The third game of the NBA championship playoffs between the Knicks and Lakers was a curious affair. Take, for example, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, who spent the afternoon at Madison Square Garden shooting like a couple of guys playing half-court at the Y; they sank eight of 27 shots. Then there was Walt Frazier, whose game is usually as classy as the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III he drives. He looked more like a secondhand Morris Minor in first gear as he played his third subpar scoring game of the series, finishing with 14 points. On the Lakers' side there was Wilt Chamberlain, who only two days before had said his team needed more offense from Wilt Chamberlain to win, taking only three shots as the Lakers lost 87-83 and fell behind 2-1 in the series.
Still, Los Angeles almost pulled the game out with a last-period rally, which is when the Lakers look to Jerry West to provide the clutch plays. Alas, Mr. Clutch had already done all his pulling out for the day—in the form of two strained hamstring muscles—and was on the bench.
Indeed, most of the regular stars of the annual Knick-Laker finals had taken the afternoon off and the game showed it. For long stretches the Knicks felt lucky if one of their shots struck the rim a glancing blow. For longer periods Los Angeles made more turnovers than a German bakery. Inevitably, somebody had to do something right—to wit, Willis Reed and Keith Erickson, both of whom were injured during last year's series involving these teams, and Earl Monroe, who was healthy but hurting in 1972 when his man, Gail Goodrich, outscored him 76-17 in the first three games.
Reed helped put the Knicks ahead by as many as 10 points with medium-range jumpers and quick drives past Chamberlain that added up to 22 points. Monroe kept New York in front when the Lakers charged back by scoring nine of his 21 points in the fourth period. And Erickson, subbing for West, hit a baseline jumper and a drive down the lane in the final 1:39 to bring the Lakers within two points of New York. In the end, however, he took the most fitting shot of the day. With 22 seconds remaining and Los Angeles in position to tie, he fired a 15-footer that missed the rim and backboard, but not the tenor of the game. All of which led the Garden organist to strike up the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth, the classiest play of the afternoon.
The mere presence of the Knicks and Lakers in the finals put to rest some old tunes about the playoffs. Traditionally it has been felt that the length and intensity of postseason competition is too much for elderly teams (excluding the Bill Russell Celtics, who won at any age).
According to that logic, Los Angeles and New York should have been out of the playoffs weeks ago. The eight Knicks who play regularly average 29 years of age, two years per man younger than the top seven Lakers. Overall, these are the two oldest teams in the pros and their personnel had 1,344 games of playoff experience going into the finals. Late in the third quarter of the fourth game, the 36-year-old Chamberlain will probably compile his 7,498th minute of playoff action, thus surpassing Russell's record.
"The playoffs are very tough mentally and psychologically, but they are really the easiest part of the year physically," says DeBusschere, who does a TV commercial in which he dyes the gray out of his hair. "During the regular season a young, quick team can play four or five games back-to-back and still do well. An older team like us or the Lakers can't do that, but during the playoffs our experience takes over. You get a day or two of rest between each game, so physically you don't get as worn down. And you scout your opponents much more thoroughly, you watch movies so you can spot your mistakes and their weaknesses and adjust to them. That makes knowledge and experience the things that count most."
Proving which team is the wisest and wiliest may end up being what counts, since the usual incentive for winning—money—barely exists. The victors' share of the pot will amount to only about $2,500 a man more than the losers', small potatoes for many of the Knicks and Lakers who earn salaries far in excess of $100,000 and then pick up five-figure fees for TV spots like the one in which Chamberlain tells viewers how they can smell like he does and stand out in a crowd and another in which Jerry Lucas gives his follicles a 60-second massage.
Despite the absence of significant financial inducements, Lucas and the other Knicks and Lakers turned the first two games at Los Angeles into hairy workouts indeed. In the opener the Lakers once led by 20 points and seemed about to take complete charge on numerous occasions throughout the first three periods. New York refused to cave in, however, and Los Angeles needed Erickson's rebound and pass to Bill Bridges for a breakaway layup in the closing seconds to ensure a 115-112 victory. During the second game, the visitors held 10-point leads five times in the fourth quarter. New York's advantage was still nine points with 1:24 to play, but it won 99-95 only after Jim McMillian missed both his chances at a crucial free throw with 26 seconds remaining.
In games that tight involving teams so resolute, the importance of defense reaches cold war proportions. Los Angeles Coach Bill Sharman, the John Foster Dulles of the NBA, believes in a policy of massive retaliation. And well he might. In Chamberlain he has the biggest weapon this side of the B-52. While other Lakers gamble for steals and invite opponents to drive into the middle, Wilt stakes out a zone around the basket and tries to swat incoming projectiles right back at the men who fired them. The Knicks follow a strategy of flexible response, a defense that Bradley likes to call "supportive." New York attempts to deny opponents the pieces of territory they most covet and brings up extra defenders to help a teammate in danger of being overpowered.