As I was jogging in Central Park on Saturday, I thought to myself: The Game 7 loss to LA was probably the most painful C’s loss of my lifetime. The next thought: Is it the most painful loss in Celtics history?
That’s not a ridiculous question. We’re talking about a Game 7 NBA Finals loss to the team’s arch rival, a loss that might have represented the last, best chance at a title for an aging Celtics core we have grown to love.
But the most painful ever? What are the other candidates?
• 1982 Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals, versus Philadelphia. The Celtics, the defending champs, had won Game 5 at home and Game 6 in Philly to rally from a 3-1 deficit and tie the series. People greeted the team at the airport when they flew home between Game 6 and Game 7; everybody expected them to win at home.
But Andrew Toney went crazy, Bird went scoreless in the 4th quarter and the C’s lost by 14. The only plus: This was the berth of the “Beat LA” chant.
• Game 4 of the 1987 Finals versus Los Angeles. An all-time great NBA game, and an all-time historic finish. Bird put the Celtics up by two with a monster three-pointer with 12 seconds left, but the Lakers went to Kareem in the post, and he drew a foul.
You know the rest. Kareem made the first and missed the second, but the C’s couldn’t control the rebound, and the ball went out of bounds. Magic hit the Junior Hook, Bird barely missed at the buzzer and LA had a 3-1 lead.
• 1985 NBA Finals, Game 6 against Los Angeles. The Lakers clinch the title in Boston as K.C. Jones essentially refuses to play the bench and the C’s wear down in the second half. Kevin McHale would say later that the Celtics had the better team in ’85 and should have won (via Basketbawful):
“We had a better team than they did that year. Max got hurt and everything, but they came to the Garden not thinking they could be us in that sixth game, no way. We had played like crap. We shot the ball poorly. If we had played well that sixth game, I’m not sure they’d have showed up for the seventh game. They were a great team and all, but they did not believe at that point that they could beat us. That was a turning point for them.”
We’ll never know if McHale was right, but a Game 7 sure would have been fun.
Additional sort of important detail: This was the first time in NBA history the Lakers beat the Celtics in the Finals.
• Game 7, 1973 Eastern Conference Finals versus New York. People forget how good the 1973 Celtics were. They went 68-14, outscored their opponents by 8.2 points per game (a monster margin) and had the following players in their primes: Dave Cowens, Don Chaney (an elite defensive stopper), Paul Silas, Jo Jo White. John Havlicek was still just 32 and tossed up a 24-7-6 average on 45 percent shooting.
This was a monster team.
The Knicks had the same core from their 1970 championship club, plus Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe. So this series was a a true clash of historic teams. And then Havlicek ran into a Dave DeBusschere pick and injured his right (shooting shoulder) in Game 3.
The C’s were down 2-1 going into Game 4 in New York and lost in double overtime after some controversial calls, including a sixth foul against Cowens.
But the team rallied to win Game 5 at home and Game 6 at MSG to force Game 7 in Boston.
The Knicks won going away, as Hondo could barely lift his shooting arm. He played most the game left-handed and took just six shots, making one.
The Knicks went on to beat an aging Laker team (five of six LA’s leading scorers were 29 or older) 4-1 in the Finals.
• 1958, NBA Finals, Game 6 versus St. Louis Hawks.
For its 60th anniversary, the NBA ranked the 60 best playoff moments in its history, and this game came 9th. The Hawks-C’s rivalry was arguably the most contentious of the early NBA. The teams met in the Finals four times in five seasons from 1957 through 1961, with Boston winning three of the four series. Red Auerbach hated Ben Kerner, the Hawks’ owner, dating to Auerbach’s brief tenure as the head coach of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (the predecessor team to the Hawks) in 1950. Auerbach quit in part because of personnel disagreements with Kerner, and in one famous incident during a Hawks-C’s Finals years later, Auerbach went into the stands and clocked Kerner in the jaw after accusing Kerner of monkeying with the basket heights in St. Louis. (Yes, Red could be paranoid and angry).
In any case, Bob Pettit scored 50 points in one of the league’s all-time great clutch performances to help the Hawks hold off Boston, 110-109, after a furious C’s rally cut a double-digit Hawks lead to one several times in the 4th quarter. Bill Russell suffered a severely sprained ankle in Game 3 of this series, and Boston got little from him after that.
Really, these strike me as the only legit candidates for most painful single-game loss in C’s history. Am I missing one?
As for which is the most painful? If I were five years older (I’m 32), I’m positive the ’87 Game 4 loss would trump this year’s loss. The nature of the loss—a last-second shot from Magic, a last-second miss from Bird—and the status of that series as a rubber match of sorts between LA and Boston puts it at a pain level above this year’s Game 7 loss.
But I was 10 when that happened, and while I remember it, what I mostly remember is my Dad screaming in terror, “DO NOT LET MAGIC TOUCH THE BALL!” just before the Junior Hook. It hurt, but I wasn’t yet old enough to understand its significance.