The NBA playoffs traditionally have produced orderly results and not just a duplication of what has gone on during the long winter. Until this year the favorites have won 36 of 39 championship confrontations, as teams and players rose and fell to precise form levels. There have been no equivalents of .250-hitting second basemen coming up to smash grand slams. There have been no Stanley Cup sagas of third-place teams awakening from a season's dormancy.
In the modern era of pro basketball, which can be dated definitively from the summer of 1954 when that bright little gentleman from Syracuse, Danny Biasone, gave the NBA his 24-second clock, only two teams that were not regular-season division winners lasted to the finals. Only once has the team with the poorer season's record triumphed in the title round. The only second-place teams to reach the final series were the 1959 Minneapolis Lakers, who were led by a rookie named Elgin Baylor, and the 1966 Boston Celtics, who were behind 2-1 in the first round, moved John Havlicek into the starting lineup and went on to victory.
There is, then, order even in the upsets, for precisely the same things have happened this year; the Lakers (long since moved to Los Angeles) and the Celtics both finished second in their divisions but won their way to the playoff finals. Baylor and Jerry West (see cover) paced the Lakers in a sweep over San Francisco in the Western finals. Havlicek, again installed as a starter in the first round, promptly led the Celtics to three straight wins against Detroit. Subsequently he and Bill Russell were the players chiefly responsible for Boston's unprecedented achievement of beating Philadelphia 4-3 after being behind 3-1.
When the seven-game championship series began in Boston Sunday, the favorite again won, as the Celtics prevailed 107-101. Despite that loss, the Lakers have an excellent chance of becoming the first Western team to win the title in exactly a decade. Certainly it does not seem likely that West and Baylor will repeat their shockingly poor shooting performances. West hit on only seven of 24, Baylor on 11 of 31.
After falling behind by 11 points early in the first quarter, the Lakers persistently countered Boston's superlative marksmanship with their strong running game, and several times they led by as much as 15. At half time Russell scarcely had time to catch his breath, as he stormed at his teammates, and the Celtics themselves came out running. Still, Boston did not regain the lead until halfway into the last quarter, when Bailey Howell hit a jumper off a fast break. In that period West and Baylor fell into the worst joint slump of their careers, making three baskets in 17 attempts. Those are bad figures these days. Roberto de Vicenzo shot three for the 17th, and look what happened to him.
As has often been the case after the bloodletting in the Eastern eliminations, the opening of the championship round had an air of anticlimax about it.
It seemed that the Lakers were coming out of seclusion to play for the title. Since mid-March the team had left California only once, for a brief two-game visit to Chicago. The Lakers routed the Bulls in five games, then San Francisco in four, and neither series attracted much attention on the desert side of San Bernardino. Since they lost the first game they had obviously come to Boston rusty and dulled competitively. If they had won, of course, it would have been said that they were relaxed and rested.
Boston, on the other hand, was trying to maintain the fine frenzy that had driven its tired and aging heroes to the victory over Philadelphia—a comeback to match Baylor's astonishing discovery that he can play without knees, or at least without knees as medical students know them. Not to denigrate Boston's efforts, but the fact is the series with Philadelphia was extremely close most of the way and was decided in the end when the 76ers suddenly, unaccountably, forgot how to shoot. In the second half of the fifth game they started missing, and they never stopped missing.
"If I were Russell," Alex Hannum said, "I'd have my defense take credit for it." But it was not readily apparent that the Celtics' defense, always superb, suddenly improved part way through the fifth game. "Maybe we did help each other a little more," Bailey Howell said, trying to assist expert analysts in perpetuating the myth that all errors in professional sport are the result of vast strategic enterprise. Philly just went cold.
For the first four games and half of the fifth the 76ers shot 44%. For the balance of the series the figure was 35%. That means about 50 points less (10 per half) than they would have scored had they maintained the 44%. Of all the 76ers, only Hal Greer, who had been shooting less than 40% anyway, improved in accuracy over those last 2½ games. Wilt Chamberlain, an injured leg hampering his movement, made 36% of his shots; Wally Jones made 25%, Chet Walker and Luke Jackson 31% each, Matt Guokas 37%, Johnny Green 39% on only 13 attempts. There was no one to turn to.
Absolutely nothing else changed. It was reminiscent of one of those mysteries in which the thief steals only one item and leaves all else in the vault undisturbed. Boston continued to shoot just as accurately as before, but no better. The rebounds remained in the same ratio, so did the free-throw percentages and the number of shots. Boston kept up its running game and Philadelphia kept setting up off Chamberlain in the low post and weaving off the picks. All exactly as before. Only the 76ers kept missing.
In retrospect' it now appears they had at last come to feel the absence of the injured Billy Cunningham, the extra shooter. Boston's Satch Sanders left the series with a muscle pull in the fifth game, and while Russell needs him desperately to contend with Baylor, the loss of Sanders' defensive play against the 76ers did not turn out to be very significant. Philly wasn't hitting over anyone's outstretched hands.
Finally Philadelphia may have been more fatigued than Boston. The Knicks had pressed them full-court in their first-round games. The Celtics continued that pressure, with Havlicek operating at both ends, alternately throwing and catching passes in the manner of a single-wing tailback. Russell, as brilliant as ever though 34 and in his 12th pro year, restricted Chamberlain in a manner few believed possible. In the last half of the critical final game Wilt took only one shot and batted up only one errant attempt by a teammate.
Both teams seemed out of sorts in the beginning, and one would have thought that any second-rate pickup team—say, for instance, the U.S. Olympic squad—could have given either a battle. The players were tight with tension, and the hesitant, slow action should have worked to Philadelphia's advantage. In the broadcast booth Red Auerbach, serving as TV color man, exhorted his men over the air (though the words were only heard 300 miles away in Boston): "Don't hold the ball...! We've got to foul to win!" Often he just counted one-two-three, like a dance instructor, pointing out alleged three-second violations by the 76ers.
After a short burst by Philadelphia at the start of the second half, the Celtics took the tempo away from the home team and kept the lead almost all the way. They were ahead 97-95 when Sam Jones was trapped and lost the ball to Wally Jones with 0:54 left. The 76ers set up, and Walker drove down the key. Don Nelson, who had a magnificent series, found himself slightly beaten and gave way to avoid fouling. Walker flicked up the short try. It rolled around, teetered and then dropped away. There were no 76ers on the boards. Russell took the rebound, dribbled the length of the court and was fouled by Wilt. He made the free throw that clinched the game, which seemed only fair considering his contribution to the victory. When it ended officially—100-96—he threw his arms high in triumph, straining them against the din.
In Los Angeles the Lakers watched the final game on TV, rooting for Boston. To a man, they believe they can handle the Celtics, matching their speed, giving Russell the boards but out hooting the rest. Like Boston, too, the Lakers are a team with continuity of top personnel, more closely knit than ever this year under the fresh, easy stewardship of Coach Bill van Breda Kolff, who rails at them all, one by one, and then quickly forgets. In turn, the players look upon their new coach with a sympathetic but bewildered affection. As L.A. Reporter Merv Harris points out, he may be the only coach in history to make bed checks and then keep the poor players awake, drinking beer and talking basketball into the wee hours—until the players beg to please have the bed check concluded.
The Lakers also marvel at van Breda Kolff's ability to survive in winter without ever wearing an overcoat and to survive in any climate in the wild sports jackets he prefers. A loud black, red and gray tweed number especially dismays Baylor, the team's fashion arbiter. Sometimes van Breda Kolff even wears his camel's-hair Princeton blazer on the bench. He met the Lakers last summer when he put them through strenuous sessions that helped them adjust to the new coach and achieve excellent condition before the season began. In a sense L.A. has really participated in three separate seasons. The preliminary one was followed by a second period that carried into January. It was a mildly successful period of .500 ball, of learning van Breda Kolff's style as he tried to convince and/or con everyone that West and Baylor should not always get the ball, because offense is a five-man affair. It is true that now the ball moves around more, but late on the 24-second clock or at key times—as in the playoffs—West and Baylor dominate the play. "People are always asking me," says Rod Hundley, an old Laker who is now the team's TV-radio color man, "if Mr. Cooke [Jack Kent Cooke, the owner] really knows any basketball. They say he comes from Canada and that hockey must be his first love. I tell 'em, he knows everything there is to know about basketball in L.A. 'Everything?' they say. Yessir. Mr. Cooke knows that, in L.A., basketball is just to get the ball to Elg or Jerry."
The Lakers moved into Cooke's Forum on New Year's Eve, where they have been 24-5. More important were the personnel additions the team picked up in the next few days—Irwin Mueller and Fred Crawford. "Those two gave the Lakers an opportunity to keep up their quick," says Bill Sharman, the San Francisco coach. "Before, if you saw West and Baylor leave the game you knew the pace would be slower. Now, if anything, it's faster."
Since the "third season" began on January 17, the first time Mueller and Crawford appeared together, the team has gone 38-9. Crawford gives the Lakers a special edge against teams like Boston, because he can move up front and play against small forwards like Havlicek. West used to be obliged to take this assignment, and it weakened the Lakers in backcourt. Mueller has brought strength on the boards, helping Centers Darrall Imhoff and Mel Counts and Forward Tommy Hawkins who, at 31, has come up with his best and highest-scoring season.
The only consistent Laker weakness is inadequate rebounding, as the first game with Boston showed. The Lakers had 62, the Celtics 75. "If we can rebound," West said before the game, "we can win. We're little, but we match up well with Boston. We're quick and we shoot well, and that can be enough in any seven-game series."
So the magnificent rebounder, Russell, who has independently destroyed the dreams of many Laker teams in past championships, is again the key. For years the lithe giant has dominated a team with so much talent that it bulldozed the opposition. Now he is suddenly the object of much sentiment. Supposedly a tired old man near the end of his trail, who has known defeat like other mortals, he has managed to bring his own new team of hustlers and scramblers and even castoffs to the brink of one final great success. "The Celtics are a way of life with me," he says, thrusting his goateed chin forward to enforce the point. He has been the way of life for the Celtics as well.