1969: Celtics versus Lakers Round Seven (Russell’s Last Season)

Background

Heading into the 1969 season, it was suspected that both Sam Jones and Bill Russell would retire. Expectations were low as many thought this year would be the end of the Celtics’ dynasty. Nevertheless, they won 48 games in the regular season and entered the playoffs as underdogs. Without homecourt advantage, Boston defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round in five games. Facing the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics won a pivotal game four to go up 3-1, and Boston finished the Knicks in six games to reach their second straight NBA Finals.

After losing the 1968 NBA Finals, the Lakers traded for four-time MVP Wilt Chamberlain to shore up the inside. Chamberlain famously clashed with Los Angeles’ coach Butch Van Breda Kolff, but the Lakers still managed to win 55 games, the most in the west. In the playoffs, Los Angeles faced the San Francisco Warriors and were forced to win four straight games after falling behind 2-0. In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers easily defeated the Atlanta Hawks in five games to reach the NBA Finals for the second straight season.

Lineups

The Celtics’ starting backcourt consisted of Em Bryant at point guard next to Sam Jones at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, former sixth man John Havlicek started at small forward alongside Bailey Howell at power forward and five-time MVP Bill Russell at center in the middle.

Off the bench, Larry Siegfried served as the primary backup in the backcourt, while Don Nelson functioned as the third forward on the roster. Players to see limited minutes in the NBA Finals include Tom Sanders and Don Chaney.

For the Lakers, Johnny Egan stepped in as the starting point guard in the backcourt alongside superstar Jerry West at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, Keith Erickson started at small forward alongside power forward Elgin Baylor and newly acquired Wilt Chamberlain at center.

As for the Los Angeles reserves, Tom Hawkins functioned as the third forward on the roster, and Mel Counts served as a backup big man. Bill Hewitt played limited minutes as a fourth forward, and Freddie Crawford barely played in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Celtics 118, Lakers 120

West was unstoppable as he dropped 53 points in a game that saw 21 lead changes. Chamberlain scored a clutch basket with 23 seconds left that proved to be the winning basket. Havlicek scored 37 points to lead Boston in the loss.

Game Two: Celtics 112, Lakers 118

West continued his dominance as he scored 41 points against the Celtics’ guards. Egan and Baylor helped out with 26 and 31 points respectively as the Lakers took a commanding 2-0 series lead. Havlicek erupted for 43 points but fouled out as the series moved to Boston for game three and four.

Game Three: Lakers 105, Celtics 111

Russell finally decided to double-team the scorching Jerry West, and it worked out for Boston. Havlicek was the high scorer for the Celtics, pouring in 34 points as Boston won their first game of the series. The Lakers struggled to score as West finished with only 24 points.

Game Four: Lakers 88, Celtics 89

An ugly game that featured 50 turnovers and poor shooting by both teams came down to the last possession. With seven seconds left, Jones caught a pass and put up a jumper that bounced off the front and back rim before falling through to tie the series at two games apiece with the series headed back to Los Angeles. West tallied 40 to lead all scorers, but no other Laker scored more than 16.

Game Five: Celtics 104, Lakers 117

Frustrated by their close game four loss, the Lakers overran the Celtics en route to a 3-2 series lead. West injured his leg late in the game despite scoring 39 points, an unlucky turn of events that would hamper him for the rest of the series. Sam Jones was Boston’s high scorer with 25 points.

Game Six: Lakers 90, Celtics 99

Another ugly game saw the Celtics shoot 6-for-27 at one point, but the hapless Lakers couldn’t take advantage of the pitiful offensive performance. Nelson scored 25 points to lead Boston, and Baylor and West both scored 26 points.

Game Seven: Celtics 108, Lakers 106

The Celtics jumped out ahead early as the Lakers struggled from the field. With an injured and foul-plagued Chamberlain sitting out, Los Angeles battled back to close to within a point, but Don Nelson hit a desperation jumper to put Boston ahead for good. For the first time ever, a road team won game seven of the NBA Finals. West led all scorers with 42 points and was named Finals MVP, the first time the award was handed out.

Aftermath

Bill Russell and Sam Jones both retired after the series, leaving the Celtics in a lurch. The team struggled the following season, but the arrival of Dave Cowens in 1970 provided the team with a new center to build around. Boston returned to playoff contention but wouldn’t reach the NBA Finals again until 1974.

Stunned at their game seven loss, the Lakers returned in 1970 with a championship in mind. Los Angeles continued to rule the Western Conference and made their way to the NBA Finals again — the third straight season. This time, the Lakers would face the New York Knicks in the championship series.

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