When DiGregorio was lost no one was joking about the playoffs. The Braves are in trouble when they can't run, and the little guard from Providence College was the one they had looked to, to make them go.
"We were out on the Coast when Ernie was hurt," Ramsay said. "I told the players, 'Look, Ernie is going back for an operation. That means we're going to have better defense, and we won't score as much.' We needed a different approach but we thought we could still win."
Buffalo could, ripping off 11 straight victories. After the sixth of those the Braves lost McMillian, the team captain who plays every facet of the game well and, at 26, is the steadying influence. But then the Braves dropped five out of seven, including three straight, and Ramsay began juggling his lineup. Jack Marin, who had been useful coming off the bench, had replaced McMillian as a starter. But now he was playing 40 minutes instead of 20. Ramsay spelled him by moving Schlueter, a journeyman who is performing better than that, to center, and McAdoo, who at 6'10" is stunningly quick, from center to forward, where he is just as devastating offensively.
At first it was Randy Smith and Lee Winfield at guard, then Kenny Charles and Bobby Weiss. Now, at least until DiGregorio returns, it is Smith and Charles, and no matter what combination is in there, it appears to be the right one.
"Because of the injuries," says Ramsay, "I've learned where I can go when we need help. When I started I set a goal of winning 50 games, and nothing has changed my mind. Last year we won 42 games by outscoring our opponents, not by defense, and we gave up more points than anybody in the league. But no more. Our game has to start with defense. We can't play a basket exchange kind of game because we can't get running room. You get running room from defense—guard defense. You don't get it after another team scores. And if we get the room we can run with any team in the league. Including the Celtics—and they know that."
If the Braves love to run, the Knicks do not, or at least not very often. Holzman has designed a beautifully patterned offense and demands that his troops perform it with discipline. Few teams use the 24-second clock better than New York. The Knicks bring the ball down, move it around and always look for the open man. For Holzman, patience means two points. With DeBusschere and Reed up front it was crisp and effective. When they retired, the offense was expected to crumble into chaos, but it hasn't.
"It's really quite simple," explains Bradley, the team's venerable patrician. "There is no magic in this game when it is played correctly. On our team we have a system that's proved to work—providing each individual does his job. And then it really doesn't matter who the individual is, but what role he is taking in the system."
At the beginning of the season no one was certain who would fill what role. Oh, certainly, Frazier and Earl Monroe would be the guards. And, of course, Bradley would be one of the forwards. But even that trio wouldn't get far without some help. Even last year, when they had all those other people, the Knicks were considered suspect. Frazier and DeBusschere were acknowledged stars, but Monroe still suffered from the "great one-on-one player" stigma, and Bradley ran hot and cold. Jackson, it was said, lacked coordination, and Gianelli was not muscular enough to be an effective NBA center. Bibby and Meminger might be adequate backcourt relief, but the Knicks were weak up front. Wingo was just a guy with big feet and a funny name. Lucas, Reed's original replacement, was off his game. Still, on the strength of their picture-book defense, they made it to the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Celtics in five. But now what?
Seated in his small, neat office inside the Garden the other day, Holzman fingered a cigar and made a decision. "I'll have a hard boiled egg sandwich," he said to his secretary. Then he turned his agile mind back to the beginning of the season.
"Any time you lose four guys who knew exactly what was going on you know you're in trouble. But I didn't think we were in as much trouble as everyone else seemed to think. I just knew we were in for a lot of long hard work, more than ever before. I don't think a coach is earning his money if he says, 'Well, I don't have the guys, so what can I do?' He's got to take what he's got and work with it to make it the best he can. It's not guesswork. We look for players who we feel can play our game. Like Wingo. He's no surprise. We knew what he could do and he's worked damned hard. We just teach everyone as much as we can—mostly by repetition—and then hope that certain team movements become automatic."