The not-so-grand finales

As the championship rounds in the NBA and the ABA got under way, the basketball was a little sloppy but the competition was plenty tough
May 13, 1973

The third game of the NBA championship playoffs between the Knicks and Lakers was a curious affair. Take, for example, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, who spent the afternoon at Madison Square Garden shooting like a couple of guys playing half-court at the Y; they sank eight of 27 shots. Then there was Walt Frazier, whose game is usually as classy as the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III he drives. He looked more like a secondhand Morris Minor in first gear as he played his third subpar scoring game of the series, finishing with 14 points. On the Lakers' side there was Wilt Chamberlain, who only two days before had said his team needed more offense from Wilt Chamberlain to win, taking only three shots as the Lakers lost 87-83 and fell behind 2-1 in the series.

Still, Los Angeles almost pulled the game out with a last-period rally, which is when the Lakers look to Jerry West to provide the clutch plays. Alas, Mr. Clutch had already done all his pulling out for the day—in the form of two strained hamstring muscles—and was on the bench.

Indeed, most of the regular stars of the annual Knick-Laker finals had taken the afternoon off and the game showed it. For long stretches the Knicks felt lucky if one of their shots struck the rim a glancing blow. For longer periods Los Angeles made more turnovers than a German bakery. Inevitably, somebody had to do something right—to wit, Willis Reed and Keith Erickson, both of whom were injured during last year's series involving these teams, and Earl Monroe, who was healthy but hurting in 1972 when his man, Gail Goodrich, outscored him 76-17 in the first three games.

Reed helped put the Knicks ahead by as many as 10 points with medium-range jumpers and quick drives past Chamberlain that added up to 22 points. Monroe kept New York in front when the Lakers charged back by scoring nine of his 21 points in the fourth period. And Erickson, subbing for West, hit a baseline jumper and a drive down the lane in the final 1:39 to bring the Lakers within two points of New York. In the end, however, he took the most fitting shot of the day. With 22 seconds remaining and Los Angeles in position to tie, he fired a 15-footer that missed the rim and backboard, but not the tenor of the game. All of which led the Garden organist to strike up the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth, the classiest play of the afternoon.

The mere presence of the Knicks and Lakers in the finals put to rest some old tunes about the playoffs. Traditionally it has been felt that the length and intensity of postseason competition is too much for elderly teams (excluding the Bill Russell Celtics, who won at any age).

According to that logic, Los Angeles and New York should have been out of the playoffs weeks ago. The eight Knicks who play regularly average 29 years of age, two years per man younger than the top seven Lakers. Overall, these are the two oldest teams in the pros and their personnel had 1,344 games of playoff experience going into the finals. Late in the third quarter of the fourth game, the 36-year-old Chamberlain will probably compile his 7,498th minute of playoff action, thus surpassing Russell's record.

"The playoffs are very tough mentally and psychologically, but they are really the easiest part of the year physically," says DeBusschere, who does a TV commercial in which he dyes the gray out of his hair. "During the regular season a young, quick team can play four or five games back-to-back and still do well. An older team like us or the Lakers can't do that, but during the playoffs our experience takes over. You get a day or two of rest between each game, so physically you don't get as worn down. And you scout your opponents much more thoroughly, you watch movies so you can spot your mistakes and their weaknesses and adjust to them. That makes knowledge and experience the things that count most."

Proving which team is the wisest and wiliest may end up being what counts, since the usual incentive for winning—money—barely exists. The victors' share of the pot will amount to only about $2,500 a man more than the losers', small potatoes for many of the Knicks and Lakers who earn salaries far in excess of $100,000 and then pick up five-figure fees for TV spots like the one in which Chamberlain tells viewers how they can smell like he does and stand out in a crowd and another in which Jerry Lucas gives his follicles a 60-second massage.

Despite the absence of significant financial inducements, Lucas and the other Knicks and Lakers turned the first two games at Los Angeles into hairy workouts indeed. In the opener the Lakers once led by 20 points and seemed about to take complete charge on numerous occasions throughout the first three periods. New York refused to cave in, however, and Los Angeles needed Erickson's rebound and pass to Bill Bridges for a breakaway layup in the closing seconds to ensure a 115-112 victory. During the second game, the visitors held 10-point leads five times in the fourth quarter. New York's advantage was still nine points with 1:24 to play, but it won 99-95 only after Jim McMillian missed both his chances at a crucial free throw with 26 seconds remaining.

In games that tight involving teams so resolute, the importance of defense reaches cold war proportions. Los Angeles Coach Bill Sharman, the John Foster Dulles of the NBA, believes in a policy of massive retaliation. And well he might. In Chamberlain he has the biggest weapon this side of the B-52. While other Lakers gamble for steals and invite opponents to drive into the middle, Wilt stakes out a zone around the basket and tries to swat incoming projectiles right back at the men who fired them. The Knicks follow a strategy of flexible response, a defense that Bradley likes to call "supportive." New York attempts to deny opponents the pieces of territory they most covet and brings up extra defenders to help a teammate in danger of being overpowered.

In each of the first three games, the victor's defense was the key. In the series opener Chamberlain blocked seven shots and clearly intimidated shooters on five other occasions. Forced to fire from outside, the Knicks turned few of their missed shots into offensive rebounds. Instead most went to Chamberlain and Bridges, who used them to start fast breaks that yielded 26 points, an unusually high total against New York.

Other Laker defenders benefitted from Wilt's imposing presence. McMillian harassed nervous New York shooters with four blocks of his own, and West and Erickson, who alternated on Frazier, held him to what he called "my worst playoff game I can remember." Frazier scored only 12 points, and twice late in the game he shook free but passed up open shots from foul-line range when he saw Chamberlain loitering nearby. Meanwhile, West was driving freely past Frazier and seemed headed for one of his storied playoff scoring binges. After 24 minutes of play, West had 24 points—but he also had five fouls. He sat out 13 minutes of the second half, committing his sixth personal with 3:09 to go.

The only Knick challenging Chamberlain in close was Bradley, who sneaked along the baseline behind him, taking passes and putting up short, quick-release jumpers and even a few reverse layups. Bradley scored 24 points in the opener, many of them coming on shots within 10 feet of the basket. He followed up with 26 in the next game, even though Chamberlain had said the day before, "I could've had Bradley on some of those shots except I forgot how fast he gets rid of the ball."

Bradley's success reportedly led him to tell teammate Dean Meminger that Chamberlain cannot block a shot if the shooter is able to release it before Wilt squats, a fair theory since he hunches down before he jumps. Frazier overheard the tip and leaked it to the press, which prompted the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin's Alan Richman to say, "Frazier guards secrets about as well as he does Jerry West."

West, with 32 points, and McMillian, who totaled 53 in the first two games, were the only Lakers over 14 in the second game. New York's defense was supportive and superlative, jamming Los Angeles' patterns, causing 19 turnovers and holding the Laker fast break to 14 points. The defending champs might still have won if they had not missed 13 free throws, including eight of nine by Chamberlain, who admitted his game that night was not worth squat. "I'm not contributing enough on offense, and I realize I must if we're going to win," said Wilt, who was intentionally fouled by New York on almost every field goal he attempted.

Another reason for New York's success in the second game was the play of reserve Forward Phil Jackson who, like Bradley, was unafraid—or foolhardy enough—to shoot over or around Wilt. Jackson finished with 17 points and seven rebounds to make up for the first game when his man, Laker sub Mel Counts, had 11 points and nine rebounds. Jackson, 6'8" and gangly, and Counts, 7' and ganglier, often enter and leave games together. This may be because they are well suited, esthetically (or unesthetically) as well as by size, to guarding each other, but then it may also be because neither Sharman nor New York Coach Red Holzman wants to risk the well-being of one of his starters by putting him in close proximity to the pair. The resultant matchup would delight any vertebrate paleontologist interested in avifauna. Both men have long, wobbly legs, about 80 more bones than the average human being, and they flap their long arms and pointy elbows like unfeathered and unfettered wings. They run fast breaks with all the grace of gooney birds, and yet they are surprisingly effective. Jackson and Counts have accurate jumpers, play with exceptional tenacity and are viewed by other players as injuries in search of victims. The last is no small advantage in a series where the wise and the wily are showing a proclivity for the woolly.

Twenty seconds remained in the third game of the ABA finals between the Indiana Pacers and Kentucky Colonels when Pacer Forward George McGinnis roared down the right side of the court, grabbed a long lead pass from Bill Keller with one huge mitt and took off to plunk in a layup that would have tied the score 90-90. Would have, that is, if 7'2" Colonel Artis Gilmore had not swooped in and tipped away the ball. It was Gilmore's seventh block in a brilliant performance in which he scored 28 points and led Kentucky to a 92-88 victory.

"Artis was still at the free-throw line and I had just one step to go to the basket," said McGinnis. "If I had it to do over again, I'd pull up for my jumper or call time or something."

Gilmore's play was both extraordinary and typical of the series, which was tied at two wins apiece at week's end. Three of the games—Indiana's 111-107 overtime victory in the opener, the Colonels' third-game win and the Pacers' 90-86 fourth-game victory—were decided by late heroics, and Kentucky won only when Gilmore was at his shot-blocking, slam-dunking best.

The Colonels' other win (114-102)—the only decisive one of the series—occurred in the second game in which Gilmore scored 29 points, hit 11 of 16 shots, grabbed 26 rebounds and blocked seven field-goal attempts.

Artis was far from dominant in the other two games, however. Indiana broke to a 19-point bulge at the end of the first period of the opener, Kentucky rallied by scoring the first 17 points of the third quarter and the game remained close throughout the fourth period. With 2:01 to play, Gilmore was whistled for a three-second violation, a call that so enraged Colonel Coach Joe Mullaney that he announced he was completing the game under protest. Then, with 35 seconds left, Kentucky Guard Jim O'Brien hit a jumper that apparently gave the Colonels a 102-100 edge. Pacer Coach Slick Leonard objected, claiming that the 30-second clock had been improperly handled and should have expired before the shot. Leonard won his point and the game when Guard Freddie Lewis scored eight of his 29 points in overtime.

Two thin men, Indiana's Don Freeman and Kentucky's Rick Mount, duked to a draw in the second quarter of the fourth game, Leonard was ejected just after the halftime buzzer sounded for baiting the refs and Gilmore incurred his fifth foul with 9:41 to play in the third period. That left the middle open for Darnell Hillman, the 6'9" forward-center who has been the Pacers' defensive ace. With Gilmore inhibited by fouls, Hillman won the opening tap of the last period and outplayed Artis the rest of the way. He scored seven of his 17 points, pulled in six rebounds and blocked a shot in the fourth quarter to enable Indiana to even the series.

PHOTOJACKSON AND COUNTS: RARAE AVES

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)