Since their move to the Eastern Conference in 1970, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t had many realistic chances to win an NBA championship. Yes, there’s this current run by Trae Young & Co. and the highly underrated 2014-15 team that won 60 games and two playoff series before running into LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But those are the only two times the Hawks have come close to reaching the NBA Finals since moving to the ATL in 1968.
However, when the franchise was a member of the Western Conference as the St. Louis Hawks (and the first two years in Atlanta), the team was a consistent contender for the NBA title in the 1950s and 1960s. But that often gets overlooked as the two teams from that era that still receive the most attention to this day are the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, who met seven times in the NBA Finals over those two decades.
What most fail to remember is that the Hawks squared off with the Celtics in the NBA Finals four times in a five-season span back then. And in three of those seasons, the Hawks defeated the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals to reach the title series. And we certainly can’t forget to mention the Hawks did something the Lakers never could as they were the only team to beat 11-time champ Bill Russell in the NBA Finals.
Of course, it has to be addressed that matching up with Russell and the Celtics wouldn’t have even been a thing had the Hawks not traded him to Boston on draft day in 1956. But the focus today isn’t a “what if” alternate timeline that has Russell playing his entire career with the Hawks. No, this is just a simple reminder that there were more than two teams truly competing for an NBA championship back in the day and that the Hawks were right in the thick of things for a solid 15 years.
The Hawks matched up with the Celtics in the NBA Finals four times in five years and beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in three of those seasons
Ahead of the 1954-55 season, their final campaign in Milwaukee, the Hawks used the second overall pick in the NBA draft to select LSU All-American power forward/center Bob Pettit, who won Rookie of the Year and went on to become the greatest player in franchise history (sorry, Dominique, it’s true).
Pettit won the first of his two NBA MVP awards in his second season (the team’s first in St. Louis), averaging a league-best 25.7 points per game and 16.2 rebounds, and led the Hawks to their first playoff berth in six years. After beating the Lakers in the conference semis, St. Louis lost in the conference finals to the Detroit Pistons. But despite the loss, the Hawks proved they were going to be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future, which is exactly what they became.
Over the next five seasons, the Hawks reached the Western Conference Finals every year and only lost once, that defeat coming at the hands of the Lakers in 1959. However, on the other three occasions in which the Hawks and Lakers squared off to decide the NBA Finals representative from the West (1957, 1960, 1961), St. Louis came out on top, winning the first in a three-game sweep while the other two meetings went seven games. As for that fifth appearance, the Hawks defeated the Pistons in five games to reach the Finals in 1958.
As for those four meetings with the Celtics in the NBA Finals, yes, Boston won three of them. But it’s not as if the Hawks weren’t competitive, at least in two of the losses anyway. In their first meeting in 1957, the series went the distance with Game 7 going to double overtime, which Boston won by two. In 1960, the series again went seven games, although Game 7 wasn’t nearly as close as the Celtics won by 19 behind a 22-point, 35-rebound performance from Russell. The 1961 Finals weren’t nearly as competitive as Boston easily won the series in five games.
But let’s now switch focus to the series the Hawks won.
The Hawks were the only team to beat Bill Russell’s Celtics in the NBA Finals
Following that dramatic seven-game loss to Russell and the Celtics in the 1957 NBA Finals, the Hawks came back strong the following season and, as mentioned, defeated the Pistons in five games in the Western Conference Finals to set up a rematch with Boston.
While Pettit was still the leader of the team, small forward Cliff Hagan, whom the Hawks had acquired from Boston in the Russell trade, had become a star in his own right and earned the first of five consecutive All-Star selections in 1958, averaging 19.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in the regular season. And he showed out in Game 1 of the 1958 Finals, scoring a team-high 33 points as the Hawks stole the series opener in Boston Garden, 104-102. However, Boston evened the series with a 24-point win in Game 2, at which point the series shifted to St. Louis.
Game 3 proved to be the most crucial contest of the series as not only did the Celtics lose the game, 111-108, but they also lost Russell to a severely sprained ankle, limiting him for the remainder of the series. And the Hawks took full advantage.
Boston was able to even the series at 2-2 with a victory in Game 4, but Pettit took over from there. During Game 5 in Boston, he scored 33 points and pulled down 21 rebounds to lead the Hawks to a 102-100 win, and then he posted 50 points and 19 rebounds during a one-point victory in Game 6 to close out the series.
Many still believe the Celtics would have won the series had Russell not gotten hurt, and that’s certainly a valid argument. But it’s not as if the Hawks hadn’t proved over two seasons that they could beat Boston with Russell on the floor, so that needs to be taken into account, as well.
Russell and the Celtics went on to win the next eight NBA titles and 10 of the next 11. Their only series defeat during that stretch came at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1967 Eastern Conference Finals, leaving the Hawks as the only team to beat Boston in the NBA Finals during its historic run of 11 championships in 13 seasons.
Despite never getting back to the title series, the team made six more trips to the Western Conference Finals over the next decade
While the Hawks never again reached the NBA Finals after losing to the Celtics in 1961, it’s not as if they just went away.
Yes, they had a terrible season in 1961-62, going 29-51 to miss out on the postseason for the first time since moving to St. Louis. But over their final eight seasons in the Western Conference (six in St. Louis, two in Atlanta), the Hawks made the playoffs every year and appeared in the Western Conference Finals six more times, four of those appearances coming against the Lakers, all of which they lost. But again, the Lakers could never get past Russell and the Celtics in the NBA Finals, losing seven times in seven tries from 1959 to 1969, perhaps because they had to expend so much energy to get past the Hawks in the West.
So the next time you find yourself in a conversation about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the ’50s and ’60s, try not to forget that the Hawks played a major part in the NBA’s original golden era.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference