It was not so long ago that the only fans who ever picked the West in the NBA playoffs were the same people who bet Poland even up in World War II, or took Debbie Reynolds over Liz Taylor in the Eddie Fisher Bowl. Now that the championship rounds are starting all over again, these arc the very same folks who will promptly bet the family farm and their Edsels on the East.
Before the Milwaukee Bucks started the new trend last year, Eastern teams had won the world title every year since 1959. On several occasions the Eastern Conference finals—Boston vs. whatsits-name—involved two teams better than any in the West. Even as recently as two years ago the New York Knickerbockers began building one more, though short-lived, dynasty in the East. That was the way it went. But dynasties aside and never mind tradition, it is perfectly clear where pro basketball's power really lies now.
The three strongest NBA clubs, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Chicago, are members of the Western Conference, and that conference's preliminary playoff round, which began last week, includes four of the five best NBA teams—the Big Three plus the Golden State Warriors. In fact, the power shift has been so drastic that two Western teams that were not good enough to make the playoffs, Phoenix and Seattle, each compiled better records than all but two Eastern Conference clubs.
This situation made for a lot of meaningless jumping up and down, arm waving and scampering about in arenas along the Eastern Seaboard last week as the Celtics, the East's only strong team, hit unexpected resistance in their attempt to fast-break the Hawks back to Atlanta. The Knicks and the Baltimore Bullets also gathered for the umpteenth annual renewal of their playoff rivalry. It used to be considered a classic confrontation, but now it teeters on the edge of irrelevancy, saved only by the fact that the Bullets—who won a rousing 46% of their games during the regular season—once again seem to be getting themselves together for the playoffs. And, thus assembled, they split their first two games with New York. The Bullets could be upset winners in the East, just as they were a year ago. Everybody remembers a year ago. That's when they went to the finals and lost to Milwaukee, four games to zero.
Out in the West, meanwhile, the folks have not seen a draw this tough since Wyatt Earp. For the first time in NBA history, all the teams in one playoff bracket have won-lost ratings over .600.
The best of the four, as the action starts, are the Lakers, who set all the records for setting records this season. The team holds the mark for the highest percentage (.841), for the widest margin of victory in a single game (63 points), for the most games over 100 points (81), for victories in a season (69), for wins in a row (33), for wins on the road (31), for wins at home (38) and for wins in front of anesthetized crowds (36). Those last two statistics are the same. Despite all the strange and wondrous things their team did this year, Los Angeles fans still behave in their same old pattern—they sit on their hands and try not to snore. Their loudest cheers invariably go to free throws made by Wilt Chamberlain; their second loudest are reserved for free throws missed by Wilt Chamberlain. A brilliant steal by Jerry West is usually greeted with the same amount of fervor as a time-out announcement that another Myron Florin extravaganza will appear at the Forum soon.
This is not to knock Laker fans unreasonably. Their reticence is a little more understandable when it is remembered that this team has made the playoffs 12 straight years and still never won an NBA championship. At least this year a goodly crowd showed up for the opener against those masters of the slow bump and grind, the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls, only team in the Western playoffs without a superstar center, were fresh from an extraordinary season of their own in which they won 57 games, a better record than many past NBA champions. Unlike the Lakers—who want nothing more than to run, run, run—Chicago tries to compensate for its lack of exceptional pivot play by throwing up a bruising defense and slowing the tempo on offense, then running imaginative, intricate patterns that grind down the opposition until an open shot appears near the basket.
In the first two games at Los Angeles, Chicago controlled the tempo, all right, but the Lakers won in the most impressive way of all—by playing the other team's style and winning with it. Los Angeles scored only 15 fast-break goals in the two games and still took the first 95-80 and the second 131-124.
By Sunday night the series was 3-0 and Chicago's tough little coach, Dick Motta, confessed, "We're not like other good teams. We have to play so hard just to win during the regular season that we don't have the deep emotional reserve to turn to when the playoffs come." But Los Angeles, which expects to move past Chicago to the Western championship and finally the NBA title, suffers no such limitations.
During the Lakers' midseason winning streak they played without any special fire and triumphed largely on their superior expertise. In playoffs Coach Bill Sharman can call on West's unusual presence in crisis and even rely on Chamberlain as a larger-than-ever dominating force. But, further, he has at hand a breadth of talent that often remains obscured behind the glistening of West, Wilt and high-scoring Gail Goodrich. The best example is scorer-turned-re-bounder Happy Hairston. Once known largely for his habit of sneaking away from his man on defense in order to pick up easy baskets, Hairston had increased his scoring average in each of his seven pro seasons. But this year his scoring dropped five points after Sharman asked him to concentrate more on rebounding and Hairston's average of 15 rebounds per game in the second half of the year helped change Los Angeles from a weak, one-rebounder team into a strong one. Now Hairston is the first forward ever to play alongside Wilt and pull in 1,000 rebounds. In the games at Los Angeles last week the underpublicized Hairston dragged in 33 rebounds, only five less than Chamberlain.
A similar sort of obscurity has been the lot of the two men who turned out to be the difference in the first two games of the Bucks-Warriors series in Milwaukee. In both games Centers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond played to a standoff, with Thurmond three times holding Kareem at least six points under his season's scoring average of 34. Thurmond's defense and rebounding were important factors in the Warriors' surprising 117-106 upset in the opener, but equally impressive and much more unexpected were the 30 points scored by Guard Jim Barnett. A mustachioed, scrambling player formerly more celebrated for his eccentricities than his jump shot, Barnett took over as a starter in January and helped quarterback Golden State to more winning ways.
That first defeat darkened the cloud that has hung over the Bucks ever since the Laker winning streak grew in December. Usually objective basketball fans have wasted long hours in recent months trying to convince themselves and others that Milwaukee is little more than a second-rate team. But the Bucks are definitely top rate, and Jabbar remains the game's dominant player.
In the loss to the Warriors, Curtis Perry, who came to Milwaukee in a mid-season trade with Houston, scored one point. Perry was supposed to have been a throw-in in the Houston deal. As a rookie the year before he played only 100 minutes but his rebounding impressed Bucks Coach Larry Costello and Perry quickly became a starter. Still, his performance in the first Golden State game shook the coach. Before the second round Costello said, "If Curtis doesn't do it tonight I'm going to John Block early. We can't wait this time."
Perry heard the message. He scored nine points in the first nine minutes and he finished with 22 as the Bucks evened the series with a thumping 118-93 victory. "We took the whole thing more seriously," Oscar Robertson said afterward. Then Costello piled more pressure on Perry by saying before the third game in Oakland, "If we get anything at all out of Perry's position, we win." Perry did it again, scoring only nine points but pulling in 14 rebounds as the Bucks gained the edge in the series 122-94.
Thus, it is likely that Hairston and Perry will match up when the Bucks meet the Lakers to start the most tantalizing series since the tense Boston-Philadelphia duels of the late '60s. In battles such as the one shaping up for the Western Conference title, the performances of the superstars often have a tendency to balance each other out. As the teams scratch for an added edge anywhere on the court, this match-up between an old pro who has changed his game and a young one who is still trying to find his could be nearly as pivotal as those between Kareem and Wilt and West and Robertson.
In the East, with the Celtics in the playoffs after a two-year absence, there was a racing start on the floor but not at the gate. There were 2,500 empty seats at Boston Garden (some of them vacant because it was the first night of Passover), but there was rarely a vacancy in the Celtic fast break as Boston defeated Atlanta 126-108—scoring 17 baskets on the run. The key to Atlanta's slim chances for an upset is Pete Maravich, still weak and underweight from an attack of mononucleosis during preseason training. "I'm down from 205 to 180 pounds," Maravich told SI Reporter Jane Gross after his uninspired game at Boston. "When you're out on the court people bump and run, lean on you and things like that. It's a game of physical well-being. When I tire so easily I get mental anxiety. I'm eating four and five meals a day, but it doesn't help. I didn't feel well and I got real tired in the second quarter. I was below 180 going into the game—I guess due to nerves. I had no stamina." But then Maravich played better in the second game, back in Atlanta, scoring 16 points as the Hawks won 113-104 behind Lou Hudson's 41 points. On Sunday the Celtics seized the series lead 2-1 as whirling John Havlicek ran his three-game scoring total to 106 points and 20 assists.
Meanwhile, a touch of this East-West imbalance even appears in the ABA, where the Eastern conference claims the outstanding Kentucky Colonels, but the West seems likely to provide all the suspense. The Colonels, who lost only 16 games and set nearly as many records for winning as the Lakers, should ease their way to the finals as effortlessly as a Bluegrass gentleman sipping down a sourmash—in spite of an upset loss to the New York Nets in the opener. Already the third or fourth best team in all of pro basketball, Kentucky starts a front line of solid Cincy Powell and two brilliant youngsters, 6'9" Dan Issel, 23, and 7'2" Artis Gilmore, 22. Together they should give the Colonels die strongest forecourt in basketball for years.
The ABA West, however, is filled with imponderables. Indiana, which won die Western Division last season and still has the deepest talent in the league, finished second to Utah, a meager 10 games over .500. The Pacers suffered some injuries to top players and the lineup was often unsettled as Coach Slick Leonard maneuvered to find playing time for good rookie Forwards George McGinnis and Darnell Hillman. But even beyond that, Indiana seemed slowed by complacency. "It appeared to me that the players looked at it as a long season," said Leonard. "I think it stemmed from the fact that, in this day and age, money is the big issue in professional sports. I hoped pride would carry us, but after winning three straight division titles I think the players just didn't have the enthusiasm to go through it again—particularly after our fans considered it a hail season last year when we were edged out in the playoffs. The NBA pays $3,000 a man for winning a division: we get $500 each. I really don't think there's enough emphasis on winning the divisions."
Providing they find the playoff money (about $5,000 per man to the champs) enticing enough, the Pacers should easily defeat the Denver Rockets in the first round and move into the West finals against Utah or—hold onto your Stetson—the Dallas Chaparrals. The Stars are a better team with a better record than they were a year ago when they won the ABA championship. Jimmy Jones has added finesse to the backcourt, and Willie Wise, who came into the pros hoping to become the best defensive forward and very nearly succeeded, has become a shooting Star as well. At the urging of All-Star Zelmo Beaty, Wise increased his offensive output when the Utah scoring pace flagged mildly in December. With his defense suffering only minimally, he has since been on a spree, scoring 20 points or more in 31 consecutive games. His average (23.2) is up eight points over last year, he has shot more than 50% from the floor and even his rebounding is improved.
Down in Dallas, however, a physical fitness nut and former Bucks' assistant, rookie Tom Nissalke, has pulled off the best coaching job in years. Dallas has two NBA-type guards in Donnie Freeman and Steve Jones, but its front-court is right out of Agatha Christie. The mystery men include the Chaps' best forward, Rich Jones, who plays at center, two NBA rejects and a 13th-round draft choice rookie from T.C.U. named Goo Kennedy. Kennedy, who refused to go out for basketball in high school because he was afraid of crowds but then changed his mind when his friends threatened to beat him up if he didn't, is a strong rebounder who fouls too often. He will guard Wise in the playoffs, and his ability to cut down on personals could be an important factor in the series.
The Chaps, who closed with a rush, winning 26 of their final 42 games, have a genuine chance to upset the Stars, even after dropping the series opener, 106-96 at Salt Lake City. After losing 17 consecutive games to Utah over the past two seasons, Dallas won four of the five final meetings this year, the only loss coming in overtime. If they beat the Stars, the Chaps also could do well against the Pacers, a team they defeated in seven of 12 games this year. Still, there should be one moment of joy for pro basketball fans in the East: regardless of the opponent, the Colonels ought to win the ABA finals.