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A certain unique sound was missing from the pro basketball arenas much of this season. Matchless in tonal quality, it is the noise of a crowd in mid-gasp—a sort of breathless ohh-AHHHH! from five, 10, 15,000 voices that rises on the second beat and holds. And holds. It waits for Elgin Baylor to decide, after every muscle in his body has given a fake of its own as he hangs in midair, to release the basketball.
Well, the sound is back, signaling that Elgin Baylor, once one of the most exciting players ever to make the NBA scene, also is back. Though his left kneecap is fully repaired (it was shattered on April 3, 1965), Baylor is a few steps short of his previous greatness and he needs rest often. But last week the St. Louis Hawks, for one team, were not counting those steps. The Hawks gave it a good try, pushing their playoff series with Los Angeles to seven games, but Baylor was too much. He drove the Lakers into the championship finals, where their reward was to face Boston, the team they have met four times for the title and never beaten.
While Baylor recuperated or played himself back into shape during the regular season, the Lakers were carried along largely by the shooting of Jerry West. Still, they would not have beaten the Hawks with Baylor on the bench or playing at half-speed. He averaged 17 points and less than 10 rebounds a game during the season. Against the Hawks those figures were 29 and 13—plus about 15 gasps per game.
With the emergence of Gail Goodrich as a dependable third guard, the Lakers are not going to be patsies for the Celtics, as they showed in the first game. They pushed the champions into overtime and then won 133-129, Baylor scoring 36 and West 41.
The Celtics this year furnished the best argument ever made in favor of the playoffs as determining the best team when they defeated—no, humiliated—the Philadelphia 76ers four games to one in the Eastern Division final after losing six of 10 to Philly during the season. Not just for Philadelphians but for all fans who yearned to see a new team at the top, this series was to be It for the Celtics. Fix-their-wagon, settle-their-hash time. Philadelphia in four. Well, maybe five. Would you believe six?
Boston was creaking with age, bandaged to the ears and tired after just squeezing by Cincinnati in the semifinals. Philly was rested and confident after winning the division title. The talent surrounding Wilt Chamberlain was the best he has ever had. He had Hal Greer, Chet Walker and rookie Billy Cunningham, shooters and scorers with whom he could play games. Games like pass-the-ball. And he had rebounders like Walker and Lucious Jackson.
But in the first two games of the playoffs the good outside shooting disappeared—Greer and Cunningham shot 11 of 45 and Walker wasn't much better. When this happens, Philadelphia has to look to Wilt, as in the old days, for everything. Also, when this happens and when Wilt is looked to too much, he becomes moody, shaking his head, wringing his hands, suffering. Lastly, when this happens—and this is fairly important—the 76ers do not stand too good a chance of beating the janitors. They had no chance against Boston.
Back in Convention Hall for the only game they were to win, the 76ers took a 24-point lead as the Celtics, two up and pacing themselves, missed their first seven shots in each of the first two periods. Wally Jones had the 76ers running well for the first time, a cardinal point. Jones can break a press quickly, thus defeating a key Boston tactic. The Celts like to force rivals to take 10 seconds getting to half court, which drastically cuts maneuver-and-shoot time. Jones does not let this happen. In turn, Boston tries to get Jones out of the game by having Sam Jones take him inside on offense and draw fouls.
Wally stayed out of foul trouble this time because Jackson helped out on Sam Jones—but the Celtics came back anyway to within one point. If it hadn't been for Greer, who kicked his slump with nine points in the final quarter, Boston might have won this one, too. 76ERS RETURN TO GREATNESS, headlined one Philadelphia paper, but it is ironic that this Celtic loss may have been the key game of the whole series, coming as it did when Boston expected to be run out of the gym. "We give them 24 points and they don't know what to do with it," Red Auerbach snorted. "We know what to do with it." (In their first-game loss to the Lakers, the Celtics did not know what to do with an early 18-point lead.)
Chamberlain's play, uninspiring through the first three games, was a study in contrasts in game four on Easter Sunday in Boston. There have been occasions this season when he has confounded even his teammates with a reluctance—almost a refusal—to shoot. And this was the case now. He scored only 15 points (on 14 shots) but still had one of the best games of his turbulent career. He had 20 rebounds in the first half, only one less than the entire Boston team, and the 76ers were playing beautifully—Greer shooting well, Jones directing the running crisply, Al Bianchi coming off the bench to score 15 points by half time.