With 2:50 remaining in the seventh game of the ABA Western Division final between Utah and Indiana last week, James Jones stood near midcourt, only a step or two inside the Stars' offensive zone, with the basketball resting firmly on his right hip. Jones is his league's best backcourt man, a masterful, fluid ball handler and shooter of the Robertson-Frazier school, and he stood there for 10 seconds, allowing the clock to run and watching his four teammates settle into their positions on the Salt Palace floor. Just before passing the ball that had been in his nearly impeccable care throughout the night, Jones took in a long deep breath. Then he let out a huge sigh of relief that was at least as much visual as audible.
He had good reason for the display. Jones had played one of the best games any quarterbacking guard had ever played and had led the Stars from the edge of extreme embarrassment to a smashing 109-87 victory and the position opposite the New York Nets in the ABA championship round.
Ten days earlier it had seemed that the Stars would win this series without having to take a deep breath. With Jones and Forward Willie Wise playing up to their usual form—which is very good form indeed—and sore-legged Center Zelmo Beaty performing better than he had in the last four years, the Stars swept the opening three games. A 3-0 lead is usually enough to prompt an opponent to begin its summer vacation at the tap-off for the fourth game. But the Pacers, who were following a peculiar pattern of their own, rallied for three straight victories. Those wins not only knotted the playoffs but also, by sheer coincidence, evened the scoring in the series at 607 points apiece and tied the two intense rivals at 36 wins each over the years the Stars have been in Utah. And going into the seventh game, everything from manpower to momentum seemed to have shifted Indiana's way. The Stars were gasping mainly because an uncommon but debilitating illness had incapacitated Beaty, and the Pacers were apparently ready to perform a minor miracle.
Until Indiana's belated comeback, no basketball team except the 1950-51 Knicks had ever come from three down to tie a series. And only once in all the years of World Series, Stanley Cup competitions, ABA and NBA playoffs or indeed anything even resembling a major professional sports league had a team trailed 3-0 going into a seven-game series and then come back to win. The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to do it in 1942 against the Detroit Red Wings, but that could be reckoned as just one of those sports oddities that occurred during World War II.
You might possibly argue that Pacer Coach Slick Leonard is, in fact, just an updated version of Douglas MacArthur. Leonard certainly knows a thing or two about returning. He's become an expert at it. Rarely has there been a team that has matched Indiana's tendency to trap itself in apparently hopeless corners and still return in triumph. The champion Pacers have won three of the last four ABA titles, though in doing it they almost always have had their backs to the wall.
Their performance this season reached a new high—or low—when it came to rubbing their scapulae up against the brickwork. Mixing nearly unbelievable lethargy with inspired ineptitude, Indiana managed midway through the schedule to fall so far behind Utah in the Western Division that even the super-rabid fans back home in Indianapolis began to recognize the Pacers' lassitude for what it was, and they stopped coming to games. Attendance was down almost 10% from last year as the Pacers yawned to a 46-38 record, securing second place in the West ahead of San Antonio only in their final regular game. All this despite the fact that Indiana probably has the ABA's most talented and experienced roster.
True to form, the Pacers handed away the home-court advantage their finish had earned them by losing the opening game of the first-round playoff series to the Spurs in Indianapolis. Indiana finally won that series 4-3 but only because they somehow managed to come from 15 points behind in the second half of the seventh game. After years of dangerous, but not ultimately fatal, flirtation with doom, it seemed that the Pacers' failure to build a winning frame of mind during the regular season might now at last do them in. They appeared unable to switch on their dormant competitiveness when they needed it in the playoffs.
As if to prove the point, the Pacers immediately went into the three-game nose dive when they came up against Utah (105-96, 106-102, 99-90). General Leonard then decided it was time to inspire his forces. Forward George McGinnis, the Pacers' mainstay throughout the series, had been playing at the top of his game. At 6'8" and 235 very solid pounds, McGinnis looks as if he is made out of the same stuff as the Old Oaken Bucket, and his performances—he wound up with the best scoring (29.7) and rebounding (14.5) averages in the series—seemed likely to make him an equally revered chunk of Indianana. McGinnis and company staved off extinction by winning the fourth game 118-107.
Before the fifth game, the Pacers were helped by a new defensive star, a little fellow named Epididymitis, whose name appears on no ABA roster. Often a pro will claim that he guarded his man so tightly that he was right inside his shirt. Epididymitis, which is what afflicted Zelmo Beaty, did better than that. He got under Zelmo's skin, sent his temperature to 105° and took Beaty right out of the rest of the series. Fifth game: Pacers 110-101.
Beaty's departure from the lineup was not the only problem besetting Utah Coach Joe Mullaney. He was fruitlessly shuffling through his tallest forwards trying to find a man to stop McGinnis. His search continued into the first quarter of Game Six. With the Pacers ahead 12-4 Mullaney began thinking small, first putting 6'2" Ron Boone on McGinnis and then, briefly, a reluctant 6'6" Wise. Together they held George to 23 points, his lowest total in the series to that point. The game was a squeaker, 91-89, but Indiana's once again and they had now bootstrapped themselves into a tie.
Wise, the ABA's toughest defender at forward, has rarely been afraid to try anything. In the Stars' 1970 playoffs he appeared in every game and performed brilliantly even though bone spurs in his ankles made it painful for him to walk, much less run. And a couple of seasons ago when Utah found its offense flagging, Wise was asked to switch his efforts to scoring. He has averaged more than 20 points ever since and led the Stars against the Pacers with 21.6 a game. But Wise did not want to guard McGinnis when Mullaney first asked him. "Against Indiana I'd usually been matched with Roger Brown," he said. "I hadn't played George that much and when I had it seemed to me he scored whenever he wanted to. I figured he was too tall and too strong for me. I guess I was being unrealistic because I get upset whenever I don't hold a guy below his average and I begin to think he's too much for me. But finally Joe said something that made a lot of sense: 'He's scoring like hell over everybody else. You can't do any worse than they are.' "
The outcome of the series hinged on that conversation and another one that took place as the Stars deplaned from their flight back to Utah after losing the very close sixth game in Indiana. Jones wanted Wise to concentrate all his attention on defense, and he had a plan. "I told Willie, 'If you'll do the job on McGinnis, don't worry about shooting. I'll take up the slack on offense.' "
In the seventh game Wise played McGinnis tougher even than Epididymitis. Guarding McGinnis for nearly three quarters, Wise held him to a few shots (five) and fewer points (four) by outracing him to his favorite spots on the floor and then resolutely fronting him so that his teammates could not pass the ball into him. McGinnis finished with only 14 points.
And Jones took over Wise's offensive chores—Wise contributed only eight points—and then some. Coolly insinuating himself inside the defense as only the most adept guards can, and then waiting patiently for his opponents to make the slightest false move before attempting his 10-foot jumpers, Jones hit 10 of 14 shots and scored 29 points, 21 of them in the first half when Utah broke the game open. It was while the Stars were building their 21-point halftime lead that Jones's floor play was so flawless. He had no turnovers in the opening two periods—and since he had control of the ball most of the time, Utah left the floor at the midway point with the astonishingly low total of one turnover. Against that sort of efficiency, the Pacers could do nothing at all—and they played as though they knew it.
The night before the final game, Coach Leonard had sipped a beer and spoken of basketball psychology. "You get a bunch of good players who have some success even though they don't have a killer instinct and that lack will eventually catch up with them." He was relaxing when he said it and in a mood that indicated he expected the Pacers were about to be granted yet another last-minute reprieve. He was wrong.