It was a courageous shift by Milwaukee Coach Larry Costello, nevertheless, and historically rare. With Crawford in the game even more of the Bucks' offensive burden fell upon Alcindor, because Crawford does not have Robinson's long-range accuracy. However, the action did not turn on a simple duel of Reed vs. Alcindor, although certain members of the New York press put out so much David and Goliath stuff that reprints of I Samuel 17 in the press room would have been more valuable than statistical summaries. There is still a disposition to deny Alcindor his due. It is only occasionally malicious; mostly it is just a yearning to believe that he cannot possibly be so overpowering. To some he destroys the well-ordered faith in this carefully constructed game. It is simply not right, they seem to be saying, that this one man—a rookie at that—can often render powerless Willis Reed, the league's MVP, and his entire, magnificent New York basketball machine. But it is so.
The real duel was Knicks vs. Alcindor. Reed, as superb a player as he is, was only the front line. The whole New York team was able to help out on Alcindor, because Robinson was not the only scapegoat. Of all the Bucks only Bob Dandridge—occasionally—hit from outside. In the first game Milwaukee was stale and immobile as well. Alcindor foolishly persisted in trying to dribble the ball, and literally all five Knicks would swoop down on him. He made 35, his teammates 67, the Knicks 110.
By contrast, the second game was a strongly competitive affair, the Knicks winning mostly because Alcindor missed two free throws with 52 seconds left. And the young Bucks unaccountably allowed the Knicks to hold on to the ball for the last 22 seconds without making a serious effort to foul to get it back.
The Knicks bombed gloriously from outside. Inside, Reed was a master, every bit as effective with the ball as his bigger rival. A powerful man, with a build that belies his quickness, Reed varied his moves every time he came down the court. "As a freshman he was a great mental ballplayer," said his Grambling College coach, Fred Hobdy, after the game. "He had that and the shot then, and now he has learned how to adjust." Reed has developed a shot against Alcindor that seems to clear the tall man's fingertips each time by the exact same impossible amount, perhaps the breadth of a shadow.
On defense Reed was tireless at working to block Alcindor out, to negate him in any way so that the Knick advantages at all other positions would pay off. "Willis is as tough as he is smart," said Hobdy. "I used to turn discipline on the team over to him. He won the NAIA national title when he was a freshman center. He believes in being tough. He'd hit people when they came down the middle." Forcing Alcindor away from the hoop with his body, Reed opened the way in the first game for Dave DeBusschere to sneak in from the side and take down 16 rebounds. Then, in the close second game, Frazier crashed down the lane from the top of the key to pick off 12. Frazier was helped further in this regard by the fact that the Bucks had to depend on one of their fast forwards—Dandridge or Greg Smith—to guard him, and thus their usual rebounding alignment was out of whack.
This is merely one of the many things Frazier accomplished that were out of the ordinary. His presence on defense caused all sorts of other subtle accommodations, even though, at the behest of Coach Red Holzman, several weeks ago he stopped concentrating on gambling to steal the ball. "His defense is still there," Reed says. "They've all seen it. Now they have to worry just as much about his reputation." This was, of course, the same telling psychological advantage that Bill Russell once enjoyed. In working to shut off the pesky Robinson and set up the Knick offense, Frazier necessarily took much of his game out of the scoring column. Even more was removed by the relentless guarding of Smith or Dandridge—who, Frazier says, "plays me as well as anyone"—but Frazier also found he was conning himself into shooting less. "It's all in the philosophy," he said. "I do think I've passed up shots. I've been trying to figure it out myself." By the third game he was down to trying only seven shots, which was especially low since he had effectively rid himself of having to worry about Robinson and also because the teammates he was feeding suddenly went cold. The other outside starters, DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett, went nine for 32.
The Bucks won by only 101-96, but they coasted home with a big early lead. Crawford took it to Alcindor from the opening tap, and, perhaps even more important, at last the big man got some outside offensive help. It came from Dandridge, who shot 10 for 15, and it showed how just one single alternative Buck scoring threat could change the drift of the series. "I don't mind Dandridge being as active as that," said DeBusschere, who guards him. "I don't mind myself, but then I can't help Willis out."
To illustrate this point Alcindor got 31 rebounds, while all the Knicks managed 42. He never grabbed that many before in an NBA game, nor did he in three years at UCLA. By the third game the lines were drawn: not even Alcindor could beat such a finely tuned team as the Knicks by himself.
If there was one single pivotal shot in the series, it came with five minutes left in the third period of the fourth game. The Bucks had come back from being 20 down at the half and were within a basket at 69-67. For once the Knicks appeared to be in disarray. Milwaukee even had a chance to tie, but Robinson forced a bad shot off a drive. New York rushed downcourt, Cazzie Russell sprinting down the left side. At the baseline he cut right. Frazier hit him with a pass and Cazzie tossed it in without a moment's doubt or hesitation. Characteristically, he slapped his hands together, and, he said later, only one thought had crossed his mind: "That's what you're supposed to do." Within seconds and with virtually the same moves, Russell did it again. This time Alcindor had spotted him, but arrived an instant too late. Milwaukee never caught up; the final score was 117-105.
The Western semifinal series was an entirely different affair, Los Angeles taking Atlanta rather easily. If the Lakers were a bit more lovable they might awaken all the motherly affection of American sports fans, just as the Mets did last year. Twice this season, and against the odds, the team has refused to play dead. First there was the regeneration after the loss of Wilt Chamberlain and a chain reaction of injuries to other players. Then, only a fortnight ago, the Lakers were down three games to one to Phoenix in the quarterfinal series. Seven straight victories later they were ready to play for the NBA title.