The New York Knicks of the early 1970s are continually held up as the exemplars of team-first basketball. There is no doubt that a substantial reason for that team’s immortality is the wealth of quality words devoted to it: Pete Axthelm’s “The City Game,” Walt Frazier’s “Rockin’ Steady” and Bill Bradley’s “Life On The Run” should be on the bookshelves of any hoops fan worth his Puma Clydes and tube socks.
Order of the Court previously used Frazier’s tome as a guide to the Knicks’ victory in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, so now an early regular-season game for the defending champions will be viewed through the lens of Bradley’s trenchant observations of the professional game.
After the Knicks won the title, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Oscar Robertson and hoped that by pairing the veteran superstar with young stud Lew Alcindor they could dethrone New York. The teams met for the first time in the 1970-’71 season on Nov. 27 at the Milwaukee Arena.
The addition of Robertson had paid immediate dividends for the Bucks, who came into the game against the Knicks at 17-1 and winners of 16 in a row. The Knicks were playing with a bit of a championship hangover at 18-7, but came out with something to prove against the biggest threat to their title defense.
Alcindor scored over Willis Reed for the game’s first points. But on the Bucks’ second possession, Jon McGlocklin mishandled a pass that the Knicks’ Dave DeBusschere promptly scooped up and tossed ahead on a gorgeous bounce feed to Bradley. The Knicks were off on a signature fast break, with Bradley giving it back to DeBusschere and Bradley’s roommate tapping it right back for a layup by the future U.S. senator. It was textbook basketball, or as Bradley writes in “Life On The Run”:
“I believe that basketball, when a certain level of unselfish team play is realized can serve as kind of a metaphor for ultimate cooperation. It is a sport where success, as symbolized by the championship, requires that the dictates of community prevail over selfish impulses. An exceptional player is simply one point on a five-pointed star. Statistics — such as points, rebounds and assists per game — can never explain the remarkable range of human interaction that takes place on a successful pro team.”
That’s powerful prose, but of course, when one point on that star gets hot, a good team would do well to keep feeding that player the ball. Reed and Alcindor were going at it on the blocks, but the Knicks legend wasn’t about to cede any ground to the game’s next great center. By halftime, Reed had 22 points to Alcindor’s 14 and the Knicks held a 56-55 lead.
Unfortunately for Bradley, this wouldn’t be one of his memorable games. He scored two quick buckets in the first quarter but was soon whistled for three fouls. He didn’t play at all in the second quarter, a boon for backup forwards Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth. It was a situation Bradley knew well:
“Basketball is impossible to officiate well. Most of the calls are dependant on judgment, which in turn is dependant on the official’s vision, his angle, his emotional state, and his partner. The result is colossal inconsistency. Sometimes I can make contact with hands all night without being caught and the next game the official calls three quick fouls for the same kind of play.”
This was obviously a game the officials were calling tight, and the Bucks benefited from that in the third quarter. Robertson showed why the Bucks wanted him despite 10 years on his NBA odometer. (In a quick aside, Robertson must have the coolest warm-up jacket in NBA history. On the back, above his No. 1, it just had “O” stitched where others had their last names).
Robertson backed down whomever Knicks coach Red Holzman put on him, including Frazier, and displayed his expertise in creating space for mid-range jumpers. Robertson’s success at hitting those shots opened things up for Alcindor, who got Reed into foul trouble as the Bucks took an 83-74 lead heading into the final quarter. The ecstatic Bucks fans were convinced that the team’s 17th straight victory was inevitable. Bradley probably wasn’t worried as he watched from the bench:
“I have been on teams that lost 30-point leads. I have come from 25 back to win. The score means little. What is important is being able to sense the mood of the opponent. What I feel is his will.”
These veteran Knicks were too cohesive to fall apart. The Bucks weren’t quite on New York’s level yet. Stallworth took advantage of the extra playing time and started drilling outside shots and finished with 18 points. He hit the jumper that tied the game at 89. But, with 5:40 left, Reed was sent to the bench after picking up his fifth foul. That didn’t matter to the adaptable Knicks. The lanky and mustachioed Phil Jackson came on for Reed, and the future Zen Master scored his only four points of the game over Alcindor to give the Knicks a 93-89 lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 101-94 victory.
But the key to the victory was clearly on the defensive end. Reed was visibly tired late in the game after dragging the youthful Alcindor up and down the court. The Knicks countered by dropping Bradley and DeBusschere down to help Reed. Alcindor finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds but couldn’t get the help he needed in the fourth quarter. Reed countered with 34 points and 10 rebounds, but the difference was his teammates. The Bucks, who were the top offensive team at 118.4 points per game, could manage only 11 points in the fourth quarter against one of the more prideful defensive teams in NBA history. As Bradley explains:
“Each defensive man has to accept the responsibility for his own man and also to aid a teammate in trouble. Once he understands that and acts on it, the various types of presses are simply technical adjustments and our double teaming becomes a well-executed, known defensive maneuver. With team defense understood, pressure defense is assured, and with pressure defense the game’s emphasis shifts from muscle to quickness, from pure individual physical skill to coordinated, intelligent group response.”
The Bucks lost again to the Knicks the next night in New York, 100-99. Milwaukee would win only one of four games against the Knicks that season. But New York lost a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals against Baltimore, and the Bucks were able to sweep the Bullets in the NBA Finals for their only championship. Bradley and the Knicks would wait until 1972-’73 for their next title:
“The money and the championships are reasons I play, but what I’m addicted to are the nights when something special happens on the court. The experience is one of beautiful isolation. It cannot be deduced from the self-evident, like a philosophical proposition. It cannot be generally agreed upon, like an empirically verifiable fact, and it is far more than a passing emotion. It is as if a lighting bolt strikes, bringing insight into an uncharted area of human experience. It makes perfect sense at the same time it seems new and undiscovered. The moment in basketball depends on the blending of human forces at the right time and in the right degrees.”