Now that the millstones of the NBA have eliminated the chaff—including some husks not used to being eliminated, like Milwaukee and Los Angeles—it is time to get serious about pro basketball, which means the playoffs, the fourth third of the season. It took 82 games for the NBA to eliminate just eight teams (over in the ABA, they got rid of only two), and this week the surviving 10, including teams that have never been in the playoffs—Houston in the East and Kansas City-Omaha and Seattle in the West—began the series of eliminations that will run past Mother's Day and on toward the end of May. No matter. A lot of extra box-office money is involved and eventually a champion will emerge in time to start training for next season.
When it is over, the last team standing, if barely, should be either Boston or Washington. They are easily the class of the East, which this year is the class of the NBA. Still, this is the season that started so bizarrely with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hand broken and Dave Cowens' foot fractured. If the whole show now closes with as much predictability as it opened, the new champion could be Seattle, winning in seven games over Houston after pressing Bill Russell into emergency duty at center.
The ABA hasn't been all that complicated, with only Kentucky and New York winning more games than they lost in one division and Denver playing a stunning solo role in the other. The only real excitement came just at the end, when the Nets misplaced their defense and blew a five-game Eastern Division lead. As a result, Kentucky slipped into a tie with New York, and then mugged the Nets in a one-game playoff.
Now, after everyone else gets lost in the playoff preliminaries, the same pair should do it all over again to see who draws Denver in the final. That's a little like two of Napoleon's armies slugging it out for the right to invade Russia.
In the NBA East, where Boston and Washington dominated their respective divisions once things got sorted out, the whole season may have hinged on one game—the tough contest in which Boston beat Washington 95-94 last Friday. By the time the playoffs are over, that one point could have determined the championship.
The victory made the Celtics' record half a game better than the Bullets', and two days later the regular season ended with them tied for the conference championship. But by virtue of its better in-conference record (12 losses to 14), Boston got the No. 1 spot, the home-court advantage and at least seven days to rest. Beyond that, the win meant that the Celtics would not have to open the playoffs against Buffalo—the third-best team in the conference and possibly the third-best team in the league—but could take it easy for a week before encountering the survivor of Houston and New York on Sunday or Monday.
New York? The Knicks' appearance in the playoffs came as something of a surprise, since they had teetered for weeks on the brink of elimination. But last Sunday, in national TV's full glare, they pulled themselves together and beat Buffalo. And then Cleveland, which would have made the playoffs if it had won, lost to Kansas City-Omaha. At least the TV people were happy to have New York on the line, if only for a while.
For the Celtics, age is a critical factor in the forecourt, where John Havlicek (35), Don Nelson (34) and Paul Silas (31) are not young. And fatigue is a possible problem also with Dave Cowens, who is only 26 but who plays harder than three normal people and who was somewhat erratic in the final weeks.
Toward the end, Cowens had depended less and less upon finesse and quickness and more on sheer strength and tenaciousness, sometimes playing like a tired man. It is not a new problem for him. Last season after Boston was assured of winding up with the best record in the conference, Cowens was sent home for three days to Kentucky under the pretense of resting a sore knee. Without him, the Celtics split games against Atlanta and Houston. When Cowens came back, he was refreshed and devastating in the playoffs.
Of course, there is also the money. By pulling even with Washington in the final week, the Celtics got to split with the Bullets a $107,500 regular-season bonus pot: half of the $40,000 for posting the league's best record and half of the combined $40,000 for winning and $27,500 for finishing second in the conference.
And so, Washington draws Buffalo in a best-of-seven opening-round match. The Braves wound up 11 games behind Boston, but they are quick and strong and they have Bob McAdoo, the league's Most Valuable Player. Across the season, Buffalo and Washington beat each other twice.
Washington's fortunes will turn on the health of All-Star Phil Chenier, one of the league's best defensive guards, who also averages 21.8 points a game. But he aggravated an old back injury against New Orleans on April 1 and hasn't played since.
Without Chenier, the Bullets are operating without a key part of their attack. Many of Washington's plays are geared to utilize Chenier's outside shooting, and his absence puts a strain on the offense. Jimmy Jones, who came to the Bullets only this season, is a more-than-able replacement, but the six-time ABA All-Star is a driver, which Chenier is not, and his style breaks the mold.
"The starting unit has really been close knit, and I still don't feel like a part of it," Jones says. "The guys still don't know actually how I play."
"We lost in Boston, and Chenier being out didn't help us," says K. C. Jones, the Bullets' coach, "but I can't offer that as an excuse for losing. We needed that game, primarily because it would have given us enough time off to be sure that Phil would be ready. Now he may have to play sooner than we'd like."
In the West, where the Lakers and the Bucks played themselves into a spectator's role and Detroit nearly did, it has been a year of negatives. Golden State was not supposed to have an especially good season, but wound up with 48 victories and the conference championship, mainly because it was able to dominate its own division. The Warriors will have the week off and then face the winner of the short Detroit-Seattle series—a plus—but they still haven't found a take-charge guard. And they went through the season with two slender forwards as starters and were often overpowered by other peoples' muscle.
Still, there is Rick Barry, scoring as brilliantly as ever, and Clifford Ray, the center who came from Chicago with questionable credentials to become the catalyst that turned Golden State into a winner. Once suspect because of a knee injury that required post-season surgery two years ago, Ray has been outstanding for the Warriors.
"Early in the season I thought they were playing over their heads," says Laker Coach Bill Sharman, "but they aren't. They are very quick. They rebound well. They move the ball fast. If they can stay healthy, they have a shot at the title."
But to get that far the Warriors will have to beat the Seattle-Detroit winner and then either Chicago or Kansas City-Omaha, the bruising opponents in the opening matchup of the West's second-and third-best teams. Chicago was the leader in the Midwest (with only 47 victories), but lost five out of nine to the Kings over the season. Kansas City-Omaha is an opportunistic team, no longer to be taken lightly. It was 17-9 against the Bulls, the Bucks and the Pistons—three teams that a year ago had a combined mark of 165-81.
"We are in a funny division," says Dick Motta, the Chicago coach. "If I had said a year ago that Milwaukee wouldn't be in the playoffs and that Kansas City-Omaha would be fighting for first place, no one would have believed me."
Slowed at the beginning of the season by several serious contract disputes, the Bulls never came close to expectations. They had traded Ray to Golden State for Nate Thurmond, and then discovered that while the big center still can rebound and play defense, age has crippled his offense. Once one of the best centers in the NBA, the 33-year-old Thurmond now moves about at a walk.
Without a first-rate big man, Motta may not have to worry about the playoffs beyond the opening round. The Kings have Sam Lacey in the pivot, a powerful 230-pound giant who has come on as one of the NBA's finer centers. Lacey has enabled the Kings to play team defense, which means that their big man in the middle is good enough to cover other peoples' mistakes. In their first full year under Phil Johnson, the Kings have also given up their helter-skelter offense for a more controlled attack. "I don't care who scores," Johnson told them, "I just want the best percentage shot." What he got was five men, led by his dazzling guards, Nate (Tiny) Archibald and Jimmy Walker, scoring in double figures.
The Western Conference playoffs won't lack for excitement. It is only when the winner moves East that mere excitement may not be enough. As K. C. Jones said, "Anybody can make the playoffs. But once you get there you have to like the team that has been there the most. And that's Boston."