Things clicked all year for the Boston Celtics during the 1972-73 season. That is, until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Boston went a franchise-best 68-14. Third-year center Dave Cowens was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The Celtics finished 11 games ahead of the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division. Those two teams squared off in the conference finals, and the Knicks stunned Boston en route to New York’s second straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Dave Cowens led the Boston Celtics charge in record-setting season
The Celtics made Cowens the fourth overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft. He played his college ball at Florida State and made an instant impact with the Celtics as a rookie. An undersized center at 6-foot-9, Cowens averaged 38 minutes in 81 games in his first professional season. He put up 17.0 points and 15.0 rebounds and was named Rookie of the Year.
Cowens often guarded much bigger and stronger opponents. He was matched up against the likes of Bob Lanier, Willis Reed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He more than held his own by playing his game — outrunning the seven-footers.
“One of my great pleasures was watching him wear down the Bob Laniers, Lew Alcindors (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar),” former Celtics reporter Bob Ryan said, per The Athletic. “He would just run, run, run, run, and by the fourth quarter, he would still be running, and their tongues would be hanging out. His game was a game of attrition.”
In his third season, Cowens was named MVP after averaging 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds. He never got tired. He played all 82 games and averaged 41.8 minutes. The Celtics finished with a league-best 68 victories.
Boston got past the Atlanta Hawks in the conference semifinals and then squared off against the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals that went seven games.
Cowens and the Celtics suffered heartbreak against the Knicks
The Celtics took care of business at home in the series opener, cruising past the Knicks 134-108. Jo Jo White led the way for Boston with 30 points, while Cowens had 18 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. John Havlicek had 26 points and 11 assists.
The Knicks won Game 2 in convincing fashion, winning 129-96 in New York as the series shifted sites every other game. The victory was the first of three straight for the Knicks, who won Game 3 in Boston and then defeated a shorthanded Celtics team in Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead. Boston played without an injured Havlicek in Game 4.
“The Knicks had the second-best team in the NBA that season,” Cowens told Michael D McClellan of Celtic Nation. “There wasn’t anyone in the West that could contend, so we know that whoever won the series would end up winning it all. That’s the way both teams looked at it. We all felt the Eastern Conference Finals was for the championship.”
Havlicek came off the bench in Game 5 as the Celtics eked out a 98-97 win and then managed to pull out a Game 6 win in New York. The Knicks, however, came to Boston for the winner-take-all Game 7 and held the Celtics to 78 points in New York’s 94-78 victory. Havlicek was limited in Games 6 and 7, coming in off the bench. The Knicks went on to defeat the LA Lakers in the Finals in five games.
“We fell behind 3-1 in that series before turning it around and forcing a Game 7 back in Boston. We were confident going in, but we ran out of gas. We spent everything just clawing back to even the series at 3-3, and we didn’t shoot the ball well.
“Even though we didn’t win, we felt we had a great team. We came within one win of matching the ’71-72 Lakers for best season ever, and we felt just as good as that team. But John’s injury hurt, no question about that. It was a tough series to lose.”