Two weeks ago, when the National Basketball Association's regular season ended with a yawn, the forecast for the annual spring money dance—otherwise known as the playoffs—was for a month-long case of the blahs. It would take just that long to get through the cumbersome preliminaries and down to the confrontation anticipated all year: the New York Knickerbockers versus the Milwaukee Bucks for the championship.
That meeting is still the logical imperative, but the opening round of the playoffs indicated that there should be some fun along the way. Most encouraging is the revival of the Baltimore Bullets, finally healthy and displaying a competitive edge that had withered during a winter of easy triumphs. Despite two extraordinary performances by Billy Cunningham—he had 65 points and 36 rebounds in the fifth and sixth games—Baltimore eliminated Philadelphia in seven bruising contests, and Bullet Gus Johnson described his team's state of readiness for New York: "You want to punch, we can punch. You want to dance, we can dance, baby. We're as agile and mobile as any team in the league."
Johnson had missed much of the last third of the season because of leg injuries and appeared in the playoffs wearing thick elastic supports around both knees. But even when he was present, his Bullets had not done much punching or dancing this year, largely because they did not have to. They swept the weak Central Division with the poorest record among the four divisional winners. "It's quite normal for athletes in a division where they have a 10-12 game lead most of the season not to play with their fullest abilities." was the explanation of Coach Gene Shue.
Indeed, the new four-division format brought on by expansion resulted in exactly that number of dull races. The only memorable events were the record 20-game win streak of the Bucks and the horrendous reversals suffered by Cleveland, which lost its first 15 games and finished at. 183. The league's owners had one of their worst seasons, too, filling the air with phony moralizing about the war with the ABA, double-dealing among themselves and issuing self-serving bulletins about inflated contract settlements with players.
Once the playoffs began, however, the owners faded into the stands. Baltimore's series with Philadelphia was not pretty to watch—there were 372 fouls called in the seven games—but the Bullets' walking wounded were up to the task. Two weeks earlier, Center Wes Unseld had severely sprained his ankle, an injury that was supposed to disable him for six weeks. But the therapists at a Baltimore children's hospital showed that Unseld, even though he is 6'7½" and 245 pounds, is their kind of baby. They had him ready for the opener, and, by the fifth game of the series. Shue said, "Wes is playing at 100% right now."
Unseld is important to the Bullets not only because he is one of the few centers with the agility and strength to battle New York's Willis Reed on equal terms and at least keep Lew Alcindor busy, but also because he is the key to the Baltimore offense. The Bullet attack packs all the subtlety of a howitzer, Unseld clearing defensive rebounds and flinging the hardest, fastest outlet passes in the league to his teammates as they scramble downcourt. The man who takes most of those quick shots is Earl Monroe. The Pearl, whose knees are considered the worst two joints in Baltimore—no small accomplishment even though the strippers on The Block are being chased as part of urban renewal—acquired another injury early in the opener against Philadelphia. A knee to the ribs kept him out of all but 11 minutes of the game and the Bullets lost 126-112.
Two nights later, while his teammates warmed up, Monroe received three injections of Xylocaine to numb the pain. "I approached it with reluctance: I am not a great lover of needles." he said. "I lay flat and closed my eyes." He then played 41 minutes and scored 24 points as the Bullets won 119 107 in one of their finest games of the year. But Monroe's troubles were not over. Early in the second period of the third game he caught an elbow in his sore ribs, and the pain drove him into shock. He broke into a cold sweat, did not know where he was and even forgot his name. But he remembered how to shoot when he returned at the beginning of the second half with a foam-rubber pad over the ribs. He scored 23 points in the final 24 minutes.
Because of the way their starters match up with strength on strength—Unseld-Reed, Johnson-DeBusschere, Monroe-Frazier—Baltimore and New York always produce close games when all players are reasonably healthy. Last year the Bullets took the Knicks to seven games, one of their losses coming in double overtime, and more of the same can be expected. Predictably, New York defeated Atlanta 4-1 in a series in which the Knicks spread the star parts around as if they were big-name actors taking cameo roles in a B movie. Dick Barnett and Bill Bradley dominated the first win and Walt Frazier the second; Frazier and Reed controlled the third and Dave DeBusschere the fourth, a game in which Reed added a minor shoulder injury to his already tender left knee.
Milwaukee's 4-1 margin over San Francisco in the Western Conference was even easier. The Bucks won their last game by 50 points and their only loss came on Warrior Joe Ellis' 43-foot jump shot with one second remaining in the fourth game. Their run to the championship round should be smoother than New York's—or Baltimore's—if only because doctors were unable to handle Jerry West's problem as efficiently as Unseld's. West severed a ligament in his right knee during the final month of the season. He was at the Los Angeles-Chicago series working as a TV color man and somehow maintaining his good humor despite a cast from his hip to his toes, despite his crutches and despite the disappointment of being forced to sit by as another of his few remaining chances to play on a championship team slipped away.
Although neither Los Angeles nor Chicago (the Lakers and Bulls were tied 3-3 at week's end) should give Milwaukee much trouble in the West final, fans in both cities received an unexpected bonus because theirs was the most tightly played of the preliminary rounds. Without West or Elgin Baylor in the lineup, Los Angeles was no longer a team of one-on-one stars. There were Lakers actually cutting around the massive picks identified in the program as Wilt Chamberlain. And Wilt, who put on impressive shot-blocking displays in the second and fourth games, played some of the time in the high post.
In fact, without West's running, shooting and ball hawking, the Lakers became a pattern team much like the Bulls. There were no fast-break baskets scored in the first half of the opening game and none in the second and third periods of the second game. Los Angeles won them both, 100-99 and 105-95. Wilt's picks and screens were helping little Gail Goodrich to average a West-like 30.3 points a game and the Lakers received a pleasant surprise from Jim McMillian, the rookie from Columbia who spent most of the season on the bench. A starter in the playoffs, McMillian scored 26 and 24 points in the Lakers' first two wins and held Chet Walker, the Bulls' second leading scorer with a 22-point average, to 15.5 points a game for the first six games. After McMillian scored 15 points in the first half of the third game. Bulls Coach Dick Motta switched Butterbean Love to guard the rookie. Love, still vastly underrated himself, cooled McMillian's shooting and kept right on scoring himself. Since Motta turned the slender 6'8" forward into a starter early last season, Love has averaged more than 20 points a game, though his reputation during his first three seasons in the NBA was as a defensive specialist.
The Bulls' first win was a bizarre game in which Motta was ejected (and later fined $1,500) for swearing at Referee Mendy Rudolph; Love and Laker Keith Erickson took several serious but ill-aimed pokes at each other, and Chicago Captain Jerry Sloan followed his coach to the locker room in the third period after throwing the ball a little too hard at Referee Bob Rakel. The Bulls won 106-98 and Love had 27 points. Two nights later he scored 17 of his 36 in the fourth quarter as Chicago came from behind to tie the series. On Sunday he had 21 to help tie it again at three games apiece.
Laker Coach Joe Mullaney watched his men playing good team ball during their second victory and turned to Trainer Frank O'Neill sitting next to him on the bench. "You know," he said, "it's more fun now than it was at this time last year." it may be fun now, but the Lakers, without West, or the Bulls, even with a lot of Love, probably will not find it so enjoyable when they move up to play the Bucks.