The snow, swirling down in half-dollar-sized flakes, had begun to blanket North Michigan Avenue as the Boston Celtics left the Water Tower Hyatt House for the scenic bus ride—famous, old rusted El stanchions, historic boarded-up storefronts—to Chicago Stadium. The bus was one of those plush jobs with a flight of stairs leading up to a passenger deck and a small red sign flashing WATCH YOUR STEP. It was an appropriate warning for the Celtics, a very good team mired in a month-long slump and heading into the worst kind of weather the NBA can offer. In a six-day stretch beginning that night, Boston would travel from one end of the snow belt to the other, taking on the Bulls, Bucks (twice) and Knicks, the teams most likely to make the Celtics' pursuit of their first championship in five seasons a stormy one when the playoffs begin.
The need for Boston to step smartly last week had almost nothing to do with the standings. Its 6½-game lead over injury-riddled New York in the Atlantic Division seemed commanding enough to withstand anything short of war, famine, pestilence or Center Dave Cowens retiring to become a full-time auto mechanic. But as Boston fans have learned, first-place finishes—even those as convincing as last year's, when the Celtics posted a 68-14 record, the best in their history and second-best ever in the league—are little solace when their team fails in the playoffs. Which is what has happened to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks the past two springs.
As the current season rolled into its second half, Boston seemed to be practicing for its playoff swoon. After winning 29 of 35 games in the 1973 phase of the schedule, the Celtics greeted the New Year by losing seven of their next 15, a slide that reached its nadir with a dismal collapse in the second half against the Bullets on national TV Feb. 3. Despite Cowens' excellent connections at Peter Langan's Exxon station in Wellesley, where he spends his off-hours tuning up a teammate's car or doing transmission work for a lady friend, Boston's fast break seemed to be suffering the same fate as everything else that moves faster than a walk in New England these days—no gas.
During the slump the Celtics scored 7.6 fewer points per game than they had previously and lost the NBA lead in offense. Their fast break, usually the best in the pros, was misfiring. In last season's playoff, the Knicks demonstrated that by forgoing offensive rebounds and hurrying back to present a well-organized defense, they could force Boston into a pattern game, which is not its forte. That technique did not go unnoticed by other teams, and opponents now regularly send four or even five players scurrying to the defensive end of the floor whenever Boston seems likely to gain possession of the ball. And, predictably, it is the best defenders, the Bucks, Bulls and Knicks among them, who have most thoroughly mastered this tactic.
In the astute opinion of Boston Forward Paul Silas, the Celtics' recent shortcomings had less to do with new defenses than with a mild case of midseason letdown. Boston had not been forcing the ball upcourt—or pressing defensively—with its customary relentlessness. John Havlicek, the team captain and leading scorer, who well recalls the days of his youth when the Celtics did everything superbly and won everything in sight because of it, feels the current squad has not applied old-fashioned dedication to the execution of the patterned offense on which it must increasingly rely. Whoever is right, when the Celtics walked through Gate 3½ and into Chicago Stadium last Tuesday night some of the sheen of their green road uniforms seemed to be gone.
In the sort of extraordinarily well-played game that usually occurs only in the playoffs, the surging Bulls won their ninth straight 100-98, but the regreening of Boston was well under way and there was not a gloomy face in the Celtic locker room afterward. In fact, it was a game in which the pattern and percentages said the Celtics should have won. Chicago held the lead until midway through the third quarter as Boston struggled with its set offense—which scored only 16 points in the first half—but ran enough successful fast breaks to remain close. Then, as often happens when the Celtics apply pressure throughout a game, the Bulls began to weary in the final period and Boston opened a seven-point edge with 3:35 remaining. In the closing minutes it was the Celtics' nonrunning game that first cost them their lead and then almost allowed them to pull out a victory. Boston was unable to break on any of its six final possessions and failed to score on five of them as the Bulls pulled into a 98-98 tie with 24 seconds to go. The Celtics executed one last pattern perfectly, Havlicek taking an open, 12-foot jumper behind a double screen set by Cowens and Don Nelson. One problem: the shot missed. Chicago recovered the rebound and called time-out with two seconds left to set up a play. The final buzzer had already sounded when Guard Bob Weiss' desperate, whirling one-hander swished through from 25 feet to end a game in which there had been 27 ties and lead changes in the final 18 minutes.
"That's the first good game we've played in a month," said Havlicek with a smile an hour later, as he sat down to dinner and a couple of glasses of Pommard at his favorite Chicago restaurant. And he kept smiling even when the waitress chided him for letting her down by missing the final shot and the chef came out of the kitchen and threatened to burn his steak because he was a loser. The waitress then told Havlicek that a man who remembered him from college wanted to buy him an after-dinner drink. "That's very nice," said Havlicek.
"Yeah, I remember watching you when I was at Michigan," the man called across the quiet dining room. "You were at Ohio State at the same time. Let's see, I think you were a year or two younger than me. What year were you?"
"I graduated in '62," replied Havlicek. "Oh, well, I got out in '55. At least Michigan's got a better team now than Ohio State."
"I guess that's right."
"By the way, didn't I see you last summer at a housewares show selling toilet seats?"
"That's not in our line," said Havlicek, who is a partner in a firm representing various hardware manufacturers.
"I thought for sure it was you with the toilet seats."
"Well, that's not in our line," Havlicek said once more, his smile a little thinner.
The Celtics' smiles had all but disappeared the next morning when their flight was canceled and they reboarded the bus for the ride to Milwaukee, where 16 inches of snow had fallen. Their journey, which took them past jackknifed trailers, capsized trucks and cars abandoned in the drifts, turned out to be far easier than the Bucks' flight home from Cleveland, which took them to Minneapolis, Rochester, Minn. and Madison, Wis. before they had exhausted all airborne possibilities and also resorted to a bus. When the Bucks finally pulled in 3½ hours before game time, they brought with them a season-long roster of injuries rivaling the Knicks', the only record (41-13) in the NBA better than Boston's and the man who has made that unlikely combination possible, 7'2" Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Although they were named the starting centers for their respective conferences in the last three All-Star Games, Cowens and Abdul-Jabbar are perhaps as different as two men playing the same position can be. Kareem is smooth and stately, playing at a level a head or more above the rest of the men on the floor, and frequently laying back on both offense and defense to let the action come to him. Cowens, who is five inches shorter, moves with the serenity of a commuter about to miss his train; he is forever barging off in one direction or another to take a firsthand look at what is happening, regardless of where it may take him on the court. That includes straight down, because Cowens regularly gets eyeball to eyeball with the floor in pursuit of loose balls, and far out because Cowens believes in playing defense up to 30 feet away from the basket. At one point in last week's game at Chicago, Cowens guarded Bull Center Clifford Ray so tightly as Ray stood with the ball upraised at the top of the key that his nose was entangled in the capital U on Ray's uniform.
Cowens and Abdul-Jabbar have developed one of the NBA's most interesting man-on-man rivalries. At such times as the first two quarters of last Wednesday's game, in which Kareem scored 20 points and helped put his team up by nine, there seems no way that Cowens can defend against the taller man's towering hook shot. But there are other occasions, particularly late in games when Cowens' speed and stamina have finally worn Abdul-Jabbar down, when the smaller man scampers unimpeded around the basket, grabbing most of the rebounds and scoring freely.
The fourth quarter of last week's game, which opened with Milwaukee leading by 11 points, was just such a time. Cowens scored 12 points while holding Abdul-Jabbar to four (none in the last 9:47) and he used his effective outside shooting to finally draw Kareem away from the basket and open up the middle for Boston's offense. Twice in the closing 1:21 Cowens fed Guard Don Chaney from the top of the key as Chaney, who scored 10 points in the last period, cut behind Abdul-Jabbar for four easy points. The second basket gave the Celtics their first lead (103-102) since the opening quarter and they went on to win 105-104.
The victory was Boston's first in almost four weeks over a winning team—nonetheless it has a season's edge of 16-9 against .500-plus clubs—and Coach Tom Heinsohn's gravelly laugh was heard often in the front of the first-class cabin as the Celtics headed home, bringing the remains of the Midwestern storm to Boston with them. Heinsohn chuckled at his own stories about touring behind the Iron Curtain with a team of U.S. pros in the early '60s, bemoaned the fact that last week's trip had afforded no time for painting, even though, as usual, he had brought along his watercolors, and maintained his composure when a stewardess said, "Has anyone told you that you look like Ernest Borgnine?"
"Borgnine, Borgnine. That's all I hear now," Heinsohn said. "A couple of years ago I was Glen Campbell. Now all anybody notices is the split between my teeth, my pug nose and this lousy voice and they all say Borgnine. At least, there's one advantage to it. I figure if he can play Vince Lombardi because he looks like him, then when the time comes I can have the big role in The Life of Ernest Borgnine."
With that Heinsohn came down to earth in Boston, which was beginning to bear a striking resemblance to snowbound Chicago and Milwaukee. The Knicks arrived in the snow, too, but perhaps not overly chilled since Boston has been the site of their second-round triumphs in the playoffs. Heinsohn is already confident the outcome will be different this year and with good reason. Without Willis Reed, who is recovering from knee surgery for the second time in as many years, New York is not nearly the team that won the NBA championship last May. Reed has predicted that he will be back in the lineup for the playoffs, but even if he is his chances of performing effectively are slim. And if their meetings so far this year are any indication, New York's hopes of defeating Boston without Reed are nil. The Celtics have won four of the five games between the two teams—their single loss, a 104-83 drubbing, occurred during the recent slump—and each victory has been a convincing one, none more so than last Friday's 125-97 rout. One of the few 28-point games on record that was not as close as the score indicated, the win was achieved despite Cowens' absence because of foul trouble for 14:02 of the second and third quarters. While he was on the bench, his teammates, led by 6'6" Don Nelson, who took over at center and scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds, and Guard Jo Jo White (30 points), turned a 40-40 tie into a runaway. Against the Knicks' league-leading defense—which suffered when Dave DeBusschere was sidelined in the second quarter with a bruised heel—the Boston running game was at its most powerful, particularly in the third period when it scored 18 of its first 23 points on the break, ripping the game wide open.
Sunday's rematch with Milwaukee was occasion for yet another bus ride through the snow. For the Celtics the trip to Providence to play one of the nine Boston "home" games scheduled there turned out to be tough sledding, indeed. On Wednesday, Abdul-Jabbar had suffered abrasions of his right cornea, but he was still a vision in the Bucks' 95-86 victory. Cowens was ordinary despite his 20 points and an equal number of rebounds, while Kareem was extraordinary, grab-being 21 rebounds, scoring 28 points and blocking seven shots, including one by Chaney to stymie a typical late Boston rally. That put Milwaukee .032 ahead of the Celtics in the race for the league's best record (an achievement worth about $3,000 a player at the end of the season), but nonetheless Boston clearly had survived its stormy week without being blown apart.