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On This Date in Sports April 15, 1965: Havlicek Stole the Ball

in collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

It is one of the most dramatic endings in the history of the NBA Playoffs. The Eastern Division Finals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers had come down to a seventh game at the Boston Garden. The Celtics were clinging to a 110-109 lead with five seconds left as the Sixers had the ball with a chance to win. However, John Havlicek stole the ball to preserve the win. 

It was professional sports' greatest dynasty, as the Boston Celtics were seeking their seventh straight NBA Championship. Coached by Red Auerbach, the Celtics won their first NBA Championship against the St. Louis Hawks in 1957. After losing to the Hawks in the NBA Finals in 1958. The Celtics reclaimed their crown in 1959 and won the next five years. 

During the 1964/65 season, the Philadelphia 76ers made a big splash, acquiring Wilt Chamberlain from the Golden State Warriors. Despite the trade, the Sixers struggled down the stretch, finishing 40-40 and finishing in third place in the Eastern Division at 40-40 under Dolph Schayes. The Celtics meanwhile finished 62-18 the best record in the NBA. 

The Celtics as division champions had a bye to the Divisional Finals. The 76ers meanwhile beat the Cincinnati Royals three games to one. The Celtics looked sharp early, winning the series opener at home 108-98 as Bill Russell was the chairman of the boards, with 32 rebounds. The series would alternate with all even games in Philadelphia and all odd games at the Boston Garden. With Wilt Chamberlain scoring 30 points with 39 rebounds, the Sixers evened the series with a 109-103 win.

Sam Jones and John Havlicek each scored 24 points in Game 3, as Boston won 112-94. Chet Walker had 31 points, and Wilt Chamberlain had 34 as Philadelphia evened the series 134-131 in Game 4. Sam Jones again led the way in Game 5, scoring points as the Celtics won 114-108. The series continued to tick back and forth, with the Sixers taking Game 6 by a score of 112-106.

Game 7 at Boston Garden was a microcosm of the series, as Boston jumped out to a 35-26 lead, only to see the Sixers rally and take a one-point lead, at the half 62-61. With Sam Jones scoring a game-high 37 points, the Celtics were able to take control in the third quarter leading 90-82 head into the fourth quarter. The Celtics appeared to be set for their ninth straight NBA Finals appearance with an 11-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Wilt Chamberlain, who finished the game with 30 points, led the Sixers on a late surge, a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to one point.  

The score was now 110-109, and the Celtics were on their heels. After a basket by Chamberlain, the Celtics further compounded their problems, as Bill Russell’s inbounds pass hit a guidewire under the basket, giving the to Philadelphia with five seconds left. Hal Greer had the ball under the basket, looking to set up a dramatic game-winning shot. Bill Russell blanketed Chamberlain, making a pass to the Sixers star center impossible. Instead, Greer looked to get the ball to Chet Walker when John Havlicek jumped in and stole the ball, handing it off to Sam Jones, who dribbled out the clock. The final play call by Jonny Most is considered the most famous call in NBA history.

The Celtics would go on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to win their seventh straight NBA Championship.