"Of course, away from home the floor's a little different. The lighting's a little different. There are things you're not used to. And you don't have the home crowd with you. But sometimes playoff crowds may be a disadvantage. They're unsophisticated, and a lot of times you don't know what they're cheering about. You pick up a loose ball and hear a lot of cheering and wonder what's happened. The regular fans would just be sitting there.
"There are fewer lapses of concentration in a playoff, because everyone is at a very high emotional pitch. This is a good time for us to go into the playoffs, because we've been playing better the last month and have our confidence and a winning attitude. The team has needed this overall concentrated effort. The easiest thing in the world to do is lose. You've got to be willing to make the effort to win, to pay the price. Early in the season we had this copout about injuries, but now that we have been winning we have the confidence and the right attitude. Mullins in the last 25 games or so has really been shooting well, scoring well for us. He's the leader of the team. He's assumed the burden. He'll take the shot at the crucial time. It's what the team needed."
As befits a modest young man, Jeff Mullins agrees in a slightly different way. "It's going to take a super effort by Atlanta or us to beat L.A.," he says, "but I don't think a super effort in the playoffs is out of the question. This team has great rapport and is capable of pulling together. It has not been a good season for the Warriors, but the last month and a half has been a big improvement. If we're going to beat L.A. we're going to have to shoot from the outside, and if we're not as sharp as we can be in six or seven games or however long it takes, there is no way we can beat them. I think we are optimistic, though. We're very strong defensively. We're as healthy as we've been all year, and we're playing them while we're fresh. If we can just get their superstars a little tired we have the bench to beat them."
Still, there seems to be a sense of doubt in the minds of the Warriors, this notion that unless everybody plays about perfectly there is not much hope of beating the super Lakers. You will not find any such hypothesis around that strangely lit pavilion on the Georgia Tech campus called the William A. Alexander Memorial Coliseum, where the Atlanta Hawks keep house. The Hawks have a little score to settle with themselves, and most of them would rather desecrate the flag than allow themselves to think they cannot do it. Last year, having won the Western Division's regular season, the Hawks opened the playoffs against San Francisco, operating without Thurmond. Cocky and careless, they lost the series in six games, and they are still talking about that 12 months later.
Listen to Bill Bridges, the Hawks' superb forward, who has been with the team ever since he graduated from Kansas in 1961. A tall, dignified, marvelously constructed man, Bridges would look more at home in a diplomat's homburg and striped pants than in the garish underwear of a basketball suit. In his seventh season as a pro he has reached the point where he can see the end and appraise what it all means to him. "I'm at the zenith of my career," he said recently. "I'm never going to be a superstar. All I want at this point is to play on a world championship team and make some money out of the game. Last year I thought would be the high point. We led our division, but we let down and lost in that playoff to San Francisco. It was humiliating, and the whole season meant nothing. I'd hate to go through a summer like that again; it was the longest summer of my life. This is a team of character, and we aren't going to let it happen again."
Other Hawk players say the same thing, although not in quite such impressive prose as that of their captain, Bridges. Of course, the Hawks have to knock out either San Diego or Chicago in the playoff semifinals before they get their shot at the super Lakers. Or will it be their revenge on the Warriors? It is hard to imagine them losing to Chicago, whom they have schneidered this year, or even to expansionist San Diego, against whom they have had to work a little harder for their 3-2 advantage. But why quibble? Barring catastrophe or doomsday, the Hawks should be spending April commuting to California, and the matchup they are thinking about is against Los Angeles.
"The problem against Los Angeles—and I think it is the only problem," Bridges says, "is going out and playing our game and being healthy. Our strength is in Zelmo Beaty. He is a great shooter and is capable of shooting Chamberlain right out of the gym. If Beaty has a great night against the Lakers, don't worry about it. They're going to do their thing, and if we do our thing well, we're going to beat them. If we do our thing excellently, it will be a wipeout."
Later that evening, in the Hawks' dressing room before a game with Philadelphia, Bridges remembered something he had meant to tell the visitor. He leaned down, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Don't forget another reason we're going to win the playoffs. We've got the best coach in the league."
The next morning, following the Hawks' 39-point victory over the 76ers, the best coach in the league sat in his brand-new eighth-floor office overlooking much of Atlanta's glass-and-concrete rehabilitation. His name is Richie Guerin, and for the next few minutes he was as relaxed as a New Yorker—or, anyway, a New Yorker who coaches professional basketball—is apt to get. Twelve hours earlier, dressed in the Hawks' red, white and blue sweat suit and ready to put himself in as a substitute guard if he thought his team needed him, Guerin had been jumping up and down off the bench, shouting a continuous, 48-minute stream of instructions to his players on the court.
"Up the floor, up the floor," he would yell when the Hawks took a rebound and passed it off to their new guard, Walt Hazzard. "Off to the left, keep moving, get the ball up."