As Boston fans had hoped, the Celtics returned with a vengeance to open the 1973-74 season, racing out to a 30-7 start. From there, however, they grew strangely complacent and barely played .500 ball over the remainder of the schedule.

Fortunately, they had the luck of the Irish with them. The Eastern Conference was a bit weak, with the defending NBA champion Knicks suddenly aging and injured. Boston finished 56-26, good enough for the best record in the conference, but short of Milwaukee's 59-33 mark in the West.

The Buffalo Braves and Bob McAdoo created problems for the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, but John Havlicek played well enough to help them advance in six games. The Knicks, with Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere injured, fell easily in five games, and Boston advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time ever without Bill Russell.

Milwaukee had prevailed in the West, dropping Los Angeles in five games and Chicago in four straight. The outcomes of the conference finals provided something of a prize for pure basketball fans, because the two best teams in the pro game were meeting in the championship round. Their matchup was an invigorating clash of styles. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his famed sky-hook, the Bucks were the consummate halfcourt team and nearly unstoppable when the big center got the ball in the low post. Bucks Coach Larry Costello and his assistant, Hubie Brown, had devised myriad schemes, all contained in a massive playbook that detailed options upon options.

The Celtics, on the other hand, were a small, quick, pressing and running team that approached things simplistically. Their starting front line measured 6-foot-7, 6-8 and 6-5. Coach Tommy Heinsohn knew that if his troops were going to win, the press would have to do it for them. They'd have to take the ball away before the Bucks ever got it upcourt to the big guy.

This, of course, highlighted the crucial glitch for the Bucks. Lucius Allen, the guard who shared the ballhandling chores with Oscar Robertson, had torn up his knee slipping on a warm-up jersey at the close of the season and was lost for the playoffs. Robertson was 35 years old and in the last season of his career. He faced the vaunted Boston press virtually alone. The Bucks still had Bobby Dandridge at forward and Jon McGlocklin at off guard, but their test would be to get the ball up the floor against Don Chaney.

Basketball purists also relished the idea of the small, quick Dave Cowens meeting the giant, athletic Abdul-Jabbar in the Finals. Under the Celtics' scheme, they would leave their center to fend for himself man-to-man. Fear, it seemed, was a good motivator for the redhead. As a rookie, Cowens once had watched helplessly as Kareem had scored 53 points against him. He knew it could happen anytime.

The Celtics wasted little time in playing their hand. In the first quarter of Game 1 in Milwaukee, they harassed Robertson and Allen's replacement, Ron "Fritz" Williams, into frequent turnovers and ran off to a 35-19 lead. The Bucks never solved their ballhandling problems and watched the Celtics dance off to a 98-83 shocker. Kareem had scored 35 points, but the offense remained in disarray.

The Bucks coach shifted strategy a bit for Game 2, pushing all the help upcourt and leaving Robertson to face Chaney alone. The new plan meant that Milwaukee conceded 22 turnovers, but it worked. Kareem scored 36 points, but more importantly, the big center was able to set up and run the offense in the halfcourt. He set picks and he passed, which was a factor in Dandridge scoring 24 points.

On the defensive end, Kareem forced Cowens into shooting 3-of-13 from the floor. With the score tied and down to one final shot, and Cowens open for a running hook in the lane, Abdul-Jabbar swooped down and blocked it. The Bucks took it in overtime, 105-96, to even the series at a game apiece as it headed to Boston.

Cowens responded in Game 3 by determinedly concentrating on his outside shot. Despite foul trouble that reduced him to 32 minutes of playing time, he scored 30 points. The Celtics' press also turned up the heat, forcing 11 first-quarter turnovers and helping Boston to a 21-point lead. With Cowens in foul trouble, seldom-used 7-footer Henry Finkel did an admirable job of spot defense on Kareem, who finished with 26 points. At game's end, the Bucks had turned the ball over 27 times, enough for a 95-83 Boston win.

Costello knew his team was in real trouble. McGlocklin had sprained an ankle early on and was unable to help. The Boston full-court press had destroyed Williams' confidence. The Bucks needed somebody to step forward at guard, so Costello called on 6-foot-7 Mickey Davis, a substitute forward who had played little guard over his three-year career. Davis, however, was tall enough to present major problems for White.

When Davis began scoring in Game 4, Heinsohn was forced to shift the taller Chaney to cover him, thus cutting the heart out of Boston's press. Robertson brought the ball upcourt relatively unmolested. Davis scored 15 points and Kareem got the ball in their halfcourt offense, where he shredded the Celtics for 34 points and six assists. Milwaukee got the lead and kept it down the stretch for a 97-89 win. That quickly, the teams' fortunes seemed to have reversed themselves. The Bucks headed back to Milwaukee with the home-court advantage restored and a series now reduced to three games. But good as it looked at the time, the home-court advantage proved worthless.

The Bucks had concentrated most of their defensive efforts on stopping 35-year-old John Havlicek, the silent but deadly part of Boston's operation. "When things are swinging easy, we all get in the flow of it," Paul Silas told the press. "And sometimes then it almost looks like we ignore John. But when things don't go well, we look to him all the time to make the tough play. We probably do it too much. Sometimes I'll have an open shot and still pass to him even though he's farther out and two guys are on him. We do this instinctively because he has usually been the guy who's turned bad moments into good ones for us."

Havlicek successfully stepped through and fought past the double-teams over the balance of the series. An incredibly conditioned athlete, he was able to keep running on offense and moving and crouching on defense after opponents many years his junior were winded. It was a natural gift, Havlicek often explained, and he used it to the fullest. He and the Celtics wore down the Bucks with their constant motion in Game 5, regaining the series edge, 3-2, with a 96-77 win that set up a classic Game 6 back in Boston.

Abdul-Jabbar turned in a classic performance in that contest, although that wasn't exactly what the packed house at the Garden had in mind on May 10. Cowens got into foul trouble early and watched from the bench as Milwaukee took a 12-point lead in the first half. The Celtics were down by six late in the game, but they came back to force overtime. With a little over a minute left in regulation, Havlicek hit a long jumper to tie it at 86 apiece, then Robertson was caught in a 24-second violation as time expired. In the first extra period, Milwaukee led 90-88 when Chaney got a steal and zipped the ball to Havlicek. Kareem was back on defense and forced him to take a pull-up jumper. Havlicek missed but got the long rebound and scored to send the game into a second overtime.

In the second extra period Havlicek scored nine of Boston's 11 points. With seven seconds left he had the ball on the right baseline, and the Boston bench screamed for a timeout. Instead, Havlicek lofted a rainbow over Kareem's outstretched hand. Good, for a 101-100 lead. It looked like champagne time.

But the Bucks called for a timeout, and for some strange reason they decided that Kareem shouldn't take the shot. Instead, he was to set a pick for McGlocklin, who had been hampered by a sprained ankle. When McGlocklin couldn't get free, Abdul-Jabbar, with the ball, moved to the right of the lane. He looked for the open man, but Boston had all options covered. So he dribbled to the baseline, turned and put up the sky-hook from 17 feet. Swish. Milwaukee, 102-101.

The Celtics put up a failed desperation heave, but that was it. Kareem had made a shot that left him lying awake in bed that night, still tingling with excitement. The series was tied at three games apiece and going back to Milwaukee.

The circumstances called for special efforts, so on the eve of the game, Auerbach called together the entire Boston brain trust, Bob Cousy included. They decided that for this final game, they would abandon their single-man coverage of Kareem and go for the double- and triple-teams.

With less of a defensive load, Cowens turned his thoughts to offense. He had shot a miserable 5-of-16 from the floor in Game 6. He remedied that in the first half of the seventh game, making 8-of-13 as Boston loped out to a lead and coasted down the stretch for a 102-87 win and Boston's 12th title. Cowens finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds.

Havlicek had scored 16 points while continuing to draw the Bucks' defensive attention. Soaked in pink champagne, he grinned broadly in the Celtics locker room afterward and accepted the Finals MVP Award. This young team had finally lived up to his standards and Bill Russell's tradition. Meanwhile, back in Boston, they were making room in the Garden rafters for title banner No. 12.