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Monday, September 27, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Celtic Pride Reborn

I wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the 2005 anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. This is the fifth of 12 installments reprinting that chapter in its entirety.

I have removed the footnotes that accompanied the original text; direct quotations are now acknowledged in the body of the work and I will post a bibliography at the end of the final installment. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.

Celtic Pride Reborn

Wilt Chamberlain jumped to the ABA to be a player coach for the San Diego Conquistadors in the 1973-1974 season, but the Lakers successfully sought an injunction that kept him from playing for San Diego for one year. This was the same option clause that forced Rick Barry to sit out a year before joining the Oaks and that Connie Hawkins' representatives removed from his Pipers' contract so that he could join the NBA as soon as his case was resolved. The option only existed from the point of view of the team, which could choose to sign a player to a new contract when the original one expired or else restrain the player from signing with another team for a year; the player's "option" consisted of re-signing with the same team on their terms or losing a year's worth of earnings. This was a convenient way for the owners to restrict player movement and contain salaries but the cases of Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood and others were the first steps in eliminating this clause from standard player contracts.

The Lakers' championship hopes were dealt a second blow by injuries that limited Jerry West to 31 regular season games and a 14 minute cameo appearance in one playoff game before he retired. The Lakers acquired Hawkins from the Suns but he was no longer a star player. They also dealt Jim McMillian to the Buffalo Braves for journeyman center Elmore Smith, who led the league in blocked shots with a 4.85 per game average in the first year that the NBA recorded this statistic; Portland's aptly named Larry Steele averaged 2.68 steals per game as the NBA's first official leader in that category. The 47-35 Lakers won their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title but were no longer a legitimate title contender.

Oscar Robertson struggled with age and injuries in his last season but he, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bob Dandridge combined to lead the Bucks to their fourth straight Midwest Division crown with a league best 59-23 record. The Bulls and a fine Detroit Pistons team led by center Bob Lanier (22.5 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game and 3.05 blocked shots per game) rounded out the playoff field in the Western Conference.

Similarly, the Eastern Conference playoffs featured three established playoff teams and one newcomer. The Celtics won the Atlantic Division for the third straight year, this time with a conference best 56 victories, while the 47-35 Capital (formerly Baltimore) Bullets took their fourth Central Division title in a row. The veteran Knicks (49-33) and young Buffalo Braves (42-40) were the other participants in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Buffalo featured Bob McAdoo, a center who won the first of three straight scoring titles (30.6 points per game) while leading the league in field goal percentage (54.7), ranking third in rebounding (15.1 rebounds per game) and third in blocked shots (3.32 blocks per game). His shooting prowess was remarkable considering that many of his attempts were long jump shots, while his rebounding and shot blocking were impressive because he was undersized (6-9, 215) for a center. No less an authority than Bill Russell offered this high praise: "He's the greatest shooter of all time, period. Forget that bit about 'greatest shooting big man.'"

McAdoo scored 31.7 points per game versus Boston in the playoffs, but the Celtics won the series four games to two. The Knicks and Bullets squared off for the sixth year in a row and the Knicks won for the fifth time, taking game seven 91-81 in New York. The Bucks annihilated the Lakers in five games, while Chicago and Detroit slugged it out for seven games before the Bulls advanced after a 96-94 triumph at home. The Celtics avenged the previous year's loss to the Knicks with a five game victory in the Eastern Conference Finals, while the Bucks swept the Bulls in the Western Conference Finals.

The Finals proved to be a seesaw affair. Milwaukee won a dramatic 102-101 double overtime game six in Boston and seemed to have matters in control heading home for game seven. Instead the Celtics blew the Bucks out, 102-87. Dave Cowens scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. During an 18 minute stretch Abdul-Jabbar went 0-3 from the field, due mainly to Cowens' physical, aggressive defense, the Celtics' double teaming in the post, and tremendous defensive pressure on the Bucks' ball handlers. "Their team concept of pressure was more than we could handle. With all the adjustments we tried, we just couldn't cope with it. Boston is a great team with no weaknesses. At least I haven't been able to find any," commented Bucks' Coach Larry Costello. Havlicek averaged 27.1 points per game during the postseason and won the Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 AM

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