook in double overtime of Game 6 in Boston to send the series back to Wisconsin for the 7th and final game. Silas contributed his usual bulwark defense and rebounding, but his pivotal contribution in Game 7 was containing Jabbar as coach Tommy Heinsohn had Silas front the Bucks center to deny him the ball. Boston won the game by double digits and secured its first title since 1969.
[youtbe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_cyvav5tvk w=400 h=275]
Flush off the championship success, Silas was lauded with praise. He would make his second and final all-star game in 1975 along with teammates White, Hondo and Cowens. Paul would also make his first All-Defensive 1st Team a decade into his career. For all those years, Silas had been one of the league’s premier post defenders and rebounders. In his rookie season he snagged 7 rebounds a game in just 16 minutes. Now at age 31 he was still hauling in 12.5 boards in 32.5 minutes.
The Celtics failed to repeat as champs in ’75, losing to the Washington Bullets in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but in 1976 they again captured the title. And once again they engaged in a classic Finals series. The opponent this time was the Phoenix Suns and although the series was punctuated by the 3-OT Game 5, it was a thrill from start to finish. Silas held true to his calling card, rebounding and steadfast leadership:
“Of all our spurts, that one in the third quarter was the best we played,” said Boston forward Paul Silas, whose 17 rebounds kept Boston running. “Better than any we had against Cleveland or Buffalo. I think it was the right time to do it.”
Silas’ remark carried all the more weight since he was the most critical Celtic after Boston won last Sunday’s opener 96-87. In that game, Silas felt Boston played with little enthusiasm or desire.
With their 2nd title in 3 seasons, the Celtics slipped to 44 wins and a tough 7-game, 2nd round exit to the 76ers the next season in 1977. Silas, however, wasn’t around for it. He had been traded just before the season began to Denver. He only lasted a season with the Nuggets before he was traded again to Seattle. With the Sonics, Silas would submit a final chapter to his lengthy resume as one of the NBA’s greatest role players.
Arriving to the Northwest at the tender age of 34, Silas no longer entertained 30+ minutes a night. Instead he was slated for the mid-20s and proffered 5 points and 7 rebounds a night. The averages though belied the transformation he had on the roster. Along with new coach Lenny Wilkens, Silas aided Seattle by exhibiting his exemplary character as an excellent teammate and exuding the confidence gained by his tenure in Boston.
The 47-win Sonics blazed through Los Angeles, Portland and Silas’s erstwhile team, the Nuggets, en route to the Finals. Opposing them were the Washington Bullets and the creaky battle in the middle didn’t escape notice at the time:
It was both [Wes] Unseld’s and Silas’ third appearance in the NBA finals. Unseld came into this one at age 32 with knees going on 62; Silas arrived at 34, shortly after becoming a grandfather. In the first two games their shot lines read: Unseld six for 15, Silas four for 11 and those numbers do not reflect all of the outrageous rocks they hurled at the basket, or their bewildering array of misses from the three-foot range. Nor do they indicate how greatly Silas’ defensive effort on Hayes (plus 12 rebounds) contributed to Seattle’s 106-102 victory in Game 1.
The Sonics grabbed Game 1, but would ultimately lose the series in 7 games. The very next season, though, the teams tangled in a rematch with Seattle winning the Finals in 5 games. For a third time, Paul Silas was an NBA champion and after the 1980 season he retired.
He left the game as one of its greatest winners – a loaded term no doubt. Many great players languish on sub-par teams because of inept management while others ride coattails. Silas was surely fortunate to get drafted by the Hawks, a perennial playoff team, and thereafter always find himself traded to a good squad. However, it is a testament that so many good teams saw Silas as a key fit to their plans. In his 16 seasons he reached the conference finals 10 times and he didn’t get there by being a bum. He carried his teammates defensively , tortured his opponents, and flashed a winning smile the whole time.