From a locker room in Cincinnati last week, following one of the very few games the Boston Celtics have had to win over the past 10 years, came these remarks:
"We're old guys. We can't keep this up too much longer."
"Thirty-two. I'm gettin' up there. It's tougher now."
"Sunday afternoon games after Saturday night games—those are the killers."
Take all of this with salt grains. The talk was by Celtics. So was the victor that night. For a while it had looked as if the era of the winningest team in professional sport was about to end. The Celtics had won seven straight world championships but they were behind two games to one in the Eastern Division semifinal playoffs against the Cincinnati Royals. One more loss and it would be all over.
Boston had struggled all season—advancing age, the loss of hard-driving, offensive-minded corner man Tom Heinsohn and too much dependence upon defense were factors—and had finally been unable to win its own division for the first time in a decade. Knowing that pride had forced the Celtics to go all out to win and that the players might be emotionally and physically debilitated, Cincinnati was eager to take them on. And if the Royals couldn't do the job, Philadelphia was in the wings for the Eastern finale.
Cincinnati had coasted at the end and was fresh for the playoffs. The Royals had a coach whose job was in danger and players named O, Luke, Odie and Happy to make it even more interesting. But they found out that some old dogs never die; they just lie there and kick hell out of you.
Old-dog, living on defense and pride, is what the Celtics have been for some time, done are the explosive bursts, sustained for up to five minutes, that blew opponents off the court. "Now," as one longtime Boston observer says, "the bursts stop a lot sooner."
To document fully the Celtics' slide this year, one has to go beyond old age (Satch Sanders is the only regular starter under 30) and the absence of Heinsohn. Boston's average winning spread per game in the good years once reached almost 10 points through an 80-game schedule. This year it was down to 4.4. Obviously, the Celtics have been increasingly dependent upon a defense which is just not that good anymore. More significantly, the rest of the league has come up a lot more than Boston has come down. (The Celtics won 54 games this season, more than in three of their championship years.) "Man, I wish people would realize the league is so much better now." says Sanders. "Philadelphia this season is the equal of any of our great teams," says K. C. Jones.
Trying to win the regular season and a much-needed rest before the playoffs, the Celtics pushed themselves to the brink. They won their last six in a row but Philadelphia won 11 straight and the division by a game. Cincinnati, meanwhile, dropped six of its last seven, obviously relaxing. This is what may account for Boston's getting off to bad starts in each of the first three playoff games, losing two and looking sluggish throughout.
"Discount this home-court business." Royal Coach Jack McMahon said then, when all games had been won by the visiting team. "During the season you let up away from home, figuring to makeup your mistakes later. In the playoffs there is no later, so no slack-off."
Jerry Lucas was outplaying Bill Russell. Oscar Robertson was outplaying even body and Happy Hairston was coming in to help win games like the Boston sixth men used to. After the second loss, at Boston, K.C., normally poker-faced, reticent and unemotional, cried in the locker room. John Havlicek said he felt "terrible pressure," and Russell moved solemnly, shrouded in gloom. The old champ was battered and staggering.
Then, by the afternoon of the fourth game, the atmosphere of despair had vanished. Call it second wind—or last wind hut the Celtics relaxed at their hotel in Cincy, Russell looking like a huge Dracula in his special-order black cape with the sleeves-within-sleeves. Some went to a movie, The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World. ("Worst movie in the world," said Auerbach.) Confidence took over; the team ordered tickets for a fifth game in Boston
Warm wishes came from the Renal fans—"Last game. Arnold." "You choke bums." and "Good old Celtics done shot their wad" in singsong—as Auerbach came into Cincinnati Gardens. The Celtics spread a tomblike atmosphere through their dressing room, which is the sign that they are ready.
Auerbach started Havlicek instead of Willie Naulls, hoping for an early spurt, and the Celtics jumped to a quick lead for the first time in the series. They sustained a running game based on the best rebounding of the playoffs, taking advantage of a knee injury that limited Lucas' lateral movement. With great shooting from Sanders early and Sam Jones later, Boston took Cincinnati apart in the third quarter and won 120-103. It was the critical game.
Back in Boston the next day, at a short practice in the Cambridge YMCA, Russell was animated for the first time in the series. He was "the ball handler"—dribbling between his legs, passing behind his back, laughing in that high-pitched whinny. Auerbach. too, no longer possum-eyed, looked relieved. "I didn't want to end my career in Cincinnati," he said.
Despite a newspaper strike that hampered publicity, the Garden was sold out two hours after tickets went on sale. The corridor outside the Celtic dressing room was jammed before the game, while inside there was a little more movement, a little more talk, than at Cincinnati.
On the court Auerbach greeted Boston Mayor John Collins and Massachusetts Governor John Volpe and started Havlicek again. But the Celtics did not get off well this time. They trailed by eight early in the first quarter, mulling passes and letting Robertson have too much room. It was not until early in the second period that they caught up. But when they did, it was with a sense of' not looking back. Sam Jones hit two jumpers at the end of the half and two more to start the third quarter, pushing the Boston lead from three points to eight. Cincinnati newer came back. The Celtics won 112-103; it was still an era.
Two minutes from the end Mayor Collins lit Auerbach's cigar, and the crowd went wild. Too wild. One overzealous supporter almost got a punch in the mouth for his happy rough-up job on the coach. Auerbach's insistence afterward that "it was just a semifinal playoff—why all the excitement?" did not keep a cast of thousands out of the dressing room. Red forgot it had been a long time since Boston had seen a semifinal playoff, "first time we've had to do this." said Sam Jones. "At least we ran better the last two games." said Havlicek. "That—and Russell."
Havlicek had a point. In the fourth quarter Cincinnati was rallying from 12 points back and seemed on the verge of something big. But every time the lead dropped to six, the Royals faltered. The reason—it has been the same for 10 years—was Russell. He was clearing the defensive board brilliantly, blocking movement, even driving on offense and dominating that board, too. Cincinnati could not cope with him.
Two days later, in the first game of the Eastern finals, Philadelphia found the whole Boston team too much to cope with. Breezing for the last 10 minutes, the Celtics won easily 115-96. The 76ers were learning about old dogs, too.