The regular season matters.
Twenty-first century sports fans are being continually brainwashed to the contrary, but I am here to stand up for the dignity and beauty of a great regular season in any sport. Winning a championship most often requires a convergence of many factors, foremost among them being luck and good health. Sometimes the “best” or most deserving team does not win.
I offer as Exhibit A a club that 50 seasons ago won more games than any other Celtics team, and did so in an extraordinarily entertaining matter. I assure younger Celtics fans they would have loved this team, which went 68-14 but was unable to overcome a playoff injury to a thoroughly irreplaceable player named John Havlicek.
The 1972-73 team was coming off a 56-win season that had ended abruptly in a five-game loss to the Knicks. It was evident that they needed a little more oomph up front — specifically to contend with the great Dave DeBusschere — and Red Auerbach had addressed that issue by obtaining 29-year-old Paul Silas from Phoenix in exchange for the NBA rights to ABA expatriate Charlie Scott.
The 6-foot-7-inch Silas was a superb rebounder and defender who was fresh from a career year in Phoenix. Once strictly a bruiser, he had shed 30-some pounds and could now get up and down the floor, making him exponentially more useful. He also was a leader and a thinker and he quickly became the conscience of the team.
“Paul was the missing piece,” acknowledges Dave Cowens. “He majored in rebounding. And I remember him saying right after he got here that he couldn’t believe the way we ran. I said, ‘That’s what we do.’ ”
When it came to running, those Celtics didn’t just talk the talk. They predicated their entire offense on getting as many transition baskets as they could. It was always the Auerbach Way, and now it was the Tom Heinsohn Way.
Each practice began with the “Long Pass Drill.” The synchronized fast break began, of course, with the rebounding of Cowens and Silas and continued with Jo Jo White or Havlicek taking the ball in the middle, people filling the wings, and either Don Nelson or Cowens able to close things out with a trailer jumper.
Cowens was in his third year, and he had things figured out. There was no center quite like him. Though “only” 6-9, he played much bigger because of his leaping ability, his speed, and his unmatched intensity. He had a strong inside game and he also had a reliable mid-range shot. In addition, he ran the floor better than any other center in the league. He was, in fact, on his way to being the MVP.
The backcourt was the deepest in the league. White was a terrific scorer. Don Chaney was 6-5 with arms that reached from Boston to Omaha. He was an elite defender who, through hard work and Heinsohn’s one-on-one tutelage, had made himself into a decent scoring threat (13 points per game). Art “Hambone” Williams was a dynamic force off the bench with his dazzling assortment of passes. And rookie Paul Westphal was a budding All-Star.
Oh, and there was this Havlicek guy, who remains the greatest guard/forward combo player in NBA history.
The Celtics announced themselves to the world by winning their first 10 games. Game 11 was a surprising home loss to Tiny Archibald and the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, but the Celtics responded to that by winning 16 of their next 18.
The 1971-72 Lakers had propelled themselves to a then-record 69 wins via a 33-game winning streak. This Celtics team went about things differently. That opening 10-game win streak tied their longest of the season.
“We never wanted to lose two in a row,” recalls Cowens. Well, they did — once. They lost back-to-back games to the Knicks on Jan. 27-28.
What no one knew at the time was that the Celtics were in the midst of an extraordinary run of consistently brilliant basketball. From Feb. 22, 1972 (a 114-103 triumph over Phoenix) to Nov. 14, 1975 (a 119-109 loss to the 76ers), the Celtics went 268 regular-season games without losing three in a row.
Be it known there was no such thing as “load management,” either.
Havlicek, who had led the league in minutes played the two previous years (45.4 and 45.1 a game), somehow managed to miss two games. But he averaged 42.1 minutes in the 80 he did play. Cowens got into all 82, averaging 41.8 a game. White, the team’s third All-Star Game participant, kept pace with 39.6 a game.
It was a season of endless highlights, but one stands out for me above all others. The Celtics were in Oakland and the great Nate Thurmond was driving on the left baseline. He put up a shot that a leaping Cowens snatched from him, somehow managing to fire the ball forward to Havlicek before hitting the floor. Havlicek, in turn, lofted the ball to a sneaking White for a layup.
The last time the ball hit the floor was Thurmond’s last dribble. It was the greatest collaborative play I’ve ever seen.
I’m pretty sure it was at that moment that Sam Skinner, a well-known Bay Area media personality, sidled up to me and inquired, “You mean, they pay you to watch this team all the time?”
Yes, they did, and I remain forever grateful.
Another game that stands out was a Sunday afternoon affair against the woeful 76ers, who came into town that February afternoon in possession of four victories en route to a dreadful 9-73 season. Havlicek was out with an injury and Cowens was in something of a little slump. The Sixers smelled upset, and, sure enough, they were leading, 97-85, as the fourth quarter began. I remember the look on the Celtics’ faces.
“I could just see the headlines,” Silas said. “Philadelphia Beats Boston. All over the nation. I sure didn’t want that.”
The Celtics finished with a frenzy, outscoring the Sixers, 38-18, in Period 4. Hambone Williams had 10 assists. I’m talking about the fourth quarter. And they won 25 of their last 29.
OK, so what happened?
What happened was that in the third quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks, Havlicek fought his way between Bill Bradley and DeBusschere on a pick, sustaining a hyperextended right shoulder. He would miss all of Game 4, a notorious double-OT loss. He then played heroically with a practically useless right arm in Games 5 and 6 as the Celtics evened the series to set up a Game 7 in Boston Garden.
But he had nothing left, and the Knicks were not about to lose to a one-armed man. Havlicek entered Game 7 with 3:01 left in the half and the Knicks leading by a point. They swarmed all over him, forcing him into two bad passes and blocking a shot. New York would prevail, 94-78.
“Playing him was probably not a good move,” surmises Cowens.
As for not being able to complete the deal, Cowens is philosophical.
“I look at what we did,” he says. “We lost in double overtime in New York. We came back from 3-1 to tie the series. What if you took Larry Bird from one of his teams? John was our captain, the guy we went through. I think we represented ourselves well.”
They weren’t quite as dynamic the following season. But guess what? They were fully healthy when the big games came, and neither the Knicks nor Bucks were. The Boston Celtics won championship No. 12.
So, folks, don’t worry about April, May, and June. You’ve got a nice team. Enjoy every game.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.