Every aspect of life is susceptible to “what-ifs”, but sports are especially bad. With so many random factors -- injuries, human error, plain old luck -- involved in the outcome of every game, every championship can be hypothetically altered 15 different ways. At some point, it gets to be too much. It can make you sick. You just have to accept reality and move on.
And if it makes you sick, just imagine what it does to Tommy Heinsohn.
Next month marks 60 years since the Celtics selected Heinsohn with their territorial pick in the 1956 NBA Draft. Can you believe that? Sixty years. That’s, like, before iPhones. Actually Steve Jobs was only a year old. For parts of seven decades now, Heinsohn’s ridden the Celtics wave as a player, coach, broadcaster and fan. No one cares more than Tommy. So even though he’s had the good fortune of witnessing 17 titles, he’s not that interested in discussing the ones that got away.
But bother him long enough, and he’ll talk about 1973.
What if Havlicek never got hurt? Would the Celtics have won it all?
“I mean, I sure think so,” Heinsohn said. “God, we were blowing people out. We were like the Warriors, you know?”
I called Tommy because for the last two-and-a-half months I’ve written these weekly columns about the #86Celtics -- widely considered one of the best teams in NBA history -- and every week I’m reminded that they aren’t even the best regular-season team in CELTICS history. That title belongs to the 1973 C's, who won 68 games but are mostly forgotten because they didn’t win the title. In fact, they hold the record for most regular-season wins without winning the title. And the shame is that the 1973 Celtics didn’t choke. They weren’t the 2007 Mavs getting toasted by the Warriors. They just caught a bad break. Twice.
The team was led by league MVP Dave Cowens, first team All NBA/All-Defense forward John Havlicek, and All-Star point guard Jo Jo White. But while those future Hall of Famers helped form the Green’s identity, the mold was poured by their Hall of Fame head coach. And as you’ve probably learned at some point over the last 60 years, that coach really, really . . . really enjoys up-tempo basketball.
“I organized a system so that everyone could be a little bit like Bob Cousy,” Heinsohn said. “I knew no one could be the real Cousy, but I wanted everyone to think like Cousy -- to read transition defense and recognize where the pass should be. When I played, the other team would sometimes go out of their way to stop Cousy from getting it, but you couldn’t do that with my team because everyone could handle the ball. There wasn’t a specific guy. I had Dave Cowens play the middle on the fast break, alright? There was no concession to slow down the pace. It was relentless. We used to fast break off made free throws!”
The Celtics ranked third in pace that season, but compared to today’s NBA they were playing on four-arrow-fast-forward. They averaged 114.4 possessions a game. This year, the Sacramento Kings are the only team over 100. The Warriors are second at 99.8. The Celtics are third at 98.6 -- and that makes sense because it’s obvious how much Tommy loves this year’s team. This is his kind of basketball.
“I believe in the philosophy of putting the other team through a torture chamber,” Heinsohn said. “If you were running against the world’s greatest marathoner, you’d lose. But suppose they allowed you to organize a relay team. Suppose you could pace him out of the game. That was the secret weapon. We were conditioned to play that pace.”
But the biggest difference between then and now is talent. Beyond the Hall of Fame Big 3, Heinsohn’s fourth (Paul Silas) and fifth (Don Chaney) starters both made second team All-Defense. Overall, the 1973 Celtics had the league’s most efficient defense and eighth-most efficient offense. They scored the second most points and allowed the sixth fewest. They won 24 of their last 26 games to finish with 68 wins. At the time that was one shy of the record. No other team had more than 60 wins that year. The 1973 Celtics were 11 games better than the next team in the East -- and stepped into the playoffs as heavy favorites.
Fast-forward to Game 3 of the Conference Finals against the Knicks and -- screeeeech! Havlicek separates his shoulder. He leaves that game and the Celtics lose. Suddenly they’re down 2-1.
In Game 4, playing without Havlicek, Boston took a 16-point lead into the fourth quarter and -- screeeeech! The refs went rogue. That’s the only way to describe it. According to Heinsohn, 19 straight calls went against Boston in the fourth quarter and two overtimes. Cowens fouled out. White fouled out. Chaney fouled out. This is widely considered one of the worst and most questionably officiated games in NBA history.
“You know how bad it was?” Heinsohn says. “The officiating was so bad, they fired the two guys after the game. They fired them! Jake O’Donnell and Jack Madden. They ended up officiating in the ABA and guess what? The first game we played in the preseason the next year, we played the Carolina Cougars, and guess who was officiating? Those two guys. Cowens fouled out in 10 minutes. I had eight technical fouls called on me. I have no idea what was going on. It was completely subjective officiating!”
For the record it appears Madden was the only one who spent time in the ABA, but, whatever -- Tommy’s version is better -- and either way the damage was done. Havlicek came back for Game 5, but was basically playing left-handed. The Celtics actually forced a Game 7, but they had nothing left. Havlicek made only one basket in the deciding game. The offense stalled. The Knicks won 94-78 and went on to easily dispatch the overmatched Lakers in the Finals.
Meanwhile, just like that, the most successful regular season in the annals of basketball’s most successful franchise was lost.
It’s always frustrating to be reminded how random this stuff is. What if Larry Bird randomly got hurt in the 1986 Conference Finals the same way Havlicek did in ’73? How could the Celtics possibly overcome that? What if they were upset by Milwaukee in the conference finals like the Lakers were out West by the Rockets? Are the #86Celtics no longer one of the best teams of all time, just because of one random untimely injury? Did anyone watch that Rockets/Bucks Finals or did it ruin basketball forever?
The what-if rabbit hole can eat you up. That’s why it’s usually best to avoid it altogether. But that said I couldn’t let Tommy off the phone without asking one more incredibly annoying question.
With everyone healthy, any chance that ’73 team could beat the #86Celtics?
“Who knows?” he said. “Really, 1973 was a good team. That’s all I know.”
But even if he doesn’t know whether the ’73 Celtics would beat the #86Celtics, he's damn sure how they’d go about trying.
“I remember in the second round of the ’86 playoffs,” Heinsohn says, “when I was doing the national broadcast for CBS, the Celtics were playing the Hawks, and I remember [Hawks coach] Mike Fratello telling me before one game: ‘We gotta run to beat these Celtics.’ And I remember thinking that made sense, because obviously the Big 3 were as slow as you can be, and the Hawks also had Spud Webb and Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers. But then the games started and Atlanta never play up-tempo. I’d go to practice and the whole time they’re just running half-court plays. They talked about it but they never did it!”
Tommy would’ve loved to run on the #86Celtics.
“I know we would’ve beaten Robert Parish up the floor,” he says, laughing. “And [Bill] Walton with his bad foot? Come on! I coached against Walton back when he was in Portland, back before the foot injuries, and we still ran him into the ground!”