The ripe old odor of spring was back at Madison Square Garden, which automatically means two things to Garden regulars of even the most ordinary olfactory perception. One is that the circus is in town and all Ringling's animals are cooped up somewhere in the bowels of the building. And second, they know if the lions are downstairs roaring to get out, some big cats named the Bullets must be nearby, raring to get at the Knicks.
New York vs. Capital (nee Baltimore) is an NBA rite of spring, a ceremony that at the outset this year seemed likely to find the Bullets unusually kittenish. But by the end of last week, when five games of the best-of-seven series had been played, the Knicks had found it necessary to scramble like tiger trainers in distress. The Bullets not only had come up with a less aromatic circus of their own at the Capital Centre in Maryland (where the menagerie is in the parking lot), but with some New York-style offense and defense as well. Had it not been for a couple of brilliant, game-saving bursts by Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, the Knicks might have been caged themselves.
This is the sixth straight year the Bullets and Knicks have met early in the playoffs, but before they started clawing away at each other two weeks ago it appeared that their once close rivalry might not have the same old zing. New York was a decided, even prohibitive, favorite. Then last week, while in the other first-round NBA playoff series the Bucks were polishing off the Lakers 4-1, the Celtics were splitting four games with the surprisingly tenacious Braves and the evenly-matched Pistons and Bulls were dividing their four, it was the Knicks who were in trouble. The defending champions fell behind the Bullets—almost disastrously so—before Monroe and Frazier broke out to give them a tenuous 3-2 lead.
It was the memory of last year's meeting between these two teams, which the Bullets figured to have a good shot at winning before the Knicks turned it into a five-game rout, that made the Bullets' chances look none too grand this time around. Both teams remained essentially unchanged from last year. They had split their six regular-season games. And even their major injuries—Wes Unseld's left knee and Willis Reed's right—had a neat symmetry about them. So a scenario was composed: with Reed playing only well enough to be used in spots, New York would be forced to concede plenty of points, reams of rebounds and all the defensive territory south of the 38th parallel to Capital's low-post man, Elvin Hayes. At forward, Knick Bill Bradley and Bullet Mike Riordan would battle to a standoff, while Dave DeBusschere would drive at will around Unseld's enfeebled left flank. In the backcourt, Frazier and Monroe, who blasted the Bullets with an average of 43 points a game last year, would overwhelm the Bullets' young pair of Phil Chenier and Kevin Porter. And since only John Sirica sits on a more impressive bench than Knick Coach Red Holzman, New York would enjoy a clear edge when it came time to rest the regulars.
The script worked out almost perfectly in the opening game. Holzman tried everything but poison darts on Hayes as Elvin scored 40 points, hitting 19 of 29 shots to continue his assault on the NBA playoff record for accuracy. Often an erratic shooter during the regular season—his career percentage is a mediocre .438—Hayes has so far shot better (53.3%) in 16 lifetime playoff appearances than any man ever has in postseason games. Still, Elvin's outburst could not prevent a methodical 102-91 win by the Knicks. Monroe and Frazier scored 46 points and New York's subs added 22. Astonishingly (and significantly), the Bullet bench contributed zero, none, an absolute goose egg. At that point, one shutout seemed to presage another: the Knicks, four games to nothing.
But nothing is just what New York got in the next 2¾ games as Capital undertook to revise the book. The Bullets began controlling the action so thoroughly that in the final period of the fourth game the Knicks found themselves 10 points behind and only 9:58 from a 3-1 deficit and almost certainly an early end to their title defense.
Capital's victories in the second and third games, by 99-87 and 88-79, and its near win in the fourth, which New York rallied to take 101-93 in overtime, came as a result of impressive play at just those positions where the Knicks seemed to have the clear edge. That Unseld, who split the season between playing with pain and trying to get a clear diagnosis of what was wrong with him, turned out to be a match for DeBusschere could be traced directly to a decision he made in February to skip the country. He went to Toronto, where doctors inserted a tube with a light in its tip into his knee. They did not particularly like what they saw, but they told Unseld they might be able to fix him up with off-season surgery. As a temporary measure they rinsed loose bits of bone from under his kneecap with a saline solution. The treatment washed away most of Unseld's aches and anxieties, allowing him to curtail DeBusschere's driving and even to execute a few snappy back-door moves of his own for layups.
And the Bullet guards were conspiring meanwhile to give Monroe and Frazier a lot of unexpected pain. Chenier's contribution was mostly in the form of his precise jumper on offense and repeated blocks of Frazier's jumpers on defense. By the end of the fourth game Chenier had outscored Walt by 23 points. In the second game he held him to just six, and in the third, Frazier left the Garden court to the loudest boos of his career.
Between Monroe's 26-point splurge in the opening game and his 12-point burst that pulled out the fourth, Porter outscored the Pearl as well. In fact, although he is undersized (6'), undernourished and almost unknown, Porter was the most important Bullet in his team's wins. He did most of Capital's ball handling, virtually all its penetration, and on defense so battered Monroe's rear end whenever the Pearl attempted one of his backdown moves, that the Knicks were accusing him of something called "guerrilla defense." In the crucial last halves of the second and third games, Porter held Monroe to two baskets, and before the Pearl began his backdown on the right side of the court in the next game with just over 30 seconds to play, he had been shut out in that half. Fifteen feet from the hoop, Monroe whirled and fired the jumper that tied the score 87-87. The shot capped an extraordinary 10-point Knick surge in which they had held the Bullets scoreless for almost six minutes of the fourth period. A similar Monroe move forced Porter to foul out on the first play of overtime and the Pearl went on to score 10 more points, most of them from the right of the basket.
"The hoop was tilted a little to the right, so I asked that all the plays be run over there," Monroe said. "It's easier to shoot at a basket that's bent toward you."
"You mean you can see if the basket's tilted a little?" he was asked. "You must have great vision. Have you ever had your eyes checked?"
"Yeah, lotsa times. I had to because I need glasses."
"How could the basket have been tilted? They tested it with a level right before the game."
"I don't know," said Monroe. "Maybe it's me that's tilted."
After the fifth game, the rabid Madison Square Garden fans were almost bent out of shape with renewed admiration for Frazier. The Knicks won it 106-105 as their guards reasserted superiority. Their dominance was so complete that Porter was held scoreless and all three Capital guards were in deep foul trouble by the middle of the third period. Chenier shot accurately, hitting 11 of 16, and the rest of the Bullets again played well but they could not overcome Frazier, who finished with 38 points.
And what a finish. With 6:49 remaining, Chenier committed his fifth personal, and from then on Frazier went to work. While Riordan, Chenier, Unseld and Hayes combined to score 18 points, Walt held them off almost by himself. Of the Knicks' last nine field goals, Frazier scored seven without a miss and assisted on the other two. One of them was a baseline drive right at Hayes that included a masterful bit of midair sleight-of-hand. Frazier drew Elvin's blocking hand to the right side of the basket and then laid the ball backhanded off the glass from the left side. And he hit shots from way outside, several from so far beyond his usual 15-foot range that Capital Coach K.C. Jones admitted he was glad to see Walt take them. One of those was a jumper from 25 feet to the right which sealed the Knick win. It turned their high-wire act with the Bullets into New York's own basketball circus.