Four Decades Later, Aging Celtics Hope History Repeats
It's been seen before in Boston. And it resulted in the Celtics winning the most surprising of their NBA-record 17 championships.
The Celtics, who had won 10 of the previous 12 titles, went 48-34 in 1968-69, pedestrian by their standards. They were an old team featuring legendary player-coach Bill Russell, who would retire from both jobs after the season. And, as the No. 4 seed in the East during a time when only eight teams made the playoffs, they would have to win three straight series without homecourt advantage to claim the crown.
The Celtics did just that. They stunned the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in the NBA Finals, and Russell limped off into the sunset.
"Nobody expected us to win,'' Hall of Famer John Havlicek, Boston's leading scorer in 1968-69 with a 21.6 average, said by phone from his West Palm Beach, Fla., home. "But we were old dogs who sort of rose to the occasion.''
Flash forward 42 years and there are some similarities. No, the current Celtics (50-32) aren't putting the finishing touches on a dynasty. But they did win the title two years ago, and are an aging team trying to grab another crown before time indisputably catches up. And they are the No. 4 seed in the East, opening the playoffs Saturday against Miami.
"I can see the parallels,'' Hall of Famer Bailey Howell, Boston's second-leading scorer in 1968-69 with a 19.7 average, said by phone from his Starkville, Miss., home. "The regular season certainly favors the teams with young talent. But in the playoffs very seldom do you play back-to-backs, and that benefits experienced teams. You know you don't have to worry about getting rest in the playoffs because you can rest all summer.''
Another possible parallel surfaced earlier this week when a Boston Herald story stated Celtics coach Doc Rivers, as Russell did following the 1968-69 campaign, might leave after the season. Before that report surfaced and was somewhat refuted by Rivers, the coach talked about similarities between this season's team and the one four decades ago.
"I know the history,'' he said. "Havlicek has been around enough, all of them, the '69 team. ... That's the team I identified closer to this team in some ways because everybody wrote them off. They came out of the fourth seed and ended up winning it.''
With the deep history of the Celtics, there are always former players around bringing up legendary teams. So you better believe Celtics guard Ray Allen, who at 34 is one of six Boston players 32 or older, has heard some tales about 1968-69.
"I do know that people didn't expect much out of them and they won,'' Allen said. "That's the heart of a champion. ... Our story remains to be told.''
Just like that team from yesteryear, these Celtics have had to listen to how they're washed up. They've been hearing that Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta, the East's top three seeds, have passed them by.
Celtics star forward Kevin Garnett, 34 next month, has slipped, his averages of 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds the lowest since his rookie season of 1995-96. Allen, at 16.3, had his lowest scoring average since 1997-98, and 32-year-old forward Paul Pierce, at 18.3, had his lowest since his rookie campaign of 1998-99.
"I think that's the way they have to think right now,'' Havlicek said when asked if he would call this season a "last stand'' for the Celtics. "We'll see if they can do it.''
They did it 1968-69 when renowned guard Sam Jones was nearly 36 at season's end, Russell was 35 and Howell 32. Keep in mind players aged more rapidly back in the days of tougher travel and less-advanced medicine, and it was rare to see anybody too effective after hitting their mid-30s.
"They looked like they were dead when they walked on the floor,'' said Utah coach Jerry Sloan, a Chicago forward in 1968-69 who sees some similarities between then and now. "You'd watch them warm up and they had knee pads and their arms are falling off and they're going in laying a layup and it looks like a day's work. And, as soon as that ball went in the air, you better get ready to play because they'll kick your rear end.''
Well, not always during the regular season. The Celtics had their worst record in 13 years and the worst ever for any of their title teams. Russell averaged a career-low 9.9 points and Jones, also playing his final season, averaged 16.3 points, his lowest in eight years.
But the playoffs were a different story. The Celtics, having paced themselves during the regular season to prepare for the postseason, beat Philadelphia 4-1 and New York 4-2 to earn a berth in the Finals against the mighty Lakers.
The Lakers, who had gone 55-27, were tired of losing to the Celtics, having dropped six Finals in six tries against them. They were heavily favored with a trio of future Hall of Famers in Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
"Nobody gave us much of a chance of winning the title that year,'' Howell said. "But nobody rose to the occasion more than Bill Russell. He wanted one more championship.''
The Celtics surprisingly split the first six games, with each team holding serve at home. That included an 89-88 Boston win in Game 5 on a last-second jumper by Jones that banged around on the rim before falling through.
It all came down to Game 7 in Los Angeles. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so confident of victory he placed balloons in the rafters of the Forum, ready to be cut loose for a title celebration.
"They put out an itinerary on what was going to happen when they won,'' Havlicek said. "The balloons were going to fall, and the USC band was going to play 'Happy Days Are Here Again.' I heard the Lakers players were disgusted with management because they hadn't won anything yet. All of it motivated us.''
It sure did as the Celtics stormed out to a 17-point lead. The Lakers fought back to get within one in the waning minutes, but a jump shot by Don Nelson that bounced high off the back of the rim and fell through ended up clinching what would be a 108-106 win.
Now, these latest old Celtics will see if they also can pull off an unexpected run to the Finals. If so, they might just again run into a Lakers team that would be heavily favored.
"It's good to have history on your side,'' said Rivers, looking back at 1968-69. "You can always point to it and say it can be done.''
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson