Publish date:


While everybody watched Los Angeles beat the Bucks out West, the East was producing a deceptive challenger in the Knicks

Now for the tough questions. Who is middleweight champion of the world? What are the Miami Screaming Eagles? In what order do Amos Otis' names occur? What two teams played in The Other Finals of the NBA conference championships last week?

You are right if you answered "don't know" to all the above questions. For example, Senator Edmund Muskie was campaigning in Boston last week on the day the Celtics and Knickerbockers met in the third game of the Eastern finals, and his staff had set aside a couple of tickets for him. But since he was looking for some exposure, naturally he didn't show at the game. The national publicity devoted to the Western championships between the Los Angeles Wilts and the Milwaukee Kareems had so overshadowed the series in the East that at times it seemed nobody would pay any attention to New York and Boston even if Dita Beard had been releasing the stat sheets to Jack Anderson. In fact, it now can be reliably reported that Howard Hughes has hidden out the last couple of weeks by locating himself on the Knickerbocker bench.

Nevertheless, despite the glamour of the West, the NBA went ahead with its satellite tournament for the Eastern teams, and there is even some idle talk now that the Los Angeles Lakers will be required to play the Knicks—who whipped the Celtics in five games—before the Western titlist can flat out declare itself world champion. This will help pay salaries for all the league's jumpers and lawyers. And further, considering the way the Knicks have been playing lately—not deceptively good but often deceptively good enough—it might even be some contest.

The Knicks are not entirely unknown, of course, if only because ABC-TV persisted in foisting them on a disgruntled, shrinking national audience week after week all season long. Still, the Knicks have endured such an uneven season, going through some periods of desultory, even atrocious, play, that it was difficult to give the team much of a chance until it finally began to come around again midway in the opening series against Baltimore. Part of the New York problem was purely psychological: first adapting to the loss of Willis Reed and then becoming locked into second place in the division, with no real challenge. The other part is technical, for the Knick team is small, not particularly fast, with a long but undistinguished bench, and it lacks the dynamite that big Reed provided underneath. Jerry Lucas, his replacement, is an NBA-size forward vamping at center.

"We operate with such a small margin of error," says Bill Bradley, who has been playing as well as he ever has. "We don't have Willis there to take care of our mistakes, so we must play defense perfectly and we must run our patterns perfectly to get clear shots. We're like a building constructed without a foundation. Of course—given that situation—Jerry is the perfect kind of center for us."

Lucas, who has staged more comebacks than Merv Griffin ever did, is enjoying himself immensely in the pivot. He plays like a politician who, having staked out the middle ground, can afford to range about and dip into what other territory seems bountiful. Early in the series Lucas drove the Celtics to distraction by moving outside to toss up long bombs and also by freeing the middle for back-door assaults by his teammates.

Significantly, in the third game—the only one Boston won—the Celtics countered Lucas best when the smallish center, Dave Cowens, followed Lucas out and switched off him on high picks. Cowens also effectively mined his offensive territory, working Lucas inside with the clever help of the weak-side guard.

Overall, though, Cowens could not keep it up. The Celtics were 41-5 in the regular season against the below-.500 teams, in large part because their auburn-haired ingenue at center somehow peaked for them all. Boston is like a baseball team with strength up the middle—White at guard, John Havlicek at forward, Cowens at center (and with an ace fireman in Don Nelson)—so the Celtics could beat up on all the flawed teams in a diluted league. But the Celtics were over their heads (15-21 against the above-.500 teams) in top playoff company. If Boston was genuinely as good as its record indicated, the Celtics would have beat the pants off the Knicks in the second game, at Madison Square Garden, when New York played poorly and was in foul trouble. But Boston couldn't even catch up. Take away their running game and shackle just one of their big three, and there is nothing else for the Celtics to fall back on.

Even with Reed and Guard Dick Barnett out with injuries, New York could, by contrast, field five solid players—and even get some sporadically good performances out of its top subs, Phil Jackson and Dean Meminger. New York, like Los Angeles, also has the big-city edge in money which counts a whole lot more than home court. In a runaway money market, New York could afford Earl Monroe when he put his bad right knee up for bids, and it could go out and wave dollar bills around until somebody gave in and sold the team a backup center (Luther Rackley) when it needed one.

Few solvent teams left can afford to scout opponents more assiduously. The Knicks even take movies of all their home games. Given these built-in inequities in the NBA now, one can almost understand what motivated Red Auerbach, the old-line general manager of the Celtics, when he refused outright to permit two injured Knicks to use the whirlpool baths at Boston Garden before the third game. In the fitful battle against the exchequers in New York and Los Angeles, few weapons are left in the league except for Auerbachian guile and bravado, the same stuff that once worked against Syracuse and Tri-Cities. And call it bush, but that was the only game Boston won.

The Celtics could not win again at home in the fifth game despite bursting away to a 14-0 lead. Boston Garden was a madhouse right up to the 111-103 final, but the Knicks tuned it out. "A lot of teams would have started running like crazy to catch up," Lucas said. "It is to this team's credit that we just kept calmly playing our game."

It also helped that the Knicks were not among strangers. Since the children of New York attend the colleges of Boston—and basketball tickets there can be purchased right from the box office instead of from scoundrels on the street—the Knicks have a home-away-from-home in the Hub. There were battles over banners, debris was thrown and even bands of transient New York students roamed Causeway Street, chanting that awful hometown cry of DEE-fense! DEE-fense!

New York took charge in the third quarter when Dave DeBusschere made 18 points. Lucas kept Cowens busy on the high post, the Knick guards cleared through and then DeBusschere alternately drove or, if given room, fired his bomb. He had scored only three points in the whole first half, and New York needed his offense because the backcourt was off. Frazier admitted to "missing my rhythm" and passed off many clear shots before finally getting enough confidence to try a few jumpers down the stretch. Then little Dean Meminger came in with a stirring floor game in the last couple of minutes to keep the victory safe. And once again New York got just exactly what it needed.

The Knicks come up primed for the finals. DeBusschere was merely magnificent in every department against Boston, and he and Frazier are among the best two or three in the league at their positions, on both offense and defense. Monroe played one masterful game, the fourth, and showed enough in the others to suggest he is getting better all along. Bradley was as hot on offense as he was industrious on defense, dogging Havlicek. Lucas played confidently and with authority even in those games when his shooting was off. He is positively effusive off the court, a guy who relaxes by working up magic acts. Mental legerdemain has always been his specialty, and currently he is memorizing large sections of the Manhattan telephone book, column by column. (Quickly now, Mr. Lucas, what's the 19th listing down on the first column, page 435?)

"This is the most gratifying season ever," Lucas says, grinning boyishly. "You cannot imagine what a thrill it was, somewhere along the middle of the season, when I realized that the other guys had accepted me at center. Nobody said anything, but suddenly I could feel by osmosis that they believed in me, that they thought, 'Hey, maybe we can win with this guy.' "

Still, as sharp and balanced as the Knicks are now, perhaps calling the 19th listing down, first column, page 435, just before they take on the Lakers would not be a bad idea. That's Dial-a-Prayer.


Dealing in defense (he also doubles as a center), Jerry Lucas bounds high up in an attempt to block Celtic Dave Cowens' shot.