An unlikely hero was acclaimed last Saturday afternoon in Chicago. Until his stunning play against Piston Center Bob Lanier in the seventh game of the playoffs, a 96-94 victory that clinched the NBA Western Conference semifinals for the Bulls, the high point of Clifford Ray's career had come when he was identified as the only man in America who looks like Anthony Quinn, Bill Cosby and a buffalo all rolled into one. Outrebounding Lanier and outscoring him for most of the deciding game did not change Ray's appearance at all, but it certainly altered his image. Suddenly he seemed to be a rebounder more like Wilt Chamberlain than Zorba, a defender more like Bill Russell than Fat Albert and a scorer more like Lanier himself than the backside of an Indian-head nickel.
Ray's transformation was a timely one. Not only was Chicago's Jerry Sloan a sitting Bull, being benched with a foot injury, but Chicago's previous wins in the exhausting series had been squeakers—by five, one and four points. And, said Detroit Coach Ray Scott, "Jerry has been the difference in all three of them." Sloan had been his frenetic self on defense and had made his usual tough, rarely noticed plays on offense, among them setting the ruggedest picks of any guard around, a chore infrequently asked of backcourtmen but a staple in Chicago Coach Dick Motta's tight patterns. Most important, after five games Sloan was leading the Bulls in rebounding even though at 6'5" he is their second shortest starting player.
By the time the two teams returned to Detroit for the sixth game, Sloan had led Chicago, which has been in the playoffs seven of the past eight years, to its first postseason road win and its first lead ever in a playoff series.
With 3:37 gone in that game and Chicago leading 10-3, Sloan strained the fascia along the bottom of his left foot as he pushed off to throw a pass to Forward Chet Walker. Sloan's foot was re-wrapped after being shot with cortisone and novocaine and he returned to action 8:03 later—but with less than his usual zip—for the rest of the game. Sloan's was only one of four Bulls' injuries that night. The others—Norm Van Lier's twisted ankle, Bob (Butterbean) Love's contused shooting arm and Ray's bruised right knee—were not as serious, but they knocked each of the four out of the lineup long enough to allow the Pistons to scramble back to a 92-88 win. Lanier, who was held to only four points by Ray and the rest of Chicago's sagging defense in the first two quarters, scored 24 in the second half.
Two days later when Sloan, wearing street clothes and using crutches, came out to the Chicago bench to watch the final game, his appearance in mufti seemed to presage a familiar fate to Bulls" fans: another first-round loss. In fact, throughout this series Chicagoans adopted a stance of skepticism. Only 13,928 per game bothered to go to the 17,374-seat Chicago Stadium to see this tight, matched—and tightly defensive—series. Detroit fans, who until recently regarded their team with even more pronounced and far more deserved disdain, filled Cobo Arena above capacity (11,055) for all three of its games. This was hardly surprising since the playoffs are virtually a whole new thing in Motor City. Oh, the Pistons were in postseason play six years ago, but nobody attached too much significance to it back then. "We knew that year, even before it started, we weren't going anywhere," says Dave Bing, the only holdover from Detroit's last playoff team. "Our record was under .500, we had backed into the playoffs on the last day of the season and we had Bill Russell and the rest of the Celtics in the first round."
Detroit defeatism predates even that loss. It has been 12 years since the Pistons have advanced beyond the opening series, and Scott, then a Detroit player, remembers that occasion well. "We had the Lakers in the second round and those were the days when Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were really blowing people out for L.A. But Johnny Egan and I were rookies and we were dumb enough to think we were gonna win the whole thing until we started getting ready for the sixth and final game on our home floor. You know how we knew it was the final game? We found out when some of the older guys—Don Ohl, Bailey Howell, Jackie Moreland—showed up with trailers already hitched to their cars for the move home for the summer."
In his 1½ years as coach, Scott has rid the team and the town of that kind of thinking. When the season began, the local CBS affiliate did not feel that enough interest existed in pro basketball to warrant televising the game of the week, opting instead for Sir Graves Ghastly and his horror movies. But by midseason Piston crowds were booming, largely because Scott granted interviews to anyone with a question, became Detroit's favorite talk-show guest, conversed pleasantly with old ladies in the street and, most important, molded the Pistons' talented players into the topflight team they could have been years ago. The fans repaid him for it all before the sixth game with a thunderous, prolonged ovation when he was awarded the NBA's Coach of the Year trophy.
Except for some expensive offensive lapses in the closing moments of the second and third games, Scott's players remained externally as calm as their coach, who is nothing if not cool on the outside. Early in the playoffs, however, he was churning inside. Severe chest pains caused by tension had him popping tranquilizers. "I've always gotten nervous like this," he said. "When I was with the Bullets the first time we had a playoff game in Madison Square Garden, everyone else was acting real calm. I was so scared I put my shirt on backwards."
By the end of the sixth game, when the inexperienced Pistons had proved conclusively they would not crack, everything was going Detroit's way. The Pistons won their games more easily than Chicago had its. Scott's substituting, unusually liberal for the playoffs, had worked in his team's favor more, often than not, the Pistons had settled into a more balanced, flexible offense after Lanier's 38-point outburst in the second game—and Sloan was hurt.
All of which boded well for Detroit, except it did not take Ray into account. But then he should not have been involved in this series at all. He should have been back in Scott's hometown of Philadelphia where the Bulls had sent him and Bob Weiss a year ago for the draft rights to rookie Doug Collins. The deal lasted one day, just long enough for the 76ers to get a good view of Ray's sore left knee, which didn't appeal to them. "If you look at their team, I think they should've kept me even if I had two bad knees," Ray says. But the trade was called off. Ironically, Collins missed most of the past season with a foot injury while Ray underwent surgery and returned to Chicago as the starting center.
In Dick Motta's system the center is permitted to perform such necessary tasks as rebounding, picking and blocking shots. Shooting is not normally part of his job. But the Chicago coach was worried about his offense even before Sloan's injury. Forwards Love and Walker were providing him with their usual exemplary shooting, averaging 45.1 points per game between them, but the rest of the Bulls seemed cowed by the Piston defense, particularly by Lanier whenever any of them moved into his area near the basket.
"We dug like hell every game to find something that would work," Motta said after the series win. "Finally in our meeting yesterday I decided we had to go heavily to the pick-and-roll so we could get Clifford open behind Lanier whenever he moved over to stop our penetration."
By the middle of the third period, Ray had six field goals, and Chicago enjoyed a lead that once ran as high as 19 points. All the while, Ray had defended brilliantly—Lanier had scored only eight points with 3:40 remaining in the third period—and was building his 15-10 rebounding advantage over his rival. It turned out" that Chicago needed everything it could get as the Pistons rallied in the closing minutes, with Lanier making a late spurt to finish with 23 points. Motta was happy to settle for a two-point edge. The Pistons had played the Bulls well, but they ended up buffaloed.