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What Does NBA History Tell Us About Slow Start?

The Boston Celtics are 10-10 through 20 games. Only one team in NBA history has won an NBA championship after such a slow start.

When Sonny Liston walked into the ring in Miami Beach Florida on February 25, 1964, the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, “it never occurred to [him] that he might lose a fight,” Tex Maule wrote for Sports Illustrated.

Until Muhammad Ali, then called Cassius Clay, came out and swarmed Liston with his speed, stinging the champion with powerful combination punches until he quit the fight before the seventh round.

Liston hardly knew what hit him, his world had changed in a blink.

Heading into this season, the Boston Celtics weren’t champions like Liston, but with Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving coming back to an Eastern Conference Finalist, they bought into the belief that with all that talent, they couldn’t be beat–until, 20 games into the season, the Celtics find themselves at 10-10, seventh-place in the East.

Of course, Boston isn’t throwing in the towel like Liston, but the underwhelming start is certainly troubling. The Celtics are already 6 games back of the Toronto Raptors, who lead the East at 17-4.

And NBA history isn’t on their side, either. Only one team has ever started the season at .500 or worse in the first 20 games and won an NBA championship.

Even in the early years of the NBA when there was 12 or fewer teams, no team started that poorly and won a title. Before the BAA and the NBL merged to form the NBA in 1949, the Philadelphia Warriors started 11-9 en route to a BAA championship, defeating the Chicago Stags, 4-1, in 1946-47. In the 1947-48 BAA season, the Baltimore Bullets also started 11-9 before taking the title from the Warriors.

Since the ABA and NBA merger, just four teams have reached the NBA Finals after starting as bad as the Boston Celtics have through 20 games.

Let’s take a look at how those teams turned it around and which one went all the way.

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