Seven minutes had elapsed since New York had won the NBA title and Willis Reed was trapped beside his locker in The Forum. Clutching a fifth of Paul Masson brut against his right hip, he sat barricaded behind a wall of hot TV lights, sportswriters and hangers-on. A man wearing a neatly pressed gray-green suit edged his way through the tangle of cables and human limbs surrounding the Knick captain and reached out to clasp Reed's right hand in both of his. "Great comeback," said Laker Coach Bill Sharman in the spectral whisper that has been his voice since he injured his vocal cords a year ago. Then he quickly turned away and was gone through the crowd.
Sharman's succinct congratulation was nearly analysis enough for a series in which Los Angeles took the first game and New York the next four. The result was precisely the reverse of 1972 when the same teams met in the finals and the Lakers won the championship. That Dave DeBusschere played all but the last 7:44 of the finals in good health after missing much of the action with an injury a year ago, and that Jerry West was hobbled by a sore right hamstring in the last three games, unquestionably affected last week's outcome. But the decisive factor, the gent who enabled the Knicks to dispose of the Lakers, was Reed.
In 1972 Reed was conspicuous during the playoffs as the only man in mufti on the New York bench besides Coach Red Holzman. He had been sitting there ever since November 1971 resting his left knee, which was immobilized on account of tendinitis. The treatment was a success, but when Reed returned to the lineup this season the long stretch of inactivity had added a very uncharacteristic facet to his play: inconsistency. In some games he snapped off quick, short moves inside, swished his jumper and seemed the equal of the Reed who had made the All-Star team his first seven years in the NBA. In others he appeared confused and out of place, much like the awkward kid who is allowed to play in a schoolyard game because he owns the only basketball on the block. The two new moves Willis executed most frequently were the Clumsy Carom (in which he would turn an uncontested rebound into an out-of-bounds play for the other team) and the Three-Cushion Catch (in which he would massé an easy pass off his hands, onto one of his kneecaps and into the eager grasp of a nearby opponent). As recently as New York's victory over Boston in the semifinals, Reed's play was erratic.
Suddenly, against the Lakers, Willis' old game was his only one, a timely turnabout he found difficult to explain. "I just couldn't tell most of the year whether my ups and downs happened because I missed so many games, or if they were just the normal thing that all players face of having some good days and some bad," he said as he strapped on his canvas and leather knee brace before the final game. "An athlete is not like a car you can tune up by turning some screw and then expect it to run right all the time. Coming off an injury like mine, you have to expect that sometimes you'll advance a little and at others you'll fall back a bit. But I said at the beginning of the year that I was aiming to be ready for the playoffs and here we are."
Reed was right on target. His contribution to the Knicks' victory was greater than his statistics—16.4 scoring average, .493 shooting percentage and 9.2 rebounds a game—indicated. On defense he frustrated Wilt Chamberlain, whose scoring outburst over Jerry Lucas led the Lakers to the title last year. Against Reed, who is taller, stronger, heavier and quicker than Lucas, Chamberlain's attempts to back under the basket for his finger rolls and dunks yielded almost as many traveling calls, three-second violations and offensive fouls as they did goals. And Lucas' presence on the bench was an asset. The Knicks' plan was to foul Chamberlain whenever he seemed sure to score, and Reed and Lucas had an average of 7.2 personals a game, more than either one could have afforded individually. The luxury of having two men available to clobber Chamberlain permitted New York to hold him to a measly 22 field goals in the series. Wilt made the strategy look even better by missing 24 of 38 free throws.
With Chamberlain's foul shooting 15% below his career average—which is a feeble 50%—and with West, Jim McMillian and Gail Goodrich all in free-throwing slumps, Los Angeles lost a potentially decisive edge. The Lakers tried 74 more foul shots than the Knicks, but converted only 37 more. That was damaging indeed because this year's finals were the closest and lowest-scoring since 1956. The average margin of victory was five points and even in the fifth game, a veritable rout that New York won 102-93, the two teams were separated by only four points with 1:04 to play.
Exceptional defense accounted for the low scoring and the closeness of the games. The tight defenses also were responsible for making the offenses seem disjointed, often inept. But except for the third game and the first half of the fifth, when the Lakers shot 32% and nonetheless led 41-39 at the end of two periods, this was a well-played series in which the two teams struggled to score, not so much because their shooters were off but because their defenders were on.
On the afternoon before the fourth game West lay on the rococo burgundy-and-white bedspread in his New York hotel room as Laker Trainer Frank O'Neill smeared baby oil on the back of his thigh and massaged his injured hamstring. "When two teams play defense as well as it's being played in this series, it's almost impossible to tell if the offenses are bad or only appear to be bad," West said. "In situations like this players will usually blame themselves. They'll say they haven't gotten their game together yet simply because they don't want to admit that the other team can have so much effect on whether they score or not. I don't feel either team has done badly on offense. They've done just about as well as the defenses have let them."
With 56 points in the first two games, West seemed capable of doing as well as he wanted, but after his injury his offense was curtailed. Instead of the long, quick stride with which he usually begins his moves, he relied on short, choppy steps that made him look as if he were tiptoeing about the court. They also made him far easier to guard; in the final game he scored only 12 points.
Meanwhile the Knicks had evolved an offense that allowed them to probe the heart of the Laker defense—the area under the basket patrolled by Chamberlain. Last season New York tried to defeat Los Angeles by giving the middle to Wilt and shooting from outside. The failure of that strategy, far more than DeBusschere's injury, sealed the Knicks' defeat.
This year first Bill Bradley—high man among New York's five double-figure scorers with an 18.6 average—and then the rest of the Knicks began driving and shooting right at Chamberlain, even though at the start he blocked many of their shots. Soon Wilt was spending more time guarding men other than his own and that was when Reed excelled.
It was usually Willis who set the picks that allowed his teammates to escape their own men and penetrate into Chamberlain's territory. Once Wilt had switched to pick up the intruder, Reed would roll toward the basket or step back a stride or two to the foul line to await a pass—and the opportunity for an open shot. If Chamberlain adjusted quickly, Reed passed off smartly to other Knicks as they became open as a result of Wilt's lunging back and forth. It was a simple tactic but nonetheless daring, since New York used the man it feared most, Chamberlain, as the cue for its inside attack.
While Reed's overall play made him the most valuable Knick for the first time in three seasons, no player on either team performed as well as DeBusschere did in the fourth-game victory at Madison Square Garden, which gave New York a secure 3-1 lead. In the first half DeBusschere hit on 11 of 15 shots. Then, with 48 seconds remaining and the Lakers within two points, Bradley missed a corner jumper. Chamberlain and Reed leaped twice for the rebound. They succeeded only in tipping it about like a volleyball until DeBusschere took it away from both of them and threw in a wild layup as Wilt fouled him. He made the free throw and wound up with 33 points as the Knicks went on to win 103-98.
In the last game, in which DeBusschere was sidelined in the fourth period with a badly sprained ankle, Earl Monroe's eight points in the closing 2:15 held off yet another late Laker rally. It was the fourth time Los Angeles had almost surged into the lead as time ran out only to fall frustratingly short. In this playoff, for sure, all the comebacks belonged to New York.