Two weeks ago, just as the Baltimore Bullets were preparing to open their semifinal playoff series with the New York Knickerbockers, a parade was scheduled in what Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro likes to call "The City of Champions." The world champion Orioles and Colts would be honored and so would the Clippers, who are considered very tough in the American Hockey League. Even the Baltimore City Fire Department, recent winner of a national firefighting award, was invited. And they asked the Bullets to come along, too, even though their season was not officially over and despite the fact that the appearance of all those injured basketball players with their casts and their crutches might have an unsettling effect on the cheering crowds. Perhaps they would break into an a cappella rendition of the Colonel Bogey march. Anyway, Coach Gene Shue's cripples could ragtag along.
Certainly, delaying any championship celebration on account of the Bullets seemed absurd at the time. Baltimore apparently had already taken its basketball title for this year by winning something called the NBA's Central Division. The Bullets did it with a 42-40 record, only the ninth best in the league. One of their starting guards, Eddie Miles, had been wearing a cast on his foot since midseason. His replacement, Kevin Loughery, and team captain Gus Johnson were both doubtful performers for the series with New York, not to mention Earl Monroe, whose knees are always impending disasters.
No, the parade was not postponed for the Bullets but because of rain and perhaps that was fortunate. Now if the parade is ever rescheduled, the Bullets can show up with another championship—of the NBA's Eastern Conference. They upset New York 4-3, swamping the Knicks in three games at Baltimore Civic Center before finally winning one at Madison Square Garden following three losses there. The Bullets might even have another championship—that of the entire NBA—except that their final opponents are Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, who bullied the scarred Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Baltimore defeated New York with some uncharacteristic team play and by taking advantage of Willis Reed's disabilities. An old knee injury restricted Reed's mobility, as it has all season, and his newly sprained right shoulder wrecked his rebounding and shooting.
Against the Bullets, the Knicks repeatedly failed to compensate for Reed's handicaps. Last year they won because they have excellent shooters at every position, including the bench. In the Baltimore series, while Reed's scoring average slipped badly, most of the other Knick totals fell with it. Their offense often looked flat and motionless, as if waiting for the same sort of psychic boost Reed gave it in the final game last year when he dramatically took the court despite a painfully injured leg.
The opening game, played in New York, established several patterns that persisted throughout the series. The Knicks won 112-111 on Walt Frazier's two last-minute drives; on one he scored with a layup and on the other he set up an easy basket for Reed. From the outset, the matchup between Willis and Baltimore's Wes Unseld was no contest. The Bullet center soon eliminated Reed's inside game—the quick turn-in moves accompanied by head, shoulder and foot fakes off which Willis likes to shoot his deadly short jump shots. Three times Reed spun into Unseld and each time Wes snatched or slapped the ball away.
For the rest of the series, Reed roamed outside, occasionally attempting long jumpers but rarely figuring importantly in the Knicks' scoring. Frequently out of position away from the basket and hampered by his sore shoulder. Reed was badly outrebounded by Unseld. By the close of the series, Wes had grabbed twice as many rebounds as Willis and had held his opponent to a shooting average below 40%. "I'm in the habit of leaning against people under the basket, but now I'm afraid to push for fear of damaging my shoulder even more," Reed said. "It also affects my shooting because my right hand is my guiding hand."
"Willis is basically only playing defense and setting picks," said Frazier. "That's enough to get us by if he's in there doing that and containing Unseld."
Containment became Reed's only real weapon and by the fifth game even Unseld remarked about it. "Willis wasn't any kind of factor tonight," he said. "He wasn't even going for rebounds. He was just trying to block me out."
It also became apparent in the first game that Baltimore's style was suddenly much more restrained. The Bullets have long been a team with too many itchy trigger fingers, and the only consistent part of their offense was that the man with the ball was much more apt to shoot it than pass it. Several years of cajoling by Coach Gene Shue and an injury to Unseld late this season apparently changed some Bullet ideas. Without Unseld around to retrieve all their missed shots, the gunners began to think before they fired, a trend that continued after Wes rejoined the team for the playoffs. The Bullets worked their patterns carefully against New York, consistently eating away most of the time on the 24-second clock before shooting. Even Earl Monroe, the sport's most spectacular one-on-one player, who needs the barest opening to score, picked his spots with some restraint. The Knicks' Dave DeBusschere remarked that some of his own team's offensive lethargy could be blamed on the slow tempo being set by the once freewheeling Bullets.
"It's never been my design to force things," said Shue. "My biggest coaching problem has been to get a bunch of strong-willed one-on-one players to run the offense. We have a lot of schoolyard players who think they can do it all on their own, but they can't."
Unseld's control of the pivot and the cohesive Bullet style compensated somewhat for Baltimore's lack of personnel and the cool performance of Frazier, the only Knick who enjoyed an exceptional series. Jack Marin, a misfit on the Bullets simply because he has not had an injury serious enough to keep him out of the team's last 374 games, sat out much of the first half of the opener with foul trouble. In the second game Baltimore trailed by only six points with seven minutes remaining, but lost by 19. Monroe and Loughery were both injured, and Unseld and John Tresvant came close to fouling out.
Johnson, who had played very well in the Bullets' previous series with Philadelphia during which his sore left knee was repeatedly injected with a painkiller, found he could not bend his leg the day before the opener with New York. Unwilling to take any more shots, he decided to sit down until some natural mobility returned to the knee. "I just couldn't take it anymore," he said. "For 2½ days after the last game against Philly I felt like I could've cut my leg off. When that Xylocaine wears off it's not just a downer, it's a flip-out." Johnson, rumored to have signed a contract with Pittsburgh of the ABA for next year, was replaced by Tresvant, a bench-warmer on the Pistons when DeBusschere was the Detroit player-coach. He harassed his old boss effectively after being outplayed in the first game.
In both of the first two games in New York, it was the Knicks' defense that ultimately won for them, forcing 42 Bullet turnovers and keeping New York in the games when the offense sputtered. Even after the wide final margin of the second game, Frazier remained displeased with the Knick performance. "We've played way below average," he said. "We just can't seem to get together and put them away unless we get something like today, when Earl and Loughery get hurt and Wes gets into foul trouble."
The Bullets were not bothered by such mishaps in the third and fourth games, played at the Civic Center. Marin and Monroe scored 105 points in the two games as Baltimore won 114-88 and 101-80. In the first of these, Unseld put on an extraordinary show, scoring on eight of nine shots, assisting on nine baskets and pulling down 26 rebounds. "We kept yelling at me to get more rebounds, but then he wouldn't let mc have any," Marin said. The Knicks' score in the second game was their lowest in seven years as the Bullets checked them with a defense described by Fred Carter as aggressive without contact. "We've got so few players, we can't afford to give fouls even when it's to our advantage," said Carter, who became a starter in Loughery's place. Shue has never admired the standard NBA tactic of "giving fouls" and he all but discarded the practice during the playoffs to protect his limited supply of players. In the games in Baltimore, the Bullets rarely had to worry about fouling the Knicks for any reason. Without Reed to provide a threat in the middle, New York is essentially a perimeter-shooting team. Players moving along the outside of the defense rather than driving through it are easier to guard. In their first two wins, the Bullets committed only 33 fouls.
In the fifth game in New York the Bullets were called for only 18 personals and they held the Knicks to 89 points. But New York's defense was even tougher allowing the Bullets, who shot only 33%, just 84 points. Once again it was Walt Frazier who led the way, scoring 28, including a tough jumper with less than a minute to play—and with two seconds on the 24-second clock and Baltimore trailing by just two points. Frazier had help from Mike Riordan, who showed how-variety on offense could help New York as he surprised Baltimore with successive—and successful—drives.
In this game New York purposely surrendered its offensive board to the Bullets, something which had been happening unintentionally throughout the series. Instead of attempting to wrestle with Unseld for rebounds they rarely got, the Knicks, always one of the quickest teams in the league at dropping back to cover the fast break, fell away from the boards and attempted to sever Baltimore's passing lanes. At least one, and often two, players lunged at Unseld with arms raised to obscure his vision and occasionally deflect his passes. The other Knicks scrambled downcourt to cover the remaining Bullets, effectively halting Baltimore's running game. Unseld was often forced to wait for one of his teammates to circle back to take short laterals from him. The result gave the impression that Baltimore was playing its most cohesive offense, passing and running patterns more frequently, but even a team man like Gene Shue would have preferred not being pressured into it this way. The tactic forced Baltimore to grind out its baskets and was responsible for the Bullets' low shooting percentage.
New York did not continue these tactics in Sunday's sixth game, at Baltimore. With Monroe playing sleight-of-hand tricks for 27 points and Johnson finally back in the lineup, the Bullets broke away in the first half. The final score of 113-96 was a great deal closer than the game itself.
New York and Baltimore fans can grouse all they want about injuries, but the undisputed champions in that category are the Lakers, who deserve a special trophy of their own. Call it the Dr. Robert Kerlan Fractured Fibula of Fate, a scalpel mounted on a plaster leg cast and garnished with three torn cartilage clusters, and award it to Coach Joe Mullaney. Since he took over Jack Kent Cooke's entourage of superstars last season, Mullaney has had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in the lineup together for 31 of 194 games.
Baylor, who played only two games this season, and West were both absent with leg injuries during the Lakers' first-round, 4-3 victory over the Chicago Bulls. Without them, Los Angeles did not figure to press the Bucks, and if Mullaney still harbored any wild notions of an upset, they soon disappeared. On the day of the second game against Milwaukee (the Lakers lost the first two 106-85 and 91-73), Forward-Guard Keith Erickson, an excellent defender, underwent major abdominal surgery. Erickson's replacement, Pat Riley, was considered a promising young pro three years ago before he too wrecked one of his knees. As the Lakers' fifth guard this season Riley rarely played and, although he performed better than anyone expected against the Bucks, his presence in the starting lineup was proof of the depths of Mullaney's dilemma.
In fact, things were so bad when the Lakers returned to Los Angeles for the third game that the regular Forum organist. Gaylord Carter, a "Master of the Wurlitzer," and PA man John Ramsey were both out of action. Carter was replaced by an artist named Joe Enos, mastery unspecified; Ramsey, whose Dodger commitment has priority, was replaced by an announcer acquired from San Diego, presumably on waivers.
Largely because of the Bucks' lethargy and partially because of a gimmicky four-man stack offense Mullaney installed to neutralize the Milwaukee double teams and traps that had caused numerous Laker turnovers in the first two games, Los Angeles surprised the Bucks 118-107. It is a measure of Milwaukee's hunger this season that the Bucks were deeply disturbed by the loss, which easily could have been accepted as a fluke. Lew Alcindor's substitute, Dick Cunningham, muttered from between tightened jaws as he walked toward the Milwaukee dressing room, "I guess now we'll have to show these guys like we did San Francisco."
In the opening playoff round, the Warriors had beaten the Bucks in one game, only to have Milwaukee come back and bury them by 50 points in the next. The winning Buck margins in their third and fourth victories over Los Angeles were not so extravagant, but they did win by 23 and 18 points. The third victory was the more important, not only because it occurred in Los Angeles and stilled any remaining Laker hopes for an upset, but also because it provided a jubilant setting for celebrating Alcindor's birthday. Lew, it turns out, is only 24, even though the publicity that began for him in high school makes it seem that he became a national basketball figure about the same time as George Mikan. Chamberlain outplayed Alcindor in the first three games, but on his birthday Lew took over, scoring 31 points and grabbing 20 rebounds to Wilt's totals of 15 and 16. His performance led the Bucks to a freewheeling 117-94 victory in which the team shot an astonishing 61.9%.
Perhaps because of their formidable strength when the season began, it has gone largely unnoticed that the Bucks improved considerably during the year. Milwaukee's defense is now one of the best in the league and Oscar Robertson's steadying hand has accelerated the maturing process of his young teammates. More important, Robertson has pulled his own game together. The Bucks were merely content with Oscar's play in the first half of the season. At 32, Robertson was lugging around a fleshy midsection and had lost some speed. Before midseason. he rarely displayed his usual assertiveness on offense, apparently preferring to let Lew do it. But during Milwaukee's record 20-game win streak late in the year, it was Oscar's scoring thrusts that led the Bucks to repeated victories.
Robertson was bothered by a slight muscle pull during the opening phases of the playoffs, but by the end of the Los Angeles series he appeared to be near top condition. The Bucks now have the look of a champion. When the real trophies are handed out, including the $16,000 share to each player on the winning team, everything should go to Milwaukee.