SI Vault
Frank Deford
April 14, 1969
After a decade of glory, the Boston veterans were the poorest qualifiers in the Eastern Division playoffs, but they drew strength from a proud tradition and won the right to meet New York in the semifinal round
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April 14, 1969

Comebacks All Over

After a decade of glory, the Boston veterans were the poorest qualifiers in the Eastern Division playoffs, but they drew strength from a proud tradition and won the right to meet New York in the semifinal round

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The experts were surprised last week when the annual Spring Offensive began on schedule. After all, the troops from the North had suffered their worst reverses in years last winter, and all reports indicated that the gaunt, bearded old leader was no longer capable of rallying his forces. Particularly upsetting to the stalwarts of the South was the fact that the Spring Offensive against them began as successfully as always even though they had increased their numbers in uniform by 17% this year, on top of a 20% increment last year. Moreover, while assurances had been given that infiltration had been halted, the bearded old one and his cigar-smoking chief personnel officer had once again recruited a veteran defector to lead the guerrilla action that was so vital in their early hit-and-run victories. Not only that, but as the conflict escalated into the next round of engagements, stunned observers had to admit that it was the men of the North who were deepest in reserves and best prepared for a protracted siege.

Decoding this captured document, it appears that Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics are up to their perennial playoff antics. Despite a desultory fourth-place finish, they whipped runner-up Philadelphia 4-1 in the first round, and moved into the semifinals of the NBA playoffs against New York, which pasted division champion Baltimore in four straight.

Boston is supposed to be too old. This is a recording. Boston is supposed to be too old. This is a recording. The Celtics' eight regulars average over 30 years of age and, besides, Boston is not supposed to have eight regulars. Expansion drafts in the last two years were guaranteed to deplete the Celtic roster, but Boston came into the playoffs deeper than any other team. In addition, the Celtic fast break—when there was one—was being run by Emmette Bryant, who played for the Knicks last year.

If the Celtics bear a resemblance to the Viet Cong, the Knicks are reminiscent of those few surviving Legionnaires in Beau Geste who ran around the fort firing the guns still held by their fallen comrades. The Knicks only seem to come on in waves; in fact, they have only five, a minimum number, of regulars. The sixth man is a rookie named Mike Riordan, who has the map of Ireland on his face and a shillelagh in either hand. His job is to mug the first man who crosses the midcourt line with the ball. The rest of the bench is composed of three seldom-used subs who enter the lineup periodically and hold a finger in the dike. Old Dixieland buffs will remember the Knicks as the Firehouse Five Plus Who.

The bench could give the Knicks only two points in the opening game against Boston, so the Spring Offensive rolled right on through Madison Square Garden 108-100 without so much as an Easter ceasefire. Though the tempo was often deliberate, the Knicks appeared tired at the end, for the first time in the playoffs. Bryant and John Havlicek took the Celtics on just enough bursts to keep New York off balance, and it really was not close except that the Knicks out-scored Boston 26-11 during two stretches when ex-Knick Bryant was resting. He had 13 points, eight assists and 11 rebounds, as the Celtic forwards boxed out well.

In winning the opener Boston helped expose as nonsense any talk of a home-court advantage in this kind of series. The four teams that made the Eastern playoffs all are part of megalopolis, and the squads do not so much travel as commute to each city. Counting the San Francisco- Los Angeles series, where the same shuttle geography was involved, visiting teams won 11 of 15 first-round games. Also, while pro basketball fans are more numerous and more rabid than ever, they are set far back from the court in the large new arenas, so that their noisy, partisan presence is no longer oppressive.

Another kind of travel was a more significant factor in both series: that is, running. The Knicks, muscling on the boards and contesting the outlet passes at both ends, effectively stopped Baltimore's Wes Unseld-Earl Monroe fast break. Boston, on the other hand, was able to reestablish its running game early in the Philadelphia series and win the first two games with it impressively. The Celtics staggered the rest of the way but held on.

A week before the regular season ended, the Celtics were humiliated on national television, losing by 35 points, 108-73, to Los Angeles. After this debacle, Russell roasted his charges. "It was more a harangue than a speech," he says. "You could not call anything with so many four-letter words a speech." He saved some of the choicest opprobrium for himself. Acrimony out of the way, the Celtics then set about a more technical appraisal of their deficiencies. "It wasn't a very difficult analysis," John Havlicek says. "We had stopped running. We were slowing the offense down and getting only about 80 to 90 shots a game. And we don't have a good one-on-one player on this team."

"Our first priority must be the fast break," Russell says. "Unless we call a play in the huddle or in the backcourt for a specific reason, we look for the break. If that fails, we still should get the ball up fast and see what develops. Free-lance. Only after that should we go for a set play."

The trouble was, Russell was not hitting the boards, so the others were lingering behind to help him, and there was no one out front to lead the break even if the Celtics did get the rebound. Moreover, Russell was often slow getting down on offense, so the Celtics were tardy setting up plays anyway. They had trapped themselves in the worst of both worlds.

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