Fifty-nine playoff appearances. 21 finals trips. 17 championships. That’s how accomplished and deep the Boston Celtics’ history is.
The Celtics are one of the most storied sports franchises in the world. They have championship DNA dating back to 1957 when they won their first title.
When you’re a unanimous top-two NBA franchise of all time (along with the Los Angeles Lakers) like the Celtics, you’re bound to have several Hall of Famers and feature unforgettable playoff performances. The Celtics have enshrined 40 players in the NBA Hall of Fame, whose legends will continue to define basketball folklore for generations to come.
From Bob Cousy in the 1950s, to Bill Russell in the 1960s, to John Havlicek in the 1970s, to Larry Bird in the 1980s, to Paul Pierce in the 2000s, and even potentially to Jayson Tatum in the years to come, Boston seems to never run out of spectacular, memorable playoff performances.
Maybe even in the next couple of months as the No. 2 seed Celtics embark on the 2022 NBA playoffs, which begin Sunday afternoon against the Brooklyn Nets. Massachusetts residents won’t be able to bet on any of the games in Massachusetts, but hopefully, by the 2023 NBA playoffs, Massachusetts sports betting will be alive and well.
Compiling a list of just the top five Celtics playoff performances was thought-provoking, but was definitely more frustrating. There are too many unlisted honorable mentions that would easily rank in the top five of most other NBA teams. We tried our best, so enjoy taking a trip down Celtics playoff memory lane.
Honorable Mention: Fourth-quarter comeback in 2002 Eastern Conference Finals
The performance that just missed the cut is more of a team performance rather than an individual performance. The 1990s was the C’s worst decade by any stretch. After a six-year playoff drought, Boston finally made the playoffs in 2002, which featured one of the most memorable comebacks in NBA playoff history.
Down 21 with one quarter to go (but as many as 26 earlier in the game) against the eventual Eastern Conference champions New Jersey Nets, the Paul Pierce-led Celtics put on an excellent display of both elite offense and defense, outscoring the Nets 41-16 to win Game 3. They ultimately lost the series 4-2, but it was a sign of how resilient the team was after being counted out early.
No. 5: Isaiah Thomas’ Emotional 53-Point Night
Celtics fans remember Isaiah Thomas’ 53-point playoff game not because it helped Boston advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, but rather because of its emotional backstory. Just two weeks before the Celtics’ second-round series versus the Washington Wizards, Thomas’ younger sister died in a tragic car accident.
Game 2 of that series became even more emotional and difficult for Thomas, as it fell on his sister’s birthday. Not only did he build up the strength to play, but he gave a performance for the ages. He scored 53 points, 29 of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Celtics needed every one of those points that Thomas delivered and more.
No. 4: John Havlicek Chalks Up Franchise-Record 54 Points
It would be criminal not to give consideration and credit to John Havlicek’s record-breaking playoff performance in 1973.
Havlicek started his playoff push with a bang. In Game 1 of the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, he dropped a Celtics’ playoff record-54 points on 66.7% shooting, while also contributing nine rebounds and six assists.
Boston advanced past Atlanta but wound up losing to the eventual-champions New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite falling short of the title, Celtics fans will never forget Havlicek’s historic 54.
No. 3: Paul Pierce’s Momentum-Shifting 46-Point Night
The Celtics and 76ers went back and forth in their series in the first round of the 2002 Playoffs. Both teams gained and lost momentum throughout the series. Boston took a commanding 2-0 series lead against Philadelphia. Philadelphia responded by winning the next two games and seemingly taking over the series.
In a win-or-go-home Game 5, Paul Pierce helped take back control of the series by exploding for 46 points, blowing out the 76ers in the process, and advancing to the conference semifinals for the first time in 10 years.
No. 2: Larry Bird Soars Past Rockets For Last Title
After already earning two titles and cementing a Hall of Fame resume, Bird set his sight on putting a third championship ring on his finger.
Bird racked up a triple-double with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists to beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals, earning himself his third and final title.
It took the Celtics 22 years to claim its next championship. In hindsight, Celtics fans cherish that 1986 ring even more, largely thanks to Larry Legend.
No. 1: Bill Russell’s Grabs 40 Rebounds In Game 7
One of the most dominant games of Bill Russell’s career came at the perfect time. The Celtics met rival Lakers in the 1962 NBA Finals. After going the distance and reaching a Game 7 in the Finals, Russell refused to accept a second-place consolation prize.
He scored 30 points, grabbed a playoff career-high 40 rebounds, and hit 14 of 17 free throws in a three-point victory to claim Boston’s fifth NBA title.
You couldn’t have scripted a more entertaining, dramatic, and legendary ending to a season.