1952 NBA Finals: Minneapolis 4, New York 3
Lakers Reclaim the NBA Crown
George Mikan returned from his ankle injury in the fall of 1951 and encountered a new game. In an obvious attempt to counteract his nearly unstoppable offense, the league's rules committee had decided to widen the lane from 6 feet to 12.
That, in part, explains how Mikan lost the scoring title. With his average falling from 28.4 to 23.8 points per game, he finished second behind Philadelphia's young jump-shot specialist, Paul Arizin. Although it stalled Mikan's statistical dominance, the wider lane had little effect on who took home the championship trophy.
"Actually, it opened up the lane and made it more difficult for them to defense me," Mikan said. "Opposing teams couldn't deter our cutters going through the lane. It moved me out and gave me more shot selection instead of just short pivots and hooks. I was able to dribble across the lane and use a lot more freedom setting the shot up."
Beyond that, it meant a few more points and a few more shots for Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen, both of whom averaged more than 15 points for the first time in their pro careers. Mikkelsen, in particular, was starting to hit his stride in his third season. "Widening the lane opened the middle and allowed these marvelous one-on-one deals," he explained.
The Lakers had lost the previous spring, largely because of an injury to Mikan, and they needed no reminder of his importance in the fall of 1951. With this firmly in mind, they embarked on their third championship season. To help out, the Lakers had acquired 6-foot-2 veteran Pep Saul and Myer Skoog, a husky rookie guard out of the University of Minnesota. An athlete of great promise who had played some baseball, Saul had spent the previous season with Rochester but had been dealt to the Baltimore Bullets, who then traded him to the Lakers.
The season brought the resumption of the annual battle between the Royals and the Lakers in the Western Division. Once again Rochester nosed Minneapolis aside in the regular season, this time by a single game. Syracuse, Boston and New York were again the powers in the East. The Knicks again finished third, at 37-29, but they prevailed in the playoffs.
Their only roster change was the addition of Dick McGuire's feisty little brother, Al, a pesky defensive player who hustled because he often couldn't find the range on offense. (He was used primarily as a fouler. In those days of strategic hacking, just about every club had one.) That didn't matter much because New York spread the scoring among seven players, all of whom averaged better than nine points per game.
The league's sixth championship series began on April 12 in St. Paul (again there was a scheduling conflict that kept the Lakers out of Minneapolis), where the Knicks wasted no time in showing that they meant business. New York jumped out to a four-point first-quarter lead. The period was marred by a bit of controversy when Al McGuire drove the lane, hit his shot and drew a foul. Officials Sid Borgia and Stan Stutz didn't see the basket, and they sent McGuire to the line for two shots rather than the customary chance at a three-point play.
Knicks coach Joe Lapchick protested, but the officials explained that they couldn't award the basket because they hadn't seen it. McGuire, meanwhile, made one of his two free throws, which left the Knicks feeling that they had been robbed of a point-none of which would have mattered had the game not gone into overtime tied at 71 apiece. Pollard, who led the Lakers with 34 points, then hit four free throws in the closing minute to give Minneapolis an 83-79 win and the series lead.
The Knicks vented their frustration on defense the next night. Nat Clifton, Harry Gallatin and Connie Simmons dropped a web over the Lakers' frontcourt, holding Pollard to 13 points and Mikan to 18, enough for a shocking 80-72 upset that evened the series and took away the Lakers' home-court advantage.
Minneapolis, however, snatched it back three days later in New York, moving ahead in the fourth period for an 82-77 win. But the Lakers suffered a double loss in Game 4. First Pollard injured his back, then the Knicks' defense again snuffed Mikan, who could manage only 11 points. Still, New York needed an overtime period to survive, 80-79.
In St. Paul for Game 5, the Lakers might have stumbled without Pollard. But Mikkelsen and Mikan each scored 32 points, and Bob Harrison moved from guard to forward to replace Pollard. He scored 13 points and Saul added 15 as Minneapolis drubbed the Knicks 102-89.
Having lost their defense and their respect in Game 5, the Knicks returned home to find the Armory only half-filled with 3,000 fans, the majority of their followers apparently thinking the series was over. New York answered by playing the toughest game of the series, holding Minneapolis to just 68 points to even the series at three games apiece with a 76-68 win. Max Zaslofsky scored 17 points in the second half to power New York's offense.
Each year the Lakers were forced to stage their playoff games in St. Paul because a sportsman's show at the Minneapolis Auditorium created a scheduling conflict. But for Game 7 on April 25 the Auditorium was available, which spelled doom for the Knicks, who hadn't won in 11 tries there spanning four seasons. The Lakers led by 12 points after three quarters and won 82-65, giving quiet John Kundla another championship -- and the Knicks their second straight championship loss.
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