Wilt Chamberlain Won the Battle, but Bill Russell Won the War the Last Time the Celtics and Warriors Met in the NBA Finals

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell had quite a rivalry during their playing days in the 1960s. Their one-on-one battles in the paint took center stage for the first time in 1964 when they met in the NBA Finals.

Chamberlain was in his fifth season with the Warriors organization. It was his second in San Francisco after the franchise moved from Philadelphia. Russell was in his eighth with the Boston Celtics. This was their first meeting with a championship on the line. Statistically, the personal matchup wasn’t close, and neither was the series.

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have always been linked

Wilt Chamberlain (13) of the Warriors fights for a rebound with (16) Tom Sanders of the Celtics as Bill Russell (6) looks on. Action took place in the first period of the fifth game for the NBA championship at Boston Garden in 1964.

Just like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the Chamberlain/Russell rivalry was under a microscope. There haven’t been many individual rivalries in the NBA, but Chamberlain vs. Russell was the first big one before Bird vs. Magic came along in the early 1980s.

The 7-foot-1, 275-pound Chamberlain and the 6-10, 215-pound Russell battled it out inside the paint. Both cleaned up the boards. Chamberlain was a scoring machine, while Russell made his living on the defensive side of the ball.

Chamberlain led the league in scoring, rebounding, and minutes played in each of his first four years in the NBA. His numbers were off the charts. In his third year with the Philadelphia Warriors, he averaged 50.4 points and 27.5 rebounds. During the 1967-68 season, Chamberlain averaged a career-high 8.6 assists in addition to his 24.3 points and 23.8 rebounds.

While no slouch offensively, Russell was a rebounder and shot-blocker. The NBA, however, didn’t recognize blocked shots as an official stat until the 1973-74 season. That was the year after Chamberlain retired and five years after Russell played his final NBA game. According to Bleacher Report, referees who officiated their games claimed both Russell and Chamberlain averaged six to eight blocks per game. 

Russell led the league in rebounding his first three years. He averaged 22.5 boards over his 13-year career. He put up 15.1 points in his career, achieving a career-high of 18.9 during the 1961-62 season.

Chamberlain may have won the individual battles, but Russell won when it counted most

The 1964 NBA Finals summed up the careers of Chamberlain and Russell. Chamberlain put up the better numbers. Russell earned the ring.

There’s no question the Celtics had the better team than the Warriors during the 1963-64 season. Russell had a lot of help. He had future Hall of Famers in Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek, along with Tom “Satch” Sanders and K.C. Jones. Chamberlain had Nate Thurmond., Al Attles, and Tom Meschery.

Boston finished with the best record in the regular season at 59-21. San Francisco was tops in the Western Conference, finishing at 48-32.

The first two games of the championship series weren’t even close. Neither were the stats of Chamberlain and Russell. Russell finished with nine points in each of the first two games, both Celtics blowouts. Boston won Game 1 108-96 and took Game 2 124-101.

Chamberlain put up 22 points and 23 rebounds in the opener and followed it up with 32 points and 25 rebounds in the second game. Russell did have 25 boards in Game 1 and 24 in the next.

San Francisco earned its lone win of the series in Game 3, cruising past the visiting Celtics 115-91. Russell had 16 points and 32 rebounds, while Chamberlain had 35 points and 25 rebounds.

Boston took the next two games to clinch the series. Russell had eight points and 19 rebounds in a 98-95 win. Chamberlain went for 27 points and 38 rebounds. Chamberlain had 30 points and 27 rebounds in the finale, while Russell finished with 14 points and 26 rebounds.

Russell was fine with Chamberlain stealing the personal spotlight. When it came to championships, the Celtics center collected 11 rings to Chamberlain’s 2.

The two met again in the 1969 NBA Finals, with Chamberlain’s Lakers favored. The Celtics outlasted the Lakers in seven games. Chamberlain injured his knee during the game and never returned. Boston won Game 7 108-106.

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