A classic was revived at the Oakland Coliseum Arena last week. Entitled Mr. Barry Goes to the Basket, it starred the eponymous Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond and had what seemed like a thousand other Warriors as spear carriers. The plot was just as it was back in 1966-67 when the show enjoyed its previous run: Barry scored 50 points, Thurmond grabbed 18 rebounds, Golden State Owner Franklin Mieuli expressed his joy after every Warrior basket by nearly tugging his beard out by the follicles or almost pulling the ear flaps off the Sherlock Holmes cap he was wearing and Golden State beat Los Angeles 135-111 to move into first place in the Pacific Division.
Since 1967 the Lakers have been the big hit on the Coast, so that last weekend's win was all the more dramatic, featuring, as it did, Barry in his old slashing, driving role and forecasting that the Lakers could be in trouble out West and that the Warriors could be trouble anywhere they go.
Los Angeles' problems center on the absence of Wilt Chamberlain, who is imparting words of wisdom in the ABA. To obtain a player who only vaguely resembles Wilt, TV Elmore Smith, the Lakers gave up Jim McMillian, one of the smartest—and best—young forwards in the pros. After a strong start, Smith has regressed to his level of play at Buffalo. Moreover, his weaknesses have been most glaring in those areas, rebounding and defense, where Wilt was strongest.
In the final four years of Chamberlain's tenure, the Lakers employed an overshifted defense that allowed opponents to drive freely along the baseline toward the basket. The easy layups this strategy seemed to offer became much more apparent than real when Wilt loomed on the horizon, and soon few teams even bothered to take the open lanes the Lakers offered. Los Angeles is attempting to use the same defense this year and finding the opposition more than willing to accept its invitation. Drivers have found that Smith has yet to master the complexities of covering up for his teammates, and the Lakers are allowing four more points per game than last season.
Smith's defense has also been weakened by his fascination for blocked shots, a deceptive statistical category in which he leads the league with a 6.2 average. By attempting to block indiscriminately, Smith often ends up in foul trouble. Last year he fouled out 16 times to Chamberlain's none, and he has already been disqualified four times this season.
Leaping for blocks also leaves Smith out of position for rebounds—his average is seven a game lower than Chamberlain's—and that has curtailed Los Angeles' fast break. Forced more often to their pattern offense, the Lakers are scoring less and missing McMillian, the man who gave their set plays movement. Jerry West (23 points per game) and Gail Goodrich (25.7) are shooting well, but Connie Hawkins, acquired from Phoenix to replace McMillian, has yet to blend into the Lakers' patterns, even though his play has been otherwise excellent.
Despite those problems, plus ailments that have kept rebounding Forwards Happy Hairston and Bill Bridges out of 18 games, Los Angeles has moved off to a far better start (17-11) than expected.
"I'm simply not satisfied with the way we've been playing in some areas, particularly rebounding and defense, even though our record is good," Coach Bill Sharman said last week in a no longer raspy voice that, alas, is the only thing about the Lakers that is definitely improved. "It's deceptive because we've only won four of our nine games against winning teams. We have only four players left from the championship squad of two years ago, but we still like to think of ourselves as a playoff team. What we're trying to do is rebuild without having a rebuilding year.
"Things are going to be even more difficult because unlike the past few seasons second place in our division is not a sure thing for the playoffs. Detroit is a greatly improved team and they could finish third in the Midwest with a better percentage than the second-place team in the Pacific."
The Piston threat, driven home early last week when Detroit came west and defeated the Lakers and Golden State in successive games, was also very much on the minds of the Warriors. Two nights before the Los Angeles game, the 32-year-old Thurmond sat in his superb San Francisco soul-food restaurant, The Beginning, put away a couple of martinis (with a twist of watermelon peel, one presumes) and said, "I've had a lot of ups and downs in my career and I want desperately bad to win a championship. But we've got to do it soon because the nucleus of our team is getting old, to say the least. We shouldn't have any problem; we've got the best talent in the division. What we don't have is that killer instinct. We hardly ever come onto the floor like Boston does and blow the other team off. Particularly against the bad teams, we get up by nine and suddenly we're cruising, taking it easy. Nine points is no kind of lead in the NBA."
Only the night before the Warriors had cruised into trouble at Phoenix, where Barry and Cazzie Russell scored only 27 points between them and Golden State lost 103-97. It was a game typical of Golden State's season: win the hard ones, lose too many of the easy ones. It seems only adversity perks up the Warriors. They had won but eight of their first 13 games when their only rebounding forward, Clyde Lee, partially tore a ligament in his left knee and was sidelined until at least January. Golden State then went on a five-game road trip and won four times on such tough floors as New York's and Milwaukee's.
The Warriors are so deep that Joe Ellis, the sixth man two years ago, is now 11 th on the squad in minutes played. But despite its manpower, Golden State lacks a playmaking guard. Coach Al Attles juggles five men in the backcourt, including, in recent weeks, the 6'7½" Barry, searching for the right combination. And Barry remains the Warriors' top assist man by almost a 2-1 margin over any other player. The absence of a passing guard is particularly evident in games such as the one against Phoenix in which the Warriors did not fast-break aggressively and found themselves operating most of the time from a set offense.
Last season even Barry, who had been an explosive break man and a persistent driver in his two years with the Warriors before he left them for the ABA, was criticized for lack of aggressiveness. He now says a series of nagging injuries and the need to readjust to the NBA and his teammates held him back. In all but four games this season, there has been no holding him.
His 50 points against the Lakers were the most in the league this year and were part of an exceptional overall performance, which included nine assists, nine rebounds and 1:35 spent on the bench icing down his left knee after a hard fall. Using what has become the standard approach to this year's Los Angeles defense, Barry decided before the game to drive at every opportunity. He poured in 22 of his points from short range—the Warriors scored 66 in all from within five feet of the hoop—and added 10 outside jumpers, most of them while the Lakers stood around behind Thurmond picks. Smith started off strongly with three blocks in the first 6:42 and even outrebounded Thurmond 7-4 in the first half, but only got two rebounds thereafter.
No play better exemplified his shortcomings than one that occurred late in the third quarter. Smith had perfect rebounding position after Barry missed an outside shot and seemed to have control of the ball when Thurmond wrenched it from his grasp and snapped the ball out to Barry, who drove to his left past Hawkins and down the baseline. Smith moved to seal the lane, but Barry had already penetrated deep under the backboard. As Smith left his feet for a block, Barry shifted his shot to the far side of the hoop to protect it from Smith, spun it off the glass with English that Willie Mosconi would have been proud of, masséd it into the basket and stumbled off, glancing over his shoulder as the ball whirled around the rim at 78 rpm before dropping through. It was some show, just the sort Warrior fans hope he will be rerunning often this season.