Season Recaps - 1970s
1969-74: Russell Retires, And Dynasty Dies
The following season the inevitable finally occurred: Bill Russell retired after having won 11 championships in 13 years. Sam Jones's retirement was a loss to the team as well. Although the Celtics had a promising youngster in rookie guard Jo Jo White, a journeyman fourth-year 7-footer named Henry Finkel didn't exactly fill the gap that Russell left in the middle. The 1969-70 Celtics, under new head coach Tom Heinsohn, went 34-48 and finished out of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. The dynasty was officially dead.
The Celtics made wholesale changes before the 1970-71 campaign. Their new center was 6-9 rookie Dave Cowens. John Havlicek and nine-year veteran Don Nelson occupied the forward positions, and Don Chaney and Jo Jo White, a pair of 24-year-olds, provided both defense and scoring at the guard positions. The Celtics improved to 44-38 but finished out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. Cowens shared NBA Rookie of the Year honors with Portland's Geoff Petrie, marking the only time two players have tied for the award.
It didn't take the Celtics long to return to contention. Fielding the same lineup for the 1971-72 season, they climbed all the way back to the top spot in the Atlantic Division with a 56-26 record. Havlicek was now Boston's undisputed star. He finished third in the league in scoring (27.5 ppg) and fifth in assists (7.5 apg).
Cowens snared 15.2 rebounds per game to rank fifth in the NBA. But the team was not yet ready to make a convincing playoff run-Boston survived a six-game conference semifinal series against Atlanta, then fell to the New York Knicks in the conference finals.
The 1972-73 Celtics put together a remarkable regular season. The only change on the court was the addition of Paul Silas, a solid rebounder who came to Boston from the Phoenix Suns. Havlicek had another fine year (23.8 ppg), but Cowens emerged as the engine that drove the team, earning NBA Most Valuable Player honors by averaging 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds.
The team looked much like the Celtics of legend-a fast-breaking club that could outrun, outrebound, and outpass any opponent. Boston finished the regular season with a 68-14 record, just one victory shy of the NBA's all-time win mark. Still, the club wasn't quite championship caliber. The 1973 Playoffs were a repeat of the previous postseason, as Boston got by Atlanta in the conference semifinals before losing to the Knicks in the next round.
It had taken only a couple of years for the Celtics to become a balanced, seasoned team, and they were hungry for a championship. The lineup stayed the same for the 1973-74 campaign-John Havlicek, Paul Silas, and Dave Cowens up front, Don Chaney and Jo Jo White in the backcourt. Don Nelson and Paul Westphal provided support off the bench. After placing first in the Atlantic Division with a 56-26 record, Boston eliminated the young Buffalo Braves and then got past the Knicks easily in an Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
1974-75: One Of The Greatest Finals Ever
The NBA Finals saw the Celtics face off against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks. It was one of the greatest Finals in NBA history. The teams split the first four games, and after the Celtics won Game 5 in Milwaukee they headed back to Boston leading three games to two, with a chance to claim the title on their home court. But the Bucks won Game 6 when Abdul-Jabbar nestled in a hook shot with three seconds left in the game's second overtime, and the series returned to Milwaukee. Cowens was the hero in Game 7, scoring 28 points as the Celtics brought the title back to Boston for the first time in five years.
The Celtics used the same formula in the 1974-75 season to claim another Atlantic Division crown. With an emphasis on team balance, Boston continued to win without a giant in the middle. The team showed its depth by playing well even after losing Cowens to a broken foot halfway through the season. When he returned the club cruised to a 60-22 record. In the playoffs, however, Boston was ousted by the Washington Bullets (who had also posted a 60-22 mark) in the Eastern Conference Finals.
1975-76: Westphal Nearly Returns To Haunt Celtics
The Celtics lost Don Chaney to the American Basketball Association before the 1975-76 season. To fill the gap in the backcourt they traded Paul Westphal to Phoenix for Charlie Scott, who had averaged more than 20 points in each of the previous three seasons. Despite an uncharacteristically weak bench, the Celtics finished in first place in their division with a 54-28 record, second best in the league. Boston earned a shot at another NBA title by defeating Buffalo and then the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs.
Boston's opponents in the NBA Finals were the Phoenix Suns, who had posted a 42-40 regular-season record. The Team in Green was the oddsmakers' choice in the contest. The Celtics took the first two games at Boston Garden, but the Suns came right back to win Games 3 and 4 on their home court. Game 5 ranks among the all-time thrillers in NBA history. The Suns trailed by five points with less than a minute left on the clock, but Westphal made up the deficit almost single-handedly, sending the game into a first overtime period, which ended in a tie.
John Havlicek's basket with two seconds remaining in double overtime gave the Celtics a one-point lead, which Boston stretched to two points after sinking a technical foul shot. Then the Suns' Garfield Heard hit a last-second basket to send the contest into a third overtime. The longest game in NBA Finals history finally ended, after three extra periods, with the Celtics winning, 128-126. Two days later Boston captured yet another NBA championship, the 13th in franchise history.
1976-78: A Two-Year Dry Spell
After owning the top spot in the Atlantic Division for five years running, the Celtics entered a short period of decline with the 1976-77 season. John Havlicek, at age 36, was slowing down. Bad luck also played a role, as Charlie Scott missed almost half the season with a broken arm and Dave Cowens took a two-month leave of absence for personal reasons. Boston had an entirely new frontcourt in Sidney Wicks (acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers) and Curtis Rowe (who came from the Detroit Pistons in a three-way trade that sent Paul Silas to the Denver Nuggets); both players struggled with the new system.
The Celtics finished in second place with a 44-38 record. After bouncing San Antonio with a two-game sweep in a first-round series, Boston was eliminated by the Philadelphia 76ers in a seven-game conference semifinal matchup.
The 1977-78 campaign was a total failure. After an 11-23 start Head Coach Tom Heinsohn was replaced by former Celtics player Satch Sanders. Partway through the season Boston sent Charlie Scott to Los Angeles for Don Chaney and Kermit Washington (who had spent 60 days on the suspended list after seriously injuring the Houston Rockets' Rudy Tomjanovich in an early-season fight). Adding to the team's woes, Jo Jo White missed 36 games with a broken foot. Ultimately, Boston won only 32 games, the team's lowest total since the 1949-50 season.
1978-79: Boston Acquires Rights To Bird
Prior to the 1978-79 campaign the Celtics were involved in an unusual deal that saw owner Irv Levin, a California businessman who was very unpopular in Boston, trade franchises with John Y. Brown, owner of the struggling Buffalo Braves. Levin was anxious to own a club that played in his home state, and the NBA let him take the Braves to San Diego, where they became the Clippers.
The deal included a complicated seven-player trade in which Boston acquired Nate Archibald, Billy Knight, Marvin Barnes, and two future draft choices and San Diego received Freeman Williams (who was the Celtics' first-round selection in the 1978 NBA Draft), backup center Kevin Kunnert, and power forwards Kermit Washington and Sidney Wicks. Most importantly, Boston retained the draft rights to Larry Bird, although he didn't join the Celtics until the following year.
For all the wheeling and dealing, the Celtics had a dreadful season. John Havlicek had retired, and the Celtics won only 2 of their first 14 games, prompting the dismissal of Coach Sanders. Dave Cowens was named player-coach but he couldn't do much to improve the team, and the Celtics finished in the Atlantic Division cellar with a 29-53 record.
1979-80: From Worst To First
Boston went from worst to first the following season. The catalyst for the turnaround was Bird. Red Auerbach had waited patiently while Bird returned to Indiana State for the 1978-79 season to lead the Sycamores to the NCAA title game, which they lost to Michigan State and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. When Bird and Johnson entered the league together for the 1979-80 season (Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers), it marked the beginning of an era of unprecedented popularity for the NBA.
Although Johnson came away with an NBA championship in his first pro season, Bird earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors after putting up stellar first-year numbers: 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Out of the ashes of the previous two seasons, the Celtics emerged with a solid core of players. Third-year veteran Cedric Maxwell teamed up with Bird in the frontcourt, and Cowens continued to patrol the middle. The guards were Chris Ford, who had come to the Celtics the season before from Detroit, and Nate "Tiny" Archibald, who shook off injuries that had slowed him the previous three years to finish second in the league in assists with 8.4 per game.
After winning only 29 games the season before, the Celtics roared back in 1979-80 to post a 61-21 record. The 32-game improvement was a league record (later surpassed by San Antonio in 1989-90), and new coach Bill Fitch was named NBA Coach of the Year. Back in the playoffs after a two-year hiatus, Boston swept Houston in the conference semifinals before losing to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals.