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Reliving the long-standing Celtics/Hawks playoff rivalry, which renews in 2016

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Boston and the Hawks have met 11 times in the playoffs, including 4 memorable NBA Finals

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

By Professor Parquet

Lakers vs. Celtics. Boston/Philadelphia. Knicks vs. Celtics. Those are the three defining NBA playoff rivalries for the league's most storied franchise.

But another underrated and long-standing post-season rivalry will be renewed this weekend when the Celtics and Hawks tip off their 12th playoff chapter in the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs.

Boston's 10-1 all-time playoff series advantage over the Hawks is somewhat deceiving, as five of those 11 meetings went the distance, while four other series wins went six games.

In all, the Celtics hold a 40-25 advantage (.615 win pct.) over the Hawks in 65 playoff contests. Boston held a slim 14-11 edge when the Hawks were in St. Louis and owns a commanding 26-14 advantage vs. the Atlanta version of the Hawks.

The rival clubs have much intertwining history as two of the remaining eight original league franchises.

The Hawks franchise began in Tri-Cities as the Blackhawks, then wound through Milwaukee and St. Louis, where it enjoyed its greatest success before settling in Atlanta in 1968, where it has resided since.

In 1949-50 as Tri-Cities, the team was coached by none other than Celtic guru Red Auerbach. Red endured the only losing season of his long coaching career (28-29) and was fired with just seven games left in the season by fiery Blackhawk owner Ben Kerner after the combative duo clashed over a personnel dispute.

The proud Auerbach spent much of the next 40 years tormenting the Hawks for Kerner's short-sighted decision. He even punched Kerner in the face during a playoff game and fleeced Ben in the first of many great trades to secure the services of none other than Bill Russell.

But for nearly the first 20 years of their existence, the Hawks were in the NBA's West, meaning Boston and their foe could only meet in the Finals. And that they did four times between 1957-61, punctuated by several dramatic championship series battles between all-time Hall of Fame greats Russell and Bob Pettit.

Boston had acquired Russell via a trade with the Hawks before the 1956 NBA draft, a deal which sent popular Celtic great (and St. Louis native) Ed Macauley and future All-Star Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the rights to draft Russell.

In 1957, Boston won its first of 17 championships by beating Pettit, Hagan, Easy Ed and the formidable Hawks in a 4-3 epic. The classic series began and ended in remarkable bookend 125-123 double-overtime thrillers at the Garden.

St. Louis won game one, but Boston took the decider amazingly by the same score and in two extra sessions again.

Yet the Celtics could only celebrate their very first title when a last-second, full-court pass thrown purposely off the backboard by Alex Hannum was nearly put back in at the buzzer by Pettit, but it rolled off the rim. Boston rookie standout Tom Heinsohn scored 37 points and yanked down 23 rebounds in the finale.

The next year, St. Louis avenged that gut-wrenching loss when Pettit put on a performance for the ages. In game six at St. Louis, he scored 19 of his team's last 21 points to tally 50 as the Hawks won the crown 4-2 with a thrilling 110-109 triumph.

Russell, hampered by an ankle sprain, was unable to contain Pettit as the Hawks soared to the only championship in franchise history.

Two years later they met again in a seven-game thriller with the Celts and Russell gaining a measure of revenge, this time by a 4-3 count.

Heinsohn led a balanced Boston attack with 22.4 ppg as five Celtics scored between 14 and 23 ppg. Russell checked in with 24.9 rebounds and 16.7 ppg in the series. Pettit countered with 25.7 ppg and 14.9 boards, while Hagan added 23.6 and 10.1 caroms.

In the decisive seventh game, a 122-103 triumph, original Celtic sixth man Frank Ramsey led all scorers with 24 points.

The next spring, Boston put an exclamation point on the St. Louis version of the Finals rivalry with an anticlimactic 4-1 championship series victory.

Russell pulled down a whopping 28.8 boards per game in the Finals, while the underrated Heinsohn led six Celtics in double figures for the series with 22 ppg.

The rivalry was renewed in the Eastern Conference during the early 1970s, when Boston and the relocated Atlanta Hawks met over two tough eastern semifinal series in 1972 and 1973.

The Celtics won both times in six games, led by superstar swingman John Havlicek. In 1972, Boston broke away from a 2-2 series tie to win the last two contests by 10 and 9 points, respectively.

In the clincher, Havlicek and Dave Cowens each scored 26 points while reserve Steve Kuberski scored 22 big markers to offset 37 by Pistol Pete Maravich.

The tireless Havlicek averaged 28.8 points a game in the series, while sharpshooting JoJo White tallied 24.2 ppg. Future Celtic Maravich (27.7 ppg) and All-Star swingman Lou Hudson (25 ppg) helped give Boston fits before succumbing in six.

In their 1973 east semifinals rematch, Havlicek scored a club playoff-record 54 points on April Fool's Day in game one to lead the way to a 25-point victory. The relentless 33-year old poured in 24 field goals and hit all six of his foul shots to set a team post-season single-game mark that still stands.

Yet once more the plucky Hawks rallied to knot the series, 2-2. In game five, the indefatigible Hondo netted 32 to negate 34 from the Pistol as Boston won at home, 108-101.

Two days later in Atlanta, the Celtics broke open a two-point battle with a 35-19 fourth period to win and finish the series with a 121-103 victory. White fired in 33 points, Cowens tallied 27 and Hondo netted 26 while Lou Hudson tossed in 35 in a losing effort.

Havlicek scored just under 30 points a game in another 4-2 series win while White added 25.7 ppg and Cowens tallied 19.
Maravich and the sharpshooting Hudson combined for 55.9 ppg to give the original Big Three's club all they could handle before bowing out.

Fast forward a decade to a new rivalry with great new stars and characters such as Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins, Kevin McHale, Tree Rollins and Robert Parish, among others.

In 1983, the Celtics were relegated to a first round best-of-three mini-series vs. the Hawks. After a split of two close games, Boston escaped what would have been a humiliating defeat with a convincing 98-79 win that sealed a 2-1 series victory. Bird outscored rookie Wilkins 26 to eight in the rubber match.

But the most memorable moment of that series came when Danny Ainge tackled seven-footer Tree Rollins to the parquet floor, then had his finger bitten all the way to the bone in the ensuing pile of players by Tree. It wasn't exactly man-bites-dog news, but it was close.

Somehow, probably due in part to Danny's reputation as an instigator, the story has often gotten twisted around to Ainge biting Rollins, when it was actually the reverse.

When the clubs next met in 1986 at the eastern semifinal level, both teams were improved but Boston crushed Atlanta 4-1. Capping that series was an absolute clinic put on by arguably the greatest NBA team ever.

In game five, Boston destroyed the Hawks 36-6 in the third quarter of a 132-99 blowout that buried the Hawks behind that epic period for the ages.

Two years later, bruised and battered Boston was pushed to the absolute limit by the younger and high-flying Hawks, who were hungry for revenge and marketing themselves as "Atlanta's Air Force" due to their exciting, athletic style of play.

Not so subliminally, the message was clear: the Hawks expected to dethrone the more ground-bound, less superficially spectacular and aging Celtics.

Boston had barely edged Atlanta for top-seed honors in the East in 1987 (59 wins to 57) and the Hawks, not the Pistons or Bulls, appeared to be their biggest threat at the time.

After Atlanta won three straight in the 1988 east semis to take a 3-2 lead into the Omni, they were poised to potentially end the third Celtic dynasty.

But could the Hawks, who had never even been to the East finals, seal the deal and back up their bluster? Or would an aging Gang Green summon up the pride and skill to stave off extinction before a hostile crowd in Georgia?

The answer was all heart. With Boston clinging to a 102-100 lead in the final seconds, Bird helped force a driving miss by Cliff Levingston, then cleverly tipped the sealing defensive rebound out to Dennis Johnson, who joyously ran out the clock.

"You have to give Boston all the credit in the world...the Celtics stared death in the face and survived," reported long-time Hawks announcer Chip Caray.

After the game, Bird delivered a classic Celtic psychological ploy on the less-accomplished Hawks. He guaranteed a seventh game victory back in the Garden, where he predicted "our shots will be falling better, our legs will run faster...and I think it will be a big win for the Celtics."

But the Hawks did not fold, proving they were an adversary of some mettle in what proved to be one of the greatest shootouts of NBA playoff annals in game seven at the old Garden.

After struggling through three close periods, the proud Bird was motivated by Hawk forward Kevin Willis, who told Wilkins within Larry's earshot that Bird couldn't handle the Hawks' "Human Highlight Film."

The foolish remark lit a fire under the fatigued Bird, whose eyes got wide upon hearing the insult. It was never a wise move to anger the legend, and Atlanta paid the price for such ill-advised trash talk.

The uber-clutch Bird sank nine of his 10 field goal attempts in the fourth period, scoring 20 points as Boston edged Atlanta and Wilkins to fulfill his prediction, 118-116.

Included in his final quarter barrage was a dagger left side three-pointer, a left-handed 13-footer in the lane, and a falling-down southpaw prayer flip shot that dropped in high off the glass for a spectacular three-point play.

After battling Dominique for post-up position, Bird delivered the haymaker that knocked out the Hawks in the final minute. He out-maneuvered Wilkins for position and the ball, drove past a wilting 'Nique and fittingly swished - in tantalizing fashion just over the reach of over the seven-foot Willis - a lefty floater that finished the brash Atlantans off.

Larry Legend's only fourth quarter miss from the top of the key was all the way down before rimming out, or he would have shot a perfect 10-for-10 from the field.

Wilkins scored 47 points to 34 by Bird. As future Celtic head coach and then-Hawks guard Doc Rivers recalled years later, "Dominique scored more, but Larry got the biggest points. We kept waiting for him to miss, but he never did."

An admiring McHale called the classic shootout duel "the purest form of basketball you will ever see."

Larry's heroics made his Celtics 3-0 over the Hawks during their 1980s post-season rivalry (10-5 in games). His legendary shot-making display doused any thought of Atlanta taking over Boston's mantle as beast of the East.

The rivals did not meet in the playoffs again for 20 years when a rejuvenated Celtic franchise, seeded first, took on an upstart Hawk club seeded eighth.

Surprisingly, Atlanta took Boston to the limit before the Celtics blew the upset-minded Hawks out 99-65 in game seven to complete the first step en route to their first title in 22 years.

Four years later, the Celtics again took out Atlanta in a tough first-round series, 4-2.

This first round series will equal the 12 playoff meetings Boston has had against the Lakers, where the Celtics hold a 9-3 edge. All of those meetings have been in the Finals.

Only the 76ers/Nationals (11-7 head-to-head edge for Boston) and Knicks have been more frequent playoff foes for the Celtics than the Hawks. Boston won four of seven series vs. the Syracuse Nationals, and seven of 11 after the team moved to Philly to become the 76ers.

The Celtics hold an eight to seven edge over the rival Knicks in their 15 playoff series, including 36-31 in games.

This 2016 series shapes up as another close battle. One wonders how it will end up and where it will rank on the list of Hawks/Celtics playoff matchups.

For Atlanta, it has usually been a frustrating series of close but no cigar (pun intended) finishes, courtesy of Red Auerbach and his ghost. If I had to guess, it will be another such finish in 2016.


Ranking the Celtics vs. Hawks all-time playoff series

11) 1983 Eastern Conference First Round
Boston Celtics 2, Atlanta Hawks 1

10) 2012 Eastern Conference First Round
Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 2

9) 1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 1

8) 1961 Finals
Boston Celtics 4, St. Louis Hawks 1

7) 1973 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 2

6) 1972 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 2

5) 2008 Eastern Conference First Round
Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 3

4) 1958 Finals
St. Louis Hawks 4, Boston Celtics 2

3) 1960 Finals
Boston Celtics 4, St. Louis Hawks 3

2) 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 3

1) 1957 Finals
Boston Celtics 4, St. Louis Hawks 3


To contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.