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The Celtics' intent is to catch a defender loafing, out of position, or examining his shoe tops, to blow past him and to create a situation where there are more Celts rushing toward the basket than there are men available to protect it. Boston's success is based on the fact that it leads the NBA in rebounding and overall team speed. Cowens, the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game and the early favorite to win the league's MVP award, is not only a superb rebounder, but gives the Celtics an extra advantage; he is the only center both fast and energetic enough to regularly participate in the break.
"When most people think of the fast break, they think of three on one, two on one, three on two and the like," said Havlicek, sitting on a training table while his ankles were being taped one night last week. "We have all that, but if we've come down three on three we'll push that too because we know in a second we're going to have five on three unless the other team is really hustling."
No pro team is more proficient than New York at falling back to stop the break, not merely because the Knicks' style emphasizes hustling defense but because their offense tends to keep them in position to retreat rapidly. Although New York will pursue obvious fast-break situations, its attack relies on running pattern plays designed to open jump shots for the team's good outside shooters. As a result, as many as four Knicks are often still far away from the basket when their opponents pull in a defensive rebound—and in perfect position to fall back to stall the fast break.
That is precisely what New York did most successfully in its two wins over Boston. At Madison Square Garden the Knicks allowed the Celtics only 23 points on the run and the next day they were stingier still, permitting 14. Boston was frustrated over and over in these games as Havlicek, Jo Jo White or Don Chaney would race downcourt on the dribble only to meet a Knick—usually Frazier or Bradley—as soon as the mid-court line was crossed. The Knicks were performing the basic tactic against the break, which coaches call "stopping the ball." And they performed it well, almost invariably forcing the Boston ball handler to veer away from the basket, pass off at an inopportune moment or stop dribbling.
Once the Knicks had stopped the ball, their set defense could form and the Celts were obliged to play the New York game—pattern basketball. But just as New York has developed a defensive plan to halt Boston's running, the Celts have countered with a strategy to bottle up the Knicks' set offense. The basis of New York's attack is a series of plays which includes large numbers of picks staggered throughout the offensive zone. At each picking point the offense has several alternatives depending on the reaction of the defense. If the options do not pan out at one pick, the offense simply moves on to another, figuring quite correctly that the defense will tire of fighting through screens. Driving through a pro pick with its jam-up of huge bodies, all shoving, gouging and laying on elbows and knees is not one of life's enduring pleasures.
In the case of the Knicks, they also have plays to take advantage of the defender who anticipates a pick and tries to beat the New York player to it. The offensive man will then abruptly double back around another pick and usually end up with a wide-open shot. One such play is code-named Turkey and frequently ends up with Bradley shooting a short jumper behind a pick set along the baseline. He will not reveal exactly how the play works, but he claims there is a reward for the man who executes it properly. "Any guy who scores on the Turkey play is allowed to go gobble, gobble, gobble all the way down the floor."
To prevent themselves from being gobbled up by the New York shooters, the Celts play a defense that switches at almost every pick. It is a strategy many other teams cannot afford to use because switching means that mismatches can develop with small men on tall ones and slow ones on fast ones. Since the Celtic guards are none too small and their big men none too slow, they can take the risk.
"We'll run through two or three options on a play, but if nothing works and we get down below 10 seconds on the shooting clock, we just junk it and play basketball," said Frazier before the first Boston game. And in both games the Knicks were frequently forced to shoot junk shots from far outside as the 24-second clock ticked down.
It was the effectiveness of both teams' defensive strategies that kept the games close. In the end New York won because Boston was unable to control Frazier, who worked effortlessly under pressure in the closing minutes of play.
At Madison Square Garden neither team ever led by more than seven points. Every time the Knicks ground out a slim lead a burst of Celtic fast breaks would even things up. There were 12 lead changes and 10 ties before Frazier took over with 1:53 remaining and Boston ahead 104-101. Chaney was dribbling the ball upcourt and just as he changed the ball from his right hand to his left, one of his teammates ran past his left side. The ball struck the teammate's foot and bounced free. Before Chaney could react, Frazier scooped it up and fired a lead pass to Monroe's replacement, Dean Meminger, for an unmolested layup. When Cowens missed a shot during Boston's next possession, Frazier, who led the Knicks in scoring (25), rebounding (13) and assists (10), took the rebound and worked one on one for an 18-foot jumper from the left side that put New York in front. Stumbling back after he shot, Frazier saw that Silas was about to inbound to Chaney, who had his back turned to Frazier. Walt dashed in front of the Celtic guard, swiped the ball just as it reached Chaney's hands and made the reverse layup that sealed New York's win.