Sometime along about the summer solstice, when the running, gunning Bay Bridge Golden State Warriors get around to meeting the running, gunning Bay State Boston Celtics for the championship of basketball by the bays, both teams will surely remember last Saturday night's game in Oakland and a young man who looked two chilling moments in the eye and said, "Hello, I'm Phil Smith, and you're not."
The twin plays that the lanky Golden State guard made 37 seconds apart came near the end of a grueling contest during which the younger-than-springtime Warriors and the older-than-the-hills Celtics had battled each other with savage fury until only one team was left standing. That the one was Golden State resulted from the fact that Smith pulled off the big plays, and Dave Cowens or Charlie Scott or F. Lee Bailey or whoever was assigned to block Smith off the offensive board did not.
The situation was this: in a game that may well have been a preview of the NBA finals, the Warriors came from 14 points behind to take the lead in the third quarter, then Boston rallied from nine back to cut Golden State's lead to 93-92 with 1:22 to play. At that point Charles Dudley, an Unknown and therefore Essential Warrior, shot and missed from the left side.
As the bodies tumbled underneath the basket the angular Smith, who stands 6'4" but has very long arms, came up with the ball, dribbled out to the right and nailed a jumper. After John Havlicek made a layup to make the score' 95-94, Golden State again brought the ball down the left side. This time Rick Barry, he of the new hair weave ("Go easy on me; it looks good out of uniform"), took the shot. It missed, but once more Smith was right there. He tipped the ball clear, dribbled out to the right and nailed a jumper. Sound familiar? Seconds later, when Boston's Scott heaved an air ball at the other end, the result was familiar, too. The Warriors took possession of the game as well as the ball. They went on to win 100-94 for their fifth victory in their last seven confrontations with the Celtics.
" Smith crashed into our guys on the first rebound and held on the second," said Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn in a characteristically objective analysis. But the facts were that Smith's 27 points and some fine defensive work by Dudley and another of the Warriors' faceless wonders, Dwight Davis, were the reasons Golden State won. Warrior Center Clifford Ray also played an important role by holding Cowens to nine points.
"You've got to push the dude around to impress him. You've got to lay some skin on him," said Ray of Cowens. That is a good description of how all the players on the two best teams in the NBA go after each other.
"Was this like playoff time?" said Dudley, presenting Golden State's point of view. "If it's Boston, it's always playoff time." Though most of the Celtics denied having a special feeling about the game, there was a certain edge to their demeanor. Golden State had defeated Boston three out of four games in 1974-75, then went on to replace the Celts as the NBA champions. This season the teams had alternated home-court victories. The Celtics' win was by a nine-point margin, but the Warriors' triumph was a 133-101 runaway in which Boston either committed turnovers or was forced into bad shots eight of the first 10 times it had the ball.
"You don't forget something like that," said Cowens. "We were embarrassed. There aren't any supermen on the other side, but if you let a team think it can beat you, it will keep right on doing it. Then you're just a normal bunch, back in the pack."
The proud Celtics seldom have been accused of being ordinary, and this season's team is no different. Nonetheless, Boston has suffered from inconsistency. The season started with the team having to understand, if not appreciate, the many moods of the newly acquired Scott. And with Forwards Don Nelson, Havlicek and Silas approaching an age usually associated with Bicentennial Minutes, Heinsohn felt his team might be vulnerable in the corners. Havlicek has been an All-Star for 11 straight years, and Silas is a renowned sixth man who sends opposing rebounders crashing into the basket supports. The coach's problem was: What would happen if all three forwards turned decrepit at the same time?
Nelson, the first of that reliable trio to show the effects of his advancing years, then rookies Tom Boswell and Ed Searcy took turns starting opposite Havlicek, but none of them handled the job properly. Only after Steve Kuberski, a former Celtic who had gone on to fail with three other teams, came back was the lineup set. When that happened, the Celtics, according to Heinsohn, "went crazy." From Thanksgiving to the All-Star break Boston was 26 and 7, a performance that nearly sewed up first place in the Atlantic Division.