Game 7 of the 1962 NBA Finals: When Monsters on the Boards Roamed the Earth
The Box Score is a series in which we select one impressive box score, do all sorts of historical research, watch the game if we can find it, and write about it. It has a complementary podcast called – you got it – The Box Score Show.
Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter pulled down a career-high 30 rebounds on April 10 in a 15-point victory over the Detroit Pistons. Not only was it the most rebounds in a game this season, but it was also the most rebounds in a game since Dwight Howard recorded 30 rebounds for the Charlotte Hornets on March 21, 2018.
Over the last 30 years, there have only been 14 separate instances when a player pulled down at least 30 boards. That number drops down to four separate instances if you look only at the last 25 years. It would appear the art of rebounding has seen fewer masters of the craft as time has marched on. There are two ways to look at this:
- There was a time, a glorious time when giants roamed the earth, and every missed shot was gobbled up by a few extraordinary window washers.
- There was a time when there were all sorts of rebounding opportunities and there were two players in particular who were adept at grabbing them, and in one NBA Finals Game 7 during that era, one of those players grabbed a hell of a lot of them even for that era.
If you look at the top 10 single-season leaders for rebounds per game, they all take place within a 10-year stretch from 1958-59 through 1967-68 and there are only two names on the list. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Chamberlain has seven of the top 10 single-season rebounds per game averages including the all-time high of 27.2 rebounds per game (1960-61). The other three belong to Russell. Additionally, there were a total of 78 games in the 1960s where a player recorded 35 or more rebounds. Chamberlain and Russell account for 92.3% of those games. They were responsible for all but six.
The names Chamberlain and Russell often go hand-in-hand because of their jaw-dropping stats. Bill Russell’s 11 championship rings or Wilt’s 100-point game in 1962. But it was another less-known, but debatably more impactful game in 1962 where Russell put on a show that is still a record-holding one to this day.
The date was April 18, 1962, and the two most storied franchises in NBA history were facing off in Game 7 of the NBA Finals: the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. By this time, the Celtics had established themselves as a dynasty by any definition of the word, and they were really only getting started. The 1962 Finals marked the sixth consecutive year the Celtics were in the Finals (they ended up playing in 10 straight Finals) and they were looking to win their fifth championship in those six years.
Boston hosted Games 1 and 2, which the Lakers surprisingly managed to split. After splitting Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, the series was tied 2-2. LA took Game 5 in Boston and the Celtics returned the favor by taking Game 6 in LA. So, as is often the case with legendary teams in legendary series, the championship would be decided by a Game 7.
The Celtics of that era were unlike any team before or since. Eight of the 10 Celtics players that saw court time in that Game 7 are in the Hall of Fame: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey, Tom Sanders, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, and Carl Braun. Imagine having a starting five made up of Hall of Famers with three more HOFers coming off the bench? That sentence grammatically should not end in a question mark, but it feels like it has to.
But the Lakers they were battling in a gritty seven-game series were no slouches either. “The Logo” himself, Jerry West, laced them up alongside “Mr. Inside,” Elgin Baylor. And those fellas had been creating their own Finals heroics. In Game 3, West stole an inbound pass and drove for the game-winning layup as time expired. In Game 5, Baylor scored a still-standing Finals’ record of 61 points. So, needless to say, the stage was set for an epic Game 7 to decide the 1962 champions. It delivered on the hype.
Four quarters wasn’t enough to declare a winner, so the evenly matched teams went into overtime. Russell played all 53 minutes (48 in regulation and five in overtime). The only other player on the court that night to play every minute was West. In fact, Russell played all but five minutes across the entire Celtics’ 1962 playoff run. The five minutes he did sit were spread across two games the Celtics won by a combined 42 points.
In the end, it was the seemingly unbeatable Celtics that came out on top in a 110-107 overtime victory. Hearing “Game 7 overtime” is enough to get most sports fans’ hearts racing, but when you read the stat line Russell had you’re going to do a double-take. Mr. Russell put up 30 points and grabbed … wait for it … 40 rebounds. Yes, you read that right. The legend had 30 points and 40 rebounds in a winner-takes-all, overtime, Game 7 with the title on the line.
Through the first six games of the series, Russell was averaging 21.7 points and 24.8 rebounds. In the closeout game, he scored eight points above his Finals average and had 15 rebounds above his series average. Russell’s 40 rebounds is an NBA Finals record, and his 19 boards in the fourth quarter are still the record for boards in a single quarter in any game – regular-season or playoffs.
The entire Celtics team had 82 rebounds in the game, meaning Russell accounted for 48.8% of his teams’ total. Comparatively, Baylor led his Lakers in rebounds that game with another amazing performance, nabbing 22 boards. The Lakers had 65 as a team, so Baylor accounted for 33.9% of his team’s rebounds.
Russell’s 40 rebounds, while absolutely staggering, isn’t as shocking when you look at his entire body of work and the nature of the game. There have been 105 performances in NBA history with 35 or more rebounds. Chamberlain owns 53 of them, Russell has 35, and all other players have combined for 17. A similar stat can be said for 40-plus rebound games. There have been 28 of those all time. Chamberlain had 15, Russell had 11, and there were only ever two other 40-plus rebound games, and Nate Thurmond and Jerry Lucas have one each.
But if ever there was a Finals game made for such a performance, this was a prime candidate. There is greatness, and there is cause and effect. The Lakers went 38 of 108 from the field in the overtime game. That’s 35.2%. The Celtics were even worse – 37 of 113 (32.7%). This was one part bad shooting but also one part the reality of the NBA. The 42.6 field-goal percentage in the 1961-62 season ranks 59th all time, and the 107.7 field-goal attempts per team per game are the third highest (88.4 in 2020-21). The 37.1 free-throw attempts per game are the fourth highest (21.8 in 2020-21). So it was a golden era for rebounding opportunities, but knowing that, let’s go ahead and celebrate it.
Again, there were huge individual rebounding numbers of the late 1950s and throughout 1960s, but it really pops when you compare them to the decades that followed. Looking at the amount of 35-plus rebound games by decade, there were 23 in the 1950s, 78 in the 1960s, three in the 1970s, one in the 1980s, and that’s it. There hasn’t been a 35 or more rebound game since Charles Oakley snagged 35 boards for the Chicago Bulls on April 22, 1988. Not a single game in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, or 2020s did a player record 35 boards.
Another clutch aspect of Russell’s Game 7 performance was his free-throw shooting. Russell had a career free-throw percentage of 56.1%, and for the 1961-62 regular season he made 59.5% of his free throws. But as is required by legends, Mr. Russell showed up when it mattered most. In Game 7, he made 14 of 17 from the line. That’s a 26.3% increase over his career average. His 14 made free throws in Game 7 were the most he made in a game all season. In fact, his 14 makes from the stripe tied his career high for made free throws in a game. It was also a feat he only repeated two other times in his 1,128 combined regular-season and playoff games. It ended up being a three-point game, so he certainly picked a good night to match his career high.
With the Game 7 win in the 1962 NBA Finals, the Celtics earned their fourth consecutive championship (they’d end up winning eight in a row) and their fifth title in six years. During the stretch from 1957-69, the C’s played in 12 of the 13 NBA Finals, winning 11. Granted, there were significantly fewer teams in the league at the time. In 1957, there were eight total teams in the NBA, and by 1969 there were 14. It made for some astounding career numbers: Russell has the most rebounds in NBA Finals history with 1,718 – nearly double the next closest total of Wilt Chamberlain’s 862 and nearly triple the amount of Elgin Baylor’s third-place total of 593.
Russell and Chamberlain remain the only two players in history to average over 20 rebounds per game for a career, and there isn’t anyone close to them. There’s Chamberlain at 22.9, Russell at 22.5, then Bob Pettit’s 16.2. They’re also the only two players to total more than 20,000 rebounds in their careers. There’s Chamberlain at 23,924, Russell at 21,620 and then Moses Malone with 17,834.
There are two ways to conclude this. The first is sentimental: Hall of Famers stitch together great numbers throughout their careers, but true legends also show up on the biggest nights, in the biggest stages, and will their teams to victory. And perhaps that’s just what Russell did on April 18, 1962 on his hallowed home court of the Boston Garden in a championship-clinching performance for the ages.
But it’s also a story of what the NBA was in its relative infancy. The 2020-21 Celtics averaged 88.9 field-goal attempts per game. They shot 46.6% and weren’t particularly good. The 1961-62 Celtics averaged 113.9 attempts in the regular season and shot 42.3%. They shot 40.7% in the playoffs.
That was the state of the NBA. There were rebounding opportunities aplenty. And Russell grabbed them.
Design by Matt Sisneros. Animations by Paul Connors.