west and havlicek

This is Part 5 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. I really hope nobody forwards these posts to Jerry West. They would probably feel like a nutshot in words to him.

1968 NBA Finals

The Grim Reaper. Again. On April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray. It was a national tragedy, and it just so happened to occur the night before Game 1 of the Eastern Division Finals between the Boston Celtics and the reigning champion Philadelphia 76ers. Although there was some talk of postponing the game, the teams reluctantly agreed to play.

However, Wilt Chamberlain and some of the other Sixers players were upset that their coach, Alex Hannum, didn't call a meeting to discuss it and get their opinions. Especially since Red Auerbach had done that with his Celtics. It mattered. Boston came out and beat a flat Philly team at home in that first game 127-118. The Sixers came back to win three straight to go up 3-1 before collapsing in the next three games. The Celtics won Game 7 in Philadelphia. In that Game, Wilt Chamberlain took only two shots in the second half -- both of which were putback attempts -- and touched the ball only four times in the final quarter.

At any rate, King's murder was a deep current running through these playoffs, and it certainly cast a pall over the Sixers.

Coaching: For the first time since they had started meeting in the Celtics in the NBA Finals, the Lakers had a new coach: Butch van Breda Kolff, formerly the head coach of Princeton. Nicknamed "Fang" and "Crazy Horse" by Elgin Baylor, van Breda Kolff was an explosive, beer-drinking good old boy who liked to yell at his players and would even call Baylor "dum-dum" in front of the other players.

In some ways, the Lakers responded (they went 52-30, which was the fourth best record in the league), in other ways, they did not. As Jerry West put it: "There was a change in attitude surrounding the team. He was a volatile person who pretty much said what he thought. He felt that was the way to do it. You simply cannot do that at the professional level."

Yeah. And if somebody like West felt that way, you can only imagine how the rest of the team felt about Butch. And I doubt that helped. The Celtics, meanwhile, never had any problems with their coach.

Be careful what you wish for. Again. Just like in 1962, the Lakers coaching staff and players had been rooting for the Celtics, and not the Sixers, to make it out of the Eastern Division. Such was the power that Wilt Chamberlain held over the hearts and minds of, well, pretty much everybody: L.A. preferred to face off against a team that had won eight straight championships before having an off year because they wanted to face Bill Russell rather than The Big Dipper. You read that correctly: They wanted Russell. And they got him.

Elgin Baylor and Jerry West: No matter who was coaching or who was backing them up, the performances of these two men continued to dictate whether the Lakers won or lost. In Game 1, West shot 7-for-24 and Baylor was 11-for-31. So, you know, they lost.

Butch Van Breda Kolff: After West and Baylor's stink-a-palooza in Game 1, the team came back to win Game 2 in Boston (123-113) before losing Game 3 at home (127-119). Things were looking grim in Game 4, and they started looking even worse after Butch -- living up to his "volatile person" reputation -- got himself ejected for jawing with the officials. Fortunately for him, it didn't matter because of...

Boston's defense on Baylor and West: Baylor scored 30 and West dropped a 38-point bomb on the Celtic D. That double-point explosion propelled the Lakeshow to a 118-105 victory that was marred only by...

Another injury to Jerry West: The Logo had a rough season in 1967-68. He was kneed in the thigh. He got hit in the face with a karate chop (yes, a karate chop). He broke his left hand. He bruised his hip. His nose was broken twice. He also pulled a groin muscle. During his Game 4 tour de force, West collided with John Havlicek and sprained his ankle. While it didn't affect his shooting eye -- he scored 35 points in Game 5 -- it affected his mobility and defense, and the Celtics eked out a 120-117 overtime victory.

More van Breda Kolff: In Game 5, Russell had moved Sam Jones to the forward position, where he dominated Gail Goodrich in the low post. Butch decided to counter Russell's adjustment by using a taller, slower lineup in Game 6. Um, yeah, that didn't work. I mean, L.A.'s primary advantage over Boston had been youth and speed...which van Breda Kolff effectively negated in an elimination game, no less. So much for going with what had been working for you all year. The Celtics were up by 20 after two quarters and -- behind Havlicek's 40 points -- eventually won 124-109. And this happened in Los Angeles.

More sour grapes: Jerry West was a classy guy, no question about it. But some of his statements following the L.A.'s fifth loss in the Finals to the Celtics bordered on not-so-classy. "To be frank, we gave them the championship. We gave them the first game, and we gave them the fifth." West was quick to add that "But I take nothing from them," but that's just an example of covering your ass. Because I know enough about the English language to realize that when somebody says they "gave" their opponent a championship, that person is trying to take something away.

Which is funny because, on the other hand, West freaked out after the game when an unnamed Laker asked "When do we get our playoff checks?" West, the highest paid player on the team, couldn't believe that -- GASP!! -- somebody was playing for money.

Sources: NBA.com, Wikipedia, Basketball-reference.com, Ever Green by Dan Shaughnessy, and The Rivalry by John Taylor.

Further reading: Go read my Lakers Versus Celtics: A Not-So-Brief History post at Deadspin.

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Blogger Michael said...
First of all, I like the new look. I was wondering what was happening the last few days (just yesterday?) and am happy to see a new, streamlined look.

Secondly, as a life-long Laker fan, I'm totally elated to read all this great history. It's amazing to hear the stories over and over again, even though we were on the losing side SO. MANY. TIMES. I'm feeling good about the series coming up, though. Here's to hope.

Blogger Wild Yams said...
I wanted to say, since you keep bringing up how the Lakers wanted Russell and the Celtics over Wilt and the Sixers, since the Lakers really had nothing of an answer for Wilt (unlike Boston), for all we know the Lakers would have been swept by Philly. I have a hard time thinking the Lakers were sitting back thinking that if only they could get the 8-time champs that it would be a cakewalk to the title, so you may be overstating that aspect of it. I'm sure they probably felt like it was pick your poison, and guessed that trying to stop Wilt would ultimately be harder than trying to stop the Celtics. After all, the Lakers were fairly close in some of these series. It all comes down to matchups, and Wilt might have just shredded them. Anyway, pure speculation, that.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Hey, this is a really awesome series of posts. I don't want to be a fangirl or anything, but these
The Worst of Celtics-Lakers posts have been truly excellent. Good job, sir.

Blogger Nels said...
I like the new layout if for no other reason than I can now post comments from the actual post page!

And, like others have already said, awesome series on Celtics-Lakers.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Some readers may not be aware that Russell was 34 years old in '68, and rival centers Unseld, Reed, and even Bob Rule had given him trouble during the regular season. The Lakers, Sixers, and Knicks badly underrated him during his final two years. Summoning the energy and courage to defeat those teams in the playoffs is part of his legend as one of the most fierce competitors ever.

Blogger Unknown said...
Celtics fan: Every Center was intimidated by Russell except Wes Unseld unfortunately the Celtics didn't have to face him with that screwed up playoff format were a 1 seed meets a 2 seed and a 3 seed meets a 4 seed. Boston was the 4 seed.