It is now wholly reasonable for the National Basketball Association to disseminate news of its annual playoffs by sending out fill-in-the-blanks postcards the way people do from the seashore:
"Greetings from Boston and——! Led by Bill Russell, this year the Celtics won four games to——. It was their——straight championship. Losing coach——said this Boston team was the 'greatest ever.' "
Fill-ins for this year, in order, are: Los Angeles; one; seventh or umpteenth; Fred Schaus.
This victory for Boston was more repetitive than competitive. The Lakers put on a game performance without their All-Pro, Elgin Baylor, in a cast after an injury in the opening minutes of the Baltimore semifinal series. Guards Dick Barnett and Jim King were substantially affected by lesser ailments, and the team was simply outmanned all over the court—at center, at the forwards, at the guards and on the bench. On defense, no team is close to the Celtics; on offense, they provide opponents with the most difficult problem in that area of pro-ball strategy known as match-ups, the balancing of personnel between teams.
So it was no surprise when Boston won the first two games with ease—first in a rout, then with a good effort to top a good one by L.A. Boston usually suffers a letdown in the third playoff game (it is 2-7 in those contests) and, sure enough, the Celtics were so inept in this third game that the sellout crowd seemed to take more interest in the business of Celtic Coach Red Auerbach's victory cigars. Every screwball in the place threw cigars at Auerbach or presented them to him or screamed at him about cigars. And the rest of the people just roared and roared every time it happened—the funniest thing since Joe Penner brought the house down by asking people if they wanted to buy a duck.
The real beauty of the third game was that Jerry West's brilliant efforts were rewarded at least once with victory. Though he got outstanding help from Center Gene Wiley and Forward LeRoy Ellis in this game, it was his 43 points that were most important. But then Boston came right back to win 112-99 in the key fourth contest, and the Celtics wrapped it up at home Sunday with a veritable slaughter, 129-96. Tra-la.
There was, really, none of the neon excitement of past finals. A Lakers' victory demanded that West ascend to impossible heights. "He alone carried them by Baltimore," said Cincinnati's Jack McMahon. "And if they beat Boston he'd have done it again. Then you'd have to say he's the greatest ever," added the man who coaches Oscar Robertson. West's play had put him firmly in Robertson's realm but, ironically, it was one of his rare bad nights that ruined L.A.'s chances in the fourth game.
K. C. Jones, the little man's Bill Russell, had held West firmly under control in the opening game, harassing him so that Schaus had had to relieve West of bringing the ball upcourt. But West had come right back with 45-and 43-point nights. "You only stop Jerry when he is having an off night," K. C. had said after the first game. "Guarding him is a guessing game."
Still, K. C. bothered West mightily at the start of the fourth game. Always staying between West and the ball, Jones cut Jerry's scoring chances in half. West got only four shots and made but one in the first period, and Jones, for his part, stole the ball four times.
Los Angeles fought from 12 back, however, with players like Ellis, Walt Hazzard and Don Nelson taking up the slack for West, and went six up at the half. K. C. picked up his fourth personal early in the second half and had to be relieved of his assignment on West. Then Jerry started getting open, and it looked as if L.A. had a real chance to tie the series. But again and again, 14 out of 15 times in one stretch, West missed, almost always by a hair.
At the other end, the Celtics began to improve. Inexorably they closed the gap, went ahead 77-74 on Tom Heinsohn's three-point play, and thereafter took solid control of the game. Captain Russell, who had spent the afternoon shopping for a pair of black Levi's for Auerbach, saved his best quarter of play for this time. And West, one of the best shooters in basketball, kept hitting the back rim. There was one more game, in Boston, to make it all official, but the NBA season had finally ended in Los Angeles—the same way it always does.
It is Russell, of course, who makes Boston so terribly imposing, but Russell is mostly defense. Forgotten sometimes is the difficulty of trying to contend with the Celtics' kaleidoscope of offensive skills. Each NBA game consists of five different duels, and for every team in the league there is another that is somehow best suited to contain its personnel. Baltimore, for instance, lost to the lowly New York Knickerbockers eight out of 10 times this year because the Knicks have a front line that could handle Baltimore's strong forecourt—the source of its power. Better teams, like Cincinnati and St. Louis, did not match up so well against Baltimore's strength and lost more to the Bullets than they won. Yet both Cincy and St. Louis completely dominated New York. Similarly, St. Louis gives Los Angeles fits because the Hawks, as Schaus points out, are the one team with two corner men (Bill Bridges and Mike Farmer) and two guards (Richie Guerin and Lenny Wilkens) who can contain both Baylor and West better than most.
But no team is Boston's nemesis. The only real threat to the Celtics is a single player, Will Chamberlain, whoever he plays for—because when Chamberlain faces Boston, Russell must concentrate on Wilt to the point that he is unable to help out his teammates on defense. Normally he not only covers his own man under the basket but is ready for whosoever manages to pierce the outer perimeter of defense; against Los Angeles, he even went out past the foul circle to help double-team West a few times.
Boston matches up just fine against Los Angeles, because it has even better men than does St. Louis to handle West and Baylor—K. C. Jones and Tom Sanders. In the playoffs L.A. faced two especially tough match-up problems with the Celtics. First, with Frank Selvy retired and Barnett slowed by his groin injury, the Lakers had no way of containing Sam Jones, who has become the touchstone of the Boston attack. The Lakers' other problem was even more complicated; it baffles every team in the league. The man is John Havlicek, agile enough to play guard at 6 feet 5, and big enough to play forward, too. "As a corner man, he's the quickest in the league," says the Lakers' Rudy LaRusso. "Put a little man on him, and he'll shoot over him; use a big man, and he'll drive." Los Angeles occasionally moved West underneath to guard Havlicek when he played the corner. "it isn't hard for me to do, but it puts me in a bad position for getting back on offense," West said.
Havlicek may see more of that strategy next year, because even he admits a quick small man like West is tougher on him than a slower big one. Late in the last game of the Philadelphia semifinals, the 76ers switched Hal Greer underneath to guard Havlicek and put 6-foot-6 Chet Walker outside on K. C. Havlicek scored only one point thereafter. Auerbach pooh-poohs this, however, as no more than an isolated incident. Also he knows that Boston gains—if not on offense, then on defense—when the opposition is forced to change its usual style through such match-ups. Actually Auerbach puts less emphasis on match-ups than other coaches do, which is not surprising considering that he has Russell for his equalizer and a varied and versatile cast that obliges the other teams to worry.
On the other hand, Auerbach gives a great deal of attention to psychology. He has had the material for all of these championship teams, but it also is true that his outstanding players—-Cousy, Sharman, Ramsey, Heinsohn, Russell—-were or are intelligent, high-key, dominant types. Somehow, though, Auerbach has kept personality problems out of the locker room, and that has played an important role in Boston's remarkable record. When men like Fred Schaus say the Celtics keep getting better, they may be influenced in part by the fact that the Celtics have always been a happy team and are getting no less happy. When Captain Russell came by with the black Levi's for Coach Auerbach the afternoon of the important fourth game, the two men laughed raucously over how poorly Russell had played in the third game. Auerbach smiled knowingly when Russell left, well aware that this session had helped Russell relax. He held the Levi's up for size. "These will be good," he said. "It rains a lot in Boston and sometimes I like to go out and walk in the rain."
It never seems to rain indoors for Red Auerbach.