As the two teams warmed up for their game, Lew Alcindor paced along the midcourt line at Madison Square Garden, his head pitched back, his face slack-jawed and dull except for the dark fire in his eyes. Hiding his hands under the red and white elastic ribbing at the bottom of his Milwaukee Bucks sweat shirt, Alcindor strode purposefully, careful to remain on his side of the line. Once or twice he glanced briefly across the stripe at the defending champions, the New York Knickerbockers, but even then he showed no emotion, never altered the force of his stride. Dispassion is Lew's way. Only a man with his self-control could view the Knicks from such a perspective and remain outwardly unconcerned. After a season and a half in the pros, Lew already has become what everyone thought he would, the game's dominant player. And the lone obstacle to his enjoying the final glory—a similar preeminence for the Bucks—is the team that was warming up on the far side of the line.
The Knicks are not without challenges of their own, and Alcindor himself is certainly one of them. But there are other problems. As Lew paced, Willis Reed, the league's Most Valuable Player last season, sat on the New York bench with an ice bag propped on his left knee. Reed was trying to freeze away the pain of chronic tendinitis that has caused him to miss occasional games and sometimes to play below the level of skill with which he led the Knicks to the championship.
It was only nine months ago that New York won its title and was proclaimed a burgeoning dynasty. But today the Bucks, not the Knicks, have the best record in the league (at week's end Milwaukee was 43-9 and nine games ahead in the Midwest Division; New York, 38-18, led the Atlantic Division by 4½ games), and the champs, who were peeled like so many grapes in about 2,000 books last spring and found to be perfect in nearly all of them, are under a different type of intense scrutiny. "What's wrong with the Knicks?" ask the New York headlines. Did Coach Red Holzman take on too much when he also became general manager? Is Walt Frazier spending too much time in his hairstyling salon and not enough practicing? Is everybody suffering from enlarged pocketbook and is Trainer Danny Whelan staging a job action until he too gets a $100,000-a-year contract?
Such was the speculation as the Bucks and Knicks squared off in New York. By the time that contest (see cover) was over and the Knicks had won 107-98 and both teams had played succeeding games against Philadelphia and Boston—the Knicks also played Atlanta—some answers were apparent.
One of them is that if Reed's knee and Whelan's supply of ice bags hold up, New York can handle its remaining problems. As for Alcindor, if he is to lead a victory over the Knicks in the finals of the playoffs, he must have far more help from his teammates than he has received in three of the four New York-Milwaukee games this year.
Injuries have accounted for much of the Knicks' failure to match their record of last season, when they lost only 22 games. Among them, the team's top eight players (after the latest expansion, New York's is the only roster that bears counting down that far) have missed a total of 47 games. Cazzie Russell sat out 25 with a broken wrist. During the team's midseason slump, when it lost five of six games, Reed was running a fast break in and out of the hospital with a recurring virus. In fact, until the week before New York's recent game against the Bucks, Holzman did not have all his best players in fair health at any time this season.
Still, that fails to explain the losses to teams like Buffalo and Portland, which should have trouble with the Knicks' second five. While the players refuse to concede a diminution of enthusiasm after last season's emotional spree—which would be reasonable and even expectable—their explanations indicate that games against unimposing teams have turned into tedious exercises.
"We get up for a challenge," says Dave DeBusschere. "When we lost up at Portland and Seattle, we were playing light."
"No matter what you do during the regular season, you still have to win the playoffs to make people remember it at all," says Reed. "Take Boston two years ago. They finished fourth in their division, but what people remember is that they won it all."
The Bucks have the incentive of proving themselves, of course, and they treat every game like a demolition derby. They are outscoring their opponents by 13 points per game, while the Knicks have only a six-point edge. After their loss to New York last week the Bucks beat the Celtics as Alcindor equaled his professional high of 53 points, and two nights later they took the 76ers by 24 points. Meanwhile, the Knicks narrowly won in Atlanta and Boston and lost by a point to the 76ers.