1969 NBA Finals: Boston 4, L.A. Lakers 3
West's Heroics Can't Deprive Russell of 11th Title
Championship No. 11 was a bit tougher for Boston. The 1968-69 season found player-coach Bill Russell struggling with leg injuries that forced a brief hospitalization. With Sam Jones also hurting, Boston came to rely on John Havlicek and Bailey Howell again.
In a blockbuster move, rival Philadelphia had traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Celtics still struggled in the Eastern Division, finishing fourth with a 48-34 record. But once in the playoffs, they drew on their pride and chased off the upstarts one final time. First Philadelphia, then New York fell.
The Lakers, meanwhile, moved through the Western Division competition and advanced to the most disappointing of their Finals meetings with the Celtics. Although he'd been crestfallen after each previous loss, Jerry West had justified them each year by pointing out that Boston had the better team. But that was no longer the case in 1969. Los Angeles had taken the top seeding in the West with a 55-27 record, and thus had the home-court advantage for the NBA Finals with Boston.
For the first time in their meetings, the Lakers had a real center to use against the Celtics. Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and West were at the heart of the lineup, but there was more. There was Keith Erickson, a UCLA alumus recently acquired from Chicago. There was veteran guard John Egan to boost the backcourt and 7-foot former Celtic Mel Counts to do the same up front.
Havlicek was the focus of the Boston offense, scoring 21.6 points per game. Howell followed him at 19.7. Jones, Larry Siegfried, Don Nelson and Satch Sanders all scored in double figures. The aging Russell, meanwhile, managed to appear in 77 games and averaged 9.9 points.
As the playoffs neared, the mutterings gave the team a sense of urgency, particularly for Russell, who had private thoughts about ending his career. "He didn't tell us," Howell said. "But he knew he was gonna retire, so he had an extra incentive to go out as a champion."
The Lakers, meanwhile, entered the Finals with their own issues to contemplate. They had lost six previous NBA Finals to the Celtics (once when the Lakers had been based in Minneapolis), and while that would naturally seem to add pressure, West said that wasn't the case in 1969. "I never looked at it as pressure," he said. "You always had your goals and aspirations of winning a championship. We were always pretty concentrated in getting there."
Determined not to endure another championship loss, West came out smoking in the 1969 NBA Finals. He scored 53 points in Game 1, while Chamberlain and Russell engaged in a classic struggle underneath. Havlicek scored 39 points for Boston, but the Lakers won 120-118.
West cooled down to 41 points in Game 2, while Havlicek upped his total to 43. Very quickly, the series had become a shootout between these two. Chamberlain scored only four points, but he countered Russell on the boards. Even better, Baylor, who had been sluggish, came alive to score the Lakers' last 12 points for another Los Angeles win, 118-112.
Up two games to none, the Lakers had private thoughts of a sweep as the teams returned to Boston. The Celtics took an early lead, but Los Angeles took control of the third period after Erickson poked a finger in Havlicek's left eye. The Lakers tied the score heading into the fourth and seemed poised to go up by another game, but the Garden crowd helped pump the Celtics up for one final offensive surge. Havlicek, with his left eye shut, hit the late free throws to keep Boston alive, 111-105. He finished with 34 points.
Even though they had gotten close in Game 3, Game 4 provided the real opportunity for the Lakers to strike the knockout blow. It was one of those old-fashioned furious defensive battles that Russell loved to wage. The two teams combined for 50 turnovers and enough bad shots and passes to last a month.
After Game 1, the Celtics had taken to double-teaming West, forcing him to make the pass rather than take the shot. That slowed the Lakers' scoring. Over the final four minutes of Game 4, the two teams had one basket between them. But with 15 seconds left, the Lakers had an 88-87 lead and the ball. All they had to do was get the pass in safely and run out the clock. Instead, Emmette Bryant stole it and the Celtics raced the other way. Jones missed the jumper, but Boston controlled the rebound and called time with seven seconds left.
On the inbounds pass, Bryant threw the ball to Havlicek, then set a pick to his left. Nelson and Howell followed in line to make it a triple pick. At the last instant, Havlicek passed to Jones, cutting to his right. Jones stumbled to a halt behind Howell, who cut off West. There, at the three-second mark, Jones lofted an 18-footer. He slipped as he took the off-balance shot, and it just cleared Chamberlain's outstretched hand.
Jones figured it was going to miss and even tried to pull it back, he explained afterward. The ball went up anyway, hit on the rim, bounced up, hit the back of the rim, and fell in. Chamberlain leaped up and hung above the basket, his face a picture of anguish as the ball came through the net.
Boston had tied the series by winning 89-88, and a dagger in West's heart wouldn't have felt any worse. "The Lord's will," he said later.
"I thought to shoot it with a high arc and plenty of backspin," Jones explained. "So if it didn't go in, Russell would have a chance for the rebound." Russell wasn't even in the game, one scribe pointed out. "What the hell," Siegfried said. "You hit a shot like that, you're entitled to blow a little smoke about arc and backspin and things like that."
The Lakers regrouped and headed home for Game 5. In Los Angeles, the Celtics just didn't have it. Russell scored only two points with 13 rebounds. Chamberlain owned the inside, with 31 rebounds and 13 points, while West and Egan rained shots down from the perimeter with 39 and 23 points, respectively. Boston fell 117-104 and trailed three games to two.
West, however, had injured his hamstring and was hobbled. He played in Game 6 in Boston and scored 26 points, but the Lakers needed more from him, and certainly more from Chamberlain, who scored a mere two points. Boston won 99-90 and tied the series at three games apiece.
Once again a Celtics-Lakers series had come down to a seventh game, but this time Game 7 was in Los Angeles. This time there wouldn't be a Garden jinx. Or would there? West's hamstring had worsened. But it was wrapped and he declared himself ready to go. But everyone wondered -- everyone except Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.
As the series returned to California, Cooke began planning his victory celebration. He visualized the perfect finale for a championship season. He ordered thousands of balloons suspended from the Forum rafters.
No one was more infuriated by the balloons than Jerry West. The thought of them made him sick with anger. Meanwhile, the Celtics, always looking for that extra motivation, found it in the Forum rafters. They hit eight of their first 10 shots on the way to a quick 24-12 lead.
The Lakers charged back to pull to within three points, 28-25, at the end of the first period, and at the half it was 59-56, Celtics. Bryant and Havlicek had carried the scoring load for Boston, and Russell had performed the boardwork.
The Lakers tied the score in the third quarter before going cold for five minutes. West, playing brilliantly despite his heavily bandaged leg, finally hit a shot to slow down the Celtics, who led 71-62 with about five minutes to go in the third. Then, with 3:39 left, Russell took the ball inside against Wilt, scored, and drew Chamberlain's fifth foul to round out a three-point play that made it 79-66, Boston.
Chamberlain had played his entire NBA career, 885 games, without ever having fouled out. Lakers coach Butch van Breda Kolff decided to leave him in. With Wilt playing tentatively, Boston moved inside and took a 91-76 lead into the fourth.
The lead grew to 17 points early in the fourth, but both Russell and Jones picked up their fifth fouls. Then West went to work, hitting a bucket, a free throw and then another bucket. The lead dropped to 12 points. The teams traded free throws. Then Havlicek got his fifth foul, and moments later Jones closed his career out with his sixth. He had scored 24 points for the day. After a Baylor bucket and three more points by West, the Celtics answered only with a Havlicek jumper, and the lead was down to nine points, 103-94, with a little more than six minutes to play.
At the 5:45 mark, Chamberlain went up for a defensive rebound and came down wincing. He had hurt his knee. He asked to be taken out, and van Breda Kolff sent in Counts. West hit two free throws, and the lead was cut to only seven points. Russell and his teammates were out of gas, hoping to coast to an easy win. But another jumper and two more free throws from West made the score 103-100.
With three minutes to go, Counts surprised everyone by popping a jumper to make it a one-point game. Chamberlain was ready to come back in, but van Breda Kolff resisted. "We're doing well enough without you," the coach told his center. West, at the time, was unaware of this exchange, and when he later learned of it, he was incredulous.
Boston and Los Angeles traded missed free throws. With a little more than a minute left, West knocked the ball loose on defense. Nelson picked it up at the free-throw line and threw it up. It hit the rim, rose up a few feet, and dropped back through. The Lakers missed twice, then the Celtics committed an offensive foul while an angry Chamberlain watched from the bench. After a few meaningless buckets it was over. The Celtics had hung on to win their 11th championship, 108-106.
All of this mattered little to Jerry West. He was overwhelmingly disgusted with another loss. He had finished Game 7 with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. West was named the Finals MVP, the first and only time in NBA Finals history that the Most Valuable Player award has gone to a member of a losing team. The gestures were nice, West said, but they didn't address his agony.
The Lakers, however, had no one but themselves to blame. They had made only 28 of 47 free-throw attempts. Always a poor shooter from the line, Chamberlain was only 4-for-13. But the fault didn't belong entirely to Chamberlain. He had hit seven of eight shots from the field and had pulled down 27 rebounds. Russell, who had played five more minutes, had 21 boards.
Three months after the season, Russell officially announced his retirement. The Boston dynasty was over, at least the Russell edition of it. The Celtics had won 11 titles in 13 years, a string unmatched by any team in any major sport.
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