Regular Season Record: 348-440
Regular Season Win Percentage: 44.1%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 16-21
For the first time in generations, the Celtics were veering into rudderless territory. The untimely deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis derailed any smooth succession plan from the Bird-McHale-Parish core of the 1980s. With barely any worthwhile talent on their roster, Boston couldn’t swindle or fleece another team of their draft picks. Boston therefore decided the quickest road back to contention would come through deliberately losing as many games as possible. The prize, should they win the 1997 Draft Lottery, would be Tim Duncan.
With such a lucrative payoff, the Celtics were full-steam ahead for losing in 1996-97. They didn’t just secure the worst record in the NBA that season, Boston absolutely shattered the franchise record for losses and lowest win percentage. Their 67 losses easily eclipsed the previous record of 50 losses in 1978. The .183 win percentage was an abysmal depth below the previous record of .293 waaaay back in 1950.
The team’s leading scorer and rebounder was rookie forward Antoine Walker. The versatile shimmy machine would be one of the only two players to make a serious impact for Boston during this decade. The other, unfortunately, was not Tim Duncan. Despite the losing, Boston fell to the 3rd slot and watched the San Antonio Spurs dance off with Duncan.
Dejected, Boston selected Chauncey Billups with their pick. The point guard would go on to a superb career, but Boston gave up on him 51 games into the 1997-98 season. Billups was traded, in essence, for veteran Kenny Anderson. That was a curious trade then and now for a team that was clearly years away from any legitimate contention. But for some reason, coach and personnel head Rick Pitino couldn’t discern the true, sorry state of the franchise.
In any event, Boston did finish with 36 wins in the 1997-98 season as Walker became an All-Star. Despite not tanking that season, Boston nonetheless found their second impact player in the 1998 Draft. Paul Pierce fell into their lap at the 10th pic. Suddenly, Boston had some hope for the future.
But over the next two seasons, Boston continued to mire in mediocrity under Pitino. Finally, in an act of mercy, Pitino stepped down as coach a third of the way through the 2000-01 season. Jim O’Brien took over as coach and guided Boston to a 24-24 record during his truncated tenure that season.
By this time, Pierce and Walker formed a formidably potent one-two duo. Together they averaged 50 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 8.5 assists a game. However, the rest of the roster was atrocious. A lot of players who were decent at their very best.
Yet, somehow, the combined power of Pierce and Walker catapulted Boston to 49 wins in the 2001-02 season. It was their best regular season campaign in a decade. In the playoffs, the achieved success not seen since 1988 by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent was the New Jersey Nets.
The highwater mark of the season – and of this era – came in Game 3 of the series. Tied 1-1, the Celtics found themselves down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter. From that point forward, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics on his back as Boston scored 41 points in the final period to win the game 94-90. Now up 2-1 in the series, Boston promptly lost the next three games. Considering where they were just a season before, it was a helluva triumph.
The triumph proved paper-thin, however.
Another bone-headed trade earlier that season crippled the Celtics. Promising rookie Joe Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for veterans Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Boston foolishly became enamored with the idea these two players could give them a potent core for immediate contention.
When the dust settled, Delk and Rogers played a grand total of 116 games for Boston and Joe Johnson has famously played in seven all-star games.
The Celtics steadily declined to 44 wins in 2003 and then 36 wins in 2004. A brief bounce came in 2005 when they won 45 games, but in the 2006 season they fell right back down to 33 wins.
By that time, Paul Pierce was a lonely, lonely man. Walker had been traded just prior to the 2003-04 season to Dallas for a poo-poo platter of flotsam: Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, and Jiri Welsch plus a 2004 1st rounder that became the best part of the deal, Delonte West. The team’s leading players, besides Pierce, in 2006 were Ricky Davis, Wally Szczerbiak, and Mark Blount. Not exactly a murder’s row of talent.
In this rubble were buried some young gems. The aforementioned West, defensive swingman Tony Allen, the scowling Kendrick Perkins, and the offensively gifted Al Jefferson. However, they were young gems and Pierce was 28 years old in the absolute heart of his prime. He averaged 27 points that season and nearly 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game.
How long would he put up with putting up Herculean numbers for a team headed into a clear rebuild? Boston was again at a crossroads similar to where they were a decade before.
At least this time they did have a player of Pierce’s caliber to perhaps trade away and stock up on draft picks. Or maybe they should stick with Pierce and cross their fingers that another star would fall to them in the draft? Better yet, maybe they should repeat the 1996-97 season and deliberately lose in order to improve the odds of winning the lottery.
Whatever the decision, Boston unmistakeably found itself in a malaise heretofore unthinkable to the likes of Auerbach and Russel, Bird and Havlicek.
C – Tony Battie (1999-’04) – 336 Games
6.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 51.7% FG, 68.7% FT
F – Paul Pierce (1999-’06) – 605 Games
23.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 44.0% FG, 35.7% 3PT, 79.0% FT
F – Antoine Walker (1996-’03, 2005) – 552 Games
20.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 41.3% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 66.2% FT
F – Eric Williams (1996-’04) – 398 Games
9.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 42.1% FG, 73.1% FT
G – Kenny Anderson (1997-’02) – 241 Games
11.3 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.5% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 78.9% FT
F – Walter McCarty (1997-’05) – 494 Games
5.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 39.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT, 71.1% FT
G – Dana Barros (1996-’00) – 227 Games
9.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 45.3% FG, 40.6% 3PT, 86.1% FT
Regular Season Record: 465-355
Regular Season Win Percentage: 56.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 7
Playoff Record: 37-40
Fresh off three titles in six seasons, the Boston Celtics looked to further cement their hold as the best franchise in the history of the NBA heading into the 1986 Draft. Even though their 1985-86 team had won an incredible 67 games, the Celtics were perched at the top of the draft with the #2 pick thanks to a bone-headed trade by the Seattle SuperSonics. With that pick, Boston selected the athletic and supremely-gifted Len Bias.
Sadly, Bias would be dead from a drug overdose within a couple of days and Boston’s long-term success was severely impaired.
As for immediate effects, Boston seemingly showed no signs of trouble. Their Big 3 of Parish, McHale, and Bird continued to hum along. In fact, McHale submitted his best season in 1986-87. Larry Bird had just won the three previous MVP awards. Parish was his usual, highly-reliable self. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge continued to ably man the backcourt.
The problem was the bench. It was razor-thin and old by this point. Scott Wedman lasted just six games. Bill Walton just 10. Other legends like Jerry Sichting, Fred Roberts, and Greg Kite were left as the backups. This is where the absence of Bias truly and immediately felt by Boston.
The Celtics still managed 59 wins in 1987, but in the playoffs they ran up against two remarkably formidable foes. One was a time-honored adversary: the Milwaukee Bucks. These Bucks had swept Boston in 1983 and now in ’87 they pushed Boston to seven games in the semi-finals. Surviving the Game 7 by the hair of their chin (119-113 thanks to a fourth quarter surge) the Celtics moved on to face the Detroit Pistons. Larry Bird’s steal and pass underneath to Dennis Johnson barely gave Boston a Game 5 victory (108-107) and provided a 3-2 series lead. Without that moment, Boston likely would have lost the series. As it stood, they still nearly lost the series. In Game 7, Bird played every minute and dropped 37/9/9 to thwart Detroit 117 to 114.
In the Finals, the Celtics faced the Lakers for the third time in four years. The Lakers, thanks to Magic Johnson’s baby hook in Game 4, secured the series in six games. This proved to be Boston’s last best hope for a title for the next two decades.
Injuries and age began to ravage the Celtics. McHale, who broken his foot in March 1987, delayed surgery until after the season. Playing on the foot gave Boston its shot at another title that season, but definitely altered the rest of McHale’s career. Bone spurs, a bad back, and torn Achilles combined to mar the rest of Bird’s career. In the 1988-89 season, Larry Legend played in just six games.
Naturally, the indestructible Robert Parish chugged along without problem.
To be sure, Boston was still a team to contend with every season, but they were no longer a title contender. Especially after the 1987-88 season. After Bird famously dueled Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the semi-finals, Boston moved on to the ECF to again face Detroit. The Celtics put up a valiant fight as five of the six contests were decided by less than six points, but their depleted bench was too big of a weakness. The Pistons played eight players more than 20 minutes a game, meanwhile Boston only played their starters more than that. Indeed, four of their starters averaged over 40 minutes a game. Hell, four of their starters were over age 30.
In 1989, with Bird sidelined most of the season, Boston discovered a taste of youth within their midst.
Reggie Lewis made the most of Bird’s absence. The second-year forward who couldn’t get off the bench his rookie season blossomed with 18.5 PPG in the 1988-89 season. Rookie Brian Shaw also saw an uptick (8.5 PPG, 6 APG) after Ainge was traded to the Sacramento Kings. The youngsters barely allowed Boston a winning record (42-40) and were cleanly swept by the Pistons in the first round, but Boston was in for a mini-Renaissance in the early 1990s that’s often forgot.
Bird’s return in 1990 pushed Boston back up to 52 wins. The fearsome four Boston trotted out made them a frisky playoff foe for anyone.
Bird – 24 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 7.5 APG
McHale – 21 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2 BPG
Lewis – 17 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3 APG
Parish – 16 PPG, 10 RPG
The problem remained the bench. And with Dennis Johnson gassed on his last legs, the back court was a sieve as well. In the opening round against the New York Knicks, Boston was absolutely stunned by the sequence of events that unfolded.
The Celtics took the first two games of the best-of-five series in convincing fashion: a 116-105 Game 1 victory and an absolute 157-128 beatdown in Game 2. Then the Knicks proceeded to win the next three games to knock Boston out of the playoffs. Patrick Ewing was particularly monstrous in ruining the Celtics with 32 points a game on 57% shooting. In Game 5, Ewing provided the dagger with a desperation turnaround three-pointer.
In 1991, the Celtics finally had a coherent team again with an actual bench. The team stormed out to a 29-4 start, finished the year with 56 wins, and garnered the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, and Ed Pinckney weren’t all-stars nor all-timers but they were decent and good pieces to relieve the strain on Boston’s core. The balance Boston found is exemplified by six players averaging between 14 and 20 PPG that season.
The good fortune didn’t last into the next season as the roster went into flux with trades and injury, but still Boston managed 51 wins.
And here’s the crazy thing: Boston was within easy reach of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals both seasons. They probably would have lost to the Chicago Bulls once there, but that’s better the results we know Boston received.
As it stands, the Celtics lost to the hated Pistons one last time in 1991. The six-game series ended with a nail-biting 117-113 Detroit victory in overtime in the final game. In 1992, the Celtics were even more heart-broken in a 4-3 series loss to the Cavaliers in the ECSF.
The 1992-93 season was the end of an era for Boston. Bird was now retired. McHale was clearly right behind him as he struggled throughout the year. Even Parish was beginning to crack at the tender age of 39. The continued excellence of Reggie Lewis kept Boston afloat with 48 wins. Shockingly, even he was lost during the playoffs due to a heart condition that ultimately killed him later that summer.
From that horrific moment, Boston truly washed into the tides of despair.
Parish made his official exit after the 1993-94 season as the Celtics won just 32 games. 35 and 33 wins followed in 1995 and 1996, respectively. There was certainly some talent in the rubble: Rick Fox, Dee Brown, and the delightful post player Dino Radja. However, they weren’t enough on their own to reconstruct a dynasty.
Boston had flirted with such miserable points before: the post-Hondo malaise in 1978 and ’79, the brief post-Russell collapse in 1970, the soul-searching 1956 season.
This time was distinctly different, however. Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and Bill Russell weren’t walking through the door to relieve Boston of the pain. Their only hope in the new NBA landscape of draft lotteries was to crash, burn, and hope for ping pong balls to bounce in their favor for a #1 pick.
With a superb college center in Tim Duncan soon up for grabs. Boston gutted the roster and hoped for another touch of Celtic Luck.
C -Robert Parish (1986-’94) – 626 Games
15.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 0.7 SPG, 55.8% FG, 73.7% FT
F – Reggie Lewis (1987-’93) – 450 Games
17.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 48.8% FG, 82.4% FT
F – Larry Bird (1986-’92) – 336 Games
24.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.5% FG, 38.9% 3PT, 91.6% FT
F – Kevin McHale (1986-’93) – 496 Games
19.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 BPG, 56.1% FG, 83.4% FT
G – Dennis Johnson (1986-’90) – 303 Games
10.8 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 43.8% FG, 83.9% FT
G – Dee Brown (1990-’96) – 414 Games
12.3 PPG. 4.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 45.2% FG, 33.5% 3PT, 83.3% FT
F/C – Dino Radja (1993-’96) – 199 Games
17.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 50.4% FG, 73.6% FT
F – Kevin Gamble (1988-’94) – 436 Games
11.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 51.8% FG, 81.6% FT
Regular Season Record: 539-281
Regular Season Win Percentage: 65.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 18
Playoff Record: 74-42
Capturing two titles in the previous three seasons, while also making every Conference Finals since 1972, the Boston Celtics entered the 1976-77 season on an incredibly high note. However, high notes don’t play on forever.
John Havlicek, at age 36, was somehow still averaging 18/5/5. Jo Jo White submitted one of his best seasons with 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a game. Those two venerable Celtics proved to be the only rocks on a team clearly in decline. Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott each missed nearly half the season. The frontcourt of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe didn’t exactly replace the leadership and intelligence of the dearly departed Paul Silas. Add it all up and Boston finished with just 44 wins.
In the playoffs, White provided his final great run for Boston. His 31 PPG dropped the San Antonio Spurs in the 1st Round. In the semi-finals, Boston faced off against old nemesis Philadelphia now led by Julius Erving. Thanks to White’s 40 points in Game 6, Boston forced a Game 7, which they narrowly lost. In due time, the Celtics would engage in numerous battles with Erving’s 76ers. But, in due time.
That series marked the end of Boston’s 1970s squads as any sort of contender. The 1977-78 Celtics won only 32 games in missing the playoffs. The highlight of the season was John Havlicek’s raucous retirement ceremony. With such a crummy team on the court, why not get excited remembering the eight titles Hondo had helped Boston win?
With Havlicek retired, the complete razing of Boston was underway. White was traded midway through the 1978-79 season. Big names with underwhelming game were trotted out: Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight, Dave Bing, Ernie DiGregario, Bob McAdoo, etc. Boston limped to the finish of that season with 29 wins as Cowens became the last player-coach in NBA history.
From this turmoil, Boston – again – was assembling the bits for a new contender. Cedric Maxwell was drafted in 1977 and by his second season averaged 20 and 10 while leading the NBA in FG%. Nate “Tiny” Archibald was acquired cheaply as he recovered from Achilles and foot injuries. And most stealthily, the Celtics exploited a loophole in 1978 to draft Larry Bird.
The loophole? NBA draftees at the time became if they explicitly declared for the draft or automatically four years after their high school class graduated. At least that was Red Auerbach’s argument. Bird was still in college, but due to sitting out a season while transferring schools, he had still reached four years past his HS graduating class.
Boston had to wait until the 1979-80 season to get Bird, but he was worth the wait winning Rookie of the Year.
The lineup of Bird, Cowens, Maxwell, and Archibald stormed to the best record in the NBA with 61 wins. A quick sweep of Houston deceived the Celtics. In the Conference Finals, Dr. J’s 76ers smacked down the Celtics in 5 games. Boston was clearly to be reckoned with once again, but would need a little more seasoning and a little more talent.
The seasoning would naturally come. The talent arrived through one of the great swindles in NBA history. Why write about it when there’s an awesome video breakdown of the silliness…
So, even though Cowens finally retired, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish joining the Celtics fray made them a legitimate title contender for years to come. Indeed, in 1980-81, they again finished with the league’s best record (62-20). However, the Sixers also finished with 62 wins. The showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals produced one of the greatest series ever played.
Game 1 was decided by a single point in favor of Philly. Games 2 and 3 had double-digit victories by each side. Then came the deluge of Maalox moments. Philadelphia won Game 4 and took a 3-1 series lead. Boston won the three next games to amazingly win the series. If you recall, Boston had done the same thing back in 1968 to Philadelphia. For the 1981 edition of this comeback, the final three Boston victories were decided by 5 points total.
The Finals against the 40-win Houston Rockets – who had moved to the Western Conference – proved more difficult than first imagined thanks to the burly Moses Malone. Nonetheless, the Celtics dispatched Houston in six games and claimed their first title since 1976.
In the 1981-82 season, Boston again finished with the league’s best record (63-19) and again faced the 76ers in the Conference Finals. And again the series went seven games. Again in a 3-1 series hole, Boston nearly made up the difference one more time, but the Sixers stopped the rally in a 120-106 Game 7 win in Boston.
The next year, Boston somewhat stumbled to 56 wins and were swept in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. That 1983 season saw the demise of the first incarnation of Bird’s Celtics. Archibald, who had missed half of the 1982 ECF, was just too old and broken down to be effective anymore. Also, coach Bill Fitch with an insanely intense style had worn out his welcome.
With a new coach in KC Jones and some back court help arriving in the form of 2nd-year man Danny Ainge and a trade for Dennis Johnson, Boston looked to regain its championship form in 1984.
New Era, Old Foes
Oh did the Celtics ever regain their mojo.
They finished far and away the best team in the NBA in 1984 with 62 wins. The hated Sixers after winning the title in 1983 finished with just 52 wins and finally seemed no longer a threat to Boston. Indeed, the Celtics made easy work of the Eastern playoffs. Only the heroics of Bernard King, who single-handedly forced Boston into a 7-game semi-final series, gave them any trouble. But King’s personal exploits couldn’t stymie the Celtics’ great team.
Moving on tot he Finals, Boston faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time since 1969. After taking a Game 3 pounding, 137-104, Larry Bird disparaged his team with unflattering remarks. Regrouping and galvanized, they came out in Game 4 in what might be the greatest game ever played.
Famous for Kevin McHale’s clothesline foul of Kurt Rambis, the contest itself stands as a hallmark of pressure-filled playoff basketball. Lakers star Magic Johnson eventually wilted under the pressure as Boston annoyed and intimidated Los Angeles. The Celtics pulled the game out in overtime, 129-125. Eventually going seven games, the Celtics demonstrably handled the Lakers 111-102 in the final game to win another championship thanks to Maxwell’s 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Boston looked to repeat as NBA champs in the 1984-85 season. With a sterling 63 wins they looked even better than the year before. A brief tussle with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals did give Boston a taste of a foe who would be more troublesome in the years to come. The Celtics then had their swansong confrontation with the 76ers in the ECF. The Celtics proved far superior defeating Philly 4-1.
The Finals rematch of Celtics-Lakers and Magic-Bird opened with a dramatic 148-114 victory for the Boston. Scott Wedman came off of Boston’s bench and drilled all 11 of his field goals for 26 points. That great omen proved false for the Celtics. Magic and the Lakers proved more resilient than the previous year and wound up winning the series 4-games-to-2 despite lacking home court advantage.
For the 1985-86 season, Boston decided to shake things up. They traded longtime forward and 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Bill Walton. Walton had hardly played over the previous half-decade due to foot injuries, but his passing skills and post presence would push McHale into the starting lineup while making himself the NBA’s premier 6th Man.
The gambit worked and the ’86 Celtics cruised to the NBA title. During the regular season they finished with 67 wins and probably could have won more if they had the desire to. They won 12 of their 13 playoff games in the Eastern Conference. The only bump in the road proved to be the Houston Rockets in the Finals. Their combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson could contend with Boston’s enormous frontcourt, but the Celtics held a decisive edge at guard and it was there that the balance was fully swung. The Celtics celebrated a 4-2 series victory over the Rockets and their third title in six years.
As this latest Celtics decade came to a close, Boston could fondly look back on a spectacular rebuild from the Hondo-Cowens-White Era to the Bird-McHale-Parish Era. The latest Big 3 had not only delivered three titles, but also routinely garnered the NBA’s best regular season record. Amazingly, Boston was in a position to begin rebuilding before their current era of success was even close to being finished.
In 1984, the Celtics had traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for a future first round pick. Well, the pick was due in 1986 and as (Celtic) luck would have it, the Sonics wound up with the #2 overall pick. Boston took possession of that draft pick. On draft night, June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics looked to solidify their NBA hold for the rest of the 1980s and extend the dynasty into the 1990s with the selection of Len Bias.
C -Robert Parish (1980-’86) – 480 Games
18.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 54.6% FG, 72.3% FT
F – Cedric Maxwell (1977-’85) – 607 Games
13.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 55.9% FG, 78.3% FT
F – Larry Bird (1979-’86) – 561 Games
23.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.6% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 86.9% FT
F – Kevin McHale (1980-’86) – 475 Games
16.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 55.3% FG, 75.2% FT
G – Tiny Archibald (1978-’83) – 363 Games
12.5 PPG, 7.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 46.9% FG, 79.0% FT
G – Dennis Johnson (1983-’86) – 238 Games
14.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 45.2% FG, 84.1% FT
G – Danny Ainge (1981-’86) – 359Games
9.0 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 49.2% FG, 84.7% FT
C – Dave Cowens (1976-’80) – 261 Games
16.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.9% FG, 81.8% FT
Regular Season Record: 534-285
Regular Season Win Percentage: 65.2%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 16
Playoff Record: 70-47
Entering the 1966-67 season, the Boston Celtics had appeared in 10 straight NBA Finals winning all but one of them. However, the 1966 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers showed that the Celtics had much to be concerned about. Up 3-games-to-1, the Celtics blew the series lead to the Lakers. In the decisive Game 7, the also blew a 16-point 4th quarter lead, but barely won the game 95 to 93.
Those 10 straight Finals appearances seemed to put tremendous strain on Boston. If they were to win a 10th title, they would have to withstand not only their talented opponents, but the wear and tear of endless playoff runs. They would also have to withstand the loss of Red Auerbach, who had coached the franchise since the 1950-51 season. In Red’s place, Bill Russell would be the first black coach in American sports while still retaining his place as the key player on the team.
As usual, the Celtics retooled for their latest title run. Don Nelson, who had been cut by the Lakers, was actually added prior to the 1965-66 season, but he would play a larger role going forward as a key scorer off the bench. Just as valuable would be a trade with Baltimore. The Celtics acquired Bailey Howell, an All-Star caliber forward, who could relieve some scoring pressure off of Sam Jones and John Havlicek. It should also be noted that point guard Larry Siegfried had fully matured into a capable and cool-handed player ready to take over the starting job from KC Jones.
The additions and the development provided Boston with 60 wins in the 1967 regular season. However, they finished 2nd in the East behind the 68-win Philadelphia 76ers. Concerned but not alarmed, Boston seemed sure to retain the title when playoff time rolled around.
Instead they got rolled on by the 76ers.
In a stunning rout, the Sixers beat Boston 4-games-to-1 in the East Finals, including a 140-116 demolition derby in the final game. Philly fans, weathered by years of defeat against Boston, jubilantly chanted “Boston’s Dead” as Game 5 came to a close. The Sixers led by Wilt Chamberlain went on to win the championship, the first non-Celtics club to do so since 1958.
A repeat affair seemed to be in the offing for the 1967-68 season.
Again, Philly finished first in the East. And again they had Boston pummeled. Up 3-games-to-1 in the East Finals, Philly looked to easily repeat as champions. Pissed at the circumstances, John Havlicek strode into the locker room prior to Game 5 and wrote a simple word on the chalkboard…
It may seem straight from a Disney film, but the tactic amazingly worked as Boston stormed back to become the first team to ever dig themselves out of a 3-1 hole and win a series. In the Finals, the Celtics and Havlicek showed no let up. They dispatched familiar foe Los Angeles in six games. Hondo averaged 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in the series. In Game 6 he made sure to bury the Lakers with a 40-point performance. Howell chipped in a cool 30 points to aid the effort.
The 1968-69 season would prove just as, if not more, daunting for the Celtics. The New York Knicks were coalescing into a title contender with Willis Reed and Walt Frazier leading the way. The Baltimore Bullets were doing the same with Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe. The 76ers seemed to take a step back after trading Chamberlain, but Billy Cunningham turned in a spectacular season to keep them afloat. The toughened East meant Boston finished 4th place, snagging the last playoff spot.
In a mild upset, the Celtics defeated the Sixers 4-1 to advance to the East Finals against the heavily-favored Knicks. Boston stunned the NBA by defeating New York in six games. It was a close victory though. Boston’s Game 4 and Game 6 wins were each by a single point. Nonetheless, Boston moved on to the championship round.
The Finals seemed to setup the perfect culmination for this era of Celtics basketball. Boston’s two longtime foes the Lakers of West and Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain had combined forces the previous summer and seemed destined to definitively end the Russell Celtics. Jerry West (38 PPG, 7.5 APG) and John Havlicek (28 PPG, 11 RPG, played every minute of the Finals) battled all series providing amazing performances. The turning point, however, came in Game 4 courtesy of Sam Jones who would retire after the series finished.
With LA looking to take a 3-1 series lead, Boston was down 88-87 with barely a second left in the game. With possession, Boston inbounded the ball and Jones caught the pass tossing up a haggard runner that rolled around the rim before settling through the net. The win gave Boston the breathing room to eventually force a Game 7 on the Lakers’ home court. That (in)famous game ended 108-106 in Boston’s favor thanks in no small part to a Don Nelson jumper near the game’s end that hit the back iron and sailed three feet straight into the air before going through the hoop.
With 11 titles in 13 years, Bill Russell officially retired from the NBA and Boston had to retool.
A New Big 3
With Russell and Jones retired, the Celtics stumbled in 1969-70 missing the playoffs for the first time in two decades. For the 1970-71 season, Boston again missed the postseason, but there was undeniable improvement and retooling in effect. First off they improved from 34 to 44 wins. Secondly, Boston drafted Jo Jo White (in 1969) and Dave Cowens (1970) to form a new Big 3 to go along with the venerable Havlicek. With Tom Sanders, the brilliant defensive forward Don Chaney and instant bench offense extraordinaire Don Nelson still in the fold, Boston would look to make a big splash in the 1971-72 campaign.
With 56 wins, Boston captured the 1972 Atlantic Division crown, but fell to the New York Knicks in the Conference Finals. Undeterred, the next season Boston won an astounding 68 games, the best in the entire history of the franchise spurred by the acquisition of forward Paul Silas to bolster frontcourt defense and rebounding. Cowens meanwhile was named league MVP and Boston got a rematch with the Knicks in the Conference Finals. However, a shoulder injury to John Havlicek derailed their return to championship glory. The series ended with Boston’s first Game 7 loss on their homecourt.
Falling back to 56 wins in the 1973-74 campaign, Boston more importantly maintained its health while adding rookie guard Paul Westphal. In their third straight matchup with the Knicks in the ECF, the Celtics finally demolished their foe in a 4-1 series victory. Havlicek in particular relished the rematch as he averaged 30 points in the five-game series.
Returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1969, the Celtics faced off against the Milwaukee Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The series see-sawed back and forth with neither team winning back-to-back games. The classic series is famous for Cowens diving like a mad man to gather a loose ball on the court and for Kareem nailing a game-winning, last-second skyhook in Game 6. In the end, Boston took the series in seven games and John Havlicek took the honors of Finals MVP.
Boston failed to repeat as champs in 1975, despite winning 60 games in the regular season. But in 1976, after trading Westphal for all-star guard Charlie Scott, they struck back with their second title in three years. That 4-2 series victory over the Phoenix Suns was again a classic, especially the triple overtime Game 5. Best remembered for Suns forward Gar Heard’s unbelievable turnaround jumper, Havlicek and especially Jo Jo White were just as heroic in their efforts to deliver Boston a win. White for his efforts was named the MVP of the 1976 Finals.
Boston’s latest Big 3 of Cowens, White, and Havlicek augmented by Nelson and Silas had done admirably well to restore Boston’s NBA dominance. But as the Celtics prepared for the 1976-77 season, change was again afoot. Silas was traded to Denver. The timeless Havlicek was finally nearing retirement.
As Boston entered its next decade it’d have to figure out to bridge another gap from one title-winning core to another.
C – Dave Cowens (1970-’76) – 465 Games
19.1 PPG, 15.5 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 45.6% FG, 76.5%
C – Bill Russell (1966-’69) – 236 Games
11.9 PPG, 19.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, 43.8% FG, 56.0% FT
F – John Havlicek (1966-’76) – 803 Games
22.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 44.6% FG, 83.0% FT
F – Don Nelson (1966-’76) – 797 Games
11.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 48.9% FG, 77.8% FT
G – Jo Jo White (1969-’76) – 542 Games
19.0 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 44.6% FG, 82.1%FT
F – Paul Silas (1972-’76) – 325 Games
11.5 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 43.9% FG, 72.5% FT
F – Bailey Howell (1966-’70) – 323 Games
18.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 48.0% FG, 73.9% FT
F – Don Chaney (1968-’75) – 485 Games
10.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 45.0% FG, 77.4% FT
Regular Season Record: 554-216
Regular Season Win Percentage: 71.9%
Playoff Appearances: 10
Playoff Series Wins: 20
Playoff Record: 81-41
After four years of abject mediocrity in the 1940s, the Celtics stumbled upon the Big 3 of Bob Cousy, Ed Macauley, and Bill Sharman. Their combined offensive genius hit the end of the road in 1956. Macauley was sacrificed to St. Louis in the Russell trade. Sharman and Cousy, however, remained on board for this new era.
Trading for Bill Russell in the spring of 1956 wound up the biggest move in building a title contender. But it was certainly not the only move.
Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols, and Andy Phillip were three key veterans at the end of their career who would provide know-how and timely reserve minutes to spur on their younger teammates. Risen was a former All-Star center traded by the Rochester Royals to Boston for cash in the fall of 1955. He in particular nurtured the young Bill Russell and taught him the fine points of playing as an NBA center. Nichols was a tough rebounding forward also nearing the end of his career, but had been with Boston since 1953. Phillip, another former All-Star, was brought in to back up Cousy in 1956. These cagey vets would be augmented by a bevy of young up-and-comers.
Russell was the cream of the young Celtics crop. However, he didn’t join the team until December 1956 as he played for Team USA in the 1956 Summer Olympics – held in Australia, hence the odd timing for those in the Northern Hemisphere.
When Russell finally joined the Celtics, they were an NBA best 16-8 thanks to the aid of fellow rookie Tom Heinsohn and the blossoming of Jim Loscutoff and Frank Ramsey. Heinsohn and Ramsey were scoring machines, but delivered the offensive fireworks at different times. Heinsohn was in the starting lineup, while Ramsey came off the bench. Meanwhile, Loscutoff was the burliest power forward you could ever meet. Never afraid to rough up other players, Loscutoff more than earned the nickname “Jungle Jim”.
This formula of in-their-prime stars (Cousy, Sharman) with cagey vets looking for a title (Risen, Nichols, Phillip) and hungry youngsters (Russell, Heinsohn, Loscutoff, Ramsey) would be the formula to see Boston to many titles over the next decade.
Heading into the 1956-57 playoffs, the Celtics exorcised past demons by sweeping the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Remember, these were the same Syracuse Nats that had beaten Boston in the previous four postseasons. In the Finals, the Celtics matched up with the St. Louis Hawks. Led by Bob Pettit, the Hawks also underwent a dramatic transformation in 1956 by acquiring Macauley and Cliff Hagan from Boston and Slater Martin from the New York Knicks. All four of these men would become Hall of Famers.
In Game 1 of the series, St. Louis won 125-123 in double overtime on Boston’s home court. Several exciting games followed, culminating with a Game 7 victory by Boston. The score? 125-123 in double overtime. Clearly the series could have gone either way and Boston was fortunate to escape with its first title.
Over the next four seasons, Boston and St. Louis would play in three more championship bouts attempting to settle who the NBA’s foremost franchise was. The Hawks quickly struck back winning the 1958 title over Boston. In 1960, the rubber match went to seven game before Boston subdued the Hawks. By 1961, it was clear Boston was winning the arms race with the Missouri ball club. The Celtics routed St. Louis in five games.
With four championships in five years, the Celtics asserted themselves as the first class team of the NBA. Young faces like K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Tom “Satch” Sanders stepped in to replace and relieve retiring veterans seamlessly keeping the green machine running. Likewise, as old enemies faded (the Hawks and Nationals) new ones appeared in the Philadelphia Warriors featuring Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
These two challengers nearly dethroned Boston in 1962.
The Celtics survived the Warriors’ onslaught, 109-107, in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals. In the NBA Finals, Boston escaped the Lakers in Game 7 by a final score of 110-107 in overtime. The road to the title in 1963 proved nearly as difficult. The upstart Cincinnati Royals, led by Oscar Robertson, pushed Boston to seven games in the East Finals. Sam Jones (47 points) and the Big O (43 points) gave a duel for the ages that Boston won 142-131. In the NBA Finals, Boston again faced the Lakers. And again they won the title by a tiny margin. The decisive Game 6 ended 112 to 109 in favor of Boston.
That would be Bob Cousy’s final game as a Celtic.
New Era, Same Results
Typically, Boston bid farewell to a key piece but had other men ready to step in. For the 1963-64 season veteran ringers in Willie Naulls and Clyde Lovellette beefed up Boston’s frontcourt while Larry Siegfried was rescued from obscurity to help sop up some of the point guard minutes with Cousy gone. Perhaps most important of all, John Havlicek, a second-year forward, blossomed as a sixth man extraordinaire. By the time “Hondo” retired in 1978, he would be the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer. In fact, he still is.
As these changes and new faces took their place, the constant was Bill Russell. His basketball genius did not remain constant, though. His defense, shot-blocking, and rebounding were as spectacular as ever, but now his offensive game grew to new heights to replace some of the magic lost by Cousy’s retirement. By 1966, Russell had been flirting with 5 APG for 5 straight seasons making him one of the league’s premier passers among big men equaled only by Wilt Chamberlain and Johnny Kerr.
Speaking of Wilt, the Celtics defeated his San Francisco Warriors in 1964 for Boston’s first post-Cousy title. After a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers, the following season, Chamberlain was again bounced by Boston in the Eastern Finals. With his growing collection of championship hardware, Russell became the poster boy for team play and team success juxtaposed to Wilt’s seemingly selfish play. Even the Lakers duo of West and Baylor seemed to be a misguided one-two punch never able to knock out the invincible Celtics. At least that’s how some media would tell the story.
Looking closely at the Celtics over this span strips away the veneer of undisputed, easy dominance. Intricate examination actually reveals cracks in the façade, especially by 1966.
For the first time since 1957, Boston did not finish with the NBA’s best regular season record in that 1965-66 season. In the playoffs, they were pushed to brink by the Royals and then again by the Lakers in the Finals. After going up 3-games-to-1, the Celtics escaped with another title thanks to a 95-93 victory in Game 7 over Los Angeles. That razor thin win prevented one of the largest collapses in playoff history, especially considering the Lakers were down 16 points entering the fourth quarter.
During that nearly catastrophic Finals series, Auerbach made it official that Bill Russell would succeed him as Celtics coach for the 1966-67 season. That would make Russell the first black coach in major American pro sports. But after nine titles in 10 seasons, could Boston maintain its ridiculous run under a new coach and with age creeping up on its most important player?
C – Bill Russell (1956-’66) – 727 Games
16.1 PPG, 23.4 RPG, 4.0 APG, 44.0% FG, 56.1% FT
F – Tom Heinsohn (1956-’65) – 654 Games
18.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 40.5% FG, 79.0% FT
F – Frank Ramsey (1956-’64) – 559 Games
13.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 40.0% FG, 81.0% FT
G – Sam Jones (1957-’66) – 656 Games
17.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.7% FG, 79.4%
G – Bob Cousy (1956-’63) – 496 Games
17.7 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.3 RPG, 37.9% FG, 80.0% FT
G – Bill Sharman (1956-’61) – 334 Games
19.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 42.5% FG, 90.4% FT
G – KC Jones (1958-’66) – 598 Games
7.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.6 RPG, 38.6% FG, 64.9% FT
F – John Havlicek (1962-’66) – 306 Games
17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, 41.4% FG, 75.3% FT
F – Tom “Satch” Sanders (1960-’66) – 460 Games
10.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 43.2% FG, 74.6% FT
F – Jim Loscutoff (1956-’64) – 440 Games
5.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.7 APG, 34.2% FG, 64.6% FT
Regular Season Record: 330-328
Regular Season Win Percentage: 50.2%
Playoff Appearances: 7
Playoff Series Wins: 2
Playoff Record: 9-16
Later synonymous with championship success, the early years of the Boston Celtics were abysmal. During their first four seasons (3 in the BAA, 1 in the NBA) the Celtics failed to post a winning record and made the playoffs once. The only player who demanded any attention for on-court ability was the leviathan Ed Sadowski who averaged 19.4 PPG and made the All-BAA 1st Team in 1947-48, the lone season Boston made the playoffs.
At least future TV star Chuck Connors shattered the backboard in the Celtics’ very first game back in 1946. Not from a dunk though. The Rifleman actor just happened throw a halfcourt shot way too hard during warm ups. The frantic search for a new backboard took a couple of hours clearly delaying the game.
Boston would have been staggering aimlessly if not for the momentous 1950 offseason. Arnold “Red” Auerbach was hired as coach and the well-known Celtic luck began to work its magic.
For starters, the Celtics shook up the NBA by drafting the first black player in league history. Owner Walter Brown informed the league he was taking Chuck Cooper. When informed of Cooper’s skin tone, Brown said he didn’t care if Cooper was one of any variety of colors, he was Boston’s selection.
In late August 1950, the disbanded St. Louis Bombers had their roster dispersed across the league via a draft. The Celtics fortunately secured the big prize from the defunct roster: lanky offensive center Ed Macauley. “Easy Ed” would go on to a marvelous career blending quick hook shots with timely passing. He’d lead the league in field goal percentage twice and was the MVP of the NBA’s 1st All-Star Game in 1951.
In October 1950, luck struck again after the Chicago Stags also went belly up. With the center spot secure with Macauley, Boston desperately needed a guard. Chicago had two of the premier guards: Max Zaslofsky and Andy Phillip. Zaslofsky was the big prize, while Phillip would be no disappointing consolation. However, Boston got into a tussle with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors on who got to pick when. Fed up, Commissioner Maurice Podoloff simply wrote the team names on scraps of paper and drew them from a hat to determine selection order.
New York won the pull and smugly selected Zaslofsky. Philadelphia was pulled next and happily took Phillip. Boston was the odd man out and had to select the third guard on the roster, someone Red Auerbach had passed over in the college draft back in April. Auerbach didn’t just pass on him, though. He defended the move to local Boston press deriding the player as some “local yokel”. The Local Yokel eventually wound up being the NBA’s MVP and led the league in assists eight straight seasons.
Yep, it was Bob Cousy,
Macauley, Cousy, and Cooper under the coaching of Auerbach propelled Boston to a 39-30 record for the 1950-51 season. It was easily Boston’s best season to that point. In April of 1951, the Celtics made the first of what would be innumerable trade swindles. They traded center Chuck Share to the Fort Wayne Pistons for guard Bill Sharman. Although Sharman would go on to greatly mold the shooting guard role in basketball, he was hardly someone to cherish at that point. He had averaged 12 PPG in just 31 games for the Washington Capitols. Sharman had played 10 times as many minor league baseball games than NBA games to that point. It was only the good word and advice of Bones McKinney – Auerbach’s trusted friend and Sharman’s old coach and teammate with the Caps – that led Boston to acquire Sharman.
Soon enough Sharman gelled with Macauley and Cousy to form Boston’s first Big 3.The Celtics became the league’s most exciting offensive show. By 1955 the Celtics offensive output was superb thanks to their Big 3…
However, a new theme would develop to haunt Boston: painful playoff heartache. In 1951 and 1952 the Celtics were defeated by the New York Knicks. In 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956 the C’s were bounced by the Syracuse Nationals. The final defeat, a 102-97 loss on their home court to Syracuse, put Boston at a crossroads in the spring of 1956.
With six straight postseason disappointments, Boston was panned as a run-and-gun team. They were all offense with no defensive or mental resiliency to advance to the Finals. Auerbach knew there was a truth to the critique. In 1956, Boston led the NBA in points scored with 106 but also gave up a league-leading 105 points a game.
A shakeup was needed to give Boston a defensive edge. Auerbach wanted the offensive fire, but he wanted fueled by a center who could sweep the boards and kick-start a fastbreak. As great an offensive center as Macauley was, he was never a great rebounder. Good rebounder, but not great.
So, during the 1956 draft, Auerbach orchestrated a trade sending Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan on to the St. Louis Hawks for the draft rights to Bill Russell. That was the biggest move of a 1956 offseason that saw Boston go from also-ran to potential dynasty. That same trade also wound up jolting the Hawks into potential dynasty mode, too.
Over the next few seasons, the two clubs would vie for NBA supremacy.
C – Ed Macauley (1950-’56) – 416 Games
18.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44.7% FG, 77.4% FT
F – Jack Nichols (1954-’56) – 124 Games
12.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 39.8% FG, 78.6% FT
F – Chuck Cooper (1950-’54) – 272 Games
6.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 34.1% FG, 73.9% FT
G – Bill Sharman (1951-’56) – 346 Games
16.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 43.1% FG, 86.4% FT
G – Bob Cousy (1950-’56) – 421 Games
19.4 PPG, 7.2 APG, 6.3 RPG, 36.9% FG, 80.6% FT
F – Don Barksdale (1953-’55) - 135 Games
9.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 38.0% FG, 65.5% FT
F – Bob Donham (1950-’54) – 273 Games
6.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 48.0% FG, 50.7% FT
C – Ed Sadowski (1947-’48) – 47 Games
19.4 PPG, 1.6 APG, 32.3% FG, 69.7% FT