Tommy Heinsohn: Havlicek often overlooked among Celtics legends

Tommy Heinsohn: Havlicek often overlooked among Celtics legends

Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn spent time as both a teammate and coach of John Havlicek and believes Havlicek ought to be remembered fonder for all of his accomplishments on the court.

Havlicek, the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer, passed away Thursday at the age of 79. He won eight championships with the Celtics, earning MVP honors in the 1974 Finals, and was a 13-time All-Star. And yet his accomplishments are sometimes overshadowed by the eras around him.

"Well, he’s still the all-time leading scorer, isn’t he, with the Celtics?” asked Heinsohn, while reflecting on Havlicek’s legacy. "And justifiably so. And, yeah, he gets lost in the brouhaha over the [other Celtics championship eras]. He was a sixth man [on the 1960s teams but] he really became a star when I was coaching. You know, a total star. He was all-pro and all-defense or whatever he was all the time. He was that exceptional a player. 

"And, for him to be not recognized for that — I mean, everybody is still going gaga about Larry Bird, who was a great great player, but John Havlicek, you’d have a tough time beating him.”

Dubbed one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, Havlicek’s No. 17 jersey hangs in the rafters at TD Garden. He’s remembered as one of the game’s best sixth men but Heinsohn is adamant that Havlicek’s greatest legacy is putting the team ahead of himself even when he was the star.

And nowhere was that exemplified more than the 1974 Finals, when Havlicek embraced being a decoy in a pivotal Game 7.

"Well, you always look to Havlicek stole the ball as a big moment. But let’s go back … winning against Milwaukee, where he was a decoy,” said Heinsohn. "Now, here’s the star of the team and we were asking him to be a decoy. I mean, most guys wouldn’t want to do that. But that was the type of person that he was, that he would give it a try because you asked him to it. He’d never fight you on anything, he’d talk to you about it, he might not like what you were doing, he’d talk to you about it, but you could convince him to give it a go. 

"And so, in the seventh game of the playoffs, on the road, I’m asking him to be a decoy and he accepts that. OK? That’s a big-time player with a big-time pro attitude.”

Heinsohn’s Celtics, who had always played man-to-man defense against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, elected to double- and triple-team the big man in Game 7 of the 1974 Finals. And Havlicek took a back seat on offense, allowing Cowens to step forward as  Boston won its first title in the post-Bill Russell era.

“When we got to the final game, after losing at the Garden in an overtime game, everybody was kinda discouraged,” said Heinsohn. "I went to the office with my assistant coach and Bob Cousy and we’re talking about the game and Cousy said to me, ‘I don’t know why you don’t double-team them.’ And I said, ‘Well, Cooz, No. 1, nobody else plays him like we have, and here we are in the seventh game. I think it's working fairly well.’ But the coaching, the changes that the other team made, everything that you did was countered the next game you played. I determined after many years as a player, to try and find a way to take the crowd out of the game. 

“We lost on a Friday, had practice on Saturday, a drill session, then we played on Sunday. And Saturday I changed the defense and doubled Kareem Abdul-Jabar. And the reason I doubled him is not because I believed the strategy was the way to beat him. But I recognized, potentially, we could get off to a good start because they’d be totally confused at what we were doing. And it worked out that we got 17 points up and the defense was the aspect that won. Havlicek, who had been our big scorer, I don’t remember exactly who ended up the big scorer, but we got 17 points up and we virtually cruised to the seventh-game win on the road. But Havlicek was asked to stand down, in essence.”

Both the Celtics and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns drafted Havlicek out of Ohio State in 1962. After trying to latch on with the Browns as a wide receiver, Havlicek joined the Celtics and quickly endeared himself to Red Auerbach with his boundless energy.

“We were the best up-tempo team, fast-break team in the league. Of course, we had Russell rebounding and me rebounding and Cousy making the passes. Cousy had this hook pass, three-quarter length hook pass on the go and Havlicek was the perfect guy to play on a fastbreak team and he was one of Cousy’s favorite targets,” said Heinsohn. "I think his rookie year he averaged 14 points per game and I don’t think he took a shot from more than 10 feet. …

"But the second year, [Havlicek] showed up, he had an outside shot, he learned to dribble, and he became an effective -- he was always a very good defensive player. That’s one of the reasons that Red drafted him, he had seen him on the Ohio State team and he was an unheralded player on the Ohio State team. You could see he was a great athlete when he came to the Celtics, [but] he was green as grass. He was my roommate. They designated me to be his roommate. He was a real guy from the Midwest. That’s all I can tell you. He had Midwest values and I had to liven him up a little bit.”

Heinsohn jokes that he introduced Havlicek to Lancers wine but that Havlicek was always focused on basketball and being the best he could be on the court, which endeared him to Auerbach.

"The first year, as a player, if you’re going to play in a lineup, Red would never yell at you. He’d barely talk to you, just go out and do it,” said Heinsohn. "And John, who had a great rookie year, nobody ever said boo to him, Red in particular. First game of his second season, at halftime, come into the locker room and Red Auerbach is all over his case. I mean, Havlicek didn’t do anything right, according to Red Auerbach. 

"Havlicek was such a sincere person, he took it to heart. All of a sudden, his bubble burst and Red burst it. We’re walking out to the floor and John’s head is down and the whole bit. I grabbed him and I said, ‘John relax, relax. All he’s doing is yelling at you, all he’s doing is what you know. You’re not a rookie anymore. You’ve got to shape up. Go play the game.’ And he did. But that’s how Red did things. And, John, nobody ever yelled at Havlicek because he was such a focused person at what he did. When he played for me, when I was coaching, he was so focused, I don’t think he knew the Vietnam War was going on. Basketball was everything to him. And winning was a big deal.”

Heinsohn remembers Harvard Medical School conducting tests on Havlicek, who had boundless energy and a remarkably low heart rate. Said Heinsohn, “They never saw anything like it.” Heinsohn said Havlicek needed no motivation when it came to upholding the Celtics’ legacy of winning.

"John Havlicek, you knew he was focused. You didn’t have to go and give him the Knute Rockne story,” said Heinsohn. "Havlicek relished winning. He was the star of the team that I coached, him and Dave Cowens. Both of them were unusual players. Havlicek carried the team offensively. He was the backbone of the offense. He virtually made all of the big plays. Defensively, I can remember the first time we played a preseason game against the New York Nets with [Julius Erving], and the first four times Dr. J tried to drive on him, Havlicek stole on the ball off him. We were raving about Dr. J and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Havlicek's got his number.’”

Havlicek’s most memorable moment, of course, might have been the 1965 Eastern Conference finals and the much-revered, “Havlicek Stole the Ball” sequence.

"Bill Russell made a boo-boo,” said Heinsohn. "He hit the guide-wire while he was trying to inbound the ball and, if he gets the ball inbounds, more than likely we got a win. But he turned the ball over, so Philadelphia, with Wilt Chamberlain, has a chance to beat us. It was a one-point game at that juncture and they called a timeout. 

"Russell got in the huddle and said, ‘Boy, did I screw up. Somebody get me off the hook.’ We broke, went out there, and Havlicek -- a smart a defender as he was -- he said to me, and said to everybody afterward, he was counting, ‘One, two, three, four,’ and, on four, he went to look for the ball and it was there. That’s how precise he was in defending, he made this great play, tipped it over to Sam Jones, and we beat Wilt.”

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Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the C's ceiling?

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the C's ceiling?

Boston Celtics fans should be encouraged by what they've seen from Kemba Walker through the first two games of the NBA restart.

The C's All-Star guard has been on a minutes restriction due to a nagging left knee injury, but he's made the most of his time on the court. In Friday night's opener vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, Walker dropped 16 points in 19 minutes. Then in Sunday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Walker scored 14 points in 22 minutes.

In other words, he looks healthy. And that's great news for a Celtics team that will need Walker to be 100 percent when they begin their road to the NBA Finals later this month.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Just how much does a healthy Walker improve the Celtics' championship chances? Chris Forsberg, A. Sherrod Blakely, and Kyle Draper answered that question on a brand new episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast.

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Forsberg is encouraged by what he's seen out of Walker thus far and believes he'll need to be himself if the C's have any hope of making a deep postseason run.

"My biggest takeaway from the whole weekend was Kemba looks like the Kemba we saw at the start of the season, and there is no bigger development for the Boston Celtics," Forsberg said. "If they have any aspirations of doing anything, they need a healthy Kemba Walker. We've been saying this for weeks ... 

"He's flying around with a burst, a bounce that he hasn't had since probably the last calendar year, late December. I just think the team looks different because of it. The offense flows, teams can't double-team Tatum, it opens things up for Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown. I just think this is such a big piece of what they can do."

Blakely agreed with Forsberg's take and even took it a step further, stating Walker looks even better than he did earlier this season for the Celtics.

"To me, the big takeaway isn't just that Kemba looks like his old self, I think Kemba looks better than he did at the start of the season," Blakely said. "Because not only is he scoring at a level relative to his minutes that we're used to, but he's doing it efficiently.

"That's the one takeaway that has really jumped out to me, the fact that he's getting to his spots, he's knocking down shots that he should be knocking down, and he's doing it in a very precise, efficient matter which to me bodes well for going forward."

Draper took more of a cautiously optimistic approach, noting that we still have to see Walker get a full workload before we can breathe a sigh of relief.

"While I agree with everything you guys said, regarding Kemba, then what's the hold up then?" Draper asked. "If he looks good, if he's back to himself ... does he look good in five-minute spurts, or can he play 35 minutes and look good?

"I don't think any of it's a question of whether Kemba can look good in five minutes ...  We need Kemba to do that 30-plus minutes a night. That's the big question, right?"

Also discussed on the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast: How will the C's manage Walker's minutes going forward? What are the biggest concerns through the first two games? And is there any danger of the Celtics falling to the No. 4 seed?

Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast on your favorite podcast app or watch it on YouTube below.

NBA playoff picture: No. 2 seed slipping away from Celtics as Raptors win again

NBA playoff picture: No. 2 seed slipping away from Celtics as Raptors win again

The chances of the Boston Celtics earning the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed in the 2020 NBA playoffs are quickly becoming very slim.

The Toronto Raptors defeated the Miami Heat 107-103 in the NBA's Orlando bubble Monday afternoon. The victory increases Toronto's lead over Boston for the No. 2 seed to four games.

The East standings currently look like this:

1. Milwaukee Bucks: 54-13
2. Toronto Raptors: 48-18, 5.5 GB
3. Boston Celtics: 44-22, 9.5 GB
4. Miami Heat: 42-25, 12 GB
5. Indiana Pacers: 40-26, 13.5 GB
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-27, 14.5 GB
7. Orlando Magic: 32-35, 22 GB
8. Brooklyn Nets: 31-35, 22.5 GB
9. Washington Wizards: 24-42, 29.5 GB

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Both the Celtics and Raptors have six seeding games remaining, and they'll meet once head-to-head on Friday, Aug. 7. Not only do the Celtics need to win nearly all of their remaining games to have a chance to overtake the Raptors for the No. 2 seed, they also need Toronto to struggle and lose many of its remaining matchups. While it wouldn't be a huge surprise if the C's won the rest of their games, it definitely would be shocking if the Raptors collapsed over the next week. The Raptors have lost consecutive games only three times this season, and their longest losing streak was only three games.

Toronto already won its toughest seeding game of the restart -- an impressive 15-point victory over the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night.

Here's the Raptors' schedule to finish the seeding games:

Aug. 5 vs. Orlando Magic
Aug. 7 vs. Boston Celtics
Aug. 9 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Aug. 10 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Aug. 12 vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Aug. 14 vs. Denver Nuggets

The Miami Heat, even with Monday's loss to the Raptors, are still a threat to catch the Celtics for the No. 3 seed. Miami is 2.5 games behind Boston, and these teams will square off Tuesday night. A head-to-head victory for the Celtics would be a huge dent in the Heat's chances of grabbing the No. 3 seed. Miami has two tough games coming up against the C's and the Milwaukee Bucks, but its final four matchups all are very winnable.

Here's a look at the Heat's remaining schedule:

Aug. 4 vs. Boston Celtics
Aug. 6 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Aug. 8 vs. Phoenix Suns
Aug. 10 vs. Indiana Pacers
Aug. 12 vs. Oklahoma City
Aug. 14 vs. Indiana Pacers

The real question for the Celtics right now, especially with them looking like a strong bet to finish as the No. 3 seed, is which team will they match up against in Round 1 of the playoffs. If the season ended today, Boston would play the Philadelphia 76ers in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 first-round series. The Sixers' first seeding game was a disaster as they allowed T.J. Warren to score a career-high 53 points in an Indiana Pacers win.

The most likely first-round opponents for the Celtics are the 76ers and Pacers. The Pacers would be an easier matchup given their injuries to key players, including All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis.