Eight of the great Celtics non-title teams listed here were defending champions, with all but two severely hampered in their quest to repeat by injuries.
1971-72 Celtics (56-26) lost in Eastern Conference Finals to New York Knicks (4-1)
In their first playoff foray under coach Tom Heinsohn, the rebuilt Celtics of young Dave Cowens, JoJo White, and Don Chaney, along with veterans John Havlicek and Don Nelson, were taken down by the wily Knicks.
Boston beat New York by eight games in the regular season to win the Atlantic Division. But after beating Atlanta 4-2 in the first round, New York exposed the playoff inexperience of many of the Celtics in a five-game conference finals victory.
1987-88 Celtics (57-25) lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Detroit Pistons (4-2)
Boston again finished with the best record in the East for the eighth time in Bird’s ninth season. McHale missed the first 21 games after off-season foot surgery, and the bench was short again without Bill Walton, who missed the entire season.
Boston barely squeaked by Atlanta 4-3 in the Eastern semis in the famous Bird vs. Wilkins fourth period shootout. Larry guaranteed a win and shot 9-of-10 in the final period to score 20 points and lead the Celtics to a thrilling 118-116 victory.
But in their Eastern Conference Finals rematch against the deeper, younger, healthier, and hungry Pistons, Boston had its four-year reign as conference champions ended in six tough games.
After going to at least the conference finals in eight of Bird’s first nine seasons (and five NBA Finals, winning three times), the Celtics would not get back to that level again until 2002.
Injuries, age, the retirements of Bird, DJ and McHale in the early 1990’s, and the unfortunate death of budding star Reggie Lewis hastened the end of the third Celtic dynasty. The Boston Garden closed its 67-year old doors in 1995, signaling the end of an era.
2009-10 Celtics (50-32) lost in The Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
This club surprised many by getting to The Finals. If Kendrick Perkins did not hurt his knee in a Game 6 loss, Boston probably would have defeated the Lakers in Game 7. At least that’s what Doc Rivers would have us believe.
But the short-handed Celtics blew a 13-point fourth quarter lead and lost a defensive-oriented thriller at Staples, 83-79.
Still not fully recovered from a 2009 knee injury, Kevin Garnett was out-rebounded 19-3 by Paul Gasol in Game 7. Kobe Bryant shot just 6-for-24 and 11-for-15 from the foul line, but it was just enough to win in a highly-intense struggle.
1957-58 Celtics (49-23) lost in The Finals to St. Louis Hawks (4-2)
Coming off their first NBA title, the Celtics lost the rematch to the Hawks 4-2. Russell was hampered by a sprained ankle in the Finals.
St. Louis great Bob Pettit scored 50 points in the 110-109 Game 6 clincher. Pettit, whom Dave Cowens would later be compared to, would not be denied as he scored 19 of the last 21 Hawk points.
Boston would rebound to win the next EIGHT NBA championships, however, a North American team pro sports record.
1979-80 Celtics (61-21) lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia 76ers (4-1)
Larry Bird’s phenomenal rookie season carried resurgent Boston from a dismal 29-53 record (their worst in 30 years) to the league’s best record at 61-21. The 32-game improvement was a league-best mark for a single-season turnaround improvement and Bird was the only new starter in the lineup.
For his unbelievable all-around efforts, Bird was named Rookie of the Year, first team all-NBA and finished fourth in the MVP voting.
But much like in 1972, the Celtics’ lack of playoff experience showed in the conference finals to a heated rival in a 4-1 loss.
Dave Cowens played his final Celtic season in 1980 as his body began to break down after 10 seasons of breakneck play. He did not have the size or health (foot) to battle the taller 76er center duo of 7’1 Caldwell Jones and 6’11 Darryl Dawkins after negating Moses Malone in a 4-0 sweep of Houston in the East semifinals.
And yes, the Rockets were a member of the East back then. After being swept by Boston in Rick Barry’s swansong, they moved to the West the next season and ironically met Boston in the NBA Finals, losing 4-2.
1974-75 Celtics (60-22) lost Eastern Conference Finals to Washington Bullets (4-2)
This defending champion Boston club tied for the NBA’s best record with Washington. After a 19-13 start, they went 41-9 over the final 50 games.
In his 13th season, Don Nelson became the oldest and shortest player to win the field goal percentage title since the 1950’s. It was quite an amazing accomplishment for the 6’6 jump shooting forward, who had a renaissance season averaging 14 ppg.
But after beating Milwaukee 4-3 in the thrilling 1974 Finals, a small and aging Celtic club didn’t have enough depth or balanced scoring to beat back the Bullets.
With Havlicek finally showing slight signs of slowing down a bit at age 35, the Celtics came up just short vs. the Hall of Fame Washington frontline duo of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.
Boston took out the Rockets 4-1 in the Eastern semifinals, but they lost the first two games of the ECF vs. the Bullets and could not recover after falling behind 3-1.
Underrated Washington All-Star guard Phil Chenier fired in 24.8 ppg in the conference finals to help Hayes (25.3 ppg) and Unseld (16.7 rebounds) dethrone Boston. It was the fourth of five straight conference finals showings by the Celtics from 1972 through 1976.
Shooting-challenged Paul Silas and Chaney managed just 15.3 ppg between them in the series loss to Washington. Chaney then jumped to the wild St. Louis Spirits of the ABA in an ill-fated off-season move.
Washington barely scraped by Buffalo 4-3 in the eastern semis, then were swept 4-0 in The Finals in a huge upset led by Rick Barry of the Warriors.
D.C. resident Red Auerbach later told the over-confident Bullets they lost to major underdog Golden State in part because they celebrated too much after eliminating the Celtics in Game 6.
2008-09 Celtics (62-20) lost Eastern Conference Semis to Orlando Magic (4-3)
Injuries ended this team’s title repeat chances as Kevin Garnett missed the playoffs with a knee injury suffered coming down with an alley-oop pass in Utah about 70 percent of the way through the regular season.
Thus the new big three of Pierce, Allen, and KG was reduced to a duo. Boston was 44-13 with KG (and 18-7 without him) as the team managed to post the third-best win total in the NBA behind only Cleveland (66) and the Lakers (65).
But Boston was only 7-7 in the playoffs with their defensive and rebound leader sidelined.
After beating Chicago 4-3 in an epic first round series, Orlando eliminated Boston 4-3 en route to The Finals.
Had Garnett stayed healthy, it is a good bet Boston and LA would have met again in the 2009 Finals after the Celtics beat them 4-2 in 2008, the first championship meeting of the storied rivals in 21 years.
Orlando then upset the Cavaliers in the eastern finals and later lost to the Lakers 4-1 in a Finals that was much closer than the series tally indicates.
5) 1966-67 Celtics (60-21) lost Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia 76ers (4-1)
After winning eight titles in a row and nine out of ten since 1957, the 76ers finally dethroned the Celtics. It was the only time in Russell’s 13 seasons (his first as head coach) that Boston missed the NBA Finals.
The team still featured John Havlicek, sharpshooter Sam Jones, Hall of Fame forward Bailey Howell, defensive ace Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones in his last season, Don Nelson and Larry Siegfried to go along with Russell.
The Celtics were talented enough to post a fine 60-21 record, but the 76ers went 68-13 and it was their time to finally break through.
4) 1984-85 Celtics (63-19) lost The Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
Another failed chance at a repeat as NBA champions was foiled by complacency and injuries to Cedric Maxwell (knee), Bird (elbow, finger) and determined Lakers play led by Finals MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Boston again posted the league’s best record and beat Cleveland 3-1 in a surprisingly tough first round series. The Celtics then outgunned Detroit 4-2 in a run-and-gun eastern semis before the Pistons became the defensive-oriented, “beat you up” Bad Boys of 1987.
Gaining steam, Boston ran out to a 3-0 series lead over rival Philadelphia in the conference finals. After the 76ers avoided a sweep by wining Game 4 at home, the clincher went down to the wire at The Garden.
With Boston clinging to a two-point lead in the final seconds, Bird stole the ball right out of the hands of stunned “Boston Strangler” guard Andrew Toney to finish the Sixers off 4-1 and send Boston to a much-anticipated Finals rematch with the Lakers.
The Celtics bombed LA 148-114 in Game 1, famously nicknamed The Memorial Day Massacre. Scott Wedman led the way with perfect 11-or-11 field goal shooting, including four three-pointers, to give Boston its fourth win over the Lakers in their last five Finals meetings.
But then LA and the 37-year old Jabbar rebounded from the embarrassing blowout and turned it around, winning four of the last five games to beat Boston for the first time in nine Finals meetings.
Kevin McHale moved into the starting lineup that season, replacing Maxwell, and became a superstar. Danny Ainge also made the transition to solid starter as he supplanted the traded Gerald Henderson to give Boston the best starting five in the NBA.
A short bench hurt the Celtics, as Maxwell did not rehab his knee injury to the team’s satisfaction and was unable to contribute much in the playoffs. His clutch play in the 1984 Finals were an underrated key to the series win, and without his offensive rebounding, tough defense, and interior scoring, the Celtics were not the same team.
The experimental free agent addition of former Knicks antagonist Ray Williams did not work as his one-on-one game never fit in with the Celtics. M.L. Carr and Quinn Buckner were also in their last seasons as defensive backup guards, and sharpshooting swingman Wedman - a two-time All-Star with the Kings - was underused.
Bird was also hampered in the playoffs by injuries to his shooting hand and elbow incurred during an ill-advised bar fight. Had Boston been healthy, it is tempting to think they would have beaten LA again in six or seven games.
Another thing that worked against a Celtics repeat was a change in the Finals format. That was the first year the championship series went to a 2-3-2 format. Thus after Boston won Game 4 107-105 on Dennis Johnson’s 20-footer just before the buzzer, instead of going home tied 2-2 with all the momentum for Game 5, the Celts had to play another game in LA.
The Lakers regrouped to win at home and wisely did not let the series get to a final game in Boston.
The year prior, Boston also won Game 4 in overtime at the Forum to tie it 2-2. Then back home in “The Sauna Game,” Bird shot 15-of-20 with 34 points and 17 rebounds as they took control of the series with a 3-2 lead.
The new format took away that chance to go ahead 3-2 at home again in 1985.
3) 1986-87 Celtics (59-20) lost in The Finals to Los Angeles Lakers (4-2)
If this defending championship team had had a healthy Bill Walton and Scott Wedman, had McHale not broken his foot and Len Bias had not died shortly after being drafted, this team could have gone 75-7 and been the greatest ever.
In my humble opinion, the 1985-86 Celtics ARE the greatest team ever. They went 67-15 (15-3 in playoffs) and ran roughshod over a pre-overexpansion diluted 23-team league. They featured three-time MVP Bird and McHale at their peaks, with Parish and DJ at the end of their primes, Ainge was ascending, and the best sixth (Walton) and seventh men (Wedman) in the league.
But the title defense got off on the wrong foot (literally and figuratively) with the death of Bias and Walton getting hurt in the pre-season. Bill broke his finger in practice, then injured his troublesome foot working out his frustrations on the stationary bike as he watched his teammates practice.
Third guard Jerry Sichting battled a mysterious stomach ailment much of the season, and Wedman missed almost the whole year and playoffs with a bad heel that forced him to retire. Walton only played 10 games after appearing in 80 the year before.
McHale, on his way to the only first team all-league season of his career, broke his navicular bone and valiantly kept playing on it through the grueling playoffs despite the advice of doctors and Bird to not play. He limps still to this day for playing hurt the last few months.
The Celtics had to beat Atlanta in the regular season finale to clinch the best record in the East (for the seventh time in Bird’s eighth season) by two games over the Hawks with a 59-23 mark.
Despite all these setbacks and more, the 1987 Celtics grittily fought their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals. They had to sweep Chicago in Round #1 before nearly blowing a 3-1 lead to Milwaukee in the east semifinals.
A great defensive stand down the final stretch of Game 7 at home led to a 14-1 closing run and a 119-113 win. Boston more than doubled the Bucks on the boards to gut out the win even though Parish and McHale were also hobbled by sprained ankles.
Then, after that seven-game thriller, Boston jumped right into an even more intense seven-game conference final versus the young and bruising Pistons.
The first four games were played in just six days, including Games 3 and 4 on consecutive weekend days at the Silverdome. The Celtics lost both to even it 2-2. Back at the Garden for Game 5, Bird’s epic steal and assist to a cutting DJ for a layup won it by a point with a second left.
Boston then closed it out in a fierce Game 7, 117-114. Bird’s 37-9-9 line in Game 7 underlined his spectacular play. In the pressure-packed series, Larry made all 29 of his foul shots over the final three games.
The series was played from May 19-30. This battered and short-handed club had to play back-to-back seven-game battles in just 26 days.
Meanwhile in a much weaker West, a rested and healthy Lakers team played two sub-.500 teams and a 42-40 club over its three rounds, going 11-1 and enduring five less games than Boston to reach the Finals.
Still, the Celtics almost upset LA if not for some highly questionable officiating in Game 4 that helped evaporate a 16-point second half lead. The Lakers shot 14 fourth period free throws in Boston, compared to one by Boston.
At least six bad calls were made in LA’s favor in the second half, any one of which would have given Boston the win instead of a one-point loss.
Boston finally bowed out 4-2 after leading Game 6 at LA at halftime 56-51 with near perfect half court execution. All three Celtic centers were whistled for three fouls in the first half, many of the phantom variety, to help keep LA close.
Worn to the very last thread, the Celtics finally unraveled after intermission, and a 30-12 third period meltdown spelled the end.
Bird gutted his way through 23 playoff games and an NBA single-post season record 1,015 minutes. This team never made excuses and were true champions in their own right.
2) 1981-82 Celtics (63-19) lost Eastern Conference Finals to 76ers (4-3)
This club was poised to become the first repeat champion since the 1968-69 Celtics. The team put together a team-record 18-game win streak, some of it compiled without Larry Bird, who suffered a fractured cheekbone when Harvey Catchings elbowed him in the face.
Ironically, when Larry returned, he served as sixth man for almost a month as Kevin McHale had moved into the starting lineup during his absence. But Boston had played so well and continued winning, so coach Bill Fitch kept Bird coming off the bench as the latest great Celtic sixth man. Larry quietly fumed.
By his third season, Larry Bird had established himself as the best all-around player in the game. And for the third straight year he led the Celtics to the best regular season record in the NBA.
After blowing out Philly by 40 in Game 1 of the eastern finals, the 76ers rebounded to upset Boston at the Garden in Game 2. Disaster struck in Game 3, just as it had nine years earlier in the same game of the conference finals with a shoulder injury.
Like John Havlicek, point guard Nate Archibald injured his shooting shoulder and was lost for the series. Even though he was not the team’s best or most valuable player, he may have been its most indispensable as no one else could approximate what he brought to the table in terms of penetration and running the fast break.
Thus, just as in 1973, Boston fell behind 3-1 but rallied to tie the series 3-3 with a convincing Game 6 road win (88-75) to force a decider in the Garden.
But just like in 1973, the depleted Celtics lost Game 7 (for just the second time at home) by double figures to their Atlantic Division archrival. This time they fell to the Sixers 120-106.
1) 1972-73 Celtics (68-14) lost in Eastern Conference Finals to New York Knicks (4-3)
Amazingly, the team which crafted the best single-season record in franchise history did NOT win one of its record 17 NBA championships in that season.
The rebuild was over from the last title in 1969, when Bill Russell and Sam Jones retired. Former Celtic great Tom Heinsohn took over as head coach and slowly rebuilt the team while struggling through two seasons without a playoff showing.
In 1971-72, the Celtics won the Atlantic Division and registered the best record (56-26) in the East. Yet despite finishing eight games ahead of New York (48-34), they lost to the wily rival Knicks 4-1 in the conference finals.
The next season, third-year center Dave Cowens emerged as the regular season and All-Star Game MVP. The energetic redhead averaged 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds per game, played great defense and inspired the club with his all-out hustle. Ironically, the undersized league MVP was still only named as the second team All-NBA center behind Jabbar!
John Havlicek (23.8/7/1/6.6) was the most complete player in the NBA, making first team all-league and all-defense at age 32.
JoJo White (19.7 ppg) was a quick, good-shooting guard nearing his peak at age 26. He would make the third of seven straight All-Star appearances in 1973. Thus, all three Celtic stars were at or near their physical prime.
The big three of that time led Boston to six different win streaks of at least eight games that season, but none lasted more than 10 games. That is consistency at a very, very high level.
Newcomer power forward Paul Silas (13.3 ppg, 13 rebounds) gave the team another top rebounder to go with Cowens. The veteran Silas also was a physical defender and a smart team player.
The off-season acquisition of Silas allowed heady forward Don Nelson (10.1 ppg) to move back into his sixth man role. Long-armed Don Chaney (13.1 ppg) was one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and rounded out the starting five.
Future Hall of Famer Paul Westphal, the team’s rookie top draft pick, served as an underused reserve guard (4.1 ppg). Along with the crafty, sharp-shooting Nelson, forward Steve Kuberski (4.4 ppg) was the other top backup with guard Art Williams (3.2 ppg). But the bench was quite short, an Achilles heel that would come back to haunt them.
Behind the board-banging duo of Cowens and Silas (over 29 combined caroms per outing), Boston led the league in rebounds. And as the second-highest scoring team (112.7 ppg) in the loop, they also topped the NBA in assists despite not having a true point guard. Swingman Hondo led the club in assists (6.6), just ahead of White (6.1) and Cowens (4.2).
The big three of Havlicek (42.1 minutes), Cowens (41.8), and White (39.6) ran opponents into the ground with a relentless fast-breaking attack. The entire starting lineup missed just seven combined games but other than Nellie (19.8 mpg), no other backup averaged more than 12 minutes per outing.
After their 15-1 finish, Boston was pushed hard by the 46-36 Atlanta Hawks in a tough eastern semifinal series. The Celtics had won the season series 5-1, with their lone loss coming 100-99 on February 2nd as Pete Maravich netted 37 points.
Havlicek exploded for a club-record 54 points in Game 1 on 24-of-36 field goal shooting and 6-6 FTs as the Celts rolled, 134-109. But after falling behind 0-2, the Hawks rallied to win the next two at home, including a 97-94 Game 4 nailbiter after another 37-point outburst from Pistol Pete.
Boston trailed 54-46 at halftime of Game 5 at home, yet the Celtics rallied behind 60 combined points from Hondo and JoJo to win 108-101. They then finished Atlanta off 121-103 at the new Omni Coliseum in Game 6 as White scored 33 points to eliminate the Hawks, 4-2.
Cowens contributed 27 points and 16 caroms in the clincher. He averaged 19 points with 19.5 rebounds in the series to support Hondo’s 29.7 ppg. The surprisingly tough series win set up a rematch with the rival Knicks in the eastern finals.
New York had beaten their coastal rival Bullets 4-1 in the other Eastern Conference first round series. It was the fifth straight season the two foes had met in the post-season, with NY winning all but one time.
Boston had whipped the Knickerbockers by 11 games in the season standings, but the two clubs split eight meetings and the veteran New Yorkers promised to be a tough out. The cagey Knicks led the league in defense, were the best-balanced team in the league, and had sandbagged their last three games while resting up for the playoffs.
In the last game of the Knicks regular season, they lost at home to Boston 108-103. Cowens outscored the aging NY Hall of Fame center tandem of Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas 29-25. A decisive 39-26 third quarter by the Celtics keyed the victory.
The clubs split the first two ECF playoff games via blowout wins, with the Celtics taking Game 1 134-108 as they singed the nets at a 57 percent accuracy clip. White scored 30 and Havlicek just missed a triple-double with a 26-9-11 line.
NY returned the favor 129-96 at MSG in Game 2 as Frazier led eight Knicks in double figures with 24 points.
Back in Boston for the pivotal third game, the Knicks ran out to a 12-point halftime lead. The Celtics rallied within four heading to the final period.
But then superstar Havlicek ran into a blind screen set by muscular Knick forward Dave DeBusschere, and the season took a severe turn for the worse. The Knicks held on to win 98-91 and seize a 2-1 series lead.
Havlicek scored 29 points despite the injury, while Cowens tallied 27 and White 24. However, the rest of the team managed just 11 combined points.
Hondo missed the pivotal fourth game due to his damaged right shoulder. Down 2-1 and playing before a rabid New York crowd on Easter Sunday, the rivals battled through one of the greatest playoff games in league annals televised nationally by ABC without their leader.
The partisan sellout MSG crowd gave Havlicek, who was dressed in street clothes - which at the time meant suit, coat, and tie - a respectful ovation when it was announced he would not be able to play.
A motivated Celtic team extended its 48-42 intermission lead to 17 points in the third period, and appeared all but certain to even the series. But then the Knicks rallied behind its hometown crowd past a tiring Boton squad with a 33-17 fourth quarter.
Two Walt Frazier free throws tied it 89-89 in the final seconds, and White missed a last-second shot that could have won it. The teams battled through a tense 12-12 first overtime period.
In the second OT, Cowens fouled out with 33 points and 14 rebounds on a questionable call after lanky rookie Knick backup center John Gianelli blocked his shot, swinging the momentum to the hosts.
Phil Jackson then reached in with his long arms on a switch and stole the ball off the dribble from a surprised White, who had scored 34 points. Phil drove in for an uncontested, game-changing layup as a tired White could only watch.
DeBusschere swished a running hook, and a pressing Westphal missed a spinning turnaround and was called for charging into future coaching rival Jackson to seal Boston’s doom.
Frazier tallied 37 as the Knicks won 117-110 in double OT, and Heinsohn gave referee Jack Madden an earful as he left the court.
Down 3-1 in Boston Garden, Hondo returned and mustered 18 points off the bench. Still, the Knicks led by a point in the final seconds when Silas, the team’s worst shooter, was fouled by DeBusschere.
Paul, who was 1-for-3 from the line at that point with 20 rebounds and seven markers, nailed both free throws to keep Boston alive with a 98-97 win. Cowens amassed 32 points and 16 boards.
Back in New York for Game 6, the Celtics upset the Knicks 110-100 to even the series 3-3. All five Boston starters scored double figures, led by Cowens with 26 and White with 25.
Knicks general manager Ned Irish was so angry with his team after the loss that he harangued them and chastised them, thinking they had blown the series.
No opponent had ever won a seventh game at Boston Garden until 1973. Aided by the injury to Havlicek, the Knicks pulled away from a close game and stymied the Celtic offense, allowing just 56 points over the final three periods in a 94-78 victory.
Frazier scored 25 points to offset 24 and 14 from Cowens. Unable to raise his right arm fully, Hondo was held to just four points in 23 minutes and he even uncharacteristically airballed a foul shot.
It was a bitter repeat ECF loss to the hated Knicks, who then went on to defeat the Lakers 4-1 in the Finals for their second and last championship. Incidentally, Boston had easily swept defending champion LA 4-0 that season as Cowens ran an aging Chamberlain ragged in his last season.
In fact, Wilt stated publicly that the Lakers preferred their Finals matchup to be vs. the Knicks (whom they had beaten 4-1 in 1972), which motivated New York even more.
But the heartbreaking Celtic loss would help motivate Boston in 1974. They avenged the Knick defeat with a 4-1 demolition of New York in their third straight Eastern Conference Finals showdown as Hondo scored 33 in the clincher.
Then behind Finals MVP Havlicek, Boston beat Milwaukee 4-3 in the title round to earn their 12th banner, their first of the post-Russell era.
To contact the writer directly, email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.