For the opening 1:04 of the fourth period last Saturday night, events turned briefly Chicago's way. Norm Van Lier, kneecaps and elbows covered with a half a season's worth of bumps and burns from hitting the floor in pursuit of loose balls, began the quarter with a jumper that cut Milwaukee's lead to 67-63. Ten seconds later he intercepted a Buck pass, was tripped and converted both free throws. Milwaukee 67-65. Fourteen seconds after that he trapped Lucius Allen in a corner and harassed him into dribbling out of bounds. Chicago came downcourt with a chance to tie, but when Howard Porter's open, 10-foot baseline shot went in and out, Bull Bob Love fouled Cornell Warner as they struggled for the rebound. Warner made both penalty shots and the Bucks had survived. Milwaukee's lead soon ballooned back to 10 points and the Bucks coasted to a 101-82 win in the first game of an unusual back-to-back, home-and-home series between the monsters of the NBA's Midwest Division.
As the teams headed the 90 miles up 1-94 to Milwaukee and the next installment of the rivalry that has supplanted the Bears vs. Packers for excellence, excitement and good, old-fashioned Midwestern body contact, Van Lier's one-man rally stood out as a reminder that the Bulls are again caught on the horns of a familiar dilemma. With Stormin' Norman and his regular backcourt partner Jerry Sloan (who, like Buck Oscar Robertson, missed both games with an injury) aggressively in the fore, Chicago annually suffers more contusions, dives for more stray balls and executes more plays with precison than any other NBA team.
The Bulls have the third-best record (31-17) in the pros and are on their way to a fourth straight 50-victory season, but that tends to heighten rather than diminish their frustration. For all its success, Chicago remains unacclaimed largely because no matter how hard it tries it always falls a shot or two shy of being able to overcome a nasty fact of geography: the presence of the Bucks up the road.
In the 3½ seasons since the NBA shifted to a four-division alignment, the Bulls have won more games than all but three teams—more, for example, than the renowned Knicks. Alas, during the same period the Bucks have won more than anybody except the Globetrotters. Milwaukee is the only team in NBA history to win 60 games or more three seasons running, and with a 35-10 record so far this year it seems sure to make it four in a row. As far as hoop in the Loop is concerned, that adds up to three consecutive second-place finishes in the Midwest, with another almost assured. After Milwaukee won Sunday, 124-94, the Bulls trailed the Bucks by 5½ games.
While Chicago Coach Dick Motta has gained a well-deserved reputation as a masterly tactician and motivator of men, Milwaukee's meticulous Larry Costello has merely taken over as the winningest pro basketball coach ever. Hang on to your cigars, Red Auerbach fans, but Costy is currently smoking him in career winning percentage, .677 to .662.
The main reason for the Bucks' success has been, of course, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is nothing less than the best pro player. Never selfish in the past, Abdul-Jabbar has become even more generous this season, shooting less, scoring fewer points (25.5 ppg, down from 30.2 in 1972-73) and passing off more frequently to cutting teammates from his high vantage point in the low post. When he does fire, he has a wider array of shots at his command. The conventional defense against Abdul-Jabbar has been to block him from curling from the left side of the lane into the middle for his deadly sky hook, thereby forcing him to take turnaround jumpers or to abandon the left post for the right, from which he shoots the hook with less accuracy. In the game at Chicago, the obsolescence of that thinking was clear. Of his nine baskets, Abdul-Jabbar made only one from the left, and that a jumper. He also has added flexibility to his defensive game, wandering farther and more fervently afield
to help the Bucks cut their defensive average by almost a point per game. That is no mean feat since Milwaukee was second in the league last season, allowing an average of 99 points.
The Bulls make it almost a fetish to announce that they have no one remotely the equal of Abdul-Jabbar or Robertson. "We don't have any guys who are the super-super types," says Chet Walker, who is certainly doubly super himself when it comes to one-on-one moves. What the Chicago players are really saying is that they do not have the dominating center usually required to win. Instead, Motta deploys three different big men according to the exigencies of the moment.
Love (21.6) and Walker (21.3) do most of the scoring in Motta's exacting, pattern offense, but it is Sloan and Van Lier who are the heart of his team. They hold some archaic notions on how the game should be played—such as not worrying about what will happen to next season's $100,000 salary if they are maimed taking the offensive charge. "Neither Jerry nor I are particularly talented," says Van Lier, ignoring his unusual quickness, which makes him a fine penetrating guard. "We stay in the lineup by making the plays that don't require talent, like standing in the way of guys to pick up fouls and digging on defense."
Milwaukee's lofty talents, Chicago's lowdown orneriness and the proximity of the two teams both geographically and competitively have turned recent Bucks-Bulls games into rousing affairs. Up to last week they had played 19 times since becoming members of the same division and 12 of the games were decided by eight points or less. The Bucks won 13 of the 19, but that edge has dampened neither the spirits of the participants, whose enthusiasm had led to 30 technical fouls, nor that of Chicago fans, who ordinarily are noted for their absenteeism. An average of 16,699 has attended Buck games at Chicago, including the record crowd of 19,500, 2,126 over capacity.
The early arrivals among last Saturday's mob of 18,597 had already started to congregate when the Bucks' bus pulled up to Chicago Stadium and Allen awoke from a nap that had begun when he boarded two hours earlier.