It was a play John Havlicek has made a thousand times. With the score tied 28-28 midway in the second quarter of the seventh and final game of the New York-Boston playoff for the NBA's Eastern Conference title, Havlicek dribbled down the middle of the court a fraction of a step ahead of three pursuing Knicks. Past the foul line, he smoothly took off, the ball in his right palm, and floated it toward the lip of the rim with an easy, underhanded motion. Usually a sure two points, often three, this time the shot yielded none. It described a pathetic arc nearly a foot below the basket. It was an injured layup by the injured star of a wounded team, a proud team that never had lost the seventh game of a playoff, but would this day by a humiliating score of 94-78.
"It had been feeling better," said Havlicek of the shoulder he wrenched so badly in the third game that it had left his right arm dangling almost uselessly at his side ever since. "But when I needed it, it just wasn't there."
Without Havlicek close to top form when they needed him, the Celts did not have it, either. New York collapsed on their only two remaining offensive threats, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White, and came up with its best defensive showing of the year. Playing his seventh exceptional game of the series, Walt Frazier scored 25 points, including nine in the third period when the Knicks broke to a 15-point lead, and he was aided and abetted by Dean Meminger, who came off the bench to put the clamps on White. But mostly it was one of those masterly, old-fashioned Knick team efforts. And it was just the sort of game New York will need in the finals against the Lakers, who looked as strong as ever after defeating the Warriors four games to one in the Western finals.
In a sense, the Knicks' seventh game victory was not unexpected, for it was a playoff series so lacking in discernible pattern that its lack of pattern was its most discernible characteristic. Frazier, Cowens and White performed consistently well, but the other men on the floor, including the referees, seemed disinclined to match them. No sooner would one team start to swing easy, to appear about to close the door on the other, than it would become unhinged. The result was a succession of switchbacks and setbacks that drove the players to emotional and physical exhaustion and left the fans teetering on the edge of their seats and schizophrenia.
It was a playoff in which the home-court advantage often wasn't. In three games at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks had lost but six times all year, they won one by 33 points, took another in double overtime and then, when a win would have clinched the Eastern title in six games, lost by 10. Following two consecutive fourth quarters during which they dissipated big leads, the Celtics clinched their most important victory with dominant play in the final period. Boston played 4¼ games with Havlicek either out of the lineup or playing lefthanded, and still prospered.
In the opener at the Boston Garden the Celts defeated New York 134-108 in a game that was not as close as the score. White, who had rarely played well against New York, was the primary cause. On previous occasions he often forced difficult shots in traffic, and the combination of the resultant wild misses and his hesitation shooting motion made him look like a man with an extra-large Golden Delicious lodged in his throat. Suddenly in these playoffs White often was a step ahead of his man, bursting in for driving baskets or selectively pulling up for his jumper. In the opener he led all scorers with 30 points, even though New York Coach Red Holzman tried Earl Monroe, Meminger, Henry Bibby and, finally, Frazier against him.
"He's usually six for 21 against us, or something like that," said Frazier of White, who hit 14 of 27 shots. "Tell him to stop that."
For the remainder of the series White rarely did. He averaged 23.6 points a game and, more importantly, teamed with Cowens to provide Boston with new, youthful leadership. It was their fresh maturity that kept the Celtics in the playoffs.
In the second game in New York the Knicks answered Boston's opening blast with a bigger one of their own. By winning 129-96, the Knicks handed the Celts their worst defeat in 216 playoff games and appeared to establish the home-court advantage as being more significant to the outcome of the series than Dave DeBusschere's jump shot or Paul Silas' offensive rebounding.
That was a theory dispelled two nights later in Boston when the Celts lost the game (98-91), the home-court edge, the services of Havlicek's shooting arm and any apparent hope of winning the series. Midway through the second half, as Boston rallied to cut a 15-point New York lead to two, Bill Bradley ran Havlicek into a blind pick set by DeBusschere. "I came across the baseline and set up," Dave said. "John didn't see me and Silas didn't call out the pick. John hit me so hard it drove me back." And so hard that Havlicek severely strained the trapezius muscle that runs from the nape of the neck along the back of the right shoulder. Havlicek left the game briefly, but had returned by the time the Knicks put together the first of their three fourth-quarter outbursts. New York scored 10 straight points early in the fourth period, six of them by Bradley, whom Havlicek was attempting to guard without being able to raise his right arm.
When Havlicek, wearing a brown blazer and checked trousers, walked across the Madison Square Garden court before the tip-off for the fourth game he was greeted by warm applause. It was a rare display of sportsmanship by New York's fans and, to a degree, self-serving, since they could well afford it. With Havlicek sitting on the bench in street clothes, it seemed certain the Knicks would finish the afternoon with a 3-1 series lead, the kind that is usually described as insurmountable.
True, but just barely. The Knicks were lax on defense, lethargic on offense. The team seemed to miss Monroe—who had bruised his right hip shortly before Havlicek had hurt his shoulder and was also on the bench—more than Boston missed Havlicek. By the end of the third quarter Cowens and White had 48 points between them, Silas had 21 rebounds all by himself and Boston led by 16 points.
Then Frazier went to work. Going into the final period he had scored 12 points. One quarter and two overtimes later, when the Knicks had won, 117-110, he had 37. He stole the ball and sprinted off for breakaway baskets; he directed fast breaks; he hit long jumpers and powerful drives against a defense zeroed in on him; twice he darted in for rebounds of his own missed shots and fired home jumpers.
And Frazier had some unexpected help. It-came from his roommate, 6'10" rookie John Gianelli. Holzman, who later admitted it was a desperate gamble, sent Gianelli in when the Knicks trailed during the first overtime. He played the rest of the game, controlled the backboards, scored four of his 10 points and finished off Boston by blocking a potential game-tying shot by Cowens and drawing Dave's sixth foul on the same play.
The form of the fourth game persisted into the fifth at Boston, even though Havlicek came off the bench to score 18 points. The Celts took a six-point lead into the fourth quarter, and again New York pressured them out of the lead. The Knicks held Boston to one field goal in the final 8:12, a 30-foot heave by Silas, the team's poorest outside shooter. In fact, the Knick defense may have been too good. With seven seconds to play and the Celts behind by a point, Frazier forced White to shoot an off-balance, twisting jumper as he scampered across the lane. Three New York rebounders, their backs to the shooter, surrounded the basket. If the shot had hit the rim, one of them almost surely would have grabbed it. Instead, it fell short and into the hands of Silas, who had barreled across from the other side of the basket into what is usually bad rebounding position—directly below the goal and facing the court. DeBusschere fouled Silas, who made two free throws even though he is also the worst foul-shooter among Boston's regulars, and the Celts won 98-97.
Boston's strategy in the sixth game, which it won 110-100, was to prevent New York from concentrating its defense. Silas and Don Chaney, the most reluctant Celtic shooters, were told to fire away and they did, making 13 of 18 shots. Those tactics paid off in the fourth period, which began with the score tied 82-82, because by then the Knicks' defense was no longer oriented to clogging the middle against Cowens. The Boston center put on a game-ending performance equal to Frazier's two games earlier. He blasted past Jerry Lucas for sweeping hooks and open jumpers; he grabbed seven of his team's nine rebounds in the final quarter and on defense he switched off, stepped out and so bothered New York's shooters that they made only eight of 23 shots, many of them from far outside.
"If his shots are dropping in, there's nothing I can do with him," said Lucas with a shrug. "He's so quick, he's like a 6'9" Jerry West. One minute he's standing in front of you and the next he's gone, rolling in toward the basket or straight up in the air shooting his jumper. It's like he disappears." And so it was not until Sunday that the gallant Celtics all disappeared.
The Knicks must find a way to contend with a center who is very much there as they confront Wilt Chamberlain and the rest of the Lakers this week. The two teams have played in the finals twice in the previous three seasons, but the past may be no guide to the current series. The Knicks are no longer the team they were three years ago when Willis Reed led them to the championship, sustaining an injury en route that still curtails his effectiveness. And the Lakers are not quite the powerhouse that overwhelmed New York 4-1 last year. Happy Hairston is coming off surgery and a slower Bill Bridges figures to play much more than Happy. Chamberlain's zest for the game occasionally seemed diminished during the season, but he had an aroused series against Golden State. He will have to do the same against the Knicks if the Lakers are to repeat as champions.
It is likely both offenses will struggle in this series and that could make Jerry West and Frazier (see cover), the two best guards in the pros, even more important than usual. Both are looked to by their teams to make the pressure baskets in close games, to use their extraordinary senses of anticipation to make rally-starting steals.
"It will be nice to see Jerry," said Frazier with a grin after the final win in the Boston Garden. "Between us it is going to be a battle of pride." And a battle between the old champion and a young one. West, who will turn 35 later this month, is approaching the end of his career, while at 28 Frazier is at the top of his game.
"There's no question that there are a lot of things I can't do that I once could, particularly on offense," says West. "At one time I felt I could get a real good shot anytime I wanted to. Now I feel I can get a shot anytime, but it may not be as good as the ones I used to get." Just how many good ones West can get—and just how good Frazier has gotten—could be a decisive factor in determining the NBA champion.