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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Classic Confrontations: Boston vs. St. Louis

This article was originally published in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest under the odd title "Intense While it Lasted."

Before the 1956-57 season the Boston Celtics traded two future Hall of Famers--center Ed Macauley and forward Cliff Hagan--to the St. Louis Hawks for the number two overall pick in the draft. Celtics coach Red Auerbach did this in order to select center Bill Russell, who had led the University of San Francisco to consecutive NCAA championships. The pre-Russell Celtics were somewhat like the current Dallas Mavericks--a potent offensive team loaded with All-Stars that had great regular season success but did not defend or rebound well enough to win a championship.

Russell was a tremendous student of the game. He knew all of his opponents' tendencies and he mastered intricacies such as keeping his blocked shots in play to ignite the fast break and having enough awareness of his body position to avoid fouling the offensive player when he went for the block. His only weakness was an unpolished offensive game, but Auerbach told Russell that he would never bring up Russell’s scoring average in contract negotiations.

Russell joined the Celtics in December 1956 after leading the U.S. basketball team to the gold medal in the Olympic Games. Russell's defense and rebounding turbocharged the Celtics' fast break, masterfully choreographed by point guard Bob Cousy, a perennial All-Star who won the 1956-57 NBA MVP. Indiana Pacers' broadcaster Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who played against Russell as a member of the Minneapolis (later Los Angeles) Lakers before coaching the Pacers to three ABA titles, says that Russell's Celtics had the best fast break ever, explaining that the Celtics' fast break was unique because of how perfectly suited the entire roster was to play that style: "Red knew that he had the boards because of Russell, but he had Cousy who was a master on the fast break. You let him get that outlet pass and get the ball in the middle and he could do wonders with it. They had runners--Tommy Heinsohn was a great runner. The first 'sixth man' in the NBA was Frank Ramsey. The most underrated guard I ever played against was probably Sam Jones. This guy could do it all--defend, score and he was a money player."

The Celtics and Hawks rivalry is special because after the big trade the teams met in four of the next five NBA Finals. Russell led the Celtics to 11 titles in his 13 seasons but the Hawks posed a significant challenge to Boston’s nascent dynasty, defeating Boston once and twice extending the Celtics to seven games. Hawks' coach Alex Hannum later coached the only other team that defeated Russell’s Celtics in a playoff series--the Wilt Chamberlain led 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1956-57 the Celtics escaped with a 125-123 game seven Finals triumph over St. Louis. Hawks' star forward Bob Pettit, the NBA's first regular season MVP (1955-56), had 39 points but missed a potential game tying shot at the buzzer after a length of the court pass by player-coach Hannum. Russell finished with 19 points and 32 rebounds, while fellow rookie Heinsohn had 37 points and 23 rebounds.

Russell sprained his ankle in game three of the 1958 Finals and the Hawks won 111-108 to take a 2-1 lead. Russell sat out games four and five, which the teams split. He was immobile and ineffective in 20 minutes of game six action and Pettit scored 50 points to lead the Hawks to a 110-109 victory; he scored 19 of the Hawks' last 21 points. Pettit's performance tied Cousy's single game playoff scoring record set in 1953, but Cousy's mark happened in a four overtime game. Auerbach refused to blame the loss on Russell's injury: "You can always look for excuses. We just got beat."

In 1958-59, rookie Elgin Baylor led his 33-39 Minneapolis Lakers to a 4-2 upset of the 49-23 Hawks in the Western Division Finals, only to be swept by Boston in the Finals. Boston blitzed through the 1959-60 regular season with a 59-16 record, but St. Louis extended the Celtics to seven games in the Finals before bowing 122-103. Russell's game seven line read 22 points, 35 rebounds and four assists.

In the 1961 Finals Boston triumphed 4-1 over the Hawks in the only lopsided playoff matchup between the teams. The teams never met again in the Finals, primarily because of the emergence of a new "classic confrontation" that would eventually occur more frequently than any other Finals pairing--Celtics versus Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:22 AM

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