Over the past 2� months it seemed almost as if the sun were setting on the Milwaukee Bucks. As the long shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers' steady winning streak lengthened until it reached 33 games, the Bucks were undeniably left behind—once proud world champions, now by comparison tarnished and brooding giants. But along came Sunday and perhaps the most widely watched basketball game in NBA history, and there they were: glowing once more with the torrid satisfaction they take from their successes.
The Bucks beat the Lakers, both bodily and on the scoreboard, where the final totals read 120-104, to end professional sports' most notable winning streak and reaffirm their own strength in a game that counted for little in the standings but weighed heavy for the future when the two teams are apt to meet in the playoffs.
Milwaukee's victory was cinched with a 12-0 spurt late in the fourth quarter, but the balance had swung to the Bucks much earlier when their defense—played with all the gentle finesse of a train crash—destroyed the Lakers' poise.
"Sometimes you get into games like this," said Los Angeles Coach Bill Sharman. "The tempo becomes rough, and there's a lot of climbing over each other under the backboards and a lot of grabbing on defense. When you see that the refs are going to allow that, you've got to come back with the same style yourself. I'm not blaming the officials or the Bucks, only my players and myself. We talked about playing harder, but we didn't."
The Milwaukee style of infighting around the boards and constant pressure of the most physical sort all over the court disrupted the sparkling Laker running game. The Bucks prevented the clean rebounds and outlet passes Los Angeles needs to function, and the Lakers rarely scored easy baskets. And as if that were not enough, the harassment yielded 24 Laker turnovers—many of them leading to breakaway field goals.
All this Milwaukee roughness represented pure risk: at the end of the game, five Bucks had four or more fouls (providing Los Angeles with 40 free throws), and one of them, beefy Forward John Block, had fouled out with 4:05 still to go after a sensational streak of 17 points and 10 rebounds. But the rattling inside play also caused problems for Wilt Chamberlain, the Laker least likely to foul. Chamberlain picked up his fourth personal by reaching over the lofty shoulders of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to block a pass with 10:33 remaining to play in the third quarter. Until that moment, he had held Jabbar to 16 points. But thereafter, with Wilt hanging back for fear of getting into further foul trouble and being disqualified for the first time in his 1,000-game NBA career, Jabbar scored 23 points on 11 of 15 shots.
It was part of a plan: Kareem had made a subtle adjustment for this game by frequently setting up to the right of the basket instead of remaining in the spot he prefers on the left. The hope was that, since Kareem is quicker, he could overcome Chamberlain's greater strength by moving in close to the basket. Even though Kareem missed all but two of the hooks he tried from the right post in the first half, the strategy finally began to pay off in the second when he discarded the hook and turned to face Wilt, shooting feathery, short jump shots over him. This tactic maintained a slim margin for the Bucks through most of the second half until the team produced its winning burst.
Early in the week, the game began to take on larger-than-life-size proportions. Milwaukee seemed to be coasting. With a Monday defeat at New York, the Bucks lost the fourth game of their last six, a span of mediocrity unmatched in the previous two seasons except for a brief stretch when Coach Larry Costello was resting his regulars for the playoffs last year.
Meanwhile, the Lakers, those lusty losers of the past, were heading in the other direction, riding atop an extraordinary wave of success that extended through November, then December and, finally, past the New Year into January. Without a loss since Halloween, Los Angeles flew East with a string of consecutive wins behind them and only the Bucks looming ahead as likely challengers to the streak.
The reason for Milwaukee's failure to crush opponent after opponent as it did a year ago probably can be attributed more to ennui than to a drop-off in talent. Like most good, mature teams, the Bucks have learned that the NBA's pot of gold is found at the end of the playoffs—not in long, midseason winning streaks.