The Celtics had 3 all time clutch players in Russell, Havlicek and Sam Jones and Wilt (and his teammates) just didn’t have the same clutch gene.
I also want to dispel the notion that the Celtics always had a superior team. Wilt had 4 different Game 7s against the Celtics in 1962, 1965, 1968, 1969 and the Celtics won each time by a slim margin. That doesn’t look to me that the Celtics had a massive advantage, just that they had more of a clutch gear.
We can go by season and break it down as always:
1960 – The first playoffs matchup between Wilt and Russell. Wilt had Paul Arizin, Woody Sauldsberry, Tom Gola and Guy Rodgers on his team all scoring in double digits. Russell had Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman, Gene Conley on his team all scoring in double digits. What might surprise you is that Paul Arizin was the third best player on the floor after Wilt and Russell averaging 24/10/3 a game. However, after Arizin, the next best players were all on the Celtics side. So I think it’s fair to say that the Celtics were a bit deeper and had quite a bit of defensive advantage. Wilt lost this series in 6 games.
1962 – This was a very close 7 game series. While Wilt was definitely the best player numbers wise on the floor, Tom Meschery and Paul Arizin matched Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones in production. However, Cousy was a superior player to Guy Rodgers and KC Jones and Frank Ramsey add to the Celtics superior depth. This was enough to tilt the series in favor of the Celtics – in which they won Game 7 by a mere 2 points. Worth to note that Wilt only had 22 points in the Game 7.
1964 – Wilt and Russell meet in the Finals for the first time. In this Finals, Russell had Havlicek, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, Tom Heinsohn, Willie Naullis all scoring in double digits while Wilt had Tom Meschery, Nate Thurmond, Guy Rodgers, Al Attles and Gary Philips all scoring in double digits. Besides Thurmond and Meschery, Wilt’s teammates cannot match up to the Celtics and he loses this one in 5 games.
1965 – Wilt and Russell meet again in the playoffs, Wilt this time with the 76ers. This time, I can say Wilt had a better team than before and this series came down to the wire. Wilt had Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Russell had Havlicek, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Tom Sanders. Sam Jones was putting up a ridiculous 29 PPG in the series and ended up scoring 37 in a very tight Game 7 that the Celtics won by a mere 1 point.
1966 – Wilt’s team got better again, winning 55 games this season. However, Havlicek really has blossomed into a superstar at this point in his career. He and Sam Jones both averaged 25+ PPG in the series. Russell puts up his usual defensive numbers. Larry Siegfried and Don Nelson adding support. Wilt, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Wali Jones, Luke Jackson were just plain outplayed by the Celtics. Talent wise, I don’t actually think the Celtics had more talent. But the Celtics – especially Russell, Havlicek and Jones – just had an extra gear in the playoffs that nobody on Wilt’s team did. He loses this series in 5 games.
1967 – this time Wilt finally triumphs over Russell. While Havlicek, Jones and Russell do their best, Wilt focused a lot more on team play, and both Hal Greer and Chet Walker stepped up big in the series. They beat the Celtics in 5 games.
1968 – This is a weird one that will be a stain on Wilt’s resume. The 76ers and the Celtics were almost evenly matched in terms of talent, although the 76ers had won a league leading 62 games. Wilt, Greer, Walker the 3 best players on the 76ers roughly matched the Celtics 3 best of Russell, Havlicek and Jones. And the 76ers actually had a 3–1 lead on the Celtics before the Celtics clawed back and ultimately won Game 7 by 4 points. Wilt having only 14 points in the Game 7 is definitely a reason why this might be his worst choke. I also think the Celtics acquiring HoFer Bailey Howell definitely gave them an edge as the 76ers were missing Billy Cunningham this series as an effective equal.
1969 – Another huge choke job. The Celtics were running on fumes at this point. Jones and Howell had declined considerably. Russell was basically non existent on offense anymore. The Lakers had West averaging 37 PPG in the series. Along with a still effective Baylor and Wilt on the team. So how did the Celtics still pull off a win here? Well, Havlicek was nuts. He averaged 29/11/4 in the series and probably should have won FMVP if West didn’t get it. Jones also showed up big in the Game 7 and Russell played his typical big defensive game. On the Lakers side, I believe Wilt for some reason was not allowed to come back into the game in the last few minutes because his coach spited him and he only had 18 points. West did as best as he could carrying the team on offense with 42/13/12 but he didn’t have much help. In the end, the Celtics won Game 7 by 2 points.
So going series by series, I think it’s a combination of the Celtics just having more players with a clutch gear like Russell, Jones and Havlicek especially and Wilt and his teammates not exactly having that same extra gear. This kind of stuff matters in close games, and Russell did have a lot of close games with Wilt. However, Russell winning every Game 7 does show you how much that extra clutch gear matters.
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