Things were going along pretty good for the New York Knicks. On Tuesday a week ago there they were, beating the Kings of Kansas City-Omaha 106-102 and laughing at all the people who said they couldn't win without Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas and Dean Meminger. The first three had retired and Meminger had been given away in the expansion draft. It was supposed to be the kind of year in which "rebuilding" would be the key word. But a whole slew of lightly regarded Knicks were having surprisingly good seasons, and at that moment, after polishing off the Kings, they occupied second place in the NBA's Atlantic Division, ahead of Boston and Philadelphia, and trailing Buffalo by half a game. Then, alas for the Knicks, they weren't merely trailing the Braves but playing them. And in a two-game series they twice came up short.
A lot of folks have found themselves coming up short when they have to play the Braves, who were supposed to be tough but maybe not that tough. After their double romp over the Knicks—108-104 at home Friday night and 118-102 Saturday afternoon in Madison Square Garden—Buffalo became, by a few hours, the first team in the NBA to win 21 games (they have lost but eight). Most notably the Braves were winning without two of their best players, Forward Jim McMillian and Guard Ernie DiGregorio. DiGregorio tore up his left knee in the sixth game of the season and will be out until at least mid-January. McMillian was operated on for appendicitis after the 13th game and at the time of the Knick series he was getting ready to come back.
Coach Jack Ramsay was ready to split a gut himself last week because nobody seemed to be excited about his undermanned team's heroics. "I guess you can say I am disturbed that we really haven't gotten as much recognition as we deserve," he said. "We were hurt badly by the injuries but we didn't fall flat like other teams with injuries did. I really get burned. We come into New York and the writers ask, 'Are you surprised at the Knicks' Mel Davis and Harthorne Wingo?' Hell, I'm not surprised. But nobody asks me if I'm surprised at our Kenny Charles and Dale Schlueter and Randy Smith. Come on, my people are doing something. I heard that Bob McAdoo was disturbed when he picked up SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and saw Rick Barry on the cover. Well, McAdoo is doing more for his team than any player in the league, including Barry."
Apparently unaware that Buffalo was doing a slow-burn because of its relative anonymity, New York was loose as it prepared to play back-to-back games against the division leaders within a span of 17 hours. ("That's not a break between games," said Bill Bradley. "It's only a long halftime.") Tuesday night at the Garden, after the Kings had fallen, Walt Frazier was wandering around the Knicks' dressing room wearing a long yellow fox fur coat. Tom Riker, the reserve center twice cut but now apparently ready to play in the NBA, spotted his teammate and howled.
"Clyde, I thought I told you to stop wearing those dead animals in here," he yelled.
Frazier scowled. "I'll stop wearing 'em when you stop going out with 'em." Then the All-Star guard grinned. "These guys are always making fun of me about my car and my clothes. I like it, it keeps everybody loose."
Loose the Knicks remained, right up until the tip-off in Buffalo. The New York forecourt, overeager to stop McAdoo, found itself deep in foul trouble halfway through the second quarter. As he has all season, Knick Coach Red Holzman went to his bench, where a crew of unheralded but at times surprisingly talented young reserves awaited his beck. Into the breach, in varying combinations, he sent Davis, Riker, Henry Bibby, Howard Porter and Dennis Bell. Bibby put in 15 points in the period. A minute after Bradley sat down with his third foul Buffalo led by six. But at halftime the Knicks were ahead by one.
"It was great," Phil Jackson said later. "Three starters on the bench in foul trouble and we end up leading by a point at halftime. I wish we could have won with those kids playing."
Three starters on the bench, and a fourth, Center John Gianelli, back in New York with a sprained ankle. It didn't seem to matter. Jackson eventually fouled out, as did Bradley, but for Buffalo nothing was working. By 9:14 of the last quarter, the Knicks led by 11. But the Braves kept running, as they do, took the defense to the Knicks and finally New York wilted. In one six-minute stretch, Buffalo reeled off 15 straight points and held on the last three minutes to win by four. McAdoo had 42. So much for the Knick bench in Game One.
On the sidelines McMillian thought of how good it would be when he and DiGregorio returned to action. "When I went out after Ernie was hurt, I thought at the worst we'd play .500 ball. But I think injuries have helped this team. Players who would be sitting on the bench have played and gained confidence. We used to play just eight, maybe nine guys a game. When Ernie and I get back, we'll have 10 or 11. But if we keep winning, I may just take off until the playoffs."
When DiGregorio was lost no one was joking about the playoffs. The Braves are in trouble when they can't run, and the little guard from Providence College was the one they had looked to, to make them go.
"We were out on the Coast when Ernie was hurt," Ramsay said. "I told the players, 'Look, Ernie is going back for an operation. That means we're going to have better defense, and we won't score as much.' We needed a different approach but we thought we could still win."
Buffalo could, ripping off 11 straight victories. After the sixth of those the Braves lost McMillian, the team captain who plays every facet of the game well and, at 26, is the steadying influence. But then the Braves dropped five out of seven, including three straight, and Ramsay began juggling his lineup. Jack Marin, who had been useful coming off the bench, had replaced McMillian as a starter. But now he was playing 40 minutes instead of 20. Ramsay spelled him by moving Schlueter, a journeyman who is performing better than that, to center, and McAdoo, who at 6'10" is stunningly quick, from center to forward, where he is just as devastating offensively.
At first it was Randy Smith and Lee Winfield at guard, then Kenny Charles and Bobby Weiss. Now, at least until DiGregorio returns, it is Smith and Charles, and no matter what combination is in there, it appears to be the right one.
"Because of the injuries," says Ramsay, "I've learned where I can go when we need help. When I started I set a goal of winning 50 games, and nothing has changed my mind. Last year we won 42 games by outscoring our opponents, not by defense, and we gave up more points than anybody in the league. But no more. Our game has to start with defense. We can't play a basket exchange kind of game because we can't get running room. You get running room from defense—guard defense. You don't get it after another team scores. And if we get the room we can run with any team in the league. Including the Celtics—and they know that."
If the Braves love to run, the Knicks do not, or at least not very often. Holzman has designed a beautifully patterned offense and demands that his troops perform it with discipline. Few teams use the 24-second clock better than New York. The Knicks bring the ball down, move it around and always look for the open man. For Holzman, patience means two points. With DeBusschere and Reed up front it was crisp and effective. When they retired, the offense was expected to crumble into chaos, but it hasn't.
"It's really quite simple," explains Bradley, the team's venerable patrician. "There is no magic in this game when it is played correctly. On our team we have a system that's proved to work—providing each individual does his job. And then it really doesn't matter who the individual is, but what role he is taking in the system."
At the beginning of the season no one was certain who would fill what role. Oh, certainly, Frazier and Earl Monroe would be the guards. And, of course, Bradley would be one of the forwards. But even that trio wouldn't get far without some help. Even last year, when they had all those other people, the Knicks were considered suspect. Frazier and DeBusschere were acknowledged stars, but Monroe still suffered from the "great one-on-one player" stigma, and Bradley ran hot and cold. Jackson, it was said, lacked coordination, and Gianelli was not muscular enough to be an effective NBA center. Bibby and Meminger might be adequate backcourt relief, but the Knicks were weak up front. Wingo was just a guy with big feet and a funny name. Lucas, Reed's original replacement, was off his game. Still, on the strength of their picture-book defense, they made it to the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Celtics in five. But now what?
Seated in his small, neat office inside the Garden the other day, Holzman fingered a cigar and made a decision. "I'll have a hard boiled egg sandwich," he said to his secretary. Then he turned his agile mind back to the beginning of the season.
"Any time you lose four guys who knew exactly what was going on you know you're in trouble. But I didn't think we were in as much trouble as everyone else seemed to think. I just knew we were in for a lot of long hard work, more than ever before. I don't think a coach is earning his money if he says, 'Well, I don't have the guys, so what can I do?' He's got to take what he's got and work with it to make it the best he can. It's not guesswork. We look for players who we feel can play our game. Like Wingo. He's no surprise. We knew what he could do and he's worked damned hard. We just teach everyone as much as we can—mostly by repetition—and then hope that certain team movements become automatic."
It didn't work very well in the exhibition season. The Knicks lost six of eight games and looked terrible.
"We'd get guys like Jesse Dark and Mel Davis in there and we couldn't run any plays because they didn't know what to do," says Frazier of that period. "Now they do. Now we have confidence in everybody because if they didn't know their plays Red would have them out. My first year I wasn't any good because my teammates didn't have confidence in me. So now I try to let the younger guys know that I have confidence in them. Maybe not in words but by things I do on the floor."
Holzman also changed his offense, which, he says, is not as much guard-oriented as some claim. The fine distinctions don't bother him. If it is working, and usually it is, what difference does it make what it is called?
"It's basically the same offense we've always used," says Holzman. "The only difference is that if the play breaks down, Frazier and Monroe can take over and go one-on-one, and why not, the way they do it?"
With Wingo and Jackson blossoming into dependable forwards and Gianelli quietly contributing a good measure of defense at center, the Knicks alternated wins and losses in their first 12 games, they won 11 of their next 13 before coming up against Buffalo. And they've been winning with their guards. Monroe and Frazier have averaged 21.9 and 21.0 per game and Bibby has been getting a point for every two minutes he plays. The pleasantest news was the development of the youngsters, especially Wingo, Davis and Riker. And Gianelli.
"I know that people say a team can't win with Gianelli at center," said Gianelli, speaking as quietly as he plays. "Well, I don't think they know. If I only score four points it doesn't mean I played a bad game. We play a team game and statistics really don't mean anything. We usually get outrebounded but we win. There are other things: picking, setting, playing defense, blocking shots. I'm a good center at all those things. Sure I'll have trouble with Lanier or Kareem or McAdoo, but the team will make up for it elsewhere."
Saturday afternoon the Knicks had trouble with McAdoo once again, and this time no one made it up anywhere. New York got off to a fast start, leading 29-20 at the end of the first quarter, but then McAdoo and the fiercely running Braves took over, and that is what it turned out to be, a runaway. By halftime Buffalo was ahead 56-48 though McAdoo, who appeared tired (he was playing his third game in less than three days), had scored only 13 points. The third quarter was almost even but, just as they had done the night before in Buffalo, the Knicks flagged and fell. Buffalo won the last period 30-22 and at one stage led by as many as 21 points.
McAdoo finished with 37 points and 15 rebounds, giving him totals of 79 and 38 in less than 24 hours. "The last time we played the Knicks in the Garden we played stupid and lost," he said. "Now we beat them two straight. We let them know we are a better team."