Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Echoes Of 1969 For The Boston Celtics

Boston may have a deeper knowledge of its own sports history than any other American city, so it should come as no surprise that the 1968-69 Celtics championship team has been referenced several times as a progenitor and inspiration for this season's improbable run to the Finals.

Indeed, the resemblance is uncanny: in '68-69, Boston finished 4th in the East with a 48-34 regular-season record. Thought to be too old, the proud, experienced Celtic warriors rallied for one last championship playoff run in the Bill Russell era.

Now, in 2010, the Celtics stand one series away from turning a disappointing 50-32 record and 4th seed into a stunning 18th championship for the franchise, as crippling age has been transformed into wise experience as the regular season has turned into the playoffs.

We've written it before, but for our money, there's no more compelling story in sports than an old champion who calls upon experience and memory to dial up one last improbable run at championship glory.

Never has there been a NBA team who's accomplished this quite like the Boston Celtics did it in 1969. It's our favorite single-season championship story in league history. Of course, no two teams are exactly the same, so the 2010 Celtics are certainly not a carbon copy of the 1969 edition, but upon digging into Thomas Whalen's terrific book Dynasty's End: Bill Russell and the 1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics, we found that there were more parallels between the two teams than we realized. Let's take a look:

1. The Veterans
Let's start with the obvious: both teams had over-30 Hall of Fame talent with championship experience. Now, that means the famed Big 3 of Garnett, Pierce and Allen, with Rasheed Wallace owning a ring of his own, as well.

As the 1969 playoffs began, Bill Russell and Sam Jones were both 35 years old. Jones had already announced he would retire; Russell would do the same in the summer. Between them, the two legends had won 19 championships.

Russell is well-known as one of basketball's all-time greats, while Jones is somewhat underrated historically. He was Boston's leading scorer for several seasons in the '60s, as well as the player who was most often called upon to deliver clutch baskets.

Other players like John Havlicek, Satch Sanders and Larry Siegfried had won multiple championships in green as well. While the Celtics would become Havlicek's team in the post-Russell era of the '70s, and Hondo was indeed spectacular in the 1969 Finals, there isn't really a direct "Hondo-Rondo" parallel between the two teams. While the 24-year-old Rondo has taken over the reins this season, Havlicek (then 28) was already an established player with multiple All-Star and All-NBA 2nd team selections under his belt.

2. The Regular Season Slide
Much like the '09-10 Celtics, the '68-69 team not only had a subpar regular-season record for a contender, but they also engendered further pessimism with an extended period of mediocrity in the second half of the season.

This season, Boston stood 23-5 on Christmas before playing .500 basketball (27-27) for the final two-thirds of the season.

On January 18, 1969, the Celtics were a strong 31-14 following a win over the Seattle SuperSonics, before a three-game losing streak started their second-half slide - the C's finished the season just 17-20 from there.

A key turning point was on February 1, when the 34-18 Celtics lost to the Knicks in a Saturday afternoon game at the Garden, and Russell went down at the end of the game with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. As recounted in Dynasty's End:
    In obvious discomfort after the collision, Russell tried valiantly to get up, only to fall backward once again. He then lay helplessly sprawled on the parquet floor with his hands stretched out beside him as play resumed.

    "Bill was in a state of shock for about 15 minutes," Celtics trainer Joe DeLauri related. "He was given medication to calm him down. He just asked to be left alone."
    ...
    Russell had to be moved off the court on a stretcher and taken to the trainer's room before being transported to nearby University Hospital. "I've never seen him in pain like that," DeLauri said, "and he has a high tolerance for pain."
It turns out that Russell had acutely strained ligaments and would miss only four games, but he was also diagnosed with "emotional and physical exhaustion" after the combination of his third game in 42 hours and carrying the duties of coaching as well as playing.

The Celtics immediately went on a four-game losing streak in Russell's absence (with Auerbach taking over coaching duties in a brief return). Russell returned well before he was 100%, with a cumbersome knee brace, and would pace himself for the rest of the regular season, playing less than usual in the final couple weeks.

The low-water mark was on March 16, a 108-73 home loss to the Lakers in which the Garden fans jeered the 44-34 Celtics. From Jan. 20 through Mar. 16, Boston played 13-20 basketball. After a tongue-lashing from Russell, the Celtics regrouped to win their final four regular-season games to get on the right footing heading into the playoffs.

In the wake of the 2009-10 Celtics being better on the road than at home during the season - suggesting a lack of focus more than talent - this 1969 comment from Red Auerbach in Dynasty's End is interesting: "I know we can have bad days but it's a funny thing that 90 percent of our bad games have been in Boston. We've lost 12 or 13 games at home, and that's an unheard of thing."

Still, Red retained confidence. He was quoted in John Taylor's book The Rivalry as telling Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke - who was getting cocky with his star-studded team - in February: "You're going to win it all if you don't play us.... Chamberlain never could beat Russell. See you in the playoffs."

3. Eastern Conference Upsets
In the 2010 Playoffs, the Celtics have defeated a Cavs team which had 11 more wins in the regular season, and a Magic team which had 9. To put that in perspective, there were only two series in the entire decade of the 2000s in which the winner had a regular-season win deficit of 9 or more [Warriors vs. Mavs, 2007 (25) and Heat vs. Pistons, 2006 (12)].

In the 1969 Playoffs, the 48-34 Celtics went through the 55-27 76ers in 5 and the 54-28 Knicks in 6 to reach the Finals. While John Hollinger has rightfully pointed out that the '68-69 team's success was less surprising because they actually had the 2nd-best point differential in the league, just behind the Knicks, the teams still seemed to be going in opposite directions down the stretch.

Much as Boston had to overcome an Orlando team which played a sustained stretch of outstanding basketball - a 33-8 second half plus an 8-0 playoff start - this season, the 1969 team had to beat a young Knicks team on the rise.

New York had been just 16-17 in December, but a key trade for Dave DeBusschere helped the Knicks finish the season 38-11, followed by a 4-0 sweep of the top-seeded, injured Baltimore Bullets. On top of that, the Knicks had defeated Boston in 6 of 7 regular-season meetings.

Russell lifted his game in both series, blocking 12 shots in Game 1 vs. Philadelphia to set the tone, and then took on more of a scoring load vs. the Knicks - he had games of 25 and 21 points after averaging just 9.9 points on the season. Apparently, some rudimentary statistical analysis helped Russ change his strategy:
    "I was aware that the Knicks had done a great job of closing us down, and I wanted to see if anything in the numbers would give me a clue. I noticed that in each of the regular-season games against them, I had taken no more than five or six shots. Now, the guy guarding me and the backbone of the Knicks defense was Willis Reed. Because I hadn't been shooting much, Reed had been free to help out on defense. He had been able to leave me safe in the assumption that I wasn't likely to get the ball and shoot."
With defensive stalwart Walt Frazier slowed by a groin injury, the Celtics held on for a tense 106-105 Game 6 victory at home which allowed them to avoid a Game 7 back at Madison Square Garden.

4. Entire Roster Contributes
One of the many remarkable elements of the 2010 Celtics playoff run has been that they have not had the same leading scorer in two consecutive games to date. Six different players have led the team in scoring during the playoffs, and they have truly gotten top performances from players throughout their rotation.

The contributions of the Big 3, plus the stunning emergence of Rajon Rondo, have been well-documented, but it's not a stretch to say that 9 different players have been keys to different games, whether it's been Kendrick Perkins' Game 1 defense vs. Dwight Howard, or Nate Robinson's Game 6 heroics. Rasheed Wallace, Tony Allen and Glen Davis have also stepped up noticeably off the bench at different times.

This is a direct parallel to the 1969 team. Russell, Havlicek and Jones formed a kind of Big 3 of their day, as the longtime Celtic team leaders, while Bailey Howell (a 1966 acquisition) was a solid contributor who averaged a 20-9 at age 32.

Beyond the expected contributions of those four Hall of Famers, the four other players in the Boston rotation stepped up at various times. As examples:
• Larry Siegfried scored 28 points off the bench in Game 3 of the Finals, with the C's trailing L.A. 2-0.
• Journeyman guard Emmette Bryant had several strong games. Willis Reed credited Bryant, an ex-Knick, as the key to Game 1 of that series after the guard posted a 13-11-8.
• Veteran Celtic Tom "Satch" Sanders, known as a defensive stopper, had 18 points and 12 rebounds in 23 minutes in Game 2 vs. Philly, after Sam Jones was ejected early.
• Don Nelson (yes, that Don Nelson) contributed clutch fourth-quarter scoring throughout the playoffs, not the least of which was his miraculous shot late in Game 7 of the Finals:


5. Lakers Time
And now, the Lakers. They are the final obstacle for Boston in 2010, as they were in 1969. They were 7 games better in 2009-10, as they were in 1968-69. And they are still favorites in 2010, as they were in 1969, even though confidence in the Celtics has grown over the course of the spring now, as it did then.

In the summer of 1968, the Lakers traded for Wilt Chamberlain, giving them a Jerry West-Elgin Baylor-Wilt Chamberlain trio which was thought to be invincible.

West got the Lakers off to a good start in Game 1, pouring in 53 points and 10 assists to lead L.A. to an exciting 120-118 win. Mr. Clutch followed that up with 41 and 8 in Game 2 as the Lakers went up 2-0.

The Celtics won Game 3 at home behind 34 from Hondo (who had also averaged 39.5 in the first two games), before the pivotal Game 4.

An ugly game that featured 50 turnovers went down to the final moments. Trailing 88-87, the Celtics set up a picket fence that would have made Jimmy Chitwood proud, and Boston's Mr. Clutch, Sam Jones, made one of the biggest shots of his career:


The teams traded home wins before the famous Game 7 at the Forum, in which L.A. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons placed in the ceiling and the USC marching band on hand, all in expectation of a championship celebration, but it was not to be. The Celtics held a 15-point lead before the Lakers embarked on a furious rally, only to fall just short, 108-106, despite a 42-13-12 from West, still the only player to win the Finals MVP in a losing effort.

Auerbach, ready with a needle as always, would say in the postgame celebration: "What I want to know is what are they going to do with all those goddamn balloons? Anybody want to buy some balloons cheap?"

The game featured a notable controversy in that Wilt took himself out midway through the fourth quarter after banging his knee. The Lakers played well with the Big Dipper on the bench, and coach Butch van Breda Kolff refused to put Chamberlain back into the game, despite the entreaties of not only Wilt but also owner Cooke, who came down to the sidelines. That summer, Russell said that "Any injury short of a broken leg or a broken back is not enough," causing a rift between the two friends.

In any event, the Celtics had won their 11th championship in 13 years, still the most improbable one, though perhaps that'll be up for debate if the 2010 team can finish the job with one more series upset. We can only hope to get a Finals series as dramatic as 1969's - with another potential Game 7 in L.A. - over the next two weeks. Let's get it on.

Here's a few minutes on the 1969 team, including some quality Russell interview reactions:

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