Two weeks ago, just as the Baltimore Bullets were preparing to open their semifinal playoff series with the New York Knickerbockers, a parade was scheduled in what Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro likes to call "The City of Champions." The world champion Orioles and Colts would be honored and so would the Clippers, who are considered very tough in the American Hockey League. Even the Baltimore City Fire Department, recent winner of a national firefighting award, was invited. And they asked the Bullets to come along, too, even though their season was not officially over and despite the fact that the appearance of all those injured basketball players with their casts and their crutches might have an unsettling effect on the cheering crowds. Perhaps they would break into an a cappella rendition of the Colonel Bogey march. Anyway, Coach Gene Shue's cripples could ragtag along.
Certainly, delaying any championship celebration on account of the Bullets seemed absurd at the time. Baltimore apparently had already taken its basketball title for this year by winning something called the NBA's Central Division. The Bullets did it with a 42-40 record, only the ninth best in the league. One of their starting guards, Eddie Miles, had been wearing a cast on his foot since midseason. His replacement, Kevin Loughery, and team captain Gus Johnson were both doubtful performers for the series with New York, not to mention Earl Monroe, whose knees are always impending disasters.
No, the parade was not postponed for the Bullets but because of rain and perhaps that was fortunate. Now if the parade is ever rescheduled, the Bullets can show up with another championship—of the NBA's Eastern Conference. They upset New York 4-3, swamping the Knicks in three games at Baltimore Civic Center before finally winning one at Madison Square Garden following three losses there. The Bullets might even have another championship—that of the entire NBA—except that their final opponents are Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, who bullied the scarred Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Baltimore defeated New York with some uncharacteristic team play and by taking advantage of Willis Reed's disabilities. An old knee injury restricted Reed's mobility, as it has all season, and his newly sprained right shoulder wrecked his rebounding and shooting.
Against the Bullets, the Knicks repeatedly failed to compensate for Reed's handicaps. Last year they won because they have excellent shooters at every position, including the bench. In the Baltimore series, while Reed's scoring average slipped badly, most of the other Knick totals fell with it. Their offense often looked flat and motionless, as if waiting for the same sort of psychic boost Reed gave it in the final game last year when he dramatically took the court despite a painfully injured leg.
The opening game, played in New York, established several patterns that persisted throughout the series. The Knicks won 112-111 on Walt Frazier's two last-minute drives; on one he scored with a layup and on the other he set up an easy basket for Reed. From the outset, the matchup between Willis and Baltimore's Wes Unseld was no contest. The Bullet center soon eliminated Reed's inside game—the quick turn-in moves accompanied by head, shoulder and foot fakes off which Willis likes to shoot his deadly short jump shots. Three times Reed spun into Unseld and each time Wes snatched or slapped the ball away.
For the rest of the series, Reed roamed outside, occasionally attempting long jumpers but rarely figuring importantly in the Knicks' scoring. Frequently out of position away from the basket and hampered by his sore shoulder. Reed was badly outrebounded by Unseld. By the close of the series, Wes had grabbed twice as many rebounds as Willis and had held his opponent to a shooting average below 40%. "I'm in the habit of leaning against people under the basket, but now I'm afraid to push for fear of damaging my shoulder even more," Reed said. "It also affects my shooting because my right hand is my guiding hand."
"Willis is basically only playing defense and setting picks," said Frazier. "That's enough to get us by if he's in there doing that and containing Unseld."
Containment became Reed's only real weapon and by the fifth game even Unseld remarked about it. "Willis wasn't any kind of factor tonight," he said. "He wasn't even going for rebounds. He was just trying to block me out."
It also became apparent in the first game that Baltimore's style was suddenly much more restrained. The Bullets have long been a team with too many itchy trigger fingers, and the only consistent part of their offense was that the man with the ball was much more apt to shoot it than pass it. Several years of cajoling by Coach Gene Shue and an injury to Unseld late this season apparently changed some Bullet ideas. Without Unseld around to retrieve all their missed shots, the gunners began to think before they fired, a trend that continued after Wes rejoined the team for the playoffs. The Bullets worked their patterns carefully against New York, consistently eating away most of the time on the 24-second clock before shooting. Even Earl Monroe, the sport's most spectacular one-on-one player, who needs the barest opening to score, picked his spots with some restraint. The Knicks' Dave DeBusschere remarked that some of his own team's offensive lethargy could be blamed on the slow tempo being set by the once freewheeling Bullets.