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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Tommy Heinsohn Explains the "Secret Weapon" That Helped the Celtics Win so Many Championships

Tommy Heinsohn won eight championships as a player for the Boston Celtics before leading the franchise to two titles as head coach. He is one of just four people--John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens are the others--enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. During his September 2015 speech after being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, Heinsohn provided some insights about why the Boston Celtics were so successful for so long. It all started with Red Auerbach, who built the Celtics into a powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heinsohn declares, "Red’s style of play: the philosophy was to destroy the will of the other team to beat you and his strategy was to put you to the supreme mental and physical test. We had this uptempo game called the fast break. This put you, including the big guys, to the ultimate physical test of sprinting on every possession. He also implemented an aggressive defense and we had the ultimate stopper in Bill Russell." 

So much is made now of "analytics" and the value of pushing the pace and spreading the court but Auerbach figured all of this out decades ago without using a spreadsheet. Heinsohn states simply, "The secret weapon of the Boston Celtics for over 30 years" was "the pace of the game." This made the other team pay a physical price by forcing the other team to play faster than they were comfortable playing and making them "think fast while running backwards." Heinsohn compares this to racing against the world's best marathoner by using a relay team.

Heinsohn has worked as a broadcaster for decades now and he says that when he meets with coaches before games they will often say that they want to push the pace but Heinsohn believes that most coaches do not understand what that means. Heinsohn is appalled when he sees a big guy retrieve the ball after a made basket and walk out of bounds to pass the ball into play; he trained all of his players--even his big guys--to be able to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. The point was to get the ball in play and up the court as fast as possible before the defense can get set.

Heinsohn admits that when he became a coach he did not see a reason to deviate much from Auerbach's approach. The Boston teams that Heinsohn coached were small but they were tough, they rebounded ferociously and they ran the court relentlessly. His 1972-73 team went 68-14 in the regular season featuring a lineup of 6-9 center Dave Cowens, 6-7 power forward Paul Silas, 6-5 small forward John Havlicek, 6-5 shooting guard Don Chaney and 6-3 point guard Jo Jo White. The undersized Celtics led the league in rebounding and might have won the championship if Havlicek had not injured his shoulder during the playoffs. In 1973-74, that same group posted a 56-26 record (second best in the NBA), led the league in rebounding and beat the 59-23 Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to win the Celtics' first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. The 1974-75 Celtics tied with the Washington Bullets for the best record in the NBA (60-22), finished second in the league in rebounding and lost to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1975-76, the Celtics replaced Chaney with Charlie Scott, a 6-5 shooting guard who won the 1972 ABA scoring championship (34.6 ppg) before making the All-Star team three years in a row as a Phoenix Sun. The Celtics went 54-28--the second best record in the NBA behind only the defending champion Golden State Warriors--and led the league in rebounding en route to claiming their second title in three years.

The Golden State Warriors who won last year's NBA title and who are running roughshod over the league so far this season are not doing much that is new and they certainly are not in any way vindicating either "analytics" (an example of the result of blindly following "analytics" can be found in Philadelphia) or Mike D'Antoni (whose teams did not focus enough on defense and rebounding). It does not take fancy calculations and an M.B.A. to figure out how to build a winning basketball team. Red Auerbach proved that more than 50 years ago, Tommy Heinsohn reaffirmed this in the 1970s and Heinsohn's Hall of Fame speech is a nice, brief tutorial for anyone who did not know or who needed a refresher course.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 PM


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