As the two teams warmed up for their game, Lew Alcindor paced along the midcourt line at Madison Square Garden, his head pitched back, his face slack-jawed and dull except for the dark fire in his eyes. Hiding his hands under the red and white elastic ribbing at the bottom of his Milwaukee Bucks sweat shirt, Alcindor strode purposefully, careful to remain on his side of the line. Once or twice he glanced briefly across the stripe at the defending champions, the New York Knickerbockers, but even then he showed no emotion, never altered the force of his stride. Dispassion is Lew's way. Only a man with his self-control could view the Knicks from such a perspective and remain outwardly unconcerned. After a season and a half in the pros, Lew already has become what everyone thought he would, the game's dominant player. And the lone obstacle to his enjoying the final glory—a similar preeminence for the Bucks—is the team that was warming up on the far side of the line.
The Knicks are not without challenges of their own, and Alcindor himself is certainly one of them. But there are other problems. As Lew paced, Willis Reed, the league's Most Valuable Player last season, sat on the New York bench with an ice bag propped on his left knee. Reed was trying to freeze away the pain of chronic tendinitis that has caused him to miss occasional games and sometimes to play below the level of skill with which he led the Knicks to the championship.
It was only nine months ago that New York won its title and was proclaimed a burgeoning dynasty. But today the Bucks, not the Knicks, have the best record in the league (at week's end Milwaukee was 43-9 and nine games ahead in the Midwest Division; New York, 38-18, led the Atlantic Division by 4½ games), and the champs, who were peeled like so many grapes in about 2,000 books last spring and found to be perfect in nearly all of them, are under a different type of intense scrutiny. "What's wrong with the Knicks?" ask the New York headlines. Did Coach Red Holzman take on too much when he also became general manager? Is Walt Frazier spending too much time in his hairstyling salon and not enough practicing? Is everybody suffering from enlarged pocketbook and is Trainer Danny Whelan staging a job action until he too gets a $100,000-a-year contract?
Such was the speculation as the Bucks and Knicks squared off in New York. By the time that contest (see cover) was over and the Knicks had won 107-98 and both teams had played succeeding games against Philadelphia and Boston—the Knicks also played Atlanta—some answers were apparent.
One of them is that if Reed's knee and Whelan's supply of ice bags hold up, New York can handle its remaining problems. As for Alcindor, if he is to lead a victory over the Knicks in the finals of the playoffs, he must have far more help from his teammates than he has received in three of the four New York-Milwaukee games this year.
Injuries have accounted for much of the Knicks' failure to match their record of last season, when they lost only 22 games. Among them, the team's top eight players (after the latest expansion, New York's is the only roster that bears counting down that far) have missed a total of 47 games. Cazzie Russell sat out 25 with a broken wrist. During the team's midseason slump, when it lost five of six games, Reed was running a fast break in and out of the hospital with a recurring virus. In fact, until the week before New York's recent game against the Bucks, Holzman did not have all his best players in fair health at any time this season.
Still, that fails to explain the losses to teams like Buffalo and Portland, which should have trouble with the Knicks' second five. While the players refuse to concede a diminution of enthusiasm after last season's emotional spree—which would be reasonable and even expectable—their explanations indicate that games against unimposing teams have turned into tedious exercises.
"We get up for a challenge," says Dave DeBusschere. "When we lost up at Portland and Seattle, we were playing light."
"No matter what you do during the regular season, you still have to win the playoffs to make people remember it at all," says Reed. "Take Boston two years ago. They finished fourth in their division, but what people remember is that they won it all."
The Bucks have the incentive of proving themselves, of course, and they treat every game like a demolition derby. They are outscoring their opponents by 13 points per game, while the Knicks have only a six-point edge. After their loss to New York last week the Bucks beat the Celtics as Alcindor equaled his professional high of 53 points, and two nights later they took the 76ers by 24 points. Meanwhile, the Knicks narrowly won in Atlanta and Boston and lost by a point to the 76ers.
Against this contradictory record stands the imposing reality that the Knicks are spurred to their best when they meet the Bucks, even in regular-season games. Bill Bradley, who matches Alcindor in striving to appear detached, confesses that the films of the team's second victory over the Bucks this year reveal that he cavorted about the court at the final buzzer as joyously as he did at the end of the game in which the Knicks clinched the world championship. That kind of enthusiasm has brought New York its 3-1 lead over Milwaukee this season, inspiring the close, intuitive team play that won last year's playoffs and should be in evidence this time.
When New York defeated Milwaukee in the Eastern Division playoffs last year, it was essentially a mismatch featuring Alcindor against five Knicks. By the third game of that series the scrambling defense of New York's guards, Frazier and Dick Barnett, had forced Bucks Coach Larry Costello to try a number of backcourt combinations, all to no avail. The Milwaukee guards not only had difficulty protecting the ball, they were unable to get it inside to Alcindor with any consistency. When Lew did have the ball, the Knicks—particularly Bradley—were very effective at double-teaming him, occasionally stealing the ball and frequently forcing Alcindor to take poor shots.
It was also during this series that an odd antagonism toward Alcindor developed among Madison Square Garden fans, who could see that one day Lew would return to ruin many of their evenings. As the final game slipped out of the Bucks' reach and Alcindor withdrew to the bench, the crowd with astonishing spontaneity began serenading him with "Goodby, Lewie." Since then, Knicks fans boo the mere mention of Alcindor's name, which does not happen to any of the other visiting superstars and is particularly strange because Lew comes from Manhattan and was a favorite son for many years.
"I used to like to play in New York," Alcindor said last week. "Now I don't have any feelings, or perhaps I should say I don't like it. There are a lot of nasty, small people here. It's gotten so I have to play Goliath every time I'm here."
The boos were as rancorous as ever last week, but several old Knick stratagems failed to annoy the Bucks. Oscar Robertson now plays guard for Milwaukee, and the confusion that Frazier and Barnett created in the Bucks backcourt last year seems to have disappeared. Robertson controls the ball even against New York's defenses, and he gets it to Alcindor at the right time and in the right place. Just as important, he is always an outside scoring threat, which prevents opposing backcourt men from sagging to double-team Alcindor. But it is indicative of the stature that Lew now enjoys that Robertson, after the initial excitement over the trade that brought him to the Bucks from Cincinnati, has settled into Alcindor's shadow. Oscar is scoring far fewer points than in any previous year of his career and assumes the primary offensive role only when Lew is out of the game. This happened when Alcindor got into foul trouble during the Bucks' one win over New York this season and was forced to sit out 23 minutes of the game. Robertson responded with his best performance of the year, scoring 35 points as Milwaukee won 116-106.
Several times during last week's game Bradley attempted to move in on Alcindor when Lew had the ball in the low post. But instead of making steals, he picked up two fouls and spent his other forays circling after Alcindor as Lew backed and wheeled toward the basket. "I think I've learned how to adjust," Lew said. "I've always been able to dribble, it was just that I didn't know when to do it. Now I think I do."
The prospects for defensive help from his teammates now diminished, Reed talks of guarding Alcindor in tones of desperation. "We have to hope we outplay them at the other positions," he says. "We realize that Lew's going to get his 35 points. I just have to hope he doesn't get 50." Still, Reed handles the assignment at least as well as any center in the league. On Tuesday, fresh from one of the heavy cortisone shots he takes in his knee once every six weeks and after a good pregame freeze, Reed used his weight and strength effectively, repeatedly forcing Alcindor to shoot while moving away from the basket. Lew scored 29 points, but shot erratically, while Reed scored 35. Alcindor led the rebounding 25-15. With this kind of standoff New York wins.
Surprisingly, it is at forward—where New York's starting combination of Dave DeBusschere and Bradley averages among the lowest point totals of any regular pair in the NBA—that the Knicks maintain a big edge. They have unusual depth at the position, with Dave Stall-worth and Russell as substitutes, but last week it was the starters who hurt Milwaukee. They had 36 points and 23 rebounds. DeBusschere, playing his usual muscular defense, held Bob Dandridge below his scoring average for the fourth time this year. Bradley ran his normal random, weaving patterns on offense, helping to step up the pace of the Knicks' offense. At the same time the man he guarded, Greg Smith, failed to penetrate. Smith's drives are crucial to the Milwaukee attack. Five times in the second half Costello rearranged his forward combinations, doing best when he switched John McGlocklin from guard to the front line.
"If we meet them in the playoffs it's all going to hinge on the forwards," said Alcindor. "They have four of them. They can all shoot from the outside and they all know the game. It's the forwards who control the tempo with their movement and that's what they've done so well against us."
"The Bucks are a young team," Costello said. "We have to be organized, we can't free-lance like the Knicks because they have so much more experience. But you can prepare longer for the playoffs. You can work two or three days just to get ready for one team. We can look at films and discuss them so that all the players have confidence and they agree that what they're doing is right. It helped us last year in the playoffs against Philadelphia and I think we'll be better prepared if we meet New York than we were last night. I think we can get the type of movement we need. We must have somebody like Greg Smith in there cutting to the basket to get them to adjust to us instead of us to them."
At this stage anyway, the Bucks are doing the adjusting—and losing.