Sometime along about the summer solstice, when the running, gunning Bay Bridge Golden State Warriors get around to meeting the running, gunning Bay State Boston Celtics for the championship of basketball by the bays, both teams will surely remember last Saturday night's game in Oakland and a young man who looked two chilling moments in the eye and said, "Hello, I'm Phil Smith, and you're not."
The twin plays that the lanky Golden State guard made 37 seconds apart came near the end of a grueling contest during which the younger-than-springtime Warriors and the older-than-the-hills Celtics had battled each other with savage fury until only one team was left standing. That the one was Golden State resulted from the fact that Smith pulled off the big plays, and Dave Cowens or Charlie Scott or F. Lee Bailey or whoever was assigned to block Smith off the offensive board did not.
The situation was this: in a game that may well have been a preview of the NBA finals, the Warriors came from 14 points behind to take the lead in the third quarter, then Boston rallied from nine back to cut Golden State's lead to 93-92 with 1:22 to play. At that point Charles Dudley, an Unknown and therefore Essential Warrior, shot and missed from the left side.
As the bodies tumbled underneath the basket the angular Smith, who stands 6'4" but has very long arms, came up with the ball, dribbled out to the right and nailed a jumper. After John Havlicek made a layup to make the score' 95-94, Golden State again brought the ball down the left side. This time Rick Barry, he of the new hair weave ("Go easy on me; it looks good out of uniform"), took the shot. It missed, but once more Smith was right there. He tipped the ball clear, dribbled out to the right and nailed a jumper. Sound familiar? Seconds later, when Boston's Scott heaved an air ball at the other end, the result was familiar, too. The Warriors took possession of the game as well as the ball. They went on to win 100-94 for their fifth victory in their last seven confrontations with the Celtics.
March 1, 1976
"Smith crashed into our guys on the first rebound and held on the second," said Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn in a characteristically objective analysis. But the facts were that Smith's 27 points and some fine defensive work by Dudley and another of the Warriors' faceless wonders, Dwight Davis, were the reasons Golden State won. Warrior Center Clifford Ray also played an important role by holding Cowens to nine points.
"You've got to push the dude around to impress him. You've got to lay some skin on him," said Ray of Cowens. That is a good description of how all the players on the two best teams in the NBA go after each other.
"Was this like playoff time?" said Dudley, presenting Golden State's point of view. "If it's Boston, it's always playoff time." Though most of the Celtics denied having a special feeling about the game, there was a certain edge to their demeanor. Golden State had defeated Boston three out of four games in 1974-75, then went on to replace the Celts as the NBA champions. This season the teams had alternated home-court victories. The Celtics' win was by a nine-point margin, but the Warriors' triumph was a 133-101 runaway in which Boston either committed turnovers or was forced into bad shots eight of the first 10 times it had the ball.
"You don't forget something like that," said Cowens. "We were embarrassed. There aren't any supermen on the other side, but if you let a team think it can beat you, it will keep right on doing it. Then you're just a normal bunch, back in the pack."
The proud Celtics seldom have been accused of being ordinary, and this season's team is no different. Nonetheless, Boston has suffered from inconsistency. The season started with the team having to understand, if not appreciate, the many moods of the newly acquired Scott. And with Forwards Don Nelson, Havlicek and Silas approaching an age usually associated with Bicentennial Minutes, Heinsohn felt his team might be vulnerable in the corners. Havlicek has been an All-Star for 11 straight years, and Silas is a renowned sixth man who sends opposing rebounders crashing into the basket supports. The coach's problem was: What would happen if all three forwards turned decrepit at the same time?
Nelson, the first of that reliable trio to show the effects of his advancing years, then rookies Tom Boswell and Ed Searcy took turns starting opposite Havlicek, but none of them handled the job properly. Only after Steve Kuberski, a former Celtic who had gone on to fail with three other teams, came back was the lineup set. When that happened, the Celtics, according to Heinsohn, "went crazy." From Thanksgiving to the All-Star break Boston was 26 and 7, a performance that nearly sewed up first place in the Atlantic Division.
All Kuberski does during games is fill a few lanes on the fast break and kick a few rear ends until Silas comes smoking off the bench. His real value to the team is that, above all, he is a Celtic. Watching Kuberski in practice one day, Jo Jo White mentioned this to Scott. "There's nothing wrong with Steve," he said. "Thing is, he can't play anywhere else. He's just a Celtic."
And now, so is Scott. During its long run Charlie's rant has provided some neat NBA theater. He is 6'6" and unusually quick and has unlimited talent. But he also has been branded a chronic corn-plainer, a malcontent. "Scott's your basic score-35-but-lose-by-12 gunner," is how a detractor once put it. During four years in Phoenix, Scott averaged 23.5 points per game, but could not lead the Suns out of the desert.
When Red Auerbach traded for this enigma last summer, there was speculation that the old boy had finally choked on his cigar. Scott, it was said, would not fit in at Boston, would not adapt his game, would not accept coaching.
But he has. A habitual sprinter, Scott has adjusted his style to the intricate weaving of the Boston fast break. He has labored hard on defense, while scoring almost 19 points per game. Most important, he has made an effort not to force his unchained psyche on his new team. "There are so many dominant personalities on the Celtics that no one man can overdominate," says Havlicek. "Charlie realized he would have to be the one to change, not us." The Boston veterans would accept no less.
Heinsohn and Auerbach have had nothing but kind words for their new star, even though Scott is well on his way to an unprecedented triple crown of fouling. He has the most personals, technicals and disqualifications in the NBA. "It's his money," shrugs Heinsohn, a noted screamer who has been left at the gate in the technical-foul sweepstakes.
And Scott, part con and all charm, returns the kind words. "I've never been happier," he says. "Anyone who wants to win can adjust to anything. When a player dreams of being a pro, he dreams of being a Celtic."
That attitude undoubtedly helped Boston pad its lead in the East. Then came the All-Star break and with it the annual Celtic "blahs." When Boston left on its Western trip it had the same number of losses (14) as Golden State, putting the teams in a virtual tie in the race for the best regular-season record. Then the Celts lost three of four games. In a defeat at Houston, Cowens reinjured his hand by accommodating a burly fan who had made the mistake of a lifetime by taking a swipe at the redhead. Cowens punched the man's lights out. During a humiliating 124-99 loss at Seattle, an erratic White hit Cowens in the head with one pass and the center of the hanging scoreboard with another.
Only when they got to Los Angeles did the Celts look like themselves. Against the Lakers they broke fast and finished the same way. Cowens dominated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, outscoring him 27-20 and outrebounding him 24-7, and Silas came out of a slump to contribute 19 points and 13 rebounds as Boston won 125-113. "We didn't beat a good team," said Cowens. "We need a deuce to finish this trip."
White was asked if the Celtics were ready for Golden State. "You mean, are they ready for us?" he snapped. "The Warriors know that when we're on our game, they're in for some misery."
In Oakland there was plenty of that for both sides. Even in defeat the Celtics looked as though they had rediscovered what Heinsohn calls "a communion of spirit." Silas, the most eloquent of all animal rebounders, had defined that feeling earlier. "You don't dwell on the games you lose, but on how you lose them," he had said. "Last year the Warriors knew in their hearts and souls they could beat Washington, just as Washington knew it could beat us. We don't want anybody to feel that way again."
That is fuel for the Celtics' next meeting with Golden State, at Boston Garden this weekend. And that figures to be only one of many meetings between these teams before the summer solstice.