During the Lakers' midseason winning streak they played without any special fire and triumphed largely on their superior expertise. In playoffs Coach Bill Sharman can call on West's unusual presence in crisis and even rely on Chamberlain as a larger-than-ever dominating force. But, further, he has at hand a breadth of talent that often remains obscured behind the glistening of West, Wilt and high-scoring Gail Goodrich. The best example is scorer-turned-re-bounder Happy Hairston. Once known largely for his habit of sneaking away from his man on defense in order to pick up easy baskets, Hairston had increased his scoring average in each of his seven pro seasons. But this year his scoring dropped five points after Sharman asked him to concentrate more on rebounding and Hairston's average of 15 rebounds per game in the second half of the year helped change Los Angeles from a weak, one-rebounder team into a strong one. Now Hairston is the first forward ever to play alongside Wilt and pull in 1,000 rebounds. In the games at Los Angeles last week the underpublicized Hairston dragged in 33 rebounds, only five less than Chamberlain.
A similar sort of obscurity has been the lot of the two men who turned out to be the difference in the first two games of the Bucks-Warriors series in Milwaukee. In both games Centers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond played to a standoff, with Thurmond three times holding Kareem at least six points under his season's scoring average of 34. Thurmond's defense and rebounding were important factors in the Warriors' surprising 117-106 upset in the opener, but equally impressive and much more unexpected were the 30 points scored by Guard Jim Barnett. A mustachioed, scrambling player formerly more celebrated for his eccentricities than his jump shot, Barnett took over as a starter in January and helped quarterback Golden State to more winning ways.
That first defeat darkened the cloud that has hung over the Bucks ever since the Laker winning streak grew in December. Usually objective basketball fans have wasted long hours in recent months trying to convince themselves and others that Milwaukee is little more than a second-rate team. But the Bucks are definitely top rate, and Jabbar remains the game's dominant player.
In the loss to the Warriors, Curtis Perry, who came to Milwaukee in a mid-season trade with Houston, scored one point. Perry was supposed to have been a throw-in in the Houston deal. As a rookie the year before he played only 100 minutes but his rebounding impressed Bucks Coach Larry Costello and Perry quickly became a starter. Still, his performance in the first Golden State game shook the coach. Before the second round Costello said, "If Curtis doesn't do it tonight I'm going to John Block early. We can't wait this time."
Perry heard the message. He scored nine points in the first nine minutes and he finished with 22 as the Bucks evened the series with a thumping 118-93 victory. "We took the whole thing more seriously," Oscar Robertson said afterward. Then Costello piled more pressure on Perry by saying before the third game in Oakland, "If we get anything at all out of Perry's position, we win." Perry did it again, scoring only nine points but pulling in 14 rebounds as the Bucks gained the edge in the series 122-94.
Thus, it is likely that Hairston and Perry will match up when the Bucks meet the Lakers to start the most tantalizing series since the tense Boston- Philadelphia duels of the late '60s. In battles such as the one shaping up for the Western Conference title, the performances of the superstars often have a tendency to balance each other out. As the teams scratch for an added edge anywhere on the court, this match-up between an old pro who has changed his game and a young one who is still trying to find his could be nearly as pivotal as those between Kareem and Wilt and West and Robertson.
In the East, with the Celtics in the playoffs after a two-year absence, there was a racing start on the floor but not at the gate. There were 2,500 empty seats at Boston Garden (some of them vacant because it was the first night of Passover), but there was rarely a vacancy in the Celtic fast break as Boston defeated Atlanta 126-108—scoring 17 baskets on the run. The key to Atlanta's slim chances for an upset is Pete Maravich, still weak and underweight from an attack of mononucleosis during preseason training. "I'm down from 205 to 180 pounds," Maravich told SI Reporter Jane Gross after his uninspired game at Boston. "When you're out on the court people bump and run, lean on you and things like that. It's a game of physical well-being. When I tire so easily I get mental anxiety. I'm eating four and five meals a day, but it doesn't help. I didn't feel well and I got real tired in the second quarter. I was below 180 going into the game—I guess due to nerves. I had no stamina." But then Maravich played better in the second game, back in Atlanta, scoring 16 points as the Hawks won 113-104 behind Lou Hudson's 41 points. On Sunday the Celtics seized the series lead 2-1 as whirling John Havlicek ran his three-game scoring total to 106 points and 20 assists.
Meanwhile, a touch of this East-West imbalance even appears in the ABA, where the Eastern conference claims the outstanding Kentucky Colonels, but the West seems likely to provide all the suspense. The Colonels, who lost only 16 games and set nearly as many records for winning as the Lakers, should ease their way to the finals as effortlessly as a Bluegrass gentleman sipping down a sourmash—in spite of an upset loss to the New York Nets in the opener. Already the third or fourth best team in all of pro basketball, Kentucky starts a front line of solid Cincy Powell and two brilliant youngsters, 6'9" Dan Issel, 23, and 7'2" Artis Gilmore, 22. Together they should give the Colonels die strongest forecourt in basketball for years.
The ABA West, however, is filled with imponderables. Indiana, which won die Western Division last season and still has the deepest talent in the league, finished second to Utah, a meager 10 games over .500. The Pacers suffered some injuries to top players and the lineup was often unsettled as Coach Slick Leonard maneuvered to find playing time for good rookie Forwards George McGinnis and Darnell Hillman. But even beyond that, Indiana seemed slowed by complacency. "It appeared to me that the players looked at it as a long season," said Leonard. "I think it stemmed from the fact that, in this day and age, money is the big issue in professional sports. I hoped pride would carry us, but after winning three straight division titles I think the players just didn't have the enthusiasm to go through it again—particularly after our fans considered it a hail season last year when we were edged out in the playoffs. The NBA pays $3,000 a man for winning a division: we get $500 each. I really don't think there's enough emphasis on winning the divisions."
Providing they find the playoff money (about $5,000 per man to the champs) enticing enough, the Pacers should easily defeat the Denver Rockets in the first round and move into the West finals against Utah or—hold onto your Stetson—the Dallas Chaparrals. The Stars are a better team with a better record than they were a year ago when they won the ABA championship. Jimmy Jones has added finesse to the backcourt, and Willie Wise, who came into the pros hoping to become the best defensive forward and very nearly succeeded, has become a shooting Star as well. At the urging of All-Star Zelmo Beaty, Wise increased his offensive output when the Utah scoring pace flagged mildly in December. With his defense suffering only minimally, he has since been on a spree, scoring 20 points or more in 31 consecutive games. His average (23.2) is up eight points over last year, he has shot more than 50% from the floor and even his rebounding is improved.