It was not so long ago that the only fans who ever picked the West in the NBA playoffs were the same people who bet Poland even up in World War II, or took Debbie Reynolds over Liz Taylor in the Eddie Fisher Bowl. Now that the championship rounds are starting all over again, these arc the very same folks who will promptly bet the family farm and their Edsels on the East.
Before the Milwaukee Bucks started the new trend last year, Eastern teams had won the world title every year since 1959. On several occasions the Eastern Conference finals—Boston vs. whatsits-name—involved two teams better than any in the West. Even as recently as two years ago the New York Knickerbockers began building one more, though short-lived, dynasty in the East. That was the way it went. But dynasties aside and never mind tradition, it is perfectly clear where pro basketball's power really lies now.
The three strongest NBA clubs, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Chicago, are members of the Western Conference, and that conference's preliminary playoff round, which began last week, includes four of the five best NBA teams—the Big Three plus the Golden State Warriors. In fact, the power shift has been so drastic that two Western teams that were not good enough to make the playoffs, Phoenix and Seattle, each compiled better records than all but two Eastern Conference clubs.
This situation made for a lot of meaningless jumping up and down, arm waving and scampering about in arenas along the Eastern Seaboard last week as the Celtics, the East's only strong team, hit unexpected resistance in their attempt to fast-break the Hawks back to Atlanta. The Knicks and the Baltimore Bullets also gathered for the umpteenth annual renewal of their playoff rivalry. It used to be considered a classic confrontation, but now it teeters on the edge of irrelevancy, saved only by the fact that the Bullets—who won a rousing 46% of their games during the regular season—once again seem to be getting themselves together for the playoffs. And, thus assembled, they split their first two games with New York. The Bullets could be upset winners in the East, just as they were a year ago. Everybody remembers a year ago. That's when they went to the finals and lost to Milwaukee, four games to zero.
Out in the West, meanwhile, the folks have not seen a draw this tough since Wyatt Earp. For the first time in NBA history, all the teams in one playoff bracket have won-lost ratings over .600.
The best of the four, as the action starts, are the Lakers, who set all the records for setting records this season. The team holds the mark for the highest percentage (.841), for the widest margin of victory in a single game (63 points), for the most games over 100 points (81), for victories in a season (69), for wins in a row (33), for wins on the road (31), for wins at home (38) and for wins in front of anesthetized crowds (36). Those last two statistics are the same. Despite all the strange and wondrous things their team did this year, Los Angeles fans still behave in their same old pattern—they sit on their hands and try not to snore. Their loudest cheers invariably go to free throws made by Wilt Chamberlain; their second loudest are reserved for free throws missed by Wilt Chamberlain. A brilliant steal by Jerry West is usually greeted with the same amount of fervor as a time-out announcement that another Myron Florin extravaganza will appear at the Forum soon.
This is not to knock Laker fans unreasonably. Their reticence is a little more understandable when it is remembered that this team has made the playoffs 12 straight years and still never won an NBA championship. At least this year a goodly crowd showed up for the opener against those masters of the slow bump and grind, the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls, only team in the Western playoffs without a superstar center, were fresh from an extraordinary season of their own in which they won 57 games, a better record than many past NBA champions. Unlike the Lakers—who want nothing more than to run, run, run—Chicago tries to compensate for its lack of exceptional pivot play by throwing up a bruising defense and slowing the tempo on offense, then running imaginative, intricate patterns that grind down the opposition until an open shot appears near the basket.
In the first two games at Los Angeles, Chicago controlled the tempo, all right, but the Lakers won in the most impressive way of all—by playing the other team's style and winning with it. Los Angeles scored only 15 fast-break goals in the two games and still took the first 95-80 and the second 131-124.
By Sunday night the series was 3-0 and Chicago's tough little coach, Dick Motta, confessed, "We're not like other good teams. We have to play so hard just to win during the regular season that we don't have the deep emotional reserve to turn to when the playoffs come." But Los Angeles, which expects to move past Chicago to the Western championship and finally the NBA title, suffers no such limitations.