Bill Russell was Mr. Game 7
When it comes to dominant Game 7s, one player's record reigned above the rest. Bill Russell played in ten Game 7s and was on the winning team ten times. A spidery defender, Russell impacted games even when he wasn't scoring. But could score, too: It was not unsual for Russell to score 25 and snatch 30 to 40 rebounds in these back-to-the-wall contests. A key block, a rebound or a 30-point game on offense, Russell had an uncanny sense of what Boston needed to win. But his calling card was defense. Because of the tenacious way he guarded the nest against penetration, one Celtic mate called him "The eagle with a beard."
Here is my ordering of Russell's ten game sevens, ranked by his impact on the outcomes.
1. Los Angeles at Boston, April 18, 1962
Aiming for his fifth title in six seasons, Bill Russell, the MVP in 1962, was never better when it counted. Playing all 53 minutes (including overtime), he logged 30 points and grabbed 44 rebounds. Even a combined 76 points from Elgin Baylor and Jerry West fell short of eclipsing Boston's lead three of Russell, Sam Jones (27 points) and Frank Ramsay (23).
As regulation play ended, the game was tied at 100, but Sam Jones -- it's interesting how he seemed to be in the middle of every Celtic win -- scored five in the extra session and Russell had four.
Lakers' coach Fred Schaus used 6-8 Jim Krebs and 6-11 Ray Felix, thinking he would combine two mediocre centers and get one good one. It didn't work. The two combined for 10 points and 14 rebounds.
2. St. Louis at Boston, April 13 1957
It's hard to say which of Russell's Game 7 wins was hardest. Boston didn't skate through too many laughers. Was the last one the toughest, when a 35-year-old Russell left the floor exhausted with a two-point margin of victory? Or was it the first?
His first was against the St. Louis Hawks, a West powerhouse that competed in four finals in five years. The Hawks were ahead by a point in regulation with under a minute left. Jack Coleman drove in for a layup that would have upped the lead to three. But Russell chased him down from behind and blocked his shot. Years later Tommy Heinsohn said it was "the greatest play I never saw in basketball. That sumbitch went by me like I was standing still, and I was near midcourt. He was the fastest man on the team."
The score was tied at 103 after regulation. Sixth man Frank Ramsay led the scoring in the second overtime and Boston owned a 125-123 lead with a second left. Hawks' player-coach Alex Hannum wanted to inbound by heaving the ball the length of the court and off the backboard; he hoped Bob Pettit would grab it and score. The pass found the backboard. "I caught the ball in midair and shot it before I came down," Pettit said. "The ball rolled around the rim and came out. I should have made it; Alex's pass was perfect."
Russell contributed 19 points and 32 rebounds. But on this night coach Red Auerbach's one-time appraisal came to mind: "Russell introduced a new sound to the game -- the sound of his footsteps."
3. St. Louis at Boston, April 9, 1960
Three years later, Boston and St. Louis met for the third of four times. This Game 7 was anticlimactic, with Boston romping 122-103. Cousy was brilliant, giving Boston its fast-break elixir, a 41-23 second-quarter romp that wiped out a two-point deficit. Russell, twice dazed during the game from elbows to the head, had 22 points and 35 rebounds.
4. Los Angeles at Boston, April 28 1966
This was Red Auerbach's last game as head coach. The Celtics' players had a ritual. If it was Bill Sharman's last game (1961) or Cousy's finale (1963), they wanted to send that player off as a winner. It's amusing really, because when the chips were down they didn't seem to need extra incentives.
Boston led 76-60 entering the fourth quarter, but the Lakers stormed back with a 33-19 final stanza. It fell short. After a Sam Jones jumper with 25 seconds left, Red lit his last victory cigar. Boston won 95-93 and Russell added 25 points and 32 rebounds to secure Red's eighth straight title.
5. Syracuse at Boston, April 1, 1959
The 1959 East final threw a scare into the Celtics. They trailed by 16 in the first half, and Syracuse still led 68-60 at the half. Syracuse was led by Dolph Schayes, who had a 21-point scoring average, but also had capable scorers in Larry Costello (16), Red Kerr (18) and George Yardley (20), who had led the league in scoring the year before. But Boston matched the Syracuse foursome with a quintet. Cousy (20) and Heinsohn (25) led the comeback. Frank Ramsey scored 28 before fouling out and Jones chipped in 19. Russell played every minute until fouling out with less than two minutes left. He scored 18 points and had 32 rebounds, enough to help his mates to a 130-125 victory.
6. Boston at Los Angeles, May 5, 1969
The 1969 Celtics were an exhausted bunch. They won just 48 games, finishing nine games behind Baltimore in the East. But come playoff time they ran through Philadelphia and the upstart Knicks before meeting the Lakers with their three 20-plus scorers (Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor).
What this Celtics unit lacked in talent compared to the earlier teams they made up for in team play. "None of our teams played together as a unit any better than this one," John Havlicek said. The Lakers tied the game at 60-60 in the third quarter, but Boston ran out to a 91-74 lead. With less than 10 minutes left, the Celtics still led 100-83. West, playing with a hamstring pull, rallied the Lakers to within a point at 103-102. Wilt left with 5:10 remaining when he injured his right knee, and Boston withstood the Lakers' rally, led by West with 42 points, to win 108-106.
Russell had six points and 21 rebounds against Wilt's 18 points and 27 rebounds. But Russell's last act was a proud one. He averaged 46 minutes per game over the Celtics' 18 playoff games in 1969. Only John Havlicek, who was six years younger, averaged more with 47.
A controversy grew over Wilt's sitting out the final five minutes. Wilt asked back in a minute after his injury, but the Lakers rallied due to a running game and coach Butch Van Bread Kolff told Wilt, "We're playing better without you." After the game, Russell told reporters, "In a game like that, they would have to carry me out to get me off the floor." Russell's teammate Don Nelson recalled, "He was talking about Wilt, and I wondered why he'd say something like that about the big guy."
7. Philadelphia at Boston (East finals), April 15, 1965
It was a night when two teams botched up inbound passes with five seconds left. Boston led 110-107 when Chamberlain made a layup. Now Russell inbounded the ball high over Wilt's outstretched hands. But his pass hit the guide wire supporting the backboard and the 76ers were awarded the ball. Hal Greer would attempt a difficult pass to Chet Walker some 30 feet away. But Havlicek intercepted it, giving rise to Johnny Most's famous holler, "Havlicek stole the ball!"
Sam Jones led the way with 37 points for Boston. Wilt led the Sixers with 30 points and 32 rebounds, compared to Russell's 15 and 29. Games like this one might make us amend the statement that "Russ always got the better of Wilt" to "Russ' team got the better of Wilt's teams."
In the 49 playoff games in which they both played, Chamberlain scored 1,260 points (25.7 per game) and grabbed 1,393 rebounds (28.4). Russell had 703 points (14.9) and 1,243 rebounds (25.4). In 142 regular-season games against each other, Wilt averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds; Russell averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds. The Celtics won 88 of those regular-season games, while Wilt's teams (the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the 76ers, and the Lakers) won 74.
8. Philadelphia at Boston (East finals), April 5, 1962
In this game Russell (who scored 19) gets great credit for holding Wilt to 22 points, 28 below his 50-point average. Boston trailed by a point entering the fourth period, but Frank Ramsey scored four quick points to put Boston ahead for good, and Sam Jones won it on a jumper with two ticks remaining to give Boston a 109-107 win.
About Russell's defense, Chamberlain said, "Russell is more effective against me than any other defender in the NBA because he catches me off guard with his moves. Sometimes, he's playing in front of me. Other times he's in back of me. He keeps me guessing. He plays me tight this time, loose the next time. I've got to look around to find out where he is. It means I'm concentrating on him as much as my shot. And, of course, nobody has quite the timing he does in blocking shots."
9. Boston at Philadelphia (East finals), April 19, 1968
"At this point, this is the most satisfying victory of my career," Russell said after the game, no doubt recalling how Philadelphia had ended Boston's run of eight straight titles in 1967. "But we haven't won anything yet. We've got to beat Los Angeles to be champions again." (Just 13 days later that mission was accomplished).
With Philadelphia fans carrying around bedsheet banners calling the Celtics "old men," Wilt snatched 34 rebounds but scored just 14 points (on 4-of-9 shooting) and attempted only two field goals in the second half. Dr. Jack Ramsay, then Philadelphia GM, could hardly believe Wilt's performance. "He once averaged 50 for a season and now he took only two shots. Two shots?"
While Wilt was in a Hamlet-like state over whether to pass or not to pass, his mates were just plain awful. Hal Greer (8-of-25) Matt Guokas (2-of-10), Wally Jones (8-of-22) Chet Walker (8-of-22) and Luke Jackson (7-of-17) couldn't have hit water from a boat. Their combined 33-of-96 (34 percent) and 20-of-36 from the foul line all but assured that the 76ers would cough up the series after building a commanding 3-1 lead.
Russell grabbed 26 rebounds and scored 12 points. With Boston leading 97-95 with 34 seconds left, Russell hit a free throw, rejected Chet Walker's driving shot and rebounded a Greer miss on the follow. In a rare display of emotion, he then pumped his fist in triumph at the buzzer. Boston prevailed 100-96.
10. Cincinnati at Boston (East finals), April 10, 1963
This 142-131 victory over Cincinnati was Boston at its best. Cousy's piloting caused Boston's 68-64 halftime lead to grow to an 86-72 margin. That 18-8 run revealed each Celtic at his best: Cousy directing, Russell boarding, Jones draining jumpers, Heinsohn hitting shots from the side and Tom "Satch" Sanders playing helping defense. When the Royals came back to within 96-89 with two minutes left in the third period, Cousy, who was called "The Master" by the New England faithful, ran a hellacious fast break until the lead was 123-98 early in the fourth period.
Oscar Robertson scored 43 points, including 21 of 22 from the free-throw line, but couldn't stop Jones with a net on the opposite end. Jones scored a personal best 47 points. Cousy's 20 points and 16 assists thwarted Robertson's best chance to lead his team past Boston. Russell scored 20 and, according to the New York Times, got the "key rebounds."
The victory postponed Cousy's retirement for two weeks. On April 24, his mates gave him a send-off with a fifth straight title, as they beat Los Angeles in six games.
Ken Shouler was managing editor and writer for Total Basketball, The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.