EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, Mike Prada of SB Nation is doing a big breakdown of the best teams in NBA history to never win a title. Today, he reveals “the not good enough” region of his bracket, which includes the 1961-62 Los Angeles Lakers, who lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games in the NBA Finals.
The Lakers and the Celtics are yin and yang, equal and opposite forces forever locked in battle against one another.
If however, it is difficult for you to summon the proper ferocity against the Celtics given that they have only won one title in the last 33 years, allow me to direct you to the 1961-62 Lakers, and the beginnings of the L.A.–Boston rivalry.
The 1961-62 Lakers won the Western Division (the league only had nine teams at the time) going away. Led by fourth-year player Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and in his second season, the Lakers finished 54-26, 11 games ahead of the Cincinnati Royals. They were still six games worse than the Celtics for the best record in the NBA.
Baylor and West were both first-team All-NBA selections, while Boston’s Bill Russell was named league MVP. Baylor led the Lakers with 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds in 44.4 minutes per game. West was the team’s second-leading scorer and leading assist-man with 30.8 points and 5.4 assists in 41.2 minutes. Baylor’s gaudy statistics came in spite of the fact that he wasn’t with the team for much of the regular season and rarely practiced — he appeared in 48 of 80 games because he was on active duty with the United States Army Reserve and was only allowed to play on a weekend pass.
Power forward Rudy LaRusso, center Jim Krebs, and shooting guard Frank Selvy rounded out the Lakers’ starting lineup. Collectively, they averaged 41.9 points per game, or just a smidge more than Baylor by himself. The bench didn’t have any more serious offensive options, so the Lakers’ attack was mostly a two-man show of Baylor and West, supplemented by the occasional sweet shooting of Selvy.
LaRusso was a good rebounder (13th in the league with 10.3 per game), but Krebs was a bit of a liability on the glass. On the perimeter, the Lakers could match up with anyone, but that mattered less before the 3-point shot came into existence; their undoing, particularly against the Celtics, came inside. Time and again, they were unable to collect key rebounds.
The Lakers earned a bye through the first round of the playoffs and then met the Detroit Pistons in the Western Division Finals. They took a 3-0 lead on Detroit before coasting to a series win in six games. That meant a trip to the Finals against the Celtics.
Boston had swept the Lakers in the 1959 NBA Finals, but this was the first time the two teams had met since the move to Los Angeles. The Lakers were huge underdogs going into the series: the Celtics had homecourt, they had won three straight titles, and they had a significant depth advantage over the Lakers. In addition to Russell, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn were second-team All-NBA selections, Tom Sanders was regarded as one of the finest defenders in the league, and Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey were prolific scorers. Most importantly, Jones could get his own shot, and that Lakers didn't really have that type of player beyond their top two.
Despite the long odds, the Lakers left Boston with a split after winning Game 2. Baylor had an athletic advantage on the Celtics defenders, but West really shined with 40 points on only 23 shot attempts. The 23-year-old secured the victory in Game 3 by stealing the ball at on the inbounds and racing to lay it in as time expired.
The Lakers gave homecourt back by losing game 4, then improbably won the next game in Boston thanks to Baylor’s 61 points, which remains a single-game NBA Finals record. Given the chance to clinch a title in Los Angeles, the Lakers fell apart in the third quarter; a balanced Boston attack featuring six double-digit scorers compared to only three for the home team forced a game 7.
The Celtics held a six-point lead at halftime, but the Lakers clawed back despite their depth disadvantage. Head coach Fred Schaus clearly didn’t trust his bench and rode his starters heavy minutes until three of them eventually fouled out.
As an aside, the game itself is surreal to watch. Beyond the stars, most of the other players were unable to dribble with their left hand, and they took one-handed push-shot jumpers. Ray Felix was shooting free throws underhanded for the Lakers. Once a player got past his initial defender, help defense was almost nonexistent — unless, of course, you were facing Bill Russell.
Russell had 40 rebounds in Game 7 as the Celtics outrebounded the Lakers 82-65 that night. Nevertheless, the Lakers found themselves in possession of the ball with the game tied at 100 on the final play of regulation with the opportunity to beat the Celtics at the Boston Garden and end their stranglehold over the Finals.
Selvy inbounded the ball to Hot Rod Hundley. Hundley’s first option was West, but he was too tightly covered, so he passed back to Selvy, who took a relatively uncontested baseline jumper for the win.
Not good enough.
Baylor fouled out in overtime, and West alone couldn’t defeat the Celtics. The Lakers ended up losing to Boston five more times in the Finals this decade, including two more seven-game series. This was their best chance to topple their green enemy; instead, they were perennial bridesmaids to the Celtics for the rest of the 1960s.
As they showed in the final game of the series, the Lakers simply didn’t have enough to get past the Celtics. A top-heavy squad got that couldn’t beat a complete team. Even when the outcome of the series came down to just one shot, they were simply outmatched. Their third-best scorer was unable hit a big shot when it counted, as Hundley regularly reminded him.
Baylor and West are one of the greatest duos in league history. Their collective talent made the Lakers something special. But in 1962, against their sworn enemy, special didn't equate to a championship-level team. Those Lakers were good, just not quite good enough.