The Celtics are the most decorated team in NBA history, but even they are prone to heartbreak once in a while.
The C’s have the most championships in league history with 17, and with that much time on the top it’s only natural for them to come up short a few times. They’ve actually only lost in the NBA Finals four times, but with 57 playoff appearances in their 74 seasons, there have been plenty of great teams to fall short of the ultimate prize.
For the next stop in this week’s series on Boston’s greatest teams to not win a championship, we take a look at the Green:
The 1985-86 Celtics that won 67 games and earned the franchise’s 16th NBA championship went down by some as the greatest team in league history, and a year later they ran it back with mostly the same roster. But beset by injuries to some key players on their bench, which had been a staple of their previous title teams, the C’s couldn’t reach their potential again. Bill Walton and Scott Wedman each missed significant time, which forced Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to play more minutes without much depth behind them.
That ultimately caught up to the C’s, who were the league’s oldest team. They had enough to win 59 games and push through the Eastern Conference, beating the upstart Detroit Pistons in seven games to advance to the NBA Finals, but the Los Angeles Lakers were too much to overcome as the C’s fell in six games.
The Celtics were so dominant during the 1960s that it’s easy to forget that they didn’t win the championship every year.
The C’s had won eight consecutive titles going into 1966-67, and with Bill Russell as a player-coach, Sam Jones and John Havlicek back again, they were the favorites to make it nine. But everything clicked for the Philadelphia 76ers that season. The C’s still went 60-21, but led by Wilt Chamberlain, the Sixers were a freight train that began the season 46-4 and ultimately took down Boston’s dynasty, at least briefly, by ousting them in the East finals. Chamberlain posted an absurd line of 29 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists in the clincher.
The loss ended the Celtics’ run of 18 consecutive playoff series wins, but they weren’t down for long as they won the next two championships.
After winning the 1984 championship, their second of the decade, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Celtics would at least reach the Finals again. The C’s retooled a bit by trading Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for Danny Ainge, Larry Bird won his second straight MVP and Kevin McHale took home Sixth Man of the Year. They were mostly unchallenged as they went 63-19 in the regular season and breezed through the East playoffs to earn a rematch with the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The Celts dominated in Game 1 with a 148-114 rout famously known as the “Memorial Day Massacre,” and it looked like they were well on their way to a repeat. But behind stellar play from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers rallied back to win the title in six games, clinching it at Boston Garden.
The Celtics winning one championship in their recent Big Three era was certainly underwhelming given their immense talent, and most will point to the Game 7 loss in the 2010 Finals as the biggest miss. But the 2008-09 team was even better. The C’s looked primed to repeat and picked up right where they left off in 2008 by starting 27-2, which included a 19-game winning streak. They were 44-11 when Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury that changed the course of the season.
Garnett returned for four games but then missed the rest of the season, and without him the C’s weren’t the same. They barely survived their first-round series over the Chicago Bulls before they were bounced in six games by the Orlando Magic. The Celtics made a surprising run to the 2010 Finals, making fans wonder that if everything had aligned, they could have produced a three-peat.
The Celtics cooled off from their 1960s’ run and retooled in the early 1970s, finally getting back to form by 1972. They had the best single regular season in Celtics history as they dominated from start to finish, beginning the season 26-3 and closing it by going 16-1. Led by league MVP Dave Cowens, they finished with 68 wins — still the most in franchise history — and ran away with the top seed in the East.
But, as our Mark Murphy recently detailed in a look back on that Celtics team, an untimely injury ultimately spelled their demise. Havlicek dislocated his shoulder during a collision in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks. He missed one game and tried to play through it, but he wasn’t the same, and though the C’s fought back valiantly to force a Game 7, the Knicks won by 16 to eliminate them.