Will KG, Russell or Pierce Make the Final Four?
With the NCAA Tournament around the corner, March Madness has officially begun. Brackets will soon be distributed at a rapid pace, sending millions of hoops fans into a frenzy over matchups, potential upsets and Cinderella stories.
Who would prevail in a four-round, single-elimination slug-fest of the Garden's most prolific stars of all time? Would early-era legends like Russell assert their dominance against the greats of the 1980s and 2000s?
Celtics fans who embrace rankings and matchups can have some fun with this bracket. All seeds reflect each player's specific level of performance during their tenure in Boston, as well as their individual impact on the franchise. The available pool consists of players who spent at least five seasons with the Celts.
Each pairing of players in their primes will be analyzed, hypothetically determining the victor of a standard one-on-one game up to 21. The first round will reveal the field of 16, which will then be narrowed down to the “Elite Eight” and the “Final Four.” The last slide, of course, will unveil the champion of the Celtics all-time one-on-one tournament.
The first matchup pits the GOAT against Cornbread. Russell brings his 11 NBA championship rings and his incomparable balance of size and sheer athleticism. Maxwell brings his big-game play near and beneath the basket.
This would prove to be one of the most colorful matchups of the tournament based on their respectively animated personalities. Max currently works as the radio color commentator for the Celtics, while Russell still laughs and jokes around with seemingly everyone he meets.
But it would also be one of the most fun low-post showdowns.
Maxwell averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds in just his second year while the Celtics awaited Larry Bird's decision to sign with the organization. He balanced aggressiveness and finesse in the post, utilizing pump fakes and jump-hooks.
Cornbread played a key role in two championships (1981 and 1984) and finished his Celtics career with averages of 14 points and seven rebounds.
But Russell practically wrote the anthology for NBA big men. A five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell did it all. He played lock-down defense and rebounded as well as anyone ever has, leading the league in boards five times. Offensively, he could slash to the hoop and score down low.
Russell finished his 13-year playing career with 15 points, 22.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game and a laundry list of awards and accolades.
These two would certainly play an entertaining game. With Russell standing 6'9” and Maxwell at 6'8”, they would play each other tough down low and undoubtedly talk some smack. But, in the end, Russell would prevail with ease, utilizing his speed, defense and downright basketball knowledge.
Russell 21 - Maxwell 14
Yet another Celtics legend rears his ugly head in this first-round matchup. Larry Bird, one of the greatest forwards in the history of the game, brings his three MVPs and three championship rings in a faceoff with Bill Sharman, a four-time champion and eight-time All-Star guard.
“Larry Legend” would be a tough one-on-one matchup for anyone in the history of the league, never mind the Celtics. Averaging 24.3 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game throughout his career, Bird served as the undisputed leader of one of the most superior teams in the 1980s and, for that matter, league history.
Sharman, standing at 6'1” and weighing 175 pounds, gives up considerable size to his counterpart, the 6'9”, 220-pound Bird. But he could compete one-on-one against anyone. Bill was part of what is widely considered the best backcourt duo of all time, having dominated the late 1950s and early 1960s with teammate Bob Cousy.
He was known for his smooth stroke, serving as one of the first guards to shoot over .400 from the field. He led the league in free-throw percentage for seven years, and still maintains the seemingly untouchable record of 56 consecutive postseason free throws. He averaged 18 points, four rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes per game over his ten-season tenure.
But Bird would give Sharman an absolute fit. His shooting range alone would pose problems, never mind his ability to handle the ball on the drive and create on pull-up jumpers. Rebounds would also be dominated by Larry Joe. The clutch and versatile forward would overcome Sharman in an easy victory.
Bird 21 - Sharman 12
In the first appearance by a player in the current generation of Celtics, superstar small forward Paul Pierce greets this March Madness tournament against legendary 1980s point guard Dennis Johnson.
“DJ,” who started his career as a shooting guard with a penchant for slashing to the hoop, knocking down jumpers and throwing down dunks, transformed into one of the most esteemed floor generals in the league when he joined the C's.
His handle and intelligence on offense rivaled his smothering defensive skills. He averaged 13.2 points and 4.2 assists in a Celtics' uniform while earning various defensive accolades.
Meanwhile, the “Truth” has served as a dynamic all-around player for the Celtics in three different decades. He made an immediate impact in his rookie campaign in 1998, logging 16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.7 steals and a block. This set the stage for what many NBA fans now regard as one of the finest careers in the sport.
Pierce, who sits at second on the franchise's all-time scoring list, has a career average of 21.8 points. He adds six rebounds and four assists per game, as well as 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks.
He has unarguably served as one of the most clutch performers in team history, knocking down key shots in pressure-filled situations time and time again and playing superb defense on some of the best scorers when it matters the most. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant can tell you something about that.
DJ would certainly make the most of his opportunities, using quickness and smarts to get to the hoop or create open jumpers with pull-ups. But the 6'6”, 235-pound Pierce would have two inches and roughly 50 pounds on Johnson. He would also incorporate the clutch one-on-one offensive ability modern Celtics fans have come to expect from the Truth.
Pierce performed at an elite level by himself for years and years before Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came around. He would have no trouble playing by himself, and winning, against Johnson.
Pierce 21 - Johnson 9
The only player in Celtics history with more points than Pierce, legendary 1960s and 1970s guard/forward John Havlicek sits at the No. 4 seed. His illustrious career includes eight championships, 13 All-Star games and a plethora of defensive honors and awards.
He matches up against Jo Jo White, known primarily for his spectacular decade with the Celtics from 1969 to 1979. White won two titles with Boston and had seven All-Star years of his own. Like “Hondo,” Jo Jo has an NBA Finals MVP under his belt.
Hondo and Jo Jo actually won two championships together, in the 1973–74 and 1975–76 seasons. Havlicek won Finals MVP in '74, and White took the honor in '76.
But these two have more in common than just awards. They also match up together well, with White standing 6'3” and 190 pounds and Havlicek a bit bigger at 6'5”, 203 pounds. And while Jo Jo's reputation as an iron man preceded him (he played every game from 1972 to 1977), Hondo's endurance paid huge dividends in games and in the long term.
And his intense determination on both sides of the floor will never be matched by another Celtic. His motor never seemed to idle, as exemplified by his tenacious Eastern Conference-clinching steal in 1965. The longest-tenured Celtic of all time retired with averages of 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
While their career totals differ greatly, Jo Jo's career averages in a Celtics uniform weren't too far off from Hondo's. He put up 22.5 points, five assists, and 4.2 rebounds in his 10-year stint with Boston.
These two would deliver an offensive juggernaut of a game. They would both play attack-like offense and solid defense, keeping it close throughout. But the better all-around scorer and defender would pull it out, as “Havlicek steals it.” Sorry for the obligatorily corny tribute to Johnny Most.
Havlicek 21 - White 18
This marks the first game of the tournament in which two players at the same position face off. And oh, what a game. Bob Cousy is one of the best pure passers in the history of the point guard position, a status Rajon Rondo arguably deserves despite his relatively young age.
“Cooz” led the league in assists for eight years straight and helped the Celtics win six NBA titles (in 1957 and every year from 1959 to 1963). He earned MVP honors in 1957 and notched 13 All-Star selections during his career.
Rondo, meanwhile, has already been to two NBA Finals, winning one. He has led the league in assists two years straight and earned his fourth All-Star selection this season. He's a four-time All-Defensive selection (two on the First Team), partly because of his knack for stealing passes. He led the league in thefts in 2010.
Since GM Danny Ainge acquired Rondo in a draft-day trade in 2006, Rondo has had a firm control of the Celtics' offense. But he really emerged from the shadows of Boston's 21st century version of the “Big Three” (Garnett, Pierce and Allen) in the 2009 playoffs, in which he posted a series of triple-doubles, truly making the team his own.
Cousy, a.k.a. “The Big Houdini” and “Mr. Basketball,” arguably defined the position of point guard, largely making the current generation's young-bloods like Rondo who they are today.
These two 6'1”, 170-pounders would definitely go 10 rounds, especially considering both are known more for smart offensive creation and less for jump shots. But Rondo would be too much for Cousy to handle in a one-on-one game.
Rondo's quickness, his elusive moves near the basket and his pesky man defense would help deliver the first upset of the Celtics All-Time One-on-One Tournament.
Rondo 21 - Cousy 16
In yet another epic Sweet 16 contest, two big men from different eras collide for a rough-and-tumble showdown. Tommy Heinsohn, one of the revolutionary Celtics, meets Dave Cowens, one of the best centers in franchise history.
Heinsohn made an immediate impact in Boston his rookie season (1956-57), when he went to the All-Star Game, won the Rookie of the Year award and helped the Celtics win the NBA title. He went on to win an astonishing eight championships in nine years (as part of the Russell era), making six All-Star appearances in the process.
Cowens, who entered the league in 1970, also delivered for the Celtics from the get-go. His rookie campaign included staggering averages of 17 points and 15 rebounds per contest, earning him a shared Rookie of the Year award (with Portland Trailblazer Geoff Petric).
In 1973, Cowens won the NBA MVP after logging 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds a game, which helped Boston to a league-leading 68-14 record. The big man was selected to seven All-Star teams during his career and earned a multitude of defensive honors. He played a crucial role in the Celtics' 1974 and 1976 championships and led the squad in all five major statistical categories in 1977-78.
Heinsohn and Cowens were both known for their gritty, tenacious styles of play. Their career numbers reflect such reputations. Tommy finished with an average of 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds, while Dave posted absurd averages of 17.6 points and 13.6 boards.
These two would not only play a brand of physical, intense basketball in a one-on-one match, but they would also bring their unusual personalities to the court.
Heinsohn, now the color commentator for Comcast Sports Net New England, maintains notoriety for his heated fan-tics in the broadcasting chair, never hesitating to yell at referees for bad calls. Cowens, meanwhile, has a reputation for eccentric behavior, like the time he slept on a park bench in Boston Common after winning the 1974 championship.
“Tommy Gun” would probably win the word of the words, spouting out unnecessary obscenities about his red-haired counterpart. But Cowens would triumph, using his two-inch advantage and all-around skills to move on to the second round.
Cowens 21 - Heinsohn 13
Technical Fouls: 2
In a bizarrely intriguing matchup, a legendary shooting guard in Sam Jones meets a legendary center, Robert Parish.
Jones, a clutch scorer with supreme quickness, contributed to 10 championships in Boston. A five-time All-Star, he averaged 18 points, five rebounds and three assists over the course of his career.
Parish, who made a name for himself as a silently tough iron man, played a crucial part in the success of the Celtics in the 1980s. His defense and rebounding dominated most opponents, and he ranked among the top of the stat boards for blocks and boards on multiple occasions.
The “Chief” averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.6 blocks per game in his NBA career and earned All-Star honors in nine of his 14 seasons in Boston.
While the naked eye suggests this game would be a landslide, a Sam Jones in his prime could make Parish really work for a victory. Quickness and ball-handling alone would keep the big man moving, creating some openings for jumpers.
Overall, Chief's defense and low-post abilities would be surmounted by the speedier, sharp-shooting Jones. The 2-guard wins a close one in a relative upset to advance.
Jones 21 - Parish 19
That brings us to the final matchup of the first round—and perhaps the most intriguing one. In a student-versus-teacher battle, Kevin Garnett squares off against his former coach, GM and mentor, Kevin McHale.
Both known for their dominant play in the post, as well as the mid-range jump shot, these two legends would dazzle the masses if they played each other in the respective primes of their careers.
KG and McHale both have 6'10”-6'11” range and long wingspans. They both have fiery competitive drives. And they both have hordes of All-Defense honors.
McHale helped Boston win three championships in the Larry Bird era and earned selections to seven All-Star teams during his career. He won the Rookie of the Year award and later garnered two straight Sixth Man awards (1983-84 and 1984-85).
The “Big Ticket,” meanwhile, helped the C's win a championship his first year in Boston (2007-08) and nearly propelled them to a second title in 2010. A 15-time All-Star and the 2004 MVP, KG has been selected to five All-Star teams since joining Boston. He won the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and also made the All-NBA First Team.
KG's 15.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in a Celtics uniform have come in the later stages of his career. Yet he continues to make an unmistakeably critical impact on all facets of Boston's game. He would match up so well with McHale, who averaged 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds throughout his 13 years in Boston, it almost seems unfair to decide a winner.
Based on overall scoring dominance, and a slight tip of the defensive scales, Garnett gets the nod by a meager one or two points in this contest. KG joins Rondo and Pierce as the current generation of stars who advance to the Elite Eight.
Garnett 21 - McHale 20
With no time to celebrate, Garnett immediately moves from his victory over McHale to the nearly impossible task of playing one of his idols, the greatest Celtic of all time.
Russell would come at Garnett hard, utilizing his speed and athleticism as well as his underrated ball-handling abilities. His balance of creating off the dribble with his back to the basket would tire Garnett down the stretch.
The Big Ticket would fire back with some big mid-range jump shots and his customary fall-aways off post wiggles. And he would undoubtedly play the hardest defense he could manage on his similarly sized counterpart.
But the younger, quicker and more agile Russell (remember, we're talking prime of their Celtics' tenures) would prevail.
In a game like this, there might be friendly laughs. There could also be blood. Two of the nicest, yet most competitive, ballers would produce an epic show, with one of the most epic players in NBA history fittingly coming out on top. Russell earns a trip to the semifinals.
Russell 21 - Garnett 19
Continuing a fun second round, Hondo meets Rondo in another intense battle.
These two fiery Celtics would each give it their all, but most of Celtics Nation knows the probable result.
Rondo may be a skilled ball-handler with superior intelligence and quickness, and his continually emerging skills suggest he will be a triple-double threat for years to come. But he could not light a candle to Havlicek in his prime.
Let's go back to Hondo's 13 consecutive All-Star games, eight championships, and 11 All-NBA teams. Let's talk about the early 1970s, when he averaged a staggering 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Havlicek would match Rondo's tenacity on defense and utilize his inside-outside game against the shorter, smaller guard. He would assert himself off the dribble and unsurprisingly out-shoot the youngin, knocking him out handily to advance to the Final Four.
Havlicek 21 - Rondo 15
With current teammates Garnett and Rondo eliminated, Pierce steps up against the taller, larger Cowens in an interesting Elite Eight competition.
These players would assuredly make up for relative mismatch elements with their strong points. Cowens' defensive skills would atone for his lack of speed against the agile Pierce. And Pierce's clutch shooting and strength off the dribble and near the basket would compensate for his lack of height.
Cowens would likely get off to a strong start, taking the ball down low on offense and keeping his long arms and wide body on Truth defensively. But Pierce's ability in the clutch would play the biggest part in the latter stages of this contest.
In a one-point victory, Paul Pierce surmounts Dave Cowens to represent the 21st century in the Final Four. And the crowd of Celtics historians goes wild with fury.
Pierce 21 - Cowens 20
Fear not, historians. Larry Bird returns in a second-round matchup against the much-smaller Sam Jones.
Jones gives up five inches and thirty pounds to The Hick from French Lick. He also never carried an offense like the three-time MVP, despite having a similarly lethal shooting stroke.
Bird would exploit Jones by forcing him into tough jumpers and pushing him to drive to his left. Despite his slow feet, Larry's height and intensity would prevent his opponent from doing too much harm.
But everyone knows Larry Legend's main source of winning was always with the ball in his hands. With quality jump shots and some nice overpowering drives, Bird would take this game by at least five points, becoming the first player from the 1980s to enter the semis.
Bird 21 - Jones 16
Bill Russell once said about John Havlicek, “He is the best all-around player I ever saw.” And Russell is widely considered one of the five best players of all time. It's only fitting that these teammates and friends square off against each other in a battle of uniquely different powerhouses.
Hondo's aptness for making the key defensive stop or grabbing the big rebound would prove crucial in such a tight game against the taller Russell. And his clutch outside shooting would obviously come in handy when trying to spread the floor.
But Russell's swarming defense, great footwork and sheer size would likely limit Havlicek to a meager field-goal percentage—something larger defenders sometimes did to him.
And Bill would do something he often did to smaller defenders: score near the hoop. Nobody in the game could take advantage of a mismatch better than Russell, whose “ups” wowed audiences long before any dramatic slam dunk contests.
Russell would take this match by a few buckets, sending him to the championship round.
Russell 21 - Havlicek 18
Now that Russell, the star of the 1950s and 1960s, has beaten Havlicek, the star of the 1960s and 1970s, he awaits his opponent. It seems only fitting that the Celtics' superstar from 1979-1992, Larry Bird, faces off against the organization's next superstar from 1998 to the present day, Paul Pierce.
Pierce followed in Bird's footsteps in many ways, giving Boston fans a franchise player and putting the team on his back through thick and thin. They each have a dynamic scoring ability, a will to win and an uncanny knack for performing in the clutch. High-pressure moments never got to either of these greats.
Even better, they both have strength and size. At 6'7”, 235 pounds, Truth matches up well against the 6'9”, 220-pound Bird. This would clearly be a game for the ages.
Pierce's man-to-man defensive strengths would give Bird some issues on the dribble, but he would likely fall back on his long-range game or post Pierce up. Pierce, meanwhile, would likely drive strong to the hoop early.
Bird, who never had a reputation as a strong all-around defender, did step up his one-on-one D when it mattered the most. You expect big adjustments from a three-time MVP and NBA Champion, and that's just what Bird would do in this contest.
Recognizing that Truth likes to dribble up and stop short on a pull-up or fade-away (primarily to the right side), Bird would pressure the ball and smother the shot when Pierce squared up. He would foul him hard anytime he got near the hoop, physically wearing him out.
Then, Larry Legend would capitalize and hit the clutch shots Celtics fans still watch on VHS tapes to this day.
Bird 21 - Pierce 19
Here's the moment you've all been waiting for: the championship round of the Boston Celtics' One-on-One March Madness Tournament. Bill Russell versus Larry Bird. The two best Celtics of all time, head to head.
Both 6'9” and relatively sized, this would obviously be a barn-burner. Someone yell “gotta win by two!” because these two would relentlessly battle each other in the prime of their respective careers.
Russell's defense near the hoop would force Bird to hit the outside shots that he made a living shooting. And Bird's inconsistent defense would free Russell up for some openings on drives and put-backs.
But in a closely contested battle like this, in which size and heart are evenly matched, the better all-around scorer often comes out on top.
Bird could score from straightaway or from the perimeter, on the drive or on the post. He had no limits when big-time games were on the line.
And this is one of those big games. After a stunning shot from three-point land clinches a triumphant two-point victory, Larry Joe Bird takes down the Boston Celtics' March Madness One-on-One title. Put that mustached face and golden mullet back on the Wheaties box!
Bird 21 - Russell 19