The NBA playoffs traditionally have produced orderly results and not just a duplication of what has gone on during the long winter. Until this year the favorites have won 36 of 39 championship confrontations, as teams and players rose and fell to precise form levels. There have been no equivalents of .250-hitting second basemen coming up to smash grand slams. There have been no Stanley Cup sagas of third-place teams awakening from a season's dormancy.
In the modern era of pro basketball, which can be dated definitively from the summer of 1954 when that bright little gentleman from Syracuse, Danny Biasone, gave the NBA his 24-second clock, only two teams that were not regular-season division winners lasted to the finals. Only once has the team with the poorer season's record triumphed in the title round. The only second-place teams to reach the final series were the 1959 Minneapolis Lakers, who were led by a rookie named Elgin Baylor, and the 1966 Boston Celtics, who were behind 2-1 in the first round, moved John Havlicek into the starting lineup and went on to victory.
There is, then, order even in the upsets, for precisely the same things have happened this year; the Lakers (long since moved to Los Angeles) and the Celtics both finished second in their divisions but won their way to the playoff finals. Baylor and Jerry West (see cover) paced the Lakers in a sweep over San Francisco in the Western finals. Havlicek, again installed as a starter in the first round, promptly led the Celtics to three straight wins against Detroit. Subsequently he and Bill Russell were the players chiefly responsible for Boston's unprecedented achievement of beating Philadelphia 4-3 after being behind 3-1.
When the seven-game championship series began in Boston Sunday, the favorite again won, as the Celtics prevailed 107-101. Despite that loss, the Lakers have an excellent chance of becoming the first Western team to win the title in exactly a decade. Certainly it does not seem likely that West and Baylor will repeat their shockingly poor shooting performances. West hit on only seven of 24, Baylor on 11 of 31.
After falling behind by 11 points early in the first quarter, the Lakers persistently countered Boston's superlative marksmanship with their strong running game, and several times they led by as much as 15. At half time Russell scarcely had time to catch his breath, as he stormed at his teammates, and the Celtics themselves came out running. Still, Boston did not regain the lead until halfway into the last quarter, when Bailey Howell hit a jumper off a fast break. In that period West and Baylor fell into the worst joint slump of their careers, making three baskets in 17 attempts. Those are bad figures these days. Roberto de Vicenzo shot three for the 17th, and look what happened to him.
As has often been the case after the bloodletting in the Eastern eliminations, the opening of the championship round had an air of anticlimax about it.
It seemed that the Lakers were coming out of seclusion to play for the title. Since mid-March the team had left California only once, for a brief two-game visit to Chicago. The Lakers routed the Bulls in five games, then San Francisco in four, and neither series attracted much attention on the desert side of San Bernardino. Since they lost the first game they had obviously come to Boston rusty and dulled competitively. If they had won, of course, it would have been said that they were relaxed and rested.
Boston, on the other hand, was trying to maintain the fine frenzy that had driven its tired and aging heroes to the victory over Philadelphia—a comeback to match Baylor's astonishing discovery that he can play without knees, or at least without knees as medical students know them. Not to denigrate Boston's efforts, but the fact is the series with Philadelphia was extremely close most of the way and was decided in the end when the 76ers suddenly, unaccountably, forgot how to shoot. In the second half of the fifth game they started missing, and they never stopped missing.
"If I were Russell," Alex Hannum said, "I'd have my defense take credit for it." But it was not readily apparent that the Celtics' defense, always superb, suddenly improved part way through the fifth game. "Maybe we did help each other a little more," Bailey Howell said, trying to assist expert analysts in perpetuating the myth that all errors in professional sport are the result of vast strategic enterprise. Philly just went cold.
For the first four games and half of the fifth the 76ers shot 44%. For the balance of the series the figure was 35%. That means about 50 points less (10 per half) than they would have scored had they maintained the 44%. Of all the 76ers, only Hal Greer, who had been shooting less than 40% anyway, improved in accuracy over those last 2� games. Wilt Chamberlain, an injured leg hampering his movement, made 36% of his shots; Wally Jones made 25%, Chet Walker and Luke Jackson 31% each, Matt Guokas 37%, Johnny Green 39% on only 13 attempts. There was no one to turn to.