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Bob Ryan

With the Celtics going for No. 18, here’s a look back at their first 17 championships

Larry Bird in action during Game 1 of the 1986 Finals against the Rockets.ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

The Celtics are in pursuit of a record 18th NBA championship. There were four distinct groups that won the first 17.

Group I

Championships: 11 (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969).

Coaches: Red Auerbach (1957-66), Bill Russell (1968, 1969).

Q. How does a team go from a 39-33 record and a speedy three-game exit in the 1956 playoffs to a championship the next season?

A. You get an impactful infusion of talent. Start with the greatest rookie duo ever in Rookie of the Year Tom Heinsohn and Most Valuable Player of the Century Bill Russell (who didn’t join the team until December after playing in the Melbourne Olympics). Then add returning soldier Frank Ramsey (like the other two, a Hall of Famer). Put them out there with Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, the premier backcourt of the 1950s, and let ‘em go.


It will forever be difficult to top the drama of the first Celtics title.

Game 1 of the Finals was a 125-123 double-overtime home loss to the St. Louis Hawks. Game 7 was a 125-123 double-overtime victory over the St. Louis Hawks.

The rookies did it in Game 7. Heinsohn had 37 points and 23 rebounds. Russell had 19 points and 32 rebounds while Cousy and Sharman were having an afternoon they’d rather not talk about (a combined 5 for 40). Russell saved the game with a retreating block on Jack Coleman that both Heinsohn and Cousy say to this day was the greatest defensive play they’ve ever seen.

Down by 2, Hawks player/coach Alex Hannum threw the ball off the backboard from the other end of the floor only to see Bob Pettit’s put-back attempt roll off the rim.

Wouldn’t you like to have seen it? Sadly, no complete video account exists.


Thus began the greatest sustained run of dominance in NBA history. With Russell as the anchor, the Celtics survived the retirements of Sharman (1961), Cousy and Ramsey (1963), Heinsohn (1965), and K.C. Jones (1967), not to mention the exit of Auerbach as coach in 1966, to keep on keeping on, culminating in the most unlikely of all Celtics triumphs, the conquest of the mighty Wilt Chamberlain/Elgin Baylor/Jerry West Lakers in the famous 1969 Game 7 “Balloon Game.”

Group II

Championships: 2 (1974, 1976).

Coach: Tom Heinsohn

Ha! You know there were Auerbach haters out there saying, “Let’s see what he can do without Russell.” Fine.

With John Havlicek in his prime and Dave Cowens establishing himself as a major NBA force, Heinsohn had them back in the playoffs by the 1971-72 season.

But they were a player short until Auerbach produced the needed missing piece in Paul Silas, a great defensive player, the best offensive rebounder in the league, and a powerful locker room presence who turned out to be the conscience of the team (think Al Horford). It was not exactly a coincidence that in Silas’s four years with the Celtics, their combined record was 238-90, with two championships.

The ‘72-73 Celtics were a classic coulda-woulda bunch. They won a franchise-record 68, but saw things go awry in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals vs. the Knicks when Havlicek seriously injured his right shoulder. After missing a controversial double-OT loss in New York in Game 4 (let’s just say the home team benefited from the judgments of referees Jack Madden and Jake O’Donnell, and this is not solely a parochial opinion), Havlicek played mostly lefthanded. Anyway, they lost Game 7 at home.


The Celtics' Dave Cowens, Charlie Scott, and John Havlicek (left to right) triple-team Phoenix's Paul Westphal in the 1976 Finals.Peter Southwick/Associated Press

A year later, they were the beneficiaries of some Milwaukee injuries themselves en route to Title No. 12. It was a series somewhat reminiscent of the just-concluded Miami affair, with the road team winning the final four games, the last of which was a 102-87 Celtics triumph.

Two years later, the Celtics won Title No. 13 with six-game triumphs over Buffalo, Cleveland, and Phoenix, with Charlie Scott coming up big in each sixth game. The highlight, of course, was the epic Game 5 victory over Phoenix, a 128-126 triple-overtime game that has yet to be surpassed in Celtics annals for its combination of skill, drama, and sheer wackiness (e.g. referee Richie Powers being attacked by a fan at midcourt).

Group III

Championships: 3 (1981, 1984, 1986).

Coaches: Bill Fitch (1981). K.C. Jones (1984, 1986).

Larry Bird. Remember him?

He was great, all right, but he wasn’t enough. He was the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year, but the 76ers had little trouble dispatching the Celtics in five games, largely because the Celtics were too small. But Auerbach rectified that on draft day in 1980 by pulling off an almost shameful heist, swapping his Nos. 1 and 13 draft spots for No. 3 and Robert Parish, a misused 7-foot center out there in the Bay Area. With that third pick, Auerbach took a gangly 6-11 kid from Minnesota named Kevin McHale.


The result? Championship No. 14 was produced that very first year. Suddenly, the Celtics had a monstrous frontcourt, and don’t forget Cedric Maxwell, whose 28-point, 15-rebound, 10-for-13 performance in the pivotal Game 5 against Houston nailed down his Finals MVP.

Cedric Maxwell (right, with Chris Ford) was a force in the 1981 Finals.Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff

There were many memorable takeaways from the 1984 victory over the Lakers, but for me the everlasting memory is the entire evening of June 8, when because of a heat wave outside and lack of Boston Garden air conditioning inside, the temperature was 97 degrees for Game 5.

The Lakers, most notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thought they had been trapped in a science fiction movie, but Bird treated it like just another steamy summer evening in French Lick with 34 points, 17 rebounds, and 15-for-20 shooting. So sorry you young’uns missed out on Larry.

1986? I still believe it was the greatest pre-3-point-mania team ever. They won 67, and had they thought it was a good idea, they would have won 70. They were such a spectacular nightly show in the regular season that they rendered meaningless the concept of the meaningless game.

Ready for this? They closed out the Atlanta series with a 36-6 third quarter en route to a 132-99 triumph. They then opened the Milwaukee series with a 128-96 thumping. Back-to-back plus-33 and plus-32. Pret-ty good. Pret-ty good.

They received more resistance than expected from Houston in the Finals, but after coming home smarting from a nasty Game 5 loss, Bird took charge with one of his true all-around masterpieces — a 29-11-12 triple-double, which, when combined with a rare defensive omnipresence, doesn’t begin to convey his astonishing impact on that deciding sixth game.


Group IV

Championships: 1 (2008).

Coach: Doc Rivers.

Q. How do you go from a 24-58 yuckfest in 2006-07 to a championship a year later?

A. You go from one future Hall of Famer (Paul Pierce) to three (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett). You add key role players in Eddie House and James Posey. You coax a wily vet out of retirement (P.J. Brown). You watch a young point guard mature (Rajon Rondo). You watch your young big figure things out (Kendrick Perkins). You know, stuff like that.

You then blast through the regular season, winning 66 games. You have to win a pair of seven-gamers, the first over a surprisingly stubborn Atlanta team and the second a stressful series with Cleveland and LeBron James. Detroit was what can only be called an “easy” six in the conference finals.

An ecstatic group of Celtics celebrated Title No. 17 in 2008.Davis, Jim Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

And then, guess who’s waiting? Yup, it’s the ancient rivals from the Left Coast. I like to call it a six-game sweep, the highlight of the first five being a 24-point Game 4 road comeback.

131-92. A score to remember. That represents the most authoritative clinching-game statement in NBA history.

Now there is a new homegrown core group of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum hoping to join the Celtics Club of Champions. Gentlemen, the stage is yours.