It was not at all unusual that the toughest ticket in New York last Saturday night was for a Knickerbocker game. What was a little out of the ordinary was the oddly attired gent standing among all the regulars in fake-fur-collared car coats and plastic fedoras scalping tickets outside Madison Square Garden. He wore a uniform similar to that of the arena's special cops and he was yelling, "Hey, who needs a pair?"
Surprisingly, up in Boston, where Celtic rooters have never been confused with Bruin fans, seats were equally scarce for Sunday afternoon's game. It had been sold out for nearly two weeks. For the first time in Celtic history mail requests (2,000 of them) for tickets to a regular-season game had to be returned unfilled. And some proper Bostonians were going to improper lengths to sneak into the Garden. One group phoned Celtic Vice-President Jeff Cohen and tried the old We've Lost Our Tickets bit. It might have worked if the seat numbers they gave had not matched those of some bona fide season-ticket holders.
But such chicanery is fast becoming routine when it comes to the hot new rivalry between pro basketball's only remaining original franchises. It also reflects the fact that the best NBA action is now back in the East, where it almost always used to be before the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers began to palm the rest of the league and slam-dunk Eastern Conference teams into oblivion in the playoffs. This season the Celtics and Knicks have the most wins in the NBA, and Boston, which at week's end had 40 wins, nine losses and a½-game lead over New York in the Atlantic Division, may have the most successful year in its illustrious history. At 42-12, New York is matching its title-winning percentage of 1970.
And, by the time the wild weekend was over, New York had earned a pair of tense, badly needed and, all in all, brilliantly played victories. The Knicks won 111-108 at home without Earl Monroe, who was absent because of his mother's death. With Monroe still missing and Forward Bill Bradley ailing—he vomited 11 times the night between the two games—they finished their sweep at Boston 96-93.
In many seasons past, two Boston-New York games within a 24-hour period would have created about as much excitement as back-to-back dental appointments. During the Celtics' best years the Knicks were bad or worse. Over one span in the mid-'60s, they lost 19 consecutive games at Boston Garden. As soon as New York put it together, the Celts fell apart. It was not until last season, when Boston took the divisional title from the Knicks and New York eliminated the Celtics in the conference finals, that the rivalry warmed. In the last season and a half their meetings have been nerve-jangling affairs, with a little overtime here, some disputed calls there and a touch of mayhem in the stands. The full-throated crowds at Madison Square Garden now save some of their most thunderous boos for the introductions of Boston players, particularly John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, and the shrieks, whoops, whistles and stompings that follow each good turn for the home team grow steadily during the game. Both of the Knicks' home victories over the Celtics this season have been by three points and both were played in a tumult. Indeed, there is question whether Boston's Paul Silas or the New York fan is the most valuable sixth man in the NBA.
But New York's edge does not travel with the team and the Knick record shows it. They are 25-1 at home and 17-11 on the road. That made their win in Boston a big one because it was the first time they had defeated one of the league's other four top teams in an away game.
The crowds in Boston have also become unexpectedly excitable, particularly a group calling itself the Rowdy Association of Wakefield, which was nestled in the upper reaches of Boston Garden Sunday, the railing in front of their section draped with an immense banner reading THE KNICKS EAT WET CHICKENS FOR BREAKFAST.
And, for once, it was not merely the fans who were aroused. The players, who rarely attach any significance to mid-season games—until they see how they turn out—admitted the importance of this series in advance. "These two are crucial for us," said New York Captain Willis Reed, who has progressed slowly and steadily in his comeback from last year's long layoff and knee surgery. "We almost have to have a sweep. If Boston sweeps, it will pretty much end it as far as the race in our division is concerned. And if we split, things will remain unchanged, which hurts us and helps them." What concerned Reed most was not the Celts' 2½-game lead, but that they had five fewer losses than the Knicks. The disparity between New York's home and away records indicates that the home-court advantage, which accrues to the division winner, will be an important factor in the playoffs.
The two teams that stirred up all the excitement are at once very much alike and very different. Both are strong defensively, relying on that phase of the game to generate important portions of their offense, and their rosters include some of the most intelligent pros. "There are a lot of very smart ballplayers out there," said Cleveland's chief scout, Jimmy Rodgers, as he watched the teams warm up in New York. "They ought to call this the Cerebral Bowl."
It is on offense that their widely divergent styles show, making a Celt-Knick game not only a match between two very good, smart teams, but a tantalizing contest between two very good, smart teams that want to play at decidedly different paces. Boston is a pure running club, the best in the pros. The Celtics run in almost all offensive situations, not merely when defensive rebounds or steals offer traditional fast-break opportunities. They move the ball upcourt as rapidly as possible even after taking it inbounds following an opponent's basket. In many out-of-bounds situations, Boston's first pass will be to the mid-court line.
The Celtics' intent is to catch a defender loafing, out of position, or examining his shoe tops, to blow past him and to create a situation where there are more Celts rushing toward the basket than there are men available to protect it. Boston's success is based on the fact that it leads the NBA in rebounding and overall team speed. Cowens, the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game and the early favorite to win the league's MVP award, is not only a superb rebounder, but gives the Celtics an extra advantage; he is the only center both fast and energetic enough to regularly participate in the break.
"When most people think of the fast break, they think of three on one, two on one, three on two and the like," said Havlicek, sitting on a training table while his ankles were being taped one night last week. "We have all that, but if we've come down three on three we'll push that too because we know in a second we're going to have five on three unless the other team is really hustling."
No pro team is more proficient than New York at falling back to stop the break, not merely because the Knicks' style emphasizes hustling defense but because their offense tends to keep them in position to retreat rapidly. Although New York will pursue obvious fast-break situations, its attack relies on running pattern plays designed to open jump shots for the team's good outside shooters. As a result, as many as four Knicks are often still far away from the basket when their opponents pull in a defensive rebound—and in perfect position to fall back to stall the fast break.
That is precisely what New York did most successfully in its two wins over Boston. At Madison Square Garden the Knicks allowed the Celtics only 23 points on the run and the next day they were stingier still, permitting 14. Boston was frustrated over and over in these games as Havlicek, Jo Jo White or Don Chaney would race downcourt on the dribble only to meet a Knick—usually Frazier or Bradley—as soon as the mid-court line was crossed. The Knicks were performing the basic tactic against the break, which coaches call "stopping the ball." And they performed it well, almost invariably forcing the Boston ball handler to veer away from the basket, pass off at an inopportune moment or stop dribbling.
Once the Knicks had stopped the ball, their set defense could form and the Celts were obliged to play the New York game—pattern basketball. But just as New York has developed a defensive plan to halt Boston's running, the Celts have countered with a strategy to bottle up the Knicks' set offense. The basis of New York's attack is a series of plays which includes large numbers of picks staggered throughout the offensive zone. At each picking point the offense has several alternatives depending on the reaction of the defense. If the options do not pan out at one pick, the offense simply moves on to another, figuring quite correctly that the defense will tire of fighting through screens. Driving through a pro pick with its jam-up of huge bodies, all shoving, gouging and laying on elbows and knees is not one of life's enduring pleasures.
In the case of the Knicks, they also have plays to take advantage of the defender who anticipates a pick and tries to beat the New York player to it. The offensive man will then abruptly double back around another pick and usually end up with a wide-open shot. One such play is code-named Turkey and frequently ends up with Bradley shooting a short jumper behind a pick set along the baseline. He will not reveal exactly how the play works, but he claims there is a reward for the man who executes it properly. "Any guy who scores on the Turkey play is allowed to go gobble, gobble, gobble all the way down the floor."
To prevent themselves from being gobbled up by the New York shooters, the Celts play a defense that switches at almost every pick. It is a strategy many other teams cannot afford to use because switching means that mismatches can develop with small men on tall ones and slow ones on fast ones. Since the Celtic guards are none too small and their big men none too slow, they can take the risk.
"We'll run through two or three options on a play, but if nothing works and we get down below 10 seconds on the shooting clock, we just junk it and play basketball," said Frazier before the first Boston game. And in both games the Knicks were frequently forced to shoot junk shots from far outside as the 24-second clock ticked down.
It was the effectiveness of both teams' defensive strategies that kept the games close. In the end New York won because Boston was unable to control Frazier, who worked effortlessly under pressure in the closing minutes of play.
At Madison Square Garden neither team ever led by more than seven points. Every time the Knicks ground out a slim lead a burst of Celtic fast breaks would even things up. There were 12 lead changes and 10 ties before Frazier took over with 1:53 remaining and Boston ahead 104-101. Chaney was dribbling the ball upcourt and just as he changed the ball from his right hand to his left, one of his teammates ran past his left side. The ball struck the teammate's foot and bounced free. Before Chaney could react, Frazier scooped it up and fired a lead pass to Monroe's replacement, Dean Meminger, for an unmolested layup. When Cowens missed a shot during Boston's next possession, Frazier, who led the Knicks in scoring (25), rebounding (13) and assists (10), took the rebound and worked one on one for an 18-foot jumper from the left side that put New York in front. Stumbling back after he shot, Frazier saw that Silas was about to inbound to Chaney, who had his back turned to Frazier. Walt dashed in front of the Celtic guard, swiped the ball just as it reached Chaney's hands and made the reverse layup that sealed New York's win.
The next day in Boston the Celts played their poorest first half of the season and trailed by as many as 17 points early in the third period. Later in the quarter Coach Tommy Heinsohn switched Havlicek from forward to guard and Boston's tempo and its patern play improved. Four times in the closing four minutes the Celtics narrowed New York's lead to one point. They never caught the Knicks, as Frazier scored nine points in the same amount of time, but his heroics were not quite enough to hold off Boston. With 17 seconds left to play, Cowens' hooking layup cut New York's lead to 94 93. This time in their attempt to regain possession of the ball the Celts fouled Meminger. The little sub converted both of his attempts. And that was just the pair of tickets New York needed.