A minute and five seconds remained, but the fourth Boston- Milwaukee playoff game already was decided. The Bucks had clinched their 97-89 victory to even the series 2-2, but in that sweet moment at Boston Garden they found yet another way to get the ball to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a problem that had beset them, win or lose, throughout the first three games. Facing the Celtics' omnipresent, pestiferous press, Milwaukee lofted the ball to Kareem, stationed at an uncharacteristic post 60 feet from the hoop. Abdul-Jabbar dribbled off down the length of the court, outracing two Celtics on his way to a thunderous dunk. The swoosh of the ball through the net served to emphasize a point (or two): while Boston seemed to have a wide advantage in manpower early in the series, Milwaukee could in the end have the biggest edge of all in Abdul-Jabbar—if it can keep finding fresh ways to deliver him the ball.
Not since 1969, the last time Boston was in the finals, had the NBA offered such an enticing matchup, such a sweet juxtaposition of styles and stature. It was the small Celtics against the big Bucks, Boston's pressure against Milwaukee's patience, 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar, the pros' best center, against 6'9" Dave Cowens, the pros' next best. In fact, the lone similarity between these teams was that they had clearly established themselves as the league's top clubs. Boston had dallied briefly in knocking out Buffalo 4-2 in the first playoff round, but had needed only five games to dash aging New York's hopes. Meanwhile the Bucks, who had been expected to have to struggle with starting Guard Lucius Allen injured, ripped up Los Angeles and Chicago, winning eight of nine games in their opening two series.
The Celtics, five deep at guard and using more speed than Timothy Leary, play the daring old Boston game. It is a style that had fallen into mild decline as other teams, most prominently the Knicks, began winning with a conservative, walk-the-ball-up-the-floor strategy. As a result, recent championship rounds have had all the zing of Super Bowl VIII. By the end of last week basketball buffs were comparing Coach Tom Heinsohn's reading of theories concocted by an old Red named Auerbach with the military tactics of Chairman Mao: the Boston fast break, said one opponent, is like the human-wave assaults of the Chinese army. And while the Bucks were trying to figure out how to stop the hordes of quick baskets by John Havlicek and Jo Jo White, the Celtics pressured them the other way with a 94-foot press. Don Chaney, the 6'5" guard with the hands of a purse snatcher and the wingspan of a pterodactyl, used harassment to force steals and other turnovers and to leave Oscar Robertson reeling off none too gracefully into middle age.
Milwaukee, which usually makes few ball-handling errors, kicked the ball away, threw it awry and sometimes even seemed to be dribbling with its thumbs against Boston's press. Those mistakes were precisely the ones the Bucks could least afford because, as Coach Larry Costello said, "If we could just get the damn ball out of the back court, our problems would be solved."
Costello could say that with assurance since he has basketball's best problem solver in Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks' usual solution is to work the ball patiently to Kareem at the low post, and then let him perform as the game's most uncontainable shooter and one of its very best passers. Abdul-Jabbar can pick defenses apart. So thoroughly, and so deftly, does he control the Milwaukee offense that the Boston series offered an opportunity to answer a question that the Bucks' frustrated rivals are almost afraid to ask: Just how good is Kareem? Without him Milwaukee would be a loser, the standard argument goes. And there is considerable logic to it, since the Bucks have won 248 games in the last four years with a strictly ordinary supporting cast. Only the absent Allen and Forward Bob Dandridge are above average, average being about all that can be said for Robertson since he turned 35.
During ordinary games, Abdul-Jabbar is often worth two or three of the other side's men. But if Milwaukee manages to defeat a team as strong as Boston in the playoffs that would be a serious underestimate.
Cowens does not get much direct help from his teammates in attempting to halt his taller opponent, a task that recalls un-fond memories. In Dave's rookie year Abdul-Jabbar scored 53 points against him in one game, and Cowens has never forgotten it. "No one wants to look used and foolish out on the court," he says. "Our style doesn't give me much help because the other guys are off pressing, so I have to try to stop him by myself and remember that if he has a big game I won't be the first guy it's happened to.
"But I have a couple of things going for me. When the guys are off pressing, they're really helping me. The better they press, the less often Kareem's going to get the ball. And on offense I can score from the outside, which puts him at a disadvantage."
Certainly Cowens had his teammates' press going for him in the first game. The ball was arriving in Abdul-Jabbar's hands with just enough time for him to shoot, but not enough for the other Bucks to maneuver around him for scores of their own. Kareem put in 35 points. The next-highest Bucks had just 12, and Boston won 98-83. In the second game, when Milwaukee switched to a strategy of isolating Robertson in the backcourt to bring the ball up alone against Chaney, Milwaukee made 22 turnovers, but Abdul-Jabbar's edge over Cowens more than balanced that. Kareem scored 36 points, set most of the picks and threw most of the passes. Dandridge was able to spring loose for 24 more points as the Bucks won 105-96 in overtime. Boston might still have taken that game had Cowens hit more than three of his 13 long shots and if Kareem had not come from somewhere over the rainbow to block Cowens' running hook in the last seconds of regulation time.
Two days later back in Boston, Cowens stayed after practice to sharpen his outside shot. First Havlicek, then a reporter, shagged rebounds as he slowly worked out an imperfection in his one-hander. Standing 20 feet from the basket, Cowens explained, "I've been getting the ball out here and putting it over my head while I looked for cutters to pass to. When I finally got around to shooting, I was releasing from up there, but my normal shot starts under my chin. I've got to remember to bring the ball down before I shoot it up."