Season Recaps - 1950s
1950-51: Celtics Become A Contender Almost Overnight
In 1950 a series of offseason events completely transformed the Celtics. The NBA underwent a reorganization that reduced the league to 11 teams, with the best players from the six disbanded franchises distributed among the remaining teams. Boston hit the jackpot not once but twice. When the St. Louis Bombers folded, the New York Knicks tried to buy the franchise for $50,000 in order to acquire promising young center Ed Macauley. The league blocked the sale, however, and awarded Macauley to Boston in an effort to strengthen one of the weakest franchises in the circuit.
The second key acquisition was even more fortuitous. When the Chicago Stags called it quits, the franchise's players were distributed in a dispersal draft. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were allowed to choose between a trio of guards: veterans Max Zaslofsky and Andy Phillip, and rookie Bob Cousy. None of the teams wanted the rookie, so the three names were thrown into a hat. Boston drew Cousy.
There were other new faces on the team as well. Red Auerbach, who had led the Washington Capitols to the BAA Finals two years earlier, took over as head coach. On April 25, 1950, the Boston Celtics drafted Duquesne star Charles Cooper, the first black player ever selected by an NBA team and one of three African-Americans to enter the league that year. (Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton went to the Knicks, and Earl Lloyd joined the Capitols.)
Auerbach had serious doubts about Cousy, but the 6-1 Holy Cross graduate instantly established himself as a star. No one had ever seen anything like the behind-the-back dribbling and no-look passes that Cousy brought to the game.
In his 1950-51 debut season he averaged 15.6 points and finished fourth in the league in assists with 4.9 per game. Teammate Ed Macauley added 20.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, while Cooper contributed 9.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest.
Auerbach encouraged the Celtics to play an up-tempo, fast-breaking game. The team led the league in assists in 1950-51 and ranked near the top in points per game. A 39-30 record was the franchise's first above the .500 mark. But Boston was upset by New York in the first round of the playoffs as the Knicks swept the best-of-three series by an average of 14 points per game.
1951-54: Sharman Joins Boston Backcourt
The Celtics made an important addition to their roster during the offseason by acquiring sharp-shooting guard Bill Sharman. Boston improved to 39-27 in the 1951-52 campaign, just one game behind the first-place Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division. Bob Cousy raised his numbers to 21.7 points and 6.7 assists per game, third and second in the NBA, respectively. The postseason began with a rematch of the previous season's Celtics-Knicks series. The teams split the first two games before New York eliminated Boston with an overtime win in Game 3.
The 1952-53 season saw Boston, Syracuse, and New York battle for the top spot in the Eastern Division. The Nats and the Knicks ended the season tied with 47 wins, while the Celtics trailed by a single victory. Behind Cousy, Macauley, and Sharman, Boston employed a high-powered offense that paced the NBA in both points and assists. However, the team was weak on defense, ranking near the bottom of the circuit in points allowed.
Boston beat the Nationals in Game 1 of the Eastern Division Semifinals. Game 2 was a four-overtime classic. Cousy scored 50 points, 30 of them from the foul line (the two teams combined for 107 fouls in the game), and the Celtics pulled out a 111-105 victory to claim the first playoff series win in franchise history. The division finals pitted the Celtics against the Knicks, and once again New York ended Boston's season, this time in four games.
Boston's 1953-54 season followed the same pattern as the year before. The Celtics, Knicks, and Nationals fought it out for the Eastern Division title, and the Knicks came out on top by a narrow margin. Boston led the league in points per game, with Cousy, Macauley, and Sharman all finishing among the NBA's top scorers. Cousy also led the circuit with 7.2 assists per game. The club was still weak defensively, however, and after surviving a round-robin tournament in the first round of the playoffs, Boston fell to Syracuse in the Eastern Division Finals.
1954-56: Instant Offense, But No Defense
During the offseason the Celtics picked up Frank Ramsey, a 6-3 rookie from Kentucky who could play either guard or forward. Coach Red Auerbach pioneered the sixth-man role the following year by bringing Ramsey off the bench to provide instant offense.
In 1954-55 the Celtics became the first team in NBA history to average more than 100 points. The club made more field goals, sank more free throws, and handed out more assists than any other team in the league, but Boston also allowed opponents a record number of points, giving up 101.5 per game. The result was a 36-36 record and an early exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Syracuse Nationals.
The Celtics' defensive woes continued during the 1955-56 season. The team added rookie forward Jim Loscutoff, who provided some much-needed muscle and toughness, but Boston was still an offensively impressive and defensively suspect squad. Bob Cousy, Ed Macauley, and Bill Sharman were all top-10 scorers, and the team once again led the league in both points scored and points allowed. Boston put together a 39-33 season, then fell in the first round of the playoffs to Syracuse for the second straight year.
After six years of watching his team post decent regular-season records before bowing out of the playoffs in the early rounds, Auerbach decided that what he needed was a big man in the middle who could provide the team with defense and rebounding. The ideal player came into the 1956 Draft in the form of 6-10 Bill Russell, a defensive standout who had carried the University of San Francisco to consecutive unbeaten seasons.
1956-57: Boston Gets Its Big Man
Before the 1956 NBA Draft began, Boston made Tom Heinsohn of Holy Cross a territorial pick. The territorial system allowed a team to lay automatic claim to a local college player in exchange for giving up its first-round draft position. Yet even though the Celtics had forfeited their first-round pick, Auerbach still had his sights set on Russell. He got his man when Boston dealt Macauley and rookie Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks in exchange for Russell, whom the Hawks had drafted at No. 2 (behind Sihugo Green).
In the second round Auerbach drafted K. C. Jones. Although Jones couldn't join the Celtics for two years because of military service, Auerbach had assembled all the pieces for what was to become the most dominating franchise in the history of American professional sports.
Because Russell was busy helping the U.S. Olympic Team to a gold medal in Melbourne, Australia, he didn't join the Celtics until late December. Auerbach added some veterans to the club, including 34-year-old guard Andy Phillip, 32-year-old center Arnie Risen, and 30-year-old forward Jack Nichols. The team was already 16-8 when Russell played his first NBA game on December 22, 1956.
Russell instantly revolutionized the game. His ability to block shots or snare rebounds and then make quick outlet passes to Bob Cousy triggered the Celtics' fast break and turned Boston into an unstoppable force. With a solid rookie season from Heinsohn (who averaged 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds) and additional help on the boards from Loscutoff (10.4 rpg), plus an enviable backcourt tandem of Cousy and Bill Sharman (both of whom averaged better than 20 points), Boston became the best team in the league virtually overnight. At season's end, Cousy was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, and Heinsohn won the league's Rookie of the Year Award.
1957-58: Beginning Of A Dynasty
The Celtics reached the 1957 Playoffs with a league-best 44-28 record. They advanced through the early rounds to face the St. Louis Hawks in the 1957 NBA Finals. Boston was heavily favored, but the Hawks pulled off an upset in Game 1 with a 125-123 double-overtime win. The Celtics evened the series the following night, and then the two teams split a pair of games in St. Louis. After four games the series was tied at two apiece.
Boston won Game 5, 124-109, and was poised to take the championship in Game 6 two nights later. But Hawks forward Cliff Hagan tipped in a Bob Pettit miss at the buzzer to give St. Louis a 96-94 win, forcing a seventh and deciding game.
Game 7 ranks among the most memorable NBA games ever played. The afternoon contest, the first to be seen by a large national television audience, was a closely played affair. The Celtics had the upper hand throughout most of the game, but the Hawks kept battling back. Pettit sank a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime. Boston led by two points late in the first extra period, but St. Louis forced another overtime when the Hawks scored with just a few ticks left on the clock. Jim Loscutoff sank a free throw in the final moments of the second overtime to put the Celtics up by two points, and when Pettit's buzzer-beater caromed off the rim, the Celtics had a 125-123 win and the franchise's first championship.
Boston tore through the league during the 1957-58 season. With Bill Russell patrolling the middle, the guards were free to take risks defensively, and the result was a team that offered breakneck offense fueled by tenacious trapping defense. Boston posted the best record in the league for the second year in a row, with Bob Cousy the NBA's leading assists man and Russell the league's top rebounder. Russell was named NBA Most Valuable Player, the first of five such honors he would receive in his illustrious career. The 1958 NBA Finals was a rematch between Boston and St. Louis. As in the previous year, the series was tied after four games. Russell had suffered an ankle injury in Game 3, but when the Hawks pulled out a two-point win in Game 5 he was forced to make an appearance in Game 6, even though the sore ankle left him with very little mobility. The injury rendered Russell ineffective, and the Hawks' Bob Pettit poured in 50 points to give St. Louis a 110-109 victory and the championship.
1958-59: Celtics Get Another Jones And Another Title
Boston only got better when the next season rolled around. K. C. Jones joined the team after a two-year stint in the Army, and second-year player Sam Jones was blossoming into a solid contributor. The Celtics posted a 52-20 mark in 1958-59 and led the NBA in field goals made, rebounds, assists, and points per game. Cousy paced the circuit in assists (6.8 apg), and Russell led the league in rebounds (23.0 rpg).
Boston faced a surprisingly troublesome Syracuse team in the Eastern Division Finals. The Nationals' roster included veteran players George Yardley, Dolph Schayes, and Larry Costello, plus a promising young guard in Hal Greer. The series went the distance before the Celtics prevailed in Game 7, 130-125.
Instead of the anticipated renewal of the St. Louis-Boston rivalry in the NBA Finals, the Celtics faced the upstart Minneapolis Lakers, a young team riding on the heroics of rookie star Elgin Baylor. The Lakers were no match for the Celtics, however, and Boston swept the series to reclaim the championship.