The new 52-story Prudential Center notwithstanding, Bill Russell is still the biggest thing in Boston. Last week, in what was supposed to be the choicest series since silver certificates, Russell led his defending champion Boston Celtics to a four-games-to-one rout of Cincinnati. The Royals came in as heir apparent and went out as a mere pretender.
This was only the semifinal in the National Basketball Association's latest assault on spring, but Boston and Cincinnati are the two best teams in the world, and when the series started it appeared that the finals would be superfluous so far as deciding a champion is concerned. For this one, even the hockey fans were on hand—dead giveaways, coming into the Boston Garden with their coat collars turned up.
Out in the Western Division what was happening was not so decisive but far more competitive. First, St. Louis beat Los Angeles, three to two, the home team winning every time, but the Hawks outrebounding the Lakers in four of the five games. The Lakers have never had heft at center, and with both their forwards, Elgin Baylor and Rudy LaRusso, down to about 215 pounds, they were just muscled into submission. Then the Hawks, whose power is spread through the lineup, took on the rugged San Francisco Warriors.
The Warriors have added Nate Thurmond to Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Meschery and Wayne Hightower up front—the muscle part of what Coach Alex Hannum calls his "muscle and hustle team." The battle for second shots between these teams was fearful and bloody.
By contrast, in the East the Celtics got plenty of second shots against the Royals. That and the best sustained defense ever put up by a pro team explained why Boston won. The Celts can shoot a lot because they know Russell will get the ball back off the boards if they miss. They can gamble on defense because they know Russell will stop nearly everything they let through.
The Royals did have some excuses. They had had a time of it beating Philadelphia in the quarter-finals while the champions rested and got themselves up for Cincinnati. They also had injuries, the most important to Jerry Lucas, who Suffered a bone bruise at the base of his spine in the second Philadelphia game. Lucas was not jumping or crashing the boards until the third Celtic game. In each of the first two he had only seven rebounds (10 below his average), and he lost his league-leading scoring touch in the bargain. During the regular season Lucas shot 56.1% against Boston. He averaged the same number of shots in the playoffs, but scored on only 25.4% of them. The difference came to 19 baskets in the five games.
While the Celtics were lucky to catch Cincinnati hurt and playing its worst, Boston won this series, and defense won for Boston. Russell, of course, was magnificent, but K. C. Jones gave the best performance by a supporting actor. K. C. is a polite man of 31 whose idea of getting tough off the court is to grow a mustache even if his wife does not like it. In green-and-white trunks, however, his demeanor is more that of the pro football player he almost became. Jones feels he must do many things because he cannot shoot; he has not, in fact, had a good shot, he says, since high school. But against the Royals it was unimportant whether he shot at all. What K. C. did was to make the plays (seven assists a game), move the ball and stop Oscar Robertson from getting, moving and shooting the ball. K. C. had help from his teammates, who switched beautifully on the few occasions Oscar got a good pick. And John Havlicek did well while Jones was rested. But K. C. was superb when it counted. Most of Robertson's scoring came in the second half of each game, after it was safely decided for the Celtics.
Robertson did average 28.2, which is not exactly negligible. However, during the regular season he had 12 baskets a game against Boston. In the playoffs, averaging the same number of shots, he had only nine baskets. He also made only 5.6 assists as against 9.1 in regular games. In plain language, Robertson was about 12 points down, and it is no coincidence that Boston was an average of 14 points better each game.
K. C. pressed Robertson all over the court, staying between him and the ball. The Royals struggled to get it to Oscar, and whenever they finally did, they just stood around in relief, watching him maneuver for scoring position. They did not pick for him, or work for their own good shots. The whole team was upset by the successful harassment of the one key man.
It was after the second game that Jones candidly wondered aloud why the Royals didn't lob the ball to Oscar. "They could just toss it over my head," he said. K. C. was right, of course, and in the second half of the fourth game the Royals used just that strategy. That was their only good half and it was the only game they won. "I don't know why they didn't do it more," K. C. said after it was all over. Then, still thinking of Robertson, he added, "I don't like to play a man like that—all over the court when he doesn't have the ball. It's like cheating. It isn't fair to him."