Sports

Celtics’ title teams of 1970s caught in the middle

The Celtics’ 1974 championship run legitimized Tom Heinsohn as a coach.
JESSICA HILL/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Celtics’ 1974 championship run legitimized Tom Heinsohn as a coach.

As the basketball world descends upon Springfield for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday, there will be reminders that the Boston Celtics did exist in the 10-year period between the playing careers of Bill Russell and Larry Bird.

While the organization’s championship résumé was built by Russell in the 1960s and reestablished by Bird in the ’80s, often forgotten are the Celtics’ two championship teams from the ’70s, which are sending two more members to the Hall of Fame.

Guard Jo Jo White and coach Tom Heinsohn will be inducted Friday, with Hall of Famers Dave Cowens and John Havlicek on hand to present White.

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The Celtics won two titles in three years in the mid-’70s, in the midst of Boston busing desegregation and another failed World Series attempt by the Red Sox.

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For some reason, those Celtics title teams don’t receive the attention of their ’60s predecessors or ’80s successors, perhaps because they consisted of a trio of stars surrounded by a changing set of role players. Perhaps because the ’70s Celtics did not dominate as did the teams of the ’60s.

The Celtics were a balanced club that did not own the league’s best record in either title season of 1973-74 or 1975-76. The Celtics did, however, dominate the 1972-73 regular season, winning 68 games and beginning the playoffs as prohibitive favorites. But Havlicek separated his right shoulder in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks, a series the Celtics lost in seven games.

The Knicks went on to win their second title in four years, but that series loss fueled the Celtics for 1973-74. When asked about the Knicks series, Heinsohn focused on — what else? — the officiating.

“We were up [16] at the end of the third quarter [of Game 4], they called 19 straight calls against us,” he recalled. “It was so bad, the Philly writers were writing how bad it was. Plus, they fired the two [officials]. [Havlicek’s] shoulder went out, a separation. He was our key guy. They beat us. That was the best team, we were rolling. I think we would have won had he been healthy.”

Born to run

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General manager Red Auerbach brought back essentially the same team in 1973-74, a core that included 25-year-old Cowens, 27-year-old White, and 30-year-old Paul Silas alongside 33-year-old Havlicek. Heinsohn knew the team lacked a legitimate center in an era when most top teams had a hulking 7-footer in the middle.

His remedy was to run, and use the 6-foot-9-inch Cowens in a variety of spots away from the basket, putting players such as Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Elvin Hayes in uncomfortable defensive positions.

That season, the Celtics were fourth in the league in scoring (109 points per game) and first in rebounding, as Cowens, Don Chaney, and Silas dominated the boards. Heinsohn went away from Auerbach’s strategy of having the point guard hang out at midcourt to run the break, stressing his guards must rebound. Cowens recalled that Heinsohn relied heavily on his starters.

“I think I averaged 40 minutes a game. Me, John, and Jo Jo were on the floor quite a bit,” said Cowens, who actually averaged 42 minutes and 16 rebounds per game that season. “I had to foul out to get out of the game. Tommy wouldn’t take me out.

“We had been together long enough and had been through a lot of different scenarios that you know you are ready for most situations by the time you get [to the playoffs].”

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What the Celtics lacked in size, they made up for in bulk and desire. Silas was one of the more imposing power forwards of his era, as he and Cowens combined for 26.9 rebounds per game in 1973-74. Auerbach astutely drafted guard Charlie Scott in the seventh round in 1970, even though the North Carolina standout was headed to the ABA. Auerbach dealt Scott’s rights to the Suns in 1972 to acquire Silas, who went on to win two titles in Boston and another in Seattle.

“I had started in Phoenix, and when I came Boston Tommy Heinsohn told me that Don Nelson was going to start, and that really upset me,” Silas said. “What I didn’t understand was that the sixth [men] on the team that didn’t start played so well [in Celtics history], John Havlicek was one. I played well and people just really associated me with the [players] who were off the bench before. That really helped us because Dave Cowens and I were the best rebounders on the ball club, and we really needed that.”

Silas recalled that before every game that season, Cowens patted him on the backside during warm-ups.

“I knew it was going to be me and him and we were going go out there and kick butt,” Silas said. “When the season started, we knew we were going to be one of the best teams in the league, and we were just together. We really liked each other. We played so hard. We talked to each other.”

Mission accomplished

After winning 56 games in the regular season, the Celtics entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. They disposed of the Buffalo Braves in six games in the first round, and then easily won the rematch with the Knicks in five games.

“We figured if we lost to them, we really blew that,” Cowens said. “By the time the playoffs came, we were a better team.”

Up next in the Finals were the Milwaukee Bucks, led by two all-time greats in Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. The road team won four of the first six games, including a Bucks win on an Abdul-Jabbar sky hook in Game 6 at Boston Garden.

The Celtics knew they had to do something about Abdul-Jabbar, the league MVP, in Game 7 at Milwaukee. Former Celtic Bob Cousy suggested to Heinsohn that Silas and Cowens double the Milwaukee center. Abdul-Jabbar still managed 26 points, which was 6 below his playoff average that year, and the Celtics coasted to a 102-87 win and their first title post-Russell.

“It was sort of my team,” Havlicek said. “I felt the Celtics had never won a [championship] series without Bill Russell, so I wanted to be on that team that won one without him. It was a great feather in our cap to do that.”

It came without the fanfare of the previous championships, but the ’74 title made up for the miserable ending the year before. It also legitimized Heinsohn as a coach. He worked in the insurance industry for four years after his 1965 retirement and was asked by Auerbach to succeed Russell as coach following the 1969 title.

Heinsohn said the post-Russell era was similar to the time after the Celtics’ most recent Big Three, the organization had to rebuild, flush out aging players, and build a core around Havlicek. Drafting Cowens and White was critical to the team’s resurgence.

Making adjustments

In an NBA deeper than it was in the 1960s, repeating was an arduous task, and the 1974-75 Celtics ran into a bigger and more physical Washington Bullets team, losing in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.

With Havlicek aging, Auerbach took a chance on Scott, who had asked to be traded from Phoenix after three-plus years as a Sun. Scott was considered a high-scoring but mercurial player who could potentially disrupt team chemistry.

But Scott had no intention of ruining his opportunity to play for a title.

“Anyone would love to have the opportunity to play for the Boston Celtics,” he said. “That’s the premier organization in professional sports. I felt honored Red Auerbach had that much respect for me. You had Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Paul Silas, Jo Jo White, myself, Don Nelson, I thought we had a chance to be pretty damn good, that we could win [a championship].

“I wanted them to understand that I understood that I would be a piece, that I could help them win a championship, and I was going to do what my part was.”

The 1975-76 team had winning streaks of nine, seven, and six games en route to a 54-win regular season. The Celtics entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, and with an injured Havlicek playing just three games, eliminated the Braves in six games. Havlicek returned, and the Celtics thumped the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers to reach the Finals.

The series against the Suns is remembered most for Game 5 at the Garden, where the fans poured onto the court after Havlicek apparently won the game in double overtime with a runner. Moments later, the Suns’ Garfield Heard sent the game into a third extra period with an improbable jumper after officials placed time back on the clock. Glenn McDonald scored 6 points in the third OT as the Celtics prevailed, 128-126. Scott then scored 25 points against his former team in the clinching Game 6, giving the Celtics their second title in three seasons.

“We always took pride in winning in the green [uniforms],” Scott said. “We wanted people to know the Boston Celtics were a great team that could win on the road. That’s what I was most proud of.”

End of an era

Time and circumstance robbed the Celtics of a true chance at a third title. Cowens took a sabbatical during the 1976-77 season, Scott broke his arm, and Auerbach tried reviving the team by acquiring former UCLA teammates Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. Wicks, considered a selfish player, never made the expected impact, while Rowe was apathetic and battled drug issues.

Like disco, the ’70s Celtics were fading. Thankfully, Auerbach helped jump-start a new period of prominence by drafting Bird. The title was back in Boston in 1981.

Perhaps immediate success following Bird’s arrival damaged the impact of the Celtics’ title teams of the 1970s.

“The thing that bothers me the most when they forget about those teams, it’s not bragging or anything. They start rating teams, they don’t tip their hat toward us,” Cowens said. “Knowing what we did, any of Bird’s teams, any of the Laker teams, any of the Bulls, if they had play against us [they would have a tough time], because we didn’t have too many chinks in the armor, we weren’t big but we knew how to move people around, we were a pretty smart team. When you only lose 14 games one year [in 1972-73], that was pretty good. I thought we showed the world we were a pretty good team.”

While Havlicek humbly discusses his personal accomplishments, which include being the franchise’s all-time scoring leader without the luxury of a 3-point shot, Cowens stands behind him for support, just like the old days.

“They just don’t talk about Havlicek enough,” Cowens said. “I’m going to tell you, I never played with a guy that was that thorough and that accomplished, that tough-minded. Just look at some of his numbers, it’s amazing.

“They go from Russell and right away go to Bird, they don’t even look at that guy as much as they should. He was the ultimate team guy.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.