Now that the millstones of the NBA have eliminated the chaff—including some husks not used to being eliminated, like Milwaukee and Los Angeles—it is time to get serious about pro basketball, which means the playoffs, the fourth third of the season. It took 82 games for the NBA to eliminate just eight teams (over in the ABA, they got rid of only two), and this week the surviving 10, including teams that have never been in the playoffs—Houston in the East and Kansas City- Omaha and Seattle in the West—began the series of eliminations that will run past Mother's Day and on toward the end of May. No matter. A lot of extra box-office money is involved and eventually a champion will emerge in time to start training for next season.
When it is over, the last team standing, if barely, should be either Boston or Washington. They are easily the class of the East, which this year is the class of the NBA. Still, this is the season that started so bizarrely with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hand broken and Dave Cowens' foot fractured. If the whole show now closes with as much predictability as it opened, the new champion could be Seattle, winning in seven games over Houston after pressing Bill Russell into emergency duty at center.
The ABA hasn't been all that complicated, with only Kentucky and New York winning more games than they lost in one division and Denver playing a stunning solo role in the other. The only real excitement came just at the end, when the Nets misplaced their defense and blew a five-game Eastern Division lead. As a result, Kentucky slipped into a tie with New York, and then mugged the Nets in a one-game playoff.
Now, after everyone else gets lost in the playoff preliminaries, the same pair should do it all over again to see who draws Denver in the final. That's a little like two of Napoleon's armies slugging it out for the right to invade Russia.
In the NBA East, where Boston and Washington dominated their respective divisions once things got sorted out, the whole season may have hinged on one game—the tough contest in which Boston beat Washington 95-94 last Friday. By the time the playoffs are over, that one point could have determined the championship.
The victory made the Celtics' record half a game better than the Bullets', and two days later the regular season ended with them tied for the conference championship. But by virtue of its better in-conference record (12 losses to 14), Boston got the No. 1 spot, the home-court advantage and at least seven days to rest. Beyond that, the win meant that the Celtics would not have to open the playoffs against Buffalo—the third-best team in the conference and possibly the third-best team in the league—but could take it easy for a week before encountering the survivor of Houston and New York on Sunday or Monday.
New York? The Knicks' appearance in the playoffs came as something of a surprise, since they had teetered for weeks on the brink of elimination. But last Sunday, in national TV's full glare, they pulled themselves together and beat Buffalo. And then Cleveland, which would have made the playoffs if it had won, lost to Kansas City- Omaha. At least the TV people were happy to have New York on the line, if only for a while.
For the Celtics, age is a critical factor in the forecourt, where John Havlicek (35), Don Nelson (34) and Paul Silas (31) are not young. And fatigue is a possible problem also with Dave Cowens, who is only 26 but who plays harder than three normal people and who was somewhat erratic in the final weeks.
Toward the end, Cowens had depended less and less upon finesse and quickness and more on sheer strength and tenaciousness, sometimes playing like a tired man. It is not a new problem for him. Last season after Boston was assured of winding up with the best record in the conference, Cowens was sent home for three days to Kentucky under the pretense of resting a sore knee. Without him, the Celtics split games against Atlanta and Houston. When Cowens came back, he was refreshed and devastating in the playoffs.
Of course, there is also the money. By pulling even with Washington in the final week, the Celtics got to split with the Bullets a $107,500 regular-season bonus pot: half of the $40,000 for posting the league's best record and half of the combined $40,000 for winning and $27,500 for finishing second in the conference.