The Eastern Division Finals had seen the most pitched confrontation yet between the Russell-Chamberlain, Celtics-Warriors rivalry. As great as those two rivalries were, there was a temporal quality. Russell and Chamberlain were mortal and although their stories would go on, their battles would eventually come to a close. The Celtics-Warriors clashes could have sustained, but the Philadelphia franchise headed west to California’s Bay Area, putting an end to that heated dispute.
However, in the 1962 NBA Finals, the Celtics would find an eternal enemy, one that has stood the test of the time and continued to add new chapters over 50 years later: the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Celtics had already played the Minneapolis Lakers in the finals before (1959) as the Celtics, unknowingly, were on their way to surpassing the dynastic excellence of the Minnesota club’s early years. The 1959 Lakers were far-removed from their glory days. Leading the way was rookie Elgin Baylor and last holdover from the Mikan years Vern Mikkelsen, but they were swept unceremoniously by Boston.
Although they came within one game of reaching the finals again in the 1959-60 season, the Lakers were struggling financially. The summer of 1960 proved to be one of remarkable change for the Lakers: they moved to California and drafted Jerry West setting up a return to glory and a windfall of financial success.
For the National Basketball Association, this was truly its first national finals. For the first time a team beyond the banks of the Mississippi River would contend for the championship. And the contest between Boston and Los Angeles would prove to be just as mighty as the Mississippi.
The accepted storyline of the Lakers vs. Celtics in the 1960s was a great one-two punch of Los Angeles constantly faltering to a more balanced Boston team. There is certainly much truth to this. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor averaged nearly 70 points between them in the 1962 season, becoming the first and only pair of teammates to average over 30 points in the same season. But there was more to the Lakers than West’s fearless drives and Baylor’s acrobatic finishes.
First and foremost was Rudy LaRusso. At 6’7″ and 220 lbs, LaRusso usually played forward but could do spot duty at center. The 4x all-star averaged 17 points by virtue of a sweet jump shot and 10 rebounds to go along with staunch defense. 29-year old Frank Selvy was nearing the end of his career, but had put together perhaps his finest season since his rookie campaign with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists at the point guard position. At center, Los Angeles rotated Ray Felix, the first black player to win Rookie of the Year back in 1954, and Jim Krebs.
Where things fell apart was the bench. Mimicking the problems faced by the Philadelphia Warriors, the Lakers would have a hell of a time surviving a bad night from any starter. The Celtics on the other hand knew they could do with a bad game from Sam Jones, Bob Cousy or Tom Heinsohn because of their three reliable bench players (Jim Loscutoff, K.C. Jones and Frank Ramsey).
The series opened on April 7 in Boston with a rare and coveted national TV appearance for the NBA. The Celtics were only slightly favored. On the one hand, they had won 4 titles in the previous 5 years. But on the other, Los Angeles had defeated Boston 3 out of 4 times in the regular season when they had Elgin Baylor in uniform (he missed half the season with military service). Uncle Sam wouldn’t be a problem as Elgin was available for the entire series.
Boston came out with a thunderous 122-108 drubbing of Los Angeles in Game 1. After taking a 60-52 halftime lead, the Celtics opened the 2nd half with a 35-22 advantage in the 3rd quarter. In true Celtics form, Boston had eight players nest between 8 and 24 points. The Lakers were led by Elgin Baylor’s 35 points.
The very next day Game 2 was played and the Lakers showed Boston they would not be intimidated by the Game 1 blowout. Jerry West came out blazing scoring the Lakers’ first 11 points and LA outscored Boston 43-23 in the 2nd quarter to take a 73-59 lead at the half. Boston mounted a furious comeback, even taking the lead briefly at 112-111, but ultimately Los Angeles won 129-122.
Baylor, West and LaRusso combined for 98 points in the contest.
Knotted at one game apiece, the teams flew out west to California for Game 3. Again, West and Baylor were magnificent combining for 75 points, but little aid was given by their teammates. Boston meanwhile was up to their usual balanced tricks with seven players in the 7 to 26 points range.
With Boston leading 113-108 with under 2 minutes left, Jerry West assumed the title of Mr. Clutch and gave the first-ever finals crowd in LA something to remember. Knocking down a jumper and then connecting on three free throws, West was able to ultimately tie the game at 115. After a Boston timeout with 3 seconds left, Sam Jones attempted an inbounds pass that was picked off by West and taken down court for a game-winning layup.
After that devastating loss, the Celtics were down 2 games to 1 and Red Auerbach knew they had to head back to Boston tied 2-2 for a legitimate chance to win the series. The C’s responded with an inspired 115-103 road victory leaving Red relieved, if only for the moment:
“We just had to have this one. I’m tremendously proud of the way they bounced back from that heartbreaking loss Tuesday night. The fellows had a lot of life and our shooting was just about at capacity. This was the time for them to be on. Otherwise we would have been down 3-1.”
Back in Boston for Game 5, Elgin Baylor delivered a performance for the ages.
Elgin wasted no time in his thrashing of the Boston defense with 18 points in the 1st quarter. By halftime he had 33 points. But perhaps this was part of the Boston game plan. After three quarters, Boston was leading 99 to 93. As the fourth quarter chugged along, the Celtics still clung to 116-114 lead. Baylor proceeded to score 6 straight points and put Los Angeles ahead.
Sam Jones and Lakers big man Jim Krebs traded baskets and now the score stood 122-121 in favor of LA. With just 16 seconds left, Jerry West caught an inbounds pass and was hacked on a drive to the basket. He hit both free throws icing the game for the Lakers.
Baylor finished Game 5 with 61 points and 22 rebounds. The 61 points was a playoff record and wouldn’t be broken until Michael Jordan scored 63 against Boston in 1986, but that came in double overtime. Baylor also set the playoff record for most points in a half (33), which would be broken by Sleepy Floyd in 1987.
Trailing again in the series, but this time facing elimination, Boston again responded favorably. Sam Jones was the man of the hour for Boston hitting 17 of his 27 shots for 35 points. Five other Celtics hit double figures while the Lakers got 34 from both, Elgin and West, but little else. The final score was 119-105.
This first finals meeting between Boston and Los Angeles was now headed to a Game 7 and it would be an absolute slugfest.
Always appropriate for such occasions was the drunken and rowdy Boston Garden crowd lusting for Laker blood and a fourth straight title. Things started well enough with the Celtics taking a 53-47 halftime lead. As the 3rd quarter progressed, Boston saw their 73-67 lead evaporate in moments as Jerry West reeled off seven points to ultimately tie the game by the quarter’s end.
Bill Russell, West and Baylor exchanged baskets as the game remained tight. Sam Jones got a key block and recovered from a woeful 1st half (1-10 shooting) to finish the game with 27 points. Although he scored only 10 points for the game, Frank Selvy came up big in the fourth: two steals and two baskets to tie the game at 100 in the final minute.
With the score still tied and five seconds left, the Lakers had recovered a Frank Ramsey miss and were now set up for a final shot to end the Celtics dynasty. As West and Baylor drew the lion’s share of the Celtics’ attention, Selvy found himself open on the baseline and Hot Rod Hundley hit him with the pass. Selvy took the jumper, but it was a tad too hard and hit the far side of the rim. Russell secured the rebound and the game went to overtime. The drained Lakers couldn’t overcome Boston in the extra period as Sam Jones dropped five points to seal the 110 to 107 victory.
The Celtics had won their fourth straight title and fifth in six years. They’d survived by two points in Game 7 against Philadelphia in the Eastern Division Finals and now by three points in overtime in Game 7 to Los Angeles. And the difference had come down to two shots at the end of regulation in both. Boston’s Sam Jones had hit his last-second shot to defeat Philly, while Los Angeles’ Frank Selvy had missed his chance at eternal glory.
And by the way, Bill Russell had 30 points and 40 rebounds to finish off the Lakers. Now that’s how you close out a series and the marvelous 1962 season.