The Boston Celtics were falling like the House of Usher—all in a heap, wham! into the depths. They were behind, 3-1, to Philadelphia and their eight years of world supremacy—the finest achievement of any team in the history of professional sports—seemed likely to become just a note in the record books. The approaching hour of defeat, all but inexorable despite a last-stand victory at home on Sunday, brought them one final tribute: they were being beaten by a team that is bigger, stronger and younger but is, nevertheless, patterned precisely after the Celtics themselves. "They are playing the same game that we've played for the last nine years," said K.C. Jones, not patronizingly but with admiration. "And they've gained respect and confidence in each other." Then, undoubtedly recalling the years when Wilt Chamberlain-led teams hardly displayed the selfless dedication that distinguished and inspired the Celtics, he added thoughtfully, "They have a real clean attitude."
That attitude, the essence of a champion that now invests the Philadelphia 76ers, was neatly illustrated by a minor incident in a game many years ago. Sam Jones—Sam, the marvelous shooter—had made the grade with the Celtics of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. He heard Cousy call to Red Auerbach on the bench, "Get him out, get him out!" and he wondered what he was doing wrong. A few seconds later, when Cousy called time out, Sam was told: you were not shooting enough. The idea had never occurred to him; it would not have occurred to a player on any other team, either. The reverse—shooting too much, trying for points without regard for his teammates—would have been the likely cause of a player's removal. But the Celtics, aware of Sam's ability, were working hard to set him up, and he had not been shooting enough. That's the kind of team the Celtics were and are, and that's the kind of team the 76ers have become.
It was fair to remember that about the Celtics at a time when strange things were suddenly visible in their play: Sam and John Havlicek missing shots again and again; Hal Greer getting away from K.C.; Tom Sanders wandering aimlessly on defense where once he strode like a little Bill Russell; and Russell himself, dominated by Wilt Chamberlain, looking, finally, like a little Bill Russell, too. Red Auerbach saw it all. He sat near the Boston bench, powerless to do anything but watch, with not even a program to squeeze in anguish.
The loyal Boston fans—displaying the mentality that makes it advisable to continue banning even the mildest sort of provocative literature from their bookstores—were not content to suffer quietly. In the second game, when the Celtics were stumbling and desperate, the boos—real and mean—tore out of the stands. They were directed mostly at Russell, who is, presumably only as good as his last eight straight championships.
The Celtics themselves made no excuse, nor did they have any. Their three defeats were decisive, and they accepted them with style. Yet except for the opening 127-113 rout, those games were close, and there were even times when it seemed they would pull it out as they always had before. Perhaps the most significant came in the second game, the first one in Boston, which the Celtics had to win or fall behind 2-0. That had never before happened in all the championship years. Seven times the Celtics had fallen behind 1-0 or 2-1 but had come back to tie the series. Ten times they had had to win or be eliminated. In those must games they had been 17-0. Now in the 18th, they moved in front 51-47 and then suddenly, as of old, burst far ahead. Russell signaled it by clobbering a Chamberlain shot, and the Celtics were off, all of them. After two quick baskets Sanders-swooping down, trailing, ready for the rebound if Bailey Howell missed the layup—saw it drop in, and in the pure exhilaration of the old Celtic chase he gave a little jump for joy, rising like a kid off his tippy-toes and flapping his arms. But Philly came right back with eight straight points, soon caught up and then moved ahead for good. The only sounds in Boston Garden came from the Celtic bench, the players there pleading for their teammates on the floor to call time-out so they could try to recover.
The Celtics did come back, to within a point, with 1:48 left. They did it with a pressing team, consisting of Russell and Havlicek and three guards—K.C., Larry Siegfried and rookie Jim Barnett. At this point everyone expected that Russell would bring another shooter into the game, Sam or Bailey Howell (who had shot 11 for 15). Instead, he played a pat hand, and after Chamberlain sank a foul the Celtics missed five straight shots before Wilt finally cleared the ball. Boston never scored again.
Afterward, Russell said that the decision not to substitute was his own. At least he had had a time-out to deliberate this point. At other times the Boston bench—looking like the Lost Boys when Peter Pan was away fighting pirates on his own—seemed out of sight, out of mind. It may be true that not even a complete series like this one furnishes the clinching argument against the idea of the playing coach. But logic indicates that a man playing 48 minutes and in the pivot and against Wilt Chamberlain can scarcely hope to match wits with a man like Alex Hannum, presiding vigilantly over the Philly bench.
It is worth noting, too, that St. Louis did not beat San Francisco in the Western playoffs until the only other NBA player-coach, Richie Guerin, removed himself from the starting lineup for the third game. True, Guerin was acting primarily for reasons other than just to obtain thinking room. He wanted to get Joe Caldwell (a 6'5" forward) into the lineup to shadow Rick Barry, and at the same time he wanted to keep his own high-scoring corner man, Lou Hudson, in the game. Caldwell guarded Barry, holding him to 11 points below Barry's playoff average against St. Louis, and then Joe switched with Hudson on offense, playing guard. Guerin used the same strategy in the fourth game and won again, though an ankle injury to Barry also helped the Hawks.
Russell had a lineup change himself for the third game. He started two from his pressing team, Havlicek and Siegfried, in place of Sanders and K.C. The Celtics pressed from the first, and the two teams were soon putting on a running exhibition that would have filled all the requirements for an adequate substitute program at Aqueduct. Such a tempo was bound to produce errors, but at the same time it was superb basketball. It was seesaw, but not in the usual basket-trading sense. Instead, the balance would shift for whole minutes, depending on who controlled the breaks.
Philadelphia won 115-104 because Chamberlain was better than Russell and because, on those occasions when the teams set up outside, the 76er shooting by Hal Greer and Wally Jones was more consistent than Boston's. Except for his petulant expressions at errors and whistles, Chamberlain was magnificent. He set a playoff record of 41 rebounds, many of them coming because he was trailing every Boston break and grabbing missed shots when he should have been gasping for breath at the other end of the floor. "I've never moved so much in my life," he said later. "Not even the night I scored 100." That says more about the way Chamberlain played in the series than all the testimonials offered by others. On offense there was no pressure on the 76ers to set up and wait for him to move into the pivot. On the contrary, by throwing the long lead pass repeatedly, Wilt was taking himself out of the offensive play, giving his fast-breaking teammates the scoring advantage. On defense his conscientious support allowed them to play the aggressive, gambling game that the Celtics have used with Russell for a decade.