It was a track meet from the opening tip and the Celtics led 40-30 after the first quarter as they worked the fast break. The Lakers didn’t really offer much resistance. “No one guarded anybody,” laughs Hot Rod Hundley. At halftime, Boston was ahead 83-64, and Minneapolis head coach John Kundla wasn’t pleased.
“John Kundla told us to slow down,” said the late Steve Hamilton in a New York Times article commemorating the game’s 10-year anniversary. “We all said, ‘Yeah John, uh-huh’ with our heads bobbing up and down. Then we went out there and started running again.”
Maybe some of the Lakers listened because the Celtics and Lakers only combined for 69 points in the third quarter. The game then accelerated down the stretch as Auerbach realized Cousy had a shot at Richie Guerin’s assist record and kept him in the game. Cousy broke the record with four minutes left on a Jim Loscutoff basket and finished the game with 28 assists. He wasn’t proud of his accomplishment, though, as years later he told the Boston Globe: “Unfortunately, in my mind, my record was tainted because that game degenerated into a run and shoot contest. I would have rather gotten 15 assists in a meaningful game.”
The final score was 173-139. Heinsohn scored 43, Cousy had 31 and Sharman contributed 29 points for the Celtics, while Baylor led the Lakers with 28. As the Globe’s game story explained, the Celtics set seven NBA records: Most Points Scored (173, shattering the old mark of 146 held by the St. Louis Hawks), Most Points in a Half (90), Most Points in a Quarter (52), Most Assists (Cousy’s 28), Most Field Goals (72), Most Field Goals in a Half (40) and Most Field Goals Attempted (143).
After the game, the Celtics were a subdued squad—“We knew we broke the record but we weren’t going out and buying champagne,” says Tommy Heinsohn—but NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff was furious. “My God, that’s unbelievable,” he told the UPI upon learning the score of the game. “I want to check with the game referees to make certain players weren’t goofing off.”
Some Celtics took offense to Podoloff’s reaction. “We were really ticked off about that,” Heinsohn remembers. Coach Auerbach, however, laughed it off. “That game was legitimate in every aspect,” he later told the Globe. “It was just one of those record breaking days.”
So, what turned the game into a version of the All-Star Weekend’s Rookie Challenge? Russell’s absence, of course, affected the game. Gene Conley and Ben Swain received his minutes and neither could intimidate, alter shots or play help defense like No. 6. Also, as Lakers historian Roland Lazenby noted, that year’s team was “a loose bunch,” susceptible to off nights. The game also didn’t mean much in the standings. The Lakers had a losing record and were playing out the string despite being Playoff bound. They also tried beating the Celtics at their own game. “They were willing to run with us,” says Tommy Heinsohn.
Lou Tsioropoulos had a great view of the action from the Crow’s Nest and says it resembled a playground game with some players not even crossing half court at times. There was plenty of cherry picking and basket hanging.
At least one man, though, Lakers coach John Kundla, gave credit to the Celtics offense. “There was little we could do about their phenomenal shooting, although after staying with them for a while, we really played bad defense over the second half,” he said following the game. “I just hope we can shake the effects of this one.”
Somehow, the Lakers did just that. The game made nationwide news and humiliated the Lakers to the point where it lit a little spark under them. They made the Playoffs with a 33-39 record, beat the Detroit Pistons, upset the heavily favored St. Louis Hawks in six games in the Western Conference Finals and met the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. And while none of the games were as high scoring as the February 27 contest, the results were still the same. The Celtics swept the Lakers 4-0 and won their second NBA Championship in three years. It was the first Finals sweep in NBA history and the first of eight consecutive NBA Championships for Boston.
The Lakers stayed in Minneapolis for only one more season before departing for Los Angeles. Kundla stayed behind and became head coach at the University of Minnesota. That year, the Lakers added a talented guard from West Virginia named Jerry West and made the NBA Finals six times during the 1960s. Each time they lost to Auerbach’s Celtics.
The Celtics’ NBA record of 173 points in regulation might still stand—the Phoenix Suns it in November 1990 and the Detroit Pistons scored 186 points in a triple-overtime game in December 1983—but a professional team in another league did eclipse the mark. Back in April, 1970, the Slick Leonard-coached Indiana Pacers put up 177 against the Pittsburgh Pipers in an ABA game. Slick, who played for the Lakers in the record-setter 11 years prior to eclipsing it as a coach, still laughs at the memory of that crazy 1959 game at the Boston Garden. “When we scored 139,” Leonard says, “I was like, That’s a lot of points. But obviously we weren’t guarding anybody because they scored 173. That was a very strange game.”