Bill Russell’s Last Game (#4 Greatest NBA Finals Performance of all time)
21 Rebounds, 6 Points (Limited stats) (Video)
Despite being the defending NBA champions, and winners of an incredible 10 titles in 12 seasons, The Boston Celtics were not regarded as a legitimate contender for the NBA championship during the 1969 campaign. Their leader (and last remaining player from their first NBA title) Bill Russell was in his into his 3rd season as player-coach, and 13th season overall. As his body and production were slowing down (Russell was 34 years old), so was the Celtics dynasty.
Or so we thought. The Celtics scraped into the playoffs as the 4th seed (which was the final seed back in those days). But as Bill Russell embarked on his final post season run, The Celtics sounded one last call to arms. Playing with fierce pride, Boston outfought the more talented Philadelphia 76ers, and outran the younger New York Knicks (who would go on to win the championship the next season) to again earn a berth in the Finals. But with nemesis Wilt Chamberlain teamed up with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the Celtics faced a Lakers team that boasted the top 3 scorers in NBA history.
“We felt invincible.” Jerry West said. “I suppose it would be like a heavyweight champion who is 23 years old and knocks everyone out in the 1st or 3rd round; no one can beat us.”
The Lakers would take a 2-0 series lead and looked firmly in control before Boston battled their way back to tie it at 3 games each, setting up a decisive game 7 in Los Angeles for the championship, and despite the history (Bill Russell had never lost a game 7), their chances of winning the title seemed remote – especially to the Lakers.
“There’s a piece of paper, and I pick it up, and it says ‘post game program'” Russell describes. “And it goes through the whole thing about when The Lakers win the Championship the USC band will come out and play Happy Days, 10,000 balloons will drop from the rafters, and then there’s a 20 case of champagne in the forum club. And I said ‘guys that champagne is going to be really be old by the time they drink it. It’s really be old by the time they get to drink that to celebrate.”
Los Angeles had badly underestimated The Celtics resolve, and although clearly undermanned, Boston would match the Lakers’ talent with determination and pride. Playing them even until the final seconds, Boston would reach back for one last moment of Celtic magic. Russell would pour in 21 rebounds (right on his average for the series of 21.1 rpg) and trademark defense was pivotal, and as the Celtics won the game, they would cap off one of the great playoff runs in NBA history, and fittingly, brought to a close its most glorious dynasty.
There is no question that Russell had had better games in the finals. But the game of basketball goes so much further than just statistics. His performance as not just the leader, but as player coach, is truly remarkable and to be completely honest with you, I don’t think words can do it justice. The man is the epitome of a winner, and the perfect example of what the human body and mind can accomplish. The 1969 championship was symbolic of just what kind of a player Bill Russell was, and proved that defense and rebounding were just as (if not more) important than scoring when it comes to an outcome, even on the highest level.
Number 3: Magic Johnson Game 6 1980 NBA Finals
Number 5: Isiah Thomas Game 6 1988 NBA Finals