But the Bucks' recent unsteadiness also reflected upheaval in the team roster. Through retirements, trades and cuts, only five members of the 1971 championship squad remain. Two of the deals came in the past month: in a trade with Houston, Milwaukee gave up Greg Smith for the Rockets' first draft choice and a throw-in named Curtis Perry. Throw-in, indeed. The 6'7" Perry is already a Milwaukee starter, and Sunday he pulled in eight second-half rebounds against the Lakers.
The other Milwaukee trade brought reluctant signee Wally Jones from Philadelphia for future considerations, whatever they may be. During his seven pro seasons, Jones has appeared in a startling array of shaves and haircuts (he was called Wally Werewolf in recent years with the 76ers), and even now Jones looks as though he spent the summer crossing the steppes with Atilla the Hun, the same man who apparently taught him to play defense. He used these tactics on Sunday to help neutralize the hottest Laker scorer, Gail Goodrich, also scoring seven points on the side.
But no matter what the cause, "I'm sick of hearing about a couple of losses," Coach Costello growled. "We had a tremendous season last year, but if we don't come back and do it exactly the same again this time, everyone comes around and asks what's wrong? What's wrong? Nothing's wrong, that's what. We're still the champions, and we will be until somebody beats us, which they haven't yet when it's counted."
At last, then, the Bucks were sounding like a team ready to fight again. And just in time, because the Lakers were already heading their way. Like a good artilleryman, Los Angeles was pulverizing the area around its target before zeroing in on Milwaukee. A surprisingly difficult victory in Cleveland extended the string to 32, and then a near-perfect, 44-point win in Atlanta ran it to 33. "The most amazing thing about the streak has been our consistency," said Sharman. "Only five or six of the games have even been close, and real luck only figured in one of them."
The Lakers improved as the number of their wins increased. Jim McMillian, Elgin Baylor's replacement at forward and a superb corner shooter, edged into genuine stardom. Los Angeles had not lost since the night he became a starter. Chamberlain's outlet passes grew more precise, lending extra effectiveness to the Laker fast break. Forward Happy Hairston cut back his shooting and began averaging 16.5 rebounds a game. Gail Goodrich's shooting and the scoring and passing of Jerry West continued to give the Lakers the league's strongest offense.
The team thrived on these circumstances, unencumbered by any stress over the streak and imbued with a mild gleefulness over such lengthy good fortune. The players knew that the hard press of odds would soon catch up with them, but still, their record had grown to such proportions that no other team is likely to surpass it any time soon. There was one qualifier, however: they definitely did not want to lose to the Bucks, their likely opponents in the Western Division playoff.
It is the fast-paced nature of pro basketball that, despite the intense public interest in this one game (and the strong psychological impact it would have on future meetings between the Lakers and the Bucks), neither team was able to make special preparations for it. Costello flew to Atlanta to scout the Lakers Friday. As for Sharman, "There really isn't much you can do," he said as he watched the Bucks play Detroit Saturday and drew diagrams of their plays. "Basically, it's just knowing who to match up on who and when to take guys in and out of the game. That's about all a coach can do for a regular-season game."
Then came game time, and there didn't seem much anybody could do. The Bucks held a six-point halftime lead, largely because their defense forced 15 Los Angeles turnovers and also because of unexpected bench strength. Jones harnessed Goodrich. Lucius Allen and John Block combined to score 17 points. When the game was over, they had 35.
Even after Chamberlain's fourth foul, Los Angeles gained a 71-71 tie with 3:12 remaining in the third period. But Allen's jumper from the right corner behind Kareem's screen 16 seconds later put Milwaukee ahead for good. During the Bucks' subsequent 12-point drive, the Lakers missed three free throws, Goodrich failed to score a wide-open foul-line jumper and West, shooting from 10 feet out on the left baseline, bounced a shot squarely off the side of the basket. "We were all pulling the string out there," said McMillian afterward. "I guess we got caught up in all the excitement."
Sharman, a realist, was not depressed by the end of the streak, primarily because he had never allowed himself to celebrate it while it was in progress. "I guess I'm like every coach," he said. "I worry about the next game, the next week. We've got almost 40 games to play yet and then the playoffs."