Now for the tough questions. Who is middleweight champion of the world? What are the Miami Screaming Eagles? In what order do Amos Otis' names occur? What two teams played in The Other Finals of the NBA conference championships last week?
You are right if you answered "don't know" to all the above questions. For example, Senator Edmund Muskie was campaigning in Boston last week on the day the Celtics and Knickerbockers met in the third game of the Eastern finals, and his staff had set aside a couple of tickets for him. But since he was looking for some exposure, naturally he didn't show at the game. The national publicity devoted to the Western championships between the Los Angeles Wilts and the Milwaukee Kareems had so overshadowed the series in the East that at times it seemed nobody would pay any attention to New York and Boston even if Dita Beard had been releasing the stat sheets to Jack Anderson. In fact, it now can be reliably reported that Howard Hughes has hidden out the last couple of weeks by locating himself on the Knickerbocker bench.
Nevertheless, despite the glamour of the West, the NBA went ahead with its satellite tournament for the Eastern teams, and there is even some idle talk now that the Los Angeles Lakers will be required to play the Knicks—who whipped the Celtics in five games—before the Western titlist can flat out declare itself world champion. This will help pay salaries for all the league's jumpers and lawyers. And further, considering the way the Knicks have been playing lately—not deceptively good but often deceptively good enough—it might even be some contest.
The Knicks are not entirely unknown, of course, if only because ABC-TV persisted in foisting them on a disgruntled, shrinking national audience week after week all season long. Still, the Knicks have endured such an uneven season, going through some periods of desultory, even atrocious, play, that it was difficult to give the team much of a chance until it finally began to come around again midway in the opening series against Baltimore. Part of the New York problem was purely psychological: first adapting to the loss of Willis Reed and then becoming locked into second place in the division, with no real challenge. The other part is technical, for the Knick team is small, not particularly fast, with a long but undistinguished bench, and it lacks the dynamite that big Reed provided underneath. Jerry Lucas, his replacement, is an NBA-size forward vamping at center.
"We operate with such a small margin of error," says Bill Bradley, who has been playing as well as he ever has. "We don't have Willis there to take care of our mistakes, so we must play defense perfectly and we must run our patterns perfectly to get clear shots. We're like a building constructed without a foundation. Of course—given that situation—Jerry is the perfect kind of center for us."
Lucas, who has staged more comebacks than Merv Griffin ever did, is enjoying himself immensely in the pivot. He plays like a politician who, having staked out the middle ground, can afford to range about and dip into what other territory seems bountiful. Early in the series Lucas drove the Celtics to distraction by moving outside to toss up long bombs and also by freeing the middle for back-door assaults by his teammates.
Significantly, in the third game—the only one Boston won—the Celtics countered Lucas best when the smallish center, Dave Cowens, followed Lucas out and switched off him on high picks. Cowens also effectively mined his offensive territory, working Lucas inside with the clever help of the weak-side guard.
Overall, though, Cowens could not keep it up. The Celtics were 41-5 in the regular season against the below-.500 teams, in large part because their auburn-haired ingenue at center somehow peaked for them all. Boston is like a baseball team with strength up the middle—White at guard, John Havlicek at forward, Cowens at center (and with an ace fireman in Don Nelson)—so the Celtics could beat up on all the flawed teams in a diluted league. But the Celtics were over their heads (15-21 against the above-.500 teams) in top playoff company. If Boston was genuinely as good as its record indicated, the Celtics would have beat the pants off the Knicks in the second game, at Madison Square Garden, when New York played poorly and was in foul trouble. But Boston couldn't even catch up. Take away their running game and shackle just one of their big three, and there is nothing else for the Celtics to fall back on.
Even with Reed and Guard Dick Barnett out with injuries, New York could, by contrast, field five solid players—and even get some sporadically good performances out of its top subs, Phil Jackson and Dean Meminger. New York, like Los Angeles, also has the big-city edge in money which counts a whole lot more than home court. In a runaway money market, New York could afford Earl Monroe when he put his bad right knee up for bids, and it could go out and wave dollar bills around until somebody gave in and sold the team a backup center (Luther Rackley) when it needed one.
Few solvent teams left can afford to scout opponents more assiduously. The Knicks even take movies of all their home games. Given these built-in inequities in the NBA now, one can almost understand what motivated Red Auerbach, the old-line general manager of the Celtics, when he refused outright to permit two injured Knicks to use the whirlpool baths at Boston Garden before the third game. In the fitful battle against the exchequers in New York and Los Angeles, few weapons are left in the league except for Auerbachian guile and bravado, the same stuff that once worked against Syracuse and Tri-Cities. And call it bush, but that was the only game Boston won.