Last Saturday, Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach had his entire squad inoculated against Asian flu. Such protection takes three weeks to become fully effective, at which point the regular season will be practically finished. But Red is no fool—he is looking forward to the championship playoffs that begin the second week in March.
The Celtics have won 48 games and lost only 13 this season, clearly demonstrating that they are still the best collection of basketball players in the world. But, ironically, they must again prove in the playoffs that they are the best in their own Eastern Division before they can go on to defend their NBA title. And this year's Eastern playoffs should be the toughest in pro history.
Two big reasons are the giants on the opposite and following pages-Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain (13) and Boston's Bill Russell—whose performances will have the greatest bearing on the result. Over a long season, a team's record reflects the strengths and weaknesses of all its players. But in just a few games, the inspired play of one man may often bring victory to an inferior team. Last year, for example, four brilliant performances by Minneapolis' Elgin Baylor eliminated a much superior St. Louis team from the Western Division playoffs. This year, if Chamberlain literally overwhelms his playoff rivals single-handedly—an entirely reasonable prospect—Philadelphia will be the new champions. On the other hand, if Russell rises to his usual playoff heights, it will take more than Chamberlain to beat Boston.
Actually, it is possible that Boston and Philadelphia may not even meet in the playoffs. The mechanics are simple enough. The teams finishing the season in last place in each division are automatically eliminated—so that New York in the East and Cincinnati in the West are almost surely out of it. In the few remaining games, neither has much chance of catching the third-place teams. In the East, therefore, Philadelphia and Syracuse (the second-and third-place teams) will play a best two-out-of-three series. The winner will play Boston in a best four-out-of-seven series for the Eastern divisional title. The same eliminations will take place in the West, and then the two division winners will play four-out-of-seven for the world championship. It is worth pointing out that the players have no stake in prolonging any of the playoff series. A month ago, the playoff pool was fixed at $100,000. Members of the championship team will receive $3,600 apiece; the other teams will receive proportionately less, depending on the order of finish.
In the East, Syracuse is the team that, year after year, seems to improve most at playoff time. Last season New York beat Syracuse nine times in 12 regular games, yet in the playoffs Syracuse eliminated New York in two straight games, then extended Boston to seven games before losing the Eastern title.
One reason behind such well-timed excellence is that Syracuse's old hands, Dolph Schayes, George Yardley and Johnny Kerr, are money players in the best sense of that term. Schayes, especially, is the kind of intense competitor who is at his best when he has to be.
Another reason is Coach Paul Seymour's proved ability to point his men for a particular contest. Seymour's strategy reflects his belief that there are two critical periods during a game—at the start and right after half-time intermission. He feels that the team that can go into high gear at the tip-off, without any preliminary feeling-out of the opposition, assumes the psychological advantage. In a single playoff game, such an advantage is particularly valuable. It can decide the series.
Syracuse also has the fastest back-court in the league in Hal Greer and Larry Costello, and one of the best shooters in rookie Dick Barnett. Nevertheless, only a supreme effort by Syracuse will eliminate Philadelphia. Game by game during the season, the Warriors have been learning how best to take advantage of Chamberlain's unquestioned offensive superiority, man-for-man, over anyone in basketball. For a while their attempts to feed him the ball in the right place at the right time were awkward and often resulted in steals by the opposing team. It appeared that they were forcing a play where none really existed. Now, however, they set up the play and make it repeatedly despite sagging defenses that nearly envelop Chamberlain. In addition, Wilt has begun to show some versatility when he does get the ball. He no longer relies exclusively on his fall-away jump shot which leaves him out of position for rebounds. Often he sets sail relentlessly for the basket and either drives in or draws fouls. Because of his height and immense strength, there are simply no defenses against such tactics. Astray elbow of St. Louis' Clyde Lovellette, which caught Chamberlain smack in the mouth and jarred loose two of his front teeth, is the one thing that has stopped Wilt this year. Both teeth were extracted, and though his upper lip is still badly swollen, Chamberlain will surely be fit and ready at playoff time.
NEEDED: FULL STRENGTH
No matter which of these teams Boston meets in the Eastern title playoff, Red Auerbach will need all of his players—fluless and in condition for a scrap. Though the record hardly reflects it, Auerbach has been playing without one of his starters, Jim Loscutoff, nearly all season. Loscutoff will not be back until next year when he should be recovered from a slipped-disk operation; his stamina and sheer strength were always welcome assets, especially at the end of a long season. Happily, Tom Heinsohn has come through handsomely this year. He is Boston's top scorer (with a 21.6 average) and second-best re-bounder. He gives the Celtics strong balance at one corner to match the great outside shooting the team has always had.
Much has been said about Boston's strong reserves, and certainly the likes of Sam Jones, Gene Conley and K. C. Jones are a reassuring sight on the bench. But the fact is that Boston will not win the playoffs unless the regulars—Heinsohn, Cousy, Russell, Sharman and Ramsey—are at their peak throughout most of every game. No one can get the ball for this team like Russell. (He set a new rebound record, 51, two weeks ago.) No one organizes an offense like Cousy. (He is leading the league by more than 200 assists.) No one shoots the clutch baskets like Sharman. No one slips away from his defensive man so easily and makes so many in-the-clear layups as Ramsey. All together, this is an unbeatable combination over a 75-game season.
But the team balance is delicate. There is enough of every ingredient, but for one special job—rebounding—there is only Bill Russell, and for playmaking there is only Bob Cousy. In a short playoff, one sprained ankle can throw the Celtics out of kilter. Just such an injury—to Russell two years ago—caused Boston to lose in the playoff to St. Louis. Few outsiders knew it but at the same time that Russell was hobbling around on one leg, Cousy had a bad bone bruise on his right foot. If they are injured again, the Celtics won't be saved by all the flu serum in the world.
Barring such accidents, Boston should again face St. Louis for the world championship. Anticipating this, Ben Kerner, the Hawks' shrewd horse trader, has been making deals aimed at taking advantage of the Celtics' one slight weakness, in the corner opposite Heinsohn. Through trades, Kerner has added Larry Foust and Dave Piontek to his already strong front line of Pettit, Hagan and Lovellette. Foust, especially, will help in spots, but the Hawks' regulars will have to carry the main burden, and the feeling here is that Boston is still the better team. If the Celtics get by the Eastern playoffs, they will repeat as champions.