The Boston Celtics players had no idea what was coming as Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals began. They had no clue what was ahead of them that night, nor did they know about the unprecedented streak they were about to begin.
The Celtics faced the St. Louis Hawks for the 1957 championship. It was Boston’s first trip to the NBA Finals, and they found themselves in a battle that went the distance, and more. The series went seven, but that winner-take-all Game 7 went a couple of extra periods and finally went the Celtics’ way after Bob Pettit’s final shot danced on the rim and fell out at the buzzer.
In honor of the Boston Celtics’ 17 championships, we’re highlighting 17 signature moments, both good and bad, that took the Celtics from a woeful 22-38 BAA debut in 1946-47 to the current iteration of the longtime powerhouse franchise that’s now coming off an NBA Finals appearance. The 17-part series on the Celtics’ championship history will run through the summer and take us to the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season, one Boston hopes ends with Banner No. 18.
The Boston Celtics rode an impressive double-double from Tommy Heinsohn to claim Game 7
The Celtics were fresh off a 44-28 regular season that saw them increase their win total by five games from the previous year. Helping the cause was Tommy Heinsohn, who was named Rookie of the Year. A 6-foot-7 forward, Heinsohn played all 72 games as a rookie, averaging 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. The Celtics also had another rookie in Bill Russell and the league’s MVP in point guard Bob Cousy, who put up 20.6 points and a league-high 7.5 assists.
They faced the Hawks in a championship series that saw four of the seven games decided by two points. The Celtics had a chance to clinch the series in Game 6 in St. Louis but fell short 96-94. That sent the series back to the Boston Garden for a winner-take-all matchup.
The Celtics were far from their best in this one. Their two guards, Cousy and Bill Sharman shot woefully for the entire 56 minutes. The two combined to make five of 40 shots from the floor. Cousy went 2-for-20 and finished with 12 points.
“I do remember both of us were terrible offensively,” Cousy said in a YouTube video highlighting the game. “If Tommy hadn’t picked up the load, we wouldn’t have won that seventh game. It was that close.”
Cousy was referring to Heinsohn’s 37-point, 23-rebound effort. The rookie took control throughout the game, overshadowing his teammates, including Russell, who finished with 19 points and 32 rebounds. Even as a rookie, Russell intimidated the Hawks with his tenacious defense and shot-blocking skills.
“I can remember playing against him in the fourth quarter,” said Petit, who finished with 39 points and 19 rebounds. “I went in for four layups. He blocked the first two, and I missed the next two looking for him.”
The Celtics outlasted the Hawks in the double-overtime thriller
While Heinsohn lit it up offensively, Russell did his usual damage on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, it was his key block on a Hawks breakaway that allowed the game to go into overtime. With less than a minute left, Russell scored and then sprinted down the court to block Jack Coleman’s shot that preserved the tie.
“I’ve seen memorable plays in the NBA, and this has to be the most memorable play I’ve ever seen.”Tommy Heinsohn of Bill Russell’s block at the end of regulation
With the score knotted at 103-103, the teams played evenly in the first overtime, each scoring 10 points. Sharman had a chance to win it with a wide-open jumper that went in and out, sending the game to a second overtime.
The Celtics, who saw Heinsohn foul out in the second OT, held a two-point lead with two seconds left. St. Louis had the ball but needed to go the entire length of the court. The Hawks brought in player/coach Alex Hannum, who played all of two minutes, to play quarterback. Cousy described what happened next.
“He stood there and lined that thing up,” Cousy said of Hannum. “He threw it 94 feet and threw a strike, and he hit the middle of the backboard, which was the idea of the drill. Pettit, who was all-world and had already scored about 36, (shot a) little 15-foot jumper. (Hannum) placed him right at the foul line. The ball hit the backboard and came right in his hands.”
Pettit’s shot bounced off the rim several times before rolling out, setting off a wild celebration for Boston, which began a string of 10 straight NBA Finals appearances. The two teams met again in the Finals the next year, with the Hawks winning in six games. The Celtics then won eight straight championships from 1959 to 1966.