Big Red's Big Finishes: The 1974 and '76 NBA Finals Heroics of Dave Cowens
By Cort Reynolds
In the 1970s, no one played harder anywhere or better for Boston than undersized Celtic great center Dave Cowens, the redhead who led Gang Green to two NBA championships.
Although he was not officially named the MVP of either Finals victory, a case could be made, especially in 1976, that Cowens was deserving of the honor. In both clinching victories, he was the difference maker that provided the Celtics their 12th and 13th titles.
In game seven of the 1974 NBA Finals, the Celtics faced the daunting task of beating Milwaukee on the road. Furthermore, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in his prime and had nearly a six-inch height advantage and probably close to a foot when reach is included, over Cowens. And all-time great Oscar Robertson was playing his final game and wanted desperately to go out a champion in his 14th and final season.
The Bucks had forced a seventh game by winning a double overtime classic in Boston just two days earlier, when Jabbar's long running baseline hook over reserve center Hank Finkel gave Milwaukee a see-saw 102-101 victory.
John Havlicek had traded baskets with the 7-2 center throughout the final moments, scoring nine of his 36 points in the second OT, but Kareem got the last shot in with Cowens fouled out.
Ironically, a hustling play by Cowens that came to epitomize his career happened late in that classic sixth contest. Dave had switched out on defense to cover Robertson, then used his quick hands to poke the ball away from the all-time great guard.
The speedy redhead then out-sprinted Oscar for the loose ball, which rolled into the backcourt. He dove for the ball and slid near the sidelines while bobbling the loose leather as Oscar trailed the play on his feet, almost in disbelief at the big man's reckless dive. Cowens left a sweat streak about 10 feet long on the parquet, probably along with some skin, and the 24-second clock ran out before Milwaukee could regain possession.
Cowens fouled out of game six with just 13 points on five of 19 shooting, and his absence contributed greatly to the Bucks' series-tying win for sure.
Determined to redeem himself, he came out firing in game seven. Boston came up with a new strategy to pressure the aging Robertson while he brought the ball upcourt, while also fronting and double-teaming Jabbar to give Cowens help for the first time all series.
On offense, the muscular 6-8.5 Cowens used his superior speed and quickness to take the 7-2 Jabbar out on the floor, then drove by him with determined drives. He won the opening jump, tipping it to Havlicek, who fed a cutting Don Chaney perfectly for a layup to set the tone of the contest on a strong note.
At the end of the first period, Dave bombed in a 25-footer from the right side at the buzzer to give Boston a 22-20 lead.
The Celtics lengthened the lead late in the half when Cowens nailed consecutive foul line jumpers to give the visitors a 53-40 intermission edge as their defensive strategies worked to perfection. Jabbar was held scoreless in the second stanza and for half of the third period.
Robertson would make just two of 13 shots from the field in his swansong and was limited to just six points by the harassing defense of veteran defensive standout Chaney and talented second-year backup Paul Westphal.
Yet the Bucks inched within 71-66 after three quarters as their sellout crowd of 10,938 came to life. Westphal, in for a foul-plagued Chaney, scored a layup off a long Havlicek pass after Cowens won a jump ball for a 77-68 lead.
A Silas transition finger roll via a Hondo pass built the lead to 11 with 8:50 remaining. Milwaukee sharpshooter Jon McGlocklin bounced in a 15-footer. Cowens, playing with five fouls, then rebounded his own miss and gave Jabbar a taste of his own medicine by swishing a 13-foot jump hook right over him from the right side of the lane.
A Jabbar foul shot and a pretty fast break finish by McGlocklin cut it to 81-73, yet Silas banked in a short lane one-hander. Unheralded Buck backup swingman Mickey Davis continued his fine play in place of injured Lucius Allen by scoring the last of his 15 points on a spectacular over the head, two-handed reverse layup three-point putback that inched Milwaukee within 83-76.
Westphal responded by drilling a clutch 17-foot fadeaway off the left baseline, then he hit JoJo White perfectly in stride for a fast break layup and an 87-76 margin with 6:02 left.
When Jabbar bounced in a right baseline hook with about 4:35 left in the final period, the Celtic lead appeared tenuous at 87-79. But the C's called Havlicek's number and despite an off shooting day, he delivered.
Hondo curled off a left side Silas/Cowens double screen, caught a pass and lifted Jabbar off his feet with a fine head fake. John quickly drove the lane past the airborne center, then jacknifed his body past Davis and McGlocklin while taking a bump and banked in a tough runner.
Havlicek displayed a rare show of emotion by pumping both fists in a downward motion, then collected himself to add the free throw and complete a critical three-point play. It was almost as if he could taste the long-sought first title of the post-Russell era that would vindicate his own legacy.
Cowens then switched off onto Robertson, knocked the ball out of his hands and forced the Bucks into a bad shot that Westphal rebounded.
Moments later, Dave floated out to the deep right corner and swished a 21-footer over a wary and sloughing off Jabbar for a 93-79 bulge at the 2:59 mark. Next, a tired Kareem left two foul shots well short.
At the other end, Boston closed the door when Cowens missed a half hook in the lane that richocheted off Jabbar's hands to Westphal, who had just gotten up off the hardwood after setting a screen for Dave.
Paul then hung in the air as he looked to shoot a short jumper over the looming 7-2 Buck center. But at the last second, he double-clutched and instead tossed a perfectly improvised alley-oop to Cowens, who caught the ball in the air and cleverly kissed it in off glass before Jabbar could recover.
Havlicek, who enjoyed a great series, was named Finals MVP even though he only had 16 points on six of 20 shooting in the decisive contest. His second three-point play on a foul line jumper capped a decisive 11-0 spurt that put the game well out of reach, 98-79. But the game seven MVP was definitely Big Red.
The final box score showed Cowens with game-high totals of 28 points and 14 rebounds, compared to 26 and 13 for Jabbar. Yet the numbers did not show how much energy the fiery redhead had supplied his team at both ends, nor how Kareem had faded, making just six of 11 free throws while going over a third of the game without a point.
Or how Cowens had ignited the vaunted Celtic fast break with his defensive rebounding and quick outlet bullets, often firing his passes still in midair while coming down with the carom.
As Jabbar trudged to the defeated Buck bench in the final minutes, he stopped to congratulate Cowens with a hearty handshake. In the jubilant Celtic locker room moments later, Cowens hugged coach Tom Heinsohn.
Welcomed back to Boston hours later that Sunday evening by a large throng, Dave celebrated throughout the night with fans and then fell asleep on a park bench.
Two years later, an aging Boston squad was again embroiled in a tough championship series with upstart Phoenix. Tied 2-2, the Celtics and Suns engaged in probably the greatest game in NBA Finals history, a triple overtime epic that Boston finally won at home over Westphal and company, 128-126.
Once again in the penultimate game of the title round, the intense Cowens fouled out in overtime with 26 points, but this time the Celts held on to win without him. In game six just two days later across the country in Arizona, the two tired teams met again with the championship on the line.
With three of their core six players well into their 30s and Havlicek hampered by a foot injury, the Celtics appeared vulnerable to the younger, hungry Suns, who were playing with house money at home as major underdogs.
But the championship experience and desire from being deprived of the crown despite boasting the best record in the NBA in 1973 and 1975 helped drive the aged Celtics on. And losing the prior triple OT game appeared to drain the younger team more than the victorious veterans, whose core six averaged almost 32 years of age.
The game was low-scoring and tight throughout, with Boston ahead just 38-33 at the half. Phoenix crept within 57-56 after three periods and tied it at 66-66 following a spectacular hanging drive off glass by Westphal.
Phoenix took its first lead 67-66 on a Sobers foul shot but Havlicek put Boston back in front with two free tosses that moved him into third place on the all-time NBA playoff points list with 3,609 markers at that point.
With the outcome very much in doubt as Boston clung to a slim lead with over six minutes remaining, Cowens took over to score seven points in a 9-4 Celtic spurt that clinched the crown.
Despite being plagued with five fouls, the redhead gambled and came up with the biggest defensive play of the game. As Adams drove along the right side of the lane, Dave reached in and poked the ball away from him, lunging to tip the loose sphere away from Adams to himself. He then dribbled, or more accurately roared 90 feet upcourt at top speed on a 2 on 1 fast break, a runaway locomotive.
As he approached the basket, the Celtic center crossed over the right side and gave a slight head fake to freeze defender Garfield Heard, then laid in a twisting backhanded layup while being fouled. He cashed in the foul shot to give Boston a 71-67 lead and a huge momentum swing.
After a Phoenix score, Dave sealed Adams outside the low block and took a perfectly timed top-side feed from Charlie Scott before converting a right-handed layin for a 73-69 lead. Cowens then forced a bad miss by
Adams by hotly contesting his 15-footer. Adams later canned two foul shots to cut the lead back to two. Havlicek swished a clutch 18-footer from the left wing to make it 75-71.
After a Westphal miss, Dave took an entry pass and spun quickly along the right baseline on his trademark move past Adams for a pretty layup and a little breathing room with a 77-71 margin at the 3:29 mark.
White banked in a tough right side runner and a free throw to stretch the lead to nine, and it was all over but the shouting as Boston held on to win, 87-80. After the final buzzer sounded, a tired Cowens hugged retiring teammate Don Nelson as they strode off the court as champions again.
And it was clearly the clutch late burst from Cowens that put the capper on banner number 13. His aggressive, all-out defense had led to a drought of over five minutes for the Suns without a basket down the stretch.
Even though Dave scored 21 points in the decisive win, paced the defense and led all players in rebounds during the series while averaging 20.5 ppg, teammate JoJo White (21.7 ppg) was named Finals MVP.
But in true Cowens fashion, Dave probably didn't care that much. He was simply about winning, an undersized center who won on great athleticism (strength, speed, quickness, jumping ability), intelligence, skill, a burning desire as bright as his mane, and great competitive fire.
Cowens frequently won jump balls against much taller centers like Jabbar and Chamberlain, and used great positioning to frustrate Kareem and occasionally block his shots as well by forcing him to turn away to his right shoulder, away from the patented hook.
As Havlicek, who played the first seven seasons of his career with the great Bill Russell and his final eight with Cowens, the 1970-71 co-rookie of the year, once said - “NO ONE ever did more for the Celtics than Dave Cowens.”
Unfortunately, Dave's all-out style and annual deep playoff runs eventually contributed to his body breaking down by the time he reached his early 30s. After a fine Cowens comeback season in 1979-80, Larry Bird's rookie campaign that saw Boston improve from 29-53 to 61-21, the Celtics came up short in the eastern finals to the rival 76ers, 4-1.
The next fall during training camp, Cowens was forced to retire due to a nagging foot injury. Thus he just missed out on a third championship ring as Boston won it all in Bird's second season.
However, he did get the itch to come back. But it happened to be for half a season with Milwaukee in 1982-83, not with the Celtics. Boston's frontline was over-loaded with talent (Parish, Bird, Maxwell, McHale, Robey and Wedman) so Dave asked to be traded to get playing time.
The historically finesse-oriented Suns appeared to be the frontrunner for his services, but then the Bucks, coached by his friend and long-time Celtic teammate Nelson, dealt playmaker Quinn Buckner to Boston in exchange for the redhead.
Now playing power forward alongside another veteran star center in Bob Lanier, who was picked number one three spots ahead of Dave in the 1970 NBA draft, Cowens managed to average 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds a game in 25.4 minutes per game over 40 contests. Ironically, the Bucks swept the Celtics in the playoffs 4-0 that spring, with Bird slowed by a severe flu virus. But Cowens was unable to play due to injury, and retired for good that summer.
A dozen years later as an assistant with San Antonio, Cowens almost made another comeback when injuries depleted the Spurs roster. In his mid-40s, Dave could probably still have played effectively in short bursts, but ultimately decided against it.
As such he designed a revolutionary point center type offense to take advantage of the extraordinary blend of skills, athleticism and desire of his speedy red-headed center, as well as running machine Havlicek and the sharpshooting White.
Bill Russell was called in by Red to evaluate Cowens' viability as a 6-8.5 center since he was a little-known rookie out of Florida State in 1970.
Russell's verdict: leave him alone and let him play; “no one is going to tell that kid he can't play center” after he watched the hard-driven, athletic redhead in action.
One great game-changing left-handed Celtic center could sense a similar fire in the belly of another unique Boston southpaw pivot man, and he was proven right about his kindred spirit.
Cowens was named 1972-73 NBA MVP (although ironically he was named SECOND team All-NBA behind Jabbar the same season!) and went on to be voted to the Hall of Fame and be honored on the league's 50 Greatest Players list in 1997.
And probably should have been the 1976 Finals MVP.
Cort Reynolds is a free-lance writer with 17 years of experience as a sports editor, newspaper editor, and sports writer. He also was a college sports information director at his alma mater for five years and is a lifelong player, student and historian of the game. You can contact him at email@example.com.