Thursday, February 11, 2010

Clash Of Titans

It’s unimaginable that another regular-season NBA game will be more hotly anticipated than the matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks was on Jan. 9, 1972.

The Lakers came into The Arena in Milwaukee with a 33-game winning streak, still the longest mark in professional sports. The Bucks previously held the longest NBA winning streak, a 20-game tear in 1970-’71. Milwaukee ended that season with its only NBA title and, along with the Lakers, was among the favorites to claim the crown in 1971-’72. The court was graced by some of the biggest names in the league: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

The game couldn’t possibly have lived up to the hype, and the first half was startlingly ragged. Abdul-Jabbar scored seven points as the Bucks jolted out to a 9-2 advantage. His trademark “Sky Hook” was in full flower, even against a perfect basketball specimen like Chamberlain.

The Lakers battled back to take a 28-26 lead after the first quarter. The intensity was ratcheted up in the second period, when Abdul-Jabbar was fouled hard by Happy Hairston. The always-prickish Abdul-Jabbar took a swipe at Hairston after the foul, and Chamberlain raced over to confront the Bucks center. A brave official stepped between the two towers, and peace was brokered. Abdul-Jabbar was whistled for a “punching foul,” something you don’t hear much anymore.

With all the Hall of Famers in the game, it was disconcerting to watch Bucks reserve bruiser John Block have the best half, piling up 11 points and seven rebounds. Chamberlain was in the twilight of his career, and was sublimating his oversized scoring ego in a last-grasp attempt to win a final title. The man who took 3,159 shots (39.5 FGA per game) with Philadelphia in 1961-’62 was being passive on offense. He averaged just 13.3 points per game that season.

(In an interesting aside, the Bucks had traded Block earlier that season with a future draft pick to the 76ers for the eccentric Wali Jones and a player to be named. Block himself turned out to be the player to be named.)

The Lakers could have used the younger Big Dipper because they trailed at halftime, 51-46. Los Angeles shot only 29% in the first two quarters, and turned the ball over 15 times.

As uneasy on the eyes as the first half was, the last two quarters were as aesthetically pleasing as anything you would ever wish to see on a basketball court. The crucial moment came just minutes into the third quarter, when Chamberlain picked up his fourth foul. Wilt “The Stilt” had famously never fouled out of a game in high school, college and his professional career. It was common knowledge that if he got close to six fouls, he’d markedly back off on defense.

Abdul-Jabbar took quick advantage of the situation. He had cooled off after a blazing start, but he started going right at Chamberlain. After Chamberlain picked up his fourth foul, Abdul-Jabbar made 11 of his final 15 shots. Chamberlain would finish the game with a quiet 15 points and 12 rebounds.

The transformative moment of the game came with 6:40 remaining. The Bucks had the ball with a 94-92 lead, and Robertson cleared out the right side to run the two-man game with Abdul-Jabbar.

The battle on this possession was one for the ages: West guarding Robertson, and Chamberlain on Abdul-Jabbar. Robertson dribbled in, and Abdul-Jabbar showed like he was going to set a screen. Robertson broke down West and got into the lane with a wicked crossover. Chamberlain moved in to help, giving Robertson a tight window to drop the pass to Abdul-Jabbar, who threw down a one-handed dunk that brought the house down.

That started an 18-2 run for the Bucks and effectively killed the Lakers’ record winning streak. Robertson orchestrated Milwaukee’s offense beautifully down the stretch, and finished with 17 points and nine assists in the 120-104 victory. Abdul-Jabbar’s line was absurd: 39 points, 20 rebounds, 10 blocks and five assists.

The Bucks finished the season 63-19. The Lakers had one of the canonical seasons in NBA history, ending up 69-13 for a record that stood until the Chicago Bulls went 72-10 in 1995-’96.

The Lakers earned a measure of revenge on the Bucks, winning the matchup in the Western Conference finals, 4-2, before dispatching the New York Knicks in five games for the NBA championship.

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