Since the annual NBA playoff commotion between the Baltimore Bullets and the New York Knickerbockers began four years ago, the series have undergone more changes than the consumer price index. Consider the Baltimore roster upon which 92% of the names are different from those that graced it in 1968-69; Bullet Coach Gene Shue's haircut, which has gone from flattop to flat out; and his team's defense, which has been transformed from uptight to tight.
The Knicks have not exactly stood pat themselves. They traded a couple of substitutes—one of whom, Mike Riordan, has become a star in Baltimore—for Earl Monroe (see cover), once the Bullets' top gun. Along with Monroe, New York received the Pearl's most demonstrative fan, a courtside hoofer named Harry, who wowed the folks in the Baltimore Civic Center and undoubtedly was referred to during negotiations as the dancer to be named later.
Despite the changes, one constant persisted: the battle of the matchups. When this season's playoff round began almost two weeks ago Knick Guard Walt Frazier, that master of on-court hauteur and the wraparound dribble, faced Phil Chenier, a prodigy of cool at the age of 22. At forward Dave DeBusschere of New York and Wes Unseld resolutely boxed one another out while Riordan and Bill Bradley chased each other through picks, behind screens and out the back door. A pair of Louisianians, Willis Reed and Bullet Elvin Hayes, raised cane in the pivot and, most wondrous of all, Earl the Pearl, whose repertoire of steps is more extensive than Dancing Harry's, was vying at the other guard spot with Archie (Shake 'n Bake) Clark, the man who invented the deep shoulder dip, the stumble crossover and the butterfly-kick jump shot.
Moreover, the series was particularly alluring because the teams had played to a 3-3 standoff in the regular season. Alas, it failed to live up to its billing because the Bullets relapsed into some ancien régime Baltimore defense, the kind that left the Knicks open for a number of their favorite shots, including quite a few layins that Mother Cabrini could have canned. This allowed New York to turn several key matchups into key mismatches and to win the series four games to one.
It has been 16 years since a pro team compiled a better defensive record than New York did this season when it held the opposition to an average of 98.2 points per game. The Bullets allowed only 101.6 points themselves—fourth best in the NBA—an improvement of seven from last season. In their six games against each other, only once had either club scored more than 100 points. In what promised to be a low-scoring series, the decisive factor could be a slight edge at one position.
The Bullets had hopes of attaining just such an advantage in the contest between Riordan and Bradley. In two of their final three encounters of the season Riordan had dramatically won this matchup, and he carried that edge into the opening 14 minutes of the first playoff game at Madison Square Garden. As Baltimore broke to a nine-point lead he topped all scorers with 10 points, six of them coming on baseline drives past Bradley. Moments before Riordan hit a jump shot for his ninth and 10th points, Knick Coach Red Holzman benched Bradley and assigned the 6'6" DeBusschere to the 6'4" Riordan. No longer able to outmuscle his man on offense and faced with guarding a taller, stronger opponent on defense, Riordan became less effective. In all three of the Knick wins in New York (95-83, 123-103 and 109-99) Holzman used Bradley less than usual, rotating his taller frontcourtmen—Reed, Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson—as well as DeBusschere. This not only offset any edge that Riordan might have established but also gave the Knicks an unexpected advantage in rebounding.
"DeBusschere is so adaptable that he played guard when he first came into the pros," Riordan said. "He can handle someone quick like me and huge guys like Unseld, too. He's so good fundamentally that he doesn't mismatch."
In New York's crucial 103-96 third-game win in the Civic Center, Hayes shot well from the start and the Bullets were setting him up. Since Riordan was no longer integral to the Baltimore offense, Bradley was able to play 45 minutes and scored a team-leading 23 points.
By that time the Knicks had found an even bigger edge elsewhere. In the first two Madison Square Garden victories the Knick guards broke open close contests in the second half with very un-New Yorkly flurries. In these periods the Knicks made only the barest pretense at pattern play, largely because Baltimore was prepared to stymie it. Mostly it was Frazier or Monroe one-on-one from the moment New York gained possession, and this was a tactic the Bullets were not geared for.
While Frazier was hardly ineffectual in those situations—he totaled 27 points in the two second halves—Monroe was dazzling. Not only did he score 37 second-half points, he did it in the bedeviling style of the Pearl of yore—rocking, wiggling, spinning, double, triple, quadruple pumping.
He was the Monroe well remembered in Baltimore but rarely seen since he moved into his $1,000-a-month Manhattan apartment early last season. He has had to undergo an operation for bone spurs in his left foot and perform some surgery on his game as well to accommodate the less individualistic, defense-oriented Knick system; in the last two years Monroe has missed 26 games and averaged only 14 points. His mood was further clouded by the death of his mother in January.
"It's been difficult for me," he says. "I had to bring things out of hiding because the things I had to do with the Bullets are different from what I do now. I curtailed some of the magic and I had to work on my defense. I knew I could do it because I had the quickness you need. But until these playoffs I've been disappointed. I guess this is the first time I feel I've really helped. I think maybe the turning point was when my mother died. I'm sort of playing for her now, and I know she wanted me to be dedicated, to work on the things I've been a little lackadaisical about."
When the series moved to Baltimore the Bullets were concentrating on Monroe and the other Knicks' one-on-one play, and that permitted New York's standard offense to operate more freely. In the third game each of the five starters attempted between 14 and 16 field goals and each scored 16 to 23 points.
"This just proves again that the playoffs are not the regular season," said Bradley. "In the regular season you have to deal with the other team and the schedule. In the playoffs you get rest, and all you have to do is deal with the other team. You scout them during the year, and when it comes to the playoffs you know what they're going to do and how you can stop it. The thing that wins in the playoffs is sound, free-lance, fundamental basketball. You have to play together for awhile for that to happen, to know what to expect of each other. The Bullets are really a whole new team and they'll be better next year when they've played together more. Of course, by then we'll be a year better, too. So we'll always have the edge on them."
Very briefly, the Bullets narrowed this edge on Friday. Down 0-3, Shue created new-matchups by having Unseld and Hayes switch men, something Clark and Chenier had already done in the third game. This strategy plus aggressive team defense and good shooting—notably by Hayes, who scored more than 30 points for the second straight game—resulted in a 97-89 Baltimore win.
But revived Bullets and revised matchups were not enough in Sunday's fifth game back in New York. Baltimore won the first and third periods, but the Knicks' defense and their marvelously fluid, intuitive offense enabled them to win the second and fourth periods, and by a greater margin.
Trailing by five points, New York shut out Baltimore for the first 4:56 of the second quarter while scoring 14 in a row. There were Knick steals and long, wild heaves by the Bullets as they failed to penetrate the New York defense and, most of all, there was Monroe, who scored 20 first-half points, including six in a row to drop Baltimore out of the lead for good. All three of those baskets came on eccentric jumpers after the Pearl had spun into the foul lane and got sharp passes. "It wasn't a play as such, nothing we called coming up the court," Monroe said. "But after you run something like that a few times and it works, it becomes a play."
Following a Bullet rally that cut New York's lead to two points at the start of the fourth quarter, the Knick defense once more forced Baltimore into a series of ball-handling errors and bad shots. In the first 5:46 of this period New York outscored the Bullets 13-1, relying more on its normal style, of hitting the open man rather than the hot one, and the series was over. But Dancing Harry had made what was really the last point with 3:57 still to go. Once again shuffling through the only step he apparently knows, he revived an old NBA tradition and lit up a victory smoke. For Baltimore, which has now lost four of five playoffs to the Knicks, it meant that all those changes still added up to no cigar.