From the first to last game, through it all, Jerry West masked his frustration well. During the first 10 long days of the Los Angeles Laker playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks, West limited any outward indication of the deep bewilderment he felt over his poor shooting to occasional dismayed shakes of his head—moments when his eyes turned woeful and his lips and jaw tightened with disgust. In full good humor, he sometimes blamed tiredness or bad luck for his inaccuracies; other times he named little lapses in technique or even the Bucks' defense as the cause of his errant shots. And dutifully his coach and teammates stood by him, repeating the litany: "Jerry does so many other good things for us that it makes no difference he's in a bit of a shooting slump."
Indeed, there was logic in their argument. After five games the Lakers led the Bucks three to two and needed only one more victory to cinch the spot in the NBA finals. Wilt Chamberlain's rebounding and defense had held Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar within reasonable limits and the Lakers received plenty of points from their other shooters, notably Jim McMillian and Gail Goodrich. West, the highest playoff scorer in history, averaged nearly 10 points under his usual postseason pace but still worked splendidly as a playmaker and defender.
"In the past—when we've always lost in the playoffs and I scored so many points—they always talked about why we lost and not about all the points I scored," West said. "Now we're winning and they don't talk about that. All anyone seems to be concerned about are the points I'm not scoring."
Clearly, the perfectionist inside West was seething. It gnawed away until finally the outburst came as the Lakers scrimmaged in Milwaukee Arena before their final game with the Bucks. Missing an easy jump shot from one of his favorite spots on the floor, West suddenly slapped his fists against his thighs, clenched his jaw so tightly that the sinews stood out in his neck and wheeled toward the long, empty press table at courtside. Winding up like Jan Stenerud attempting a 50-yard field goal, he kicked at the table and staggered briefly off balance as, fortunately, he missed. "Hey, man, don't do that. You'll hurt yourself," reserve Guard Flynn Robinson reprimanded softly.
As quickly as that the outbreak was over, and West returned to inconspicuous headshaking, but he had blown his cover. No longer could excuses, facile or blithe, be believed. The old West urge not merely to win but to win with glory was still clearly festering, and in the end it did the Bucks in.
Milwaukee should have won the sixth game of the playoffs just as surely as the Lakers had won the fifth 115-90, when the Bucks went into a bizarre collapse in the second half at Los Angeles. In the climax at Milwaukee the Bucks built a 10-point lead early in the final period. Jabbar outscored (37-22) and out-rebounded (25-24) Chamberlain and blocked nearly as many shots as Wilt. Young Forward Curtis Perry added 24 rebounds, and Wally Jones, subbing for Oscar Robertson, who played only seven minutes due to an injury, performed about as well as Robertson had at any time during the series.
Meanwhile, most of the Los Angeles shooters were missing, none of them more often than West, who was shaking his head back and forth like a man watching a Ping-Pong match. After hitting three of his first five shots in the game Jerry then missed all but two of his next 18. From halftime until midway through the fourth period he was awful—perfectly so—as he missed 11 consecutive shots.
No sooner had the Bucks built their lead to 10 points than they slipped into the same curious pattern of inaction that had cost them the two previous close games in this series, even though they had held leads in the final moments of each. As Milwaukee players stood motionless and apparently reluctant to shoot, the Laker defense tightened, repeatedly forcing Milwaukee to throw up desperate tosses as the 24-second clock ran down. Chamberlain blocked several other Buck shots and took full command of the backboards as the Lakers outscored Milwaukee by 12 points in the final eight minutes.
Twelve also was the total scored by West in the last six minutes as he suddenly rediscovered his touch. And, at last, there was the West of old: he drove for a layup, bombed two long jumpers, passed crisply for two assists and knocked the Bucks clear out of the playoffs by calmly making six straight free throws.
"I've been in slumps like this before, but it's been a long time—like since the seventh grade," West said. "Still, I'm a confident person, and when you've got confidence like I do, you want to shoot at times when other guys might not care to. You expect to make shots when other guys don't.
"I guess I can't figure out much better than anyone else what's gone wrong with me," he added, throwing in another headshake for emphasis. "But, I've got one thing all figured: this winning is beautiful."