Grampa Celtic Talks 72-73, 85-86, and 07-08

Sixty-six wins puts you in pretty rare company, even for the Boston Celtics.

This bunch currently playing the Atlanta Hawks in a first-round playoff series is only the third team in the history of the Celtics to win 66 or more games. The 1972-73 team won 68 games but did not win the championship. The 1985-86 Celtics, generally considered to be the greatest of all Celtics teams, won 67, and won the championship. We'll see what this group can accomplish.

But one thing is becoming increasingly evident: This team has a very distinct personality and a very distinct M.O. In its own way, it is the most fascinating of all the great Celtics teams.

The common thread uniting the '72-73 and '85-86 teams was explosiveness. The '72-73 squad was a superb running team. Those Celtics would have been happy if they never had to execute a play. They had been coached by Tom Heinsohn to consider every change from defense to offense as a mandate to push the ball.

In Dave Cowens they had, of course, the ultimate fast-break center. When he rebounded defensively and pitched the ball to a teammate, he knew his job was only beginning. He would put his head down and run. He knew his job was to be a major part of the fast break, as a wing man or a trailer. He was fast enough to be in position to take a pass for a layup or dunk, and he was a good enough shooter to hit a pull-up transition jumper as a trailer. There really has never been another center like him.

For a team whose entire offense was predicated on the fast break, the Celtics did not have a classic middle man on the break, at least not in the starting lineup. Their consummate fast-break middle man was substitute guard Art "Hambone" Williams. Everyone wanted to be in the game when Hambone was on the floor, because his one and only goal was to make everyone else look good. You never hear anyone talk about Hambone anymore, but the fact of the matter is that after Bob Cousy retired in 1963, no Celtic ran fast breaks better than Hambone Williams, with the possible exception of that brief window in 1978 when Ernie DiGregorio wore a Celtics uniform.

The Celtics' fast break in those days was a well-orchestrated, well-rehearsed scheme in which people not only filled the wings, but also crossed over along the baseline if they did not receive the ball to set up the secondary break. They made better use of jump-shooting trailers such as Cowens and Don Nelson than any team in the history of basketball. Indeed, by incorporating Nelson into the attack so skillfully, they shattered the myth that a team must possess great team speed to be a successful fast-break club. What mattered most was the commitment to running.

Oh, there was speed, all right. They had speed in John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and deceptively quick Don Chaney, who helped make the whole thing work simply by running to create a numbers advantage. Chaney made himself into a decent finisher (he averaged 13 points per game that season), but what he did best was run, period, thus creating a three-on-two as opposed to a two-on-two, or a four-on-three as opposed to a three-on-three.

On nights when the whole thing was working, the effect was overwhelming. Opponents had the sensation they were suddenly playing five on eight.

That team was beaten by the Knicks in seven games, and that series will always be remembered in these here parts for the unfortunate injury sustained by Havlicek in Game 3. He was sandwiched between Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley on a pick, injuring his right shoulder. He missed all of Game 4, an excruciating double-overtime loss in Madison Square Garden when referees Jack Madden and Jake O'Donnell supervised a big fourth-quarter New York comeback (This, of course, is not the way they saw it in New York). Boston won Games 5 and 6, with Havlicek playing an improvised lefthanded game, but the Knicks prevailed in Game 7, and went on to defeat the Lakers (whom the Celtics owned) for their second, and last, NBA title.

The '85-86 team was a much better running team than people think. This will always be remembered as the team of the Big Three, and that conjurs up images of an overpowering inside game. But those Celtics could change gears. Their strong rebounding and great passing made them a wonderful running team, and a case can be made that the third quarter of Game 5 against the Hawks, when they outscored Doc Rivers & Co., 36-6, was the single greatest demonstration of fast-break might in the history of the franchise. When that team had it going, they just buried people.

They could have won 70 had it been a goal. They took a 2-0 lead in every playoff series, and they imposed their will on everyone in the playoffs as easily as they had in the regular season.

But neither the '72-73 team nor the '85-86 team dominated the opposition in as consistent a manner as the 2007-08 team has dominated theirs.

The '72-73 team won 33 games by 10 or more points. The '85-86 team won 40 games by 10 or more points, a majority in the second half of the season. The 2007-08 Celtics won 45 games by 10 or more points, and that trend continued in Game 1 of this series, which they won, 104-81. But it's not just the what; it's the how.

This team does not overwhelm people. It suffocates them. The '72-73 team played as much defense as it needed to, when it needed to. That's how you did it in those days. The '85-86 team was as good a defensive team as there was in the league when it put its mind to the task. But it pretty much wanted to outscore you.

The '07-08 Celtics are built on defense. You seldom have the sensation of overpowering anybody. If you never glanced at the scoreboard, you'd assume the games were closer than they were.

This team is like an incoming tide. There are no giant waves, but the tide keeps coming in and coming in and coming in, and suddenly all the sand is gone on the beach and you're down by 20, and you say, "How did this happen?"

You are rendered subtly dead, but dead you are. It's been that way since the first game of the season, and it looks as if it's going to continue.

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