Over the past 2½ months it seemed almost as if the sun were setting on the Milwaukee Bucks. As the long shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers' steady winning streak lengthened until it reached 33 games, the Bucks were undeniably left behind—once proud world champions, now by comparison tarnished and brooding giants. But along came Sunday and perhaps the most widely watched basketball game in NBA history, and there they were: glowing once more with the torrid satisfaction they take from their successes.
The Bucks beat the Lakers, both bodily and on the scoreboard, where the final totals read 120-104, to end professional sports' most notable winning streak and reaffirm their own strength in a game that counted for little in the standings but weighed heavy for the future when the two teams are apt to meet in the playoffs.
Milwaukee's victory was cinched with a 12-0 spurt late in the fourth quarter, but the balance had swung to the Bucks much earlier when their defense—played with all the gentle finesse of a train crash—destroyed the Lakers' poise.
"Sometimes you get into games like this," said Los Angeles Coach Bill Sharman. "The tempo becomes rough, and there's a lot of climbing over each other under the backboards and a lot of grabbing on defense. When you see that the refs are going to allow that, you've got to come back with the same style yourself. I'm not blaming the officials or the Bucks, only my players and myself. We talked about playing harder, but we didn't."
January 17, 1972
The Milwaukee style of infighting around the boards and constant pressure of the most physical sort all over the court disrupted the sparkling Laker running game. The Bucks prevented the clean rebounds and outlet passes Los Angeles needs to function, and the Lakers rarely scored easy baskets. And as if that were not enough, the harassment yielded 24 Laker turnovers—many of them leading to breakaway field goals.
All this Milwaukee roughness represented pure risk: at the end of the game, five Bucks had four or more fouls (providing Los Angeles with 40 free throws), and one of them, beefy Forward John Block, had fouled out with 4:05 still to go after a sensational streak of 17 points and 10 rebounds. But the rattling inside play also caused problems for Wilt Chamberlain, the Laker least likely to foul. Chamberlain picked up his fourth personal by reaching over the lofty shoulders of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to block a pass with 10:33 remaining to play in the third quarter. Until that moment, he had held Jabbar to 16 points. But thereafter, with Wilt hanging back for fear of getting into further foul trouble and being disqualified for the first time in his 1,000-game NBA career, Jabbar scored 23 points on 11 of 15 shots.
It was part of a plan: Kareem had made a subtle adjustment for this game by frequently setting up to the right of the basket instead of remaining in the spot he prefers on the left. The hope was that, since Kareem is quicker, he could overcome Chamberlain's greater strength by moving in close to the basket. Even though Kareem missed all but two of the hooks he tried from the right post in the first half, the strategy finally began to pay off in the second when he discarded the hook and turned to face Wilt, shooting feathery, short jump shots over him. This tactic maintained a slim margin for the Bucks through most of the second half until the team produced its winning burst.
Early in the week, the game began to take on larger-than-life-size proportions. Milwaukee seemed to be coasting. With a Monday defeat at New York, the Bucks lost the fourth game of their last six, a span of mediocrity unmatched in the previous two seasons except for a brief stretch when Coach Larry Costello was resting his regulars for the playoffs last year.
Meanwhile, the Lakers, those lusty losers of the past, were heading in the other direction, riding atop an extraordinary wave of success that extended through November, then December and, finally, past the New Year into January. Without a loss since Halloween, Los Angeles flew East with a string of consecutive wins behind them and only the Bucks looming ahead as likely challengers to the streak.
The reason for Milwaukee's failure to crush opponent after opponent as it did a year ago probably can be attributed more to ennui than to a drop-off in talent. Like most good, mature teams, the Bucks have learned that the NBA's pot of gold is found at the end of the playoffs—not in long, midseason winning streaks.
But the Bucks' recent unsteadiness also reflected upheaval in the team roster. Through retirements, trades and cuts, only five members of the 1971 championship squad remain. Two of the deals came in the past month: in a trade with Houston, Milwaukee gave up Greg Smith for the Rockets' first draft choice and a throw-in named Curtis Perry. Throw-in, indeed. The 6'7" Perry is already a Milwaukee starter, and Sunday he pulled in eight second-half rebounds against the Lakers.
The other Milwaukee trade brought reluctant signee Wally Jones from Philadelphia for future considerations, whatever they may be. During his seven pro seasons, Jones has appeared in a startling array of shaves and haircuts (he was called Wally Werewolf in recent years with the 76ers), and even now Jones looks as though he spent the summer crossing the steppes with Atilla the Hun, the same man who apparently taught him to play defense. He used these tactics on Sunday to help neutralize the hottest Laker scorer, Gail Goodrich, also scoring seven points on the side.
But no matter what the cause, "I'm sick of hearing about a couple of losses," Coach Costello growled. "We had a tremendous season last year, but if we don't come back and do it exactly the same again this time, everyone comes around and asks what's wrong? What's wrong? Nothing's wrong, that's what. We're still the champions, and we will be until somebody beats us, which they haven't yet when it's counted."
At last, then, the Bucks were sounding like a team ready to fight again. And just in time, because the Lakers were already heading their way. Like a good artilleryman, Los Angeles was pulverizing the area around its target before zeroing in on Milwaukee. A surprisingly difficult victory in Cleveland extended the string to 32, and then a near-perfect, 44-point win in Atlanta ran it to 33. "The most amazing thing about the streak has been our consistency," said Sharman. "Only five or six of the games have even been close, and real luck only figured in one of them."
The Lakers improved as the number of their wins increased. Jim McMillian, Elgin Baylor's replacement at forward and a superb corner shooter, edged into genuine stardom. Los Angeles had not lost since the night he became a starter. Chamberlain's outlet passes grew more precise, lending extra effectiveness to the Laker fast break. Forward Happy Hairston cut back his shooting and began averaging 16.5 rebounds a game. Gail Goodrich's shooting and the scoring and passing of Jerry West continued to give the Lakers the league's strongest offense.
The team thrived on these circumstances, unencumbered by any stress over the streak and imbued with a mild gleefulness over such lengthy good fortune. The players knew that the hard press of odds would soon catch up with them, but still, their record had grown to such proportions that no other team is likely to surpass it any time soon. There was one qualifier, however: they definitely did not want to lose to the Bucks, their likely opponents in the Western Division playoff.
It is the fast-paced nature of pro basketball that, despite the intense public interest in this one game (and the strong psychological impact it would have on future meetings between the Lakers and the Bucks), neither team was able to make special preparations for it. Costello flew to Atlanta to scout the Lakers Friday. As for Sharman, "There really isn't much you can do," he said as he watched the Bucks play Detroit Saturday and drew diagrams of their plays. "Basically, it's just knowing who to match up on who and when to take guys in and out of the game. That's about all a coach can do for a regular-season game."
Then came game time, and there didn't seem much anybody could do. The Bucks held a six-point halftime lead, largely because their defense forced 15 Los Angeles turnovers and also because of unexpected bench strength. Jones harnessed Goodrich. Lucius Allen and John Block combined to score 17 points. When the game was over, they had 35.
Even after Chamberlain's fourth foul, Los Angeles gained a 71-71 tie with 3:12 remaining in the third period. But Allen's jumper from the right corner behind Kareem's screen 16 seconds later put Milwaukee ahead for good. During the Bucks' subsequent 12-point drive, the Lakers missed three free throws, Goodrich failed to score a wide-open foul-line jumper and West, shooting from 10 feet out on the left baseline, bounced a shot squarely off the side of the basket. "We were all pulling the string out there," said McMillian afterward. "I guess we got caught up in all the excitement."
Sharman, a realist, was not depressed by the end of the streak, primarily because he had never allowed himself to celebrate it while it was in progress. "I guess I'm like every coach," he said. "I worry about the next game, the next week. We've got almost 40 games to play yet and then the playoffs."
For the Lakers, their string stands as an achievement worth savoring—so special had it become that even the most detached of the Bucks could find rare joy in breaking it. "I wasn't excited at all when I first went out there today," said Abdul-Jabbar as he toweled off in the locker room. "But now I feel it. Yeah, now I'm excited."