"It's never been my design to force things," said Shue. "My biggest coaching problem has been to get a bunch of strong-willed one-on-one players to run the offense. We have a lot of schoolyard players who think they can do it all on their own, but they can't."
Unseld's control of the pivot and the cohesive Bullet style compensated somewhat for Baltimore's lack of personnel and the cool performance of Frazier, the only Knick who enjoyed an exceptional series. Jack Marin, a misfit on the Bullets simply because he has not had an injury serious enough to keep him out of the team's last 374 games, sat out much of the first half of the opener with foul trouble. In the second game Baltimore trailed by only six points with seven minutes remaining, but lost by 19. Monroe and Loughery were both injured, and Unseld and John Tresvant came close to fouling out.
Johnson, who had played very well in the Bullets' previous series with Philadelphia during which his sore left knee was repeatedly injected with a painkiller, found he could not bend his leg the day before the opener with New York. Unwilling to take any more shots, he decided to sit down until some natural mobility returned to the knee. "I just couldn't take it anymore," he said. "For 2½ days after the last game against Philly I felt like I could've cut my leg off. When that Xylocaine wears off it's not just a downer, it's a flip-out." Johnson, rumored to have signed a contract with Pittsburgh of the ABA for next year, was replaced by Tresvant, a bench-warmer on the Pistons when DeBusschere was the Detroit player-coach. He harassed his old boss effectively after being outplayed in the first game.
In both of the first two games in New York, it was the Knicks' defense that ultimately won for them, forcing 42 Bullet turnovers and keeping New York in the games when the offense sputtered. Even after the wide final margin of the second game, Frazier remained displeased with the Knick performance. "We've played way below average," he said. "We just can't seem to get together and put them away unless we get something like today, when Earl and Loughery get hurt and Wes gets into foul trouble."
The Bullets were not bothered by such mishaps in the third and fourth games, played at the Civic Center. Marin and Monroe scored 105 points in the two games as Baltimore won 114-88 and 101-80. In the first of these, Unseld put on an extraordinary show, scoring on eight of nine shots, assisting on nine baskets and pulling down 26 rebounds. "We kept yelling at me to get more rebounds, but then he wouldn't let mc have any," Marin said. The Knicks' score in the second game was their lowest in seven years as the Bullets checked them with a defense described by Fred Carter as aggressive without contact. "We've got so few players, we can't afford to give fouls even when it's to our advantage," said Carter, who became a starter in Loughery's place. Shue has never admired the standard NBA tactic of "giving fouls" and he all but discarded the practice during the playoffs to protect his limited supply of players. In the games in Baltimore, the Bullets rarely had to worry about fouling the Knicks for any reason. Without Reed to provide a threat in the middle, New York is essentially a perimeter-shooting team. Players moving along the outside of the defense rather than driving through it are easier to guard. In their first two wins, the Bullets committed only 33 fouls.
In the fifth game in New York the Bullets were called for only 18 personals and they held the Knicks to 89 points. But New York's defense was even tougher allowing the Bullets, who shot only 33%, just 84 points. Once again it was Walt Frazier who led the way, scoring 28, including a tough jumper with less than a minute to play—and with two seconds on the 24-second clock and Baltimore trailing by just two points. Frazier had help from Mike Riordan, who showed how-variety on offense could help New York as he surprised Baltimore with successive—and successful—drives.
In this game New York purposely surrendered its offensive board to the Bullets, something which had been happening unintentionally throughout the series. Instead of attempting to wrestle with Unseld for rebounds they rarely got, the Knicks, always one of the quickest teams in the league at dropping back to cover the fast break, fell away from the boards and attempted to sever Baltimore's passing lanes. At least one, and often two, players lunged at Unseld with arms raised to obscure his vision and occasionally deflect his passes. The other Knicks scrambled downcourt to cover the remaining Bullets, effectively halting Baltimore's running game. Unseld was often forced to wait for one of his teammates to circle back to take short laterals from him. The result gave the impression that Baltimore was playing its most cohesive offense, passing and running patterns more frequently, but even a team man like Gene Shue would have preferred not being pressured into it this way. The tactic forced Baltimore to grind out its baskets and was responsible for the Bullets' low shooting percentage.
New York did not continue these tactics in Sunday's sixth game, at Baltimore. With Monroe playing sleight-of-hand tricks for 27 points and Johnson finally back in the lineup, the Bullets broke away in the first half. The final score of 113-96 was a great deal closer than the game itself.
New York and Baltimore fans can grouse all they want about injuries, but the undisputed champions in that category are the Lakers, who deserve a special trophy of their own. Call it the Dr. Robert Kerlan Fractured Fibula of Fate, a scalpel mounted on a plaster leg cast and garnished with three torn cartilage clusters, and award it to Coach Joe Mullaney. Since he took over Jack Kent Cooke's entourage of superstars last season, Mullaney has had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in the lineup together for 31 of 194 games.
Baylor, who played only two games this season, and West were both absent with leg injuries during the Lakers' first-round, 4-3 victory over the Chicago Bulls. Without them, Los Angeles did not figure to press the Bucks, and if Mullaney still harbored any wild notions of an upset, they soon disappeared. On the day of the second game against Milwaukee (the Lakers lost the first two 106-85 and 91-73), Forward-Guard Keith Erickson, an excellent defender, underwent major abdominal surgery. Erickson's replacement, Pat Riley, was considered a promising young pro three years ago before he too wrecked one of his knees. As the Lakers' fifth guard this season Riley rarely played and, although he performed better than anyone expected against the Bucks, his presence in the starting lineup was proof of the depths of Mullaney's dilemma.