This has been a rotten spring for the Kentucky Colonels. Several weeks back, when they were just beginning their annual rite of frustration in the ABA playoffs, a tornado gave them a severe home-court disadvantage. The twister nearly gobbled up Louisville's Freedom Hall, tearing huge holes in the roof and transplanting bits of the 16,933-seat arena to various locations in nearby Ohio and Indiana. The Colonels survived that ill wind—in which, tragically, 72 fellow Kentuckians died—and got by their first series with the Carolina Cougars as well. But last week they ran into a couple of other big twisters that whirled in from New York and blew them out of the Eastern Division championships.
The Nets had the black tornado, Forward Julius Erving, who personally cinched the series' third and pivotal game with two extraordinary baskets and otherwise parlayed his jumpers, his newfound touch from outside the three-point circle and his usual array of ear-cracking dunks into 29.8 points per game. And New York also had with them Center Billy Paultz, the white tornado, an equally important storm center. Throughout the series the 6'11" Paultz engulfed his Colonel counterpart, Artis Gilmore, like a 240-pound sack of Silly Putty, .holding him to a 15-point scoring average and outplaying him overall.
In the past it had usually been the man assigned to guard the 7'2" Gilmore who ended up looking as if he had been hit by a cyclone, particularly in recent months. Since being named the Most Valuable Player in the ABA All-Star Game at Norfolk in January—an award he surely deserved—and then being loudly booed by the Virginia fans who disagreed with the choice, Gilmore had been on a tear, averaging more than 20 per game in both points and rebounds. This stretch was the most productive and consistent of Gilmore's career and during the Colonels' 4-0 sweep of strong Carolina in the first playoff round, he was overpowering, with 29.8 points and 18.5 rebounds a game and a 67% shooting average. At the same time, Paultz' activities had been nothing special in the Nets' 4-1 victory over Virginia in their opening series.
But even the Colonels' initial success must have left them unconvinced that spring is actually the nifty time of year everyone else says it is. In two of the past three seasons Kentucky has made it all the way to the finals only to stumble and fail in the seventh game. The year the Colonels did not manage to make the championship round they had set a record for regular-season wins before being shelled in the playoffs by the less talented predecessors of the current Nets.
April 28, 1974
By the time the Nets arrived in Kentucky last week the top had been put back on the Louisville arena, a job which cost the life of one workman, but the roof was already falling in on the Colonels. New York, holding the home-court advantage in the series, had used it to good purpose by walloping Kentucky 119-106 and 99-80 in the opening two games at Nassau Coliseum. The way the Nets had gained that advantage was an indicator of things to come when the series shifted to hostile territory. Going into the final month of the regular season, New York had held a thin lead over the Colonels in the Eastern Division, but Kentucky looked like a better bet to finish first because of its far easier schedule in the remaining games. The Colonels did win 16 of their last 22, but still they ended up two games behind New York in the final standings. The Nets held on to their poise and their minuscule edge even though their starters average less than 23 years of age, and their two relatively inexperienced coaches, Kevin Loughery and his assistant Rod Thorn, are only 34 and 32, respectively. "A lot of people figured these kids wouldn't be able to stand the pressure of the playoffs, particularly on the road against a good, experienced team like Kentucky," said Loughery, chomping happily on a victory cigar. "But after what they did down the stretch I had hardly any doubt that they could. For more than a month they had to win almost every night to keep the division lead. And that's exactly what they did almost every night."
Indeed, it was the Colonels who looked as if they were unaccustomed to the playoffs. Their offense was both inert and inept, largely because of the efforts of the 25-year-old Paultz, the oldest New York regular, whose teammates call him the Whopper out of benevolent regard for his bulgy physique. His man Gilmore had recently supplanted Forward Dan Issel as the fulcrum of Kentucky's attack. Gilmore's scoring repertoire consists mainly of hooks as he rolls across the foul lane and crashing dunks of offensive rebounds. Bellying up to Gilmore, Paultz worked stubbornly at preventing the big Kentuckian from slipping around him for either kind of basket. Paultz gutted it out so effectively in the first game that he outscored and outrebounded his taller rival. That was a double Paultz would not repeat in the series, but never, except when he pulled in 27 rebounds in Game Three, would Gilmore establish the wide advantage at center Kentucky needed if it was to defeat New York. And rarely did Gilmore's teammates make the plays, either by driving or hitting outside shots, that would have forced Paultz and the rest of the Nets' defense to stop concentrating on Artis. In fact, the oddest aspect of the Kentucky offense was the sudden and complete disappearance of Issel's outside jumper, usually one of the most reliable in the pros. He shot 42.5% against New York and in the final two games hit only one basket from beyond 15 feet.
Issel's lone long one came from the top of the circle late in the third period of the critical third game, when the Colonels were attempting to preserve a slowly diminishing lead. With Gilmore rebounding effectively and keying the Kentucky fast break to 27 points, the Colonels had led by as much as 15. The lead was still 10 with 9:27 to play and the series seemed likely to turn into one of those you-win-on-your-floor, we'll-win-on-ours, and we'll-see-who-chokes-in-the-seventh-game affairs. Then the Nets' defense tightened and held Kentucky to only six points for the remainder of the game. Meanwhile New York was scoring 18, eight of them by Erving. Two of his four baskets came on shots mere mortals might have made; the other two should have been bronzed on the spot and shipped off to the Hall of Fame. With 3:53 to play, the Doctor gave New York its first lead of the night, employing a maneuver that in one swoop demolished the ultimate strategy of Kentucky Coach Babe McCarthy: don't let Erving drive the baseline, but if worse comes to worse call in Gilmore to block his shot. Worse came to awful for the Colonels when Dr. J began operations by putting head fakes on rookie Forward Jim Bradley. Two twitches and Erving was rewarded with a strip along the right baseline as wide as Louisville's Watterson Expressway. The Doctor took off and seemed headed straight for a collision with Gilmore, who had arrived on the scene punctually and whose big left mitt was now blocking out the hoop and half of the backboard. Attacking the basket from 12 o'clock high, Erving drove the ball apparently through Gilmore's waiting hand to make the score 83-81 New York.
Dr. J's second Hall of Fame performance began with 17 seconds remaining and the score tied. At that point Loughery had called a time-out to tell his team exactly the same thing that McCarthy was telling his team at the other end of the court: there would be one last shot and Erving would take it. And so it came to pass. Receiving the ball inbounds near midcourt and with Bradley nearby awaiting more head fakes—or something else just as worrisome—Julius stood in one spot for the next 13 seconds, calling over Guard Mike Gale for an animated discussion of tactics and giving the clock only cursory attention. When precisely the right amount of time remained, Erving broke into a right-hand dribble, whopped Bradley into a pick by Whopper Paultz and arrived at the free-throw line. Once again Gilmore was there to greet him. On this occasion Erving responded by jumping off the wrong foot and floating off-balance from left to right across the middle of the foul circle to avoid Artis' lunge. In midflight he threw up a one-hander at the buzzer that hit nothing but strings. That clinched the game 89-87 and brought the roof down for good on the Colonels, who put up only desultory resistance in losing the final game 103-90.