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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: The Greatest Game Ever Played

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 eighth 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.

The Greatest Game Ever Played

The NBA-ABA rivalry heated up during the 1975 offseason. The Kentucky Colonels, a powerful squad coached by Hubie Brown and built around the talents of Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and Louie Dampier, won the 1975 ABA championship. Knicks' legend DeBusschere, newly selected as the ABA commissioner, promptly challenged the NBA to permit the Warriors to play the Colonels in a best of three series but the established league refused. Meanwhile, the Knicks signed ABA co-MVP George McGinnis to a contract, blatantly disregarding the fact that the Sixers' owned his NBA draft rights. NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien voided the Knicks' deal with the superstar forward, fined the team and took away a draft choice. McGinnis signed with the Sixers shortly thereafter.

The ABA scored a major victory when the Denver Nuggets agreed to terms with David Thompson and Marvin Webster, the first and third picks in the 1975 NBA draft. Thompson went on to capture ABA Rookie of the Year honors; Alvan Adams, the NBA Rookie of the Year, began his acceptance speech humorously by thanking Thompson for not signing with an NBA team. Of course, this was no laughing matter for NBA owners; top level talent was signing with the ABA regularly and the competition between the leagues for these players continued to push salaries higher.

The Lakers pulled off the blockbuster deal of the summer, acquiring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Bucks in exchange for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters. In his first year with the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar won his only rebounding crown (16.9 rebounds per game) and the fourth of his record six regular season MVPs. The Lakers improved by 10 wins, but their 40-42 record did not qualify them for postseason play. Meanwhile, the Bucks matched their 1974-1975 win total (38) but incredibly moved from last place to first as the other three teams in the Midwest Division plummeted in the standings. Rick Barry's Warriors, no longer upstarts, won the Pacific Division with the best record in the league, 59-23. Seattle, Phoenix and Detroit claimed the other Western Conference playoff spots.

Boston finished with the best record in the East for the fifth straight season, 54-28. The surprising 49-33 Cleveland Cavaliers earned the franchise's first playoff appearance, winning the Central Division by one game over the Bullets. Seven Cavs averaged at least 10 points per game, led by center Jim Chones (15.8 points per game) and small forward Campy Russell (15.0 points per game). Bob McAdoo won his third straight scoring title (31.1 points per game) for the 46-36 Braves, while McGinnis (23.0 points per game) and guard Doug Collins (20.8 points per game) led the Sixers to an identical record. The two evenly matched Atlantic Division rivals faced off in the first round, with the Braves winning game three 124-123 in overtime at Philadelphia. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals Boston knocked off Buffalo in six games, while the Cavaliers won an action packed seven game series versus the Bullets. Unfortunately for the Cavs, Chones broke his foot and was not available for the Eastern Finals versus the Celtics, who defeated the Cavs in six games to earn their second NBA Finals berth in three years.

The Bucks had the worst record of the five Western playoff teams and did not receive a bye even though they won the Midwest Division. The Pistons beat them in three games, taking the final contest 107-104 in Milwaukee. Detroit took home court advantage from the Warriors with a 123-111 game two win but Golden State closed out the series in six games, winning the last one 118-116 in overtime. Phoenix beat Seattle in six games but entered the Western Finals as decided underdogs. Their prospects looked even grimmer after the Warriors blew them out 128-103 in game one, but the resilient Suns seized home court advantage with a 108-101 win in game two. The teams traded wins after that, culminating in a 94-86 Suns' victory in game seven at Golden State.

Boston-Phoenix looked like a decisive mismatch on paper. Paul Westphal, the Suns' leading scorer (20.5 points per game), had been a bench player with the Celtics until they traded him and two draft picks to Phoenix for Charlie Scott. Center Alvan Adams, Rookie of the Year and the Suns' second leading scorer (19.0 points per game), did not figure to have an easy series against a team that placed its entire starting frontcourt--Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, and Paul Silas--on the 1976 All-Defensive First Team. However, Phoenix proved to be surprisingly tough, bouncing back after two losses in Boston to tie the series after four games.

The pivotal game five encounter became a triple overtime thriller that is still considered by many to be the greatest basketball game ever played, filled with exciting plays, comebacks and numerous twists and turns. At the end of the second overtime the Suns trailed by one and were set to inbound the ball from their own backcourt with one second left. Westphal, showing the strategic wiles that later made him a successful Suns coach, urged Coach John MacLeod to call a time-out, even though Phoenix had used up all of their time-outs. The Suns were assessed a technical foul and Jo Jo White made the free throw. Westphal knew that after the stoppage of play for the free throw the Suns would be allowed to advance the ball to half court for the inbounds play as if a legitimate time-out had been called (a rule later changed as a result of this game). Gar Heard made a sensational shot to send the game into a third overtime. In the third extra period, the clock struck midnight for the Cinderella Suns, as Celtics' reserve Glenn McDonald made several clutch plays to seal a 128-126 win for Boston; he was only in the game because Silas had fouled out.

The Celtics wrapped up the title in game six. White scored 15 points and led Boston with 21.7 points per game in the series, earning the Finals MVP. Cowens and Silas combined for 31 points and 30 rebounds in game six, while Scott totaled 25 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals. Scott, a much maligned player during his stints with Phoenix and Virginia, also scored 31 points with eight assists and two steals in the final playoff game versus the Braves and put up 20 points in the last game against the Cavs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM

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