Returning to their old style of play and healthy again, the Pistons ran off six straight victories. In November they played 14 games and gave up an average of 102.4 points per game. In 21 games since then they have allowed but 91.8 points a game and lowered their season average to 97.4, second best in the NBA. Chicago is first, giving up just 93.2, with Milwaukee ranked No. 4 and Kansas City- Omaha No. 9. As a unit, the Midwest foursome is allowing only 97.8 points a game, the only division under 100.
The big surprise in the Midwest has been Kansas City- Omaha, which won only 33 games all last year and was only 4-16 in its division. The return of Tiny Archibald has been of great help, but the biggest factor in the Kings' surge has been the emergence of the 6'10", 230-pound Lacey as one of the NBA's better centers.
Heading into the All-Star game, where he was to play behind Abdul-Jabbar and Lanier, Lacey was leading the league in minutes played, in assists for a center and in defensive rebounds. Still, for some reason, people find it hard to admit that the four-year veteran is really that good.
The rap on Lacey is that he doesn't score enough. After the first 44 games he was averaging only 11.6 points.
"I always felt I could score more," he says, "but the last two years I've tried to play a more complete game. Everybody looks at the superstars, the guys who make 20 or more points a game. Now, really, there are only four or five real superstars in the league. Some centers are averaging up there but their shooting percentage is terrible. I don't call that being a superstar."
Under Phil Johnson, who took over the Kings in November 1973, Lacey is the hub of the offense. He has become expert at setting picks, and he screens and passes well—and still rebounds, steals and blocks shots.
"At the age of 26, Sam is one of the real keys to our future," says Johnson.
As for Milwaukee, before last week's Detroit series it figured it needed to win both games to prove it had finally got untracked.
"I don't know what's wrong," said Milwaukee Coach Larry Costello, "but we have not been playing as hard now that Kareem is back as we did when he was out."
Milwaukee also seems to be trying to win with a two-man offense. On Jan. 5, in a victory over Chicago, Abdul-Jabbar and Forward Bobby Dandridge scored 66 of the Bucks' 96 points. Two nights later, while losing a game to Kansas City- Omaha, the same pair scored 59 of the team's 99.