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At the end, it was up to the two big men underneath
Frank Deford
April 21, 1969
There were plenty of heroes to go around as the Celtics and the Knicks battled for the Eastern Division NBA title. The real war, though, was between New York's Willis Reed and Boston's tireless Bill Russell
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April 21, 1969

At The End, It Was Up To The Two Big Men Underneath

There were plenty of heroes to go around as the Celtics and the Knicks battled for the Eastern Division NBA title. The real war, though, was between New York's Willis Reed and Boston's tireless Bill Russell

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Just when everyone in the NBA had decided that the home-court advantage was as dead as the center jump, the fourth-place Celtics rediscovered the home court and promptly put it to advantage. That, of course, was after they had taken the precaution of winning the first game of the Eastern Division finals in New York (SI, April 14). Matching later home-game victories with the Knicks, including a tensely played 97-96 squeaker over New York on Sunday, they went back to Boston Monday night with a 3-2 lead and victory, hopefully, within neighborly reach.

It did not always seem so close at hand, especially when the Celtics were finishing fourth in their division behind Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. The Bostons themselves admit that their year-end estate embarrassed them somewhat, but this season and last any resemblance between the Celtics of the long winter and those of the playoffs has been purely coincidental. Surely what happened in the second game of the Knick series is impossible to explain in terms of logic.

To fully understand the extent of the rout, nothing but minute examination of the cruel statistics will do. The Knicks went 6:20 without a basket and ended up with only 14 points in the first quarter. Then they went cold. They were shut out for the first 4:50 of the second period and had made but three of 33 attempted baskets to that point. With only 2:16 left in the half, Boston still had more than twice as many points as New York, 49 to 24.

It was a whitewash all-round. Dave DeBusschere, who was to be shut out for the first time in his whole life anywhere, was 0 for 8 at the half; Dick Barnett was 1 for 8, Walt Frazier 2 for 11, Bill Bradley 2 for 8. Bill Russell had 21 rebounds, but although he, Tom Sanders and Bailey Howell all shot well enough, nobody on the Celtics seemed exceptional on offense. Like everyone else, they might have been distracted by the astonishing figures piling up on the scoreboard. For their part, the Boston spectators were uncommonly decent about the whole affair. It was almost as though they were unwilling witnesses to a surprise tar-and-feathering. They cheered much more lustily in the third period, when the Celtic offense began to roll.

It is ironic, but not contradictory, that while New York may still be good enough to win the championship it is also the only team in the league that could suffer such sustained futility. Any other team would rush in reserves, but New York has no bench and Coach Red Holzman deploys his extras only as fouls and enervation demand. In desperation at 35-14 he turned to Cazzie Russell, who had been out since January 21 with a broken right ankle. Brave Cazzie, limping noticeably, was ineffective and only a sad reminder of his old self.

Fortunately for the Knicks, the schedule called for a game the very next night, and at home. Had they had several days to stew over the debacle of the second game they might have succumbed to the fear of fear itself. There was no doubt in their minds that Bill Russell had upset their poise, but intimidate them? It is the question Bradley asked later, his quizzical left eyebrow tilting at the word that has been hauled out for so many years when Russell was shoving shots down players' throats. "That means 'frightened, doesn't it? So no, we weren't intimidated by him." Bradley, the other Knicks and Bill Russell, too (who is experienced and nobody's fool in these matters), all made the point that the Knicks had passed up or hesitated on only a few shots in the disastrous first half. What really happened, they said, was that the Knicks missed a lot of good, clear shots. Besides, the reasoning went, how could New York be intimidated by a man and a team they had beaten six out of seven times during the regular season?

The cynic listens and remembers Montaigne, who wondered: "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?" What Russell was thinking or doing during the long winter months is something only that big cat knows himself. Still, students of him continued to probe his every move for clues, and those who saw him before the third game were convinced that troubled hours lay ahead for the Celtics. Russell was too loose, even laughing raucously, and while he says he sleeps well now and only rarely throws up before a game, it is the consensus that an ill humor is still the tip of his iceberg of concentration. The iller the humor the deeper the iceberg.

The Russellologists were right, too; from the start of the third game it was obvious that he was not the dominant force he had been the night before. The arcs of the opponents' shots are really the best gauge of how effectively Russell is playing—never mind rebounds and blocks and other statistical camouflage. In the second game the Knicks' shots had been such high pop flies that it was easy to imagine Rico Petrocelli, the Fenway Park shortstop, flipping the glasses down and fielding them rather than Russell. The next night, though, the Knicks' shots were straighter and truer. New York won 101-91, dispatching the two Celtic sorties that briefly made it close.

John Havlicek, who two days before had passed his 29th birthday in bed with the flu, was throttled by Bradley, a player whose defensive abilities are regularly and wrongfully maligned. Havlicek made only eight points, and his three baskets (in but 13 tries) occurred on fast breaks, one of them after a broken play when Bradley was not on him. Overguarding Havlicek to his right, trying to steer him inward, Bradley kept him in the shooting slump he had been in for the first two games of the Knick series.

"I might have played him more head to head," Bradley said afterward, "but this gets into the basic misconception about what good basketball defense is. It is not head to head so much as it is helping out. Our first rule is to contest every pass by anyone."

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