1953 NBA Finals: Minneapolis 4, New York 1
Lakers Unstoppable in Big Apple
Both the New York Knicks and Minneapolis Lakers thought the 1953 championship would again depend on who got the home-court advantage, and they played the regular season with this in mind. Minneapolis won the Western Division regular-season title with a 48-22 record. New York claimed the East with a 47-23 finish, one game worse than the Lakers.
The saving grace of a long season came in the playoffs when, for the first time, the two division leaders survived to meet again in the Finals. The 1952-53 season had been a rough year for pro basketball; strategy had moved toward fouling, as coaches attempted to play the percentages. Games averaged 58 fouls each.
Instead of shooting 1,500 or 1,600 free throws in a season, teams were shooting 2,300 or 2,400, and the playoffs were even worse. Boston and Syracuse engaged in a quadruple-overtime battle featuring 107 fouls and 130 free throws. The Celtics' Bob Cousy scored 50 points, but 30 of them came from the line. Through the maze of flailing arms and the steady shrill of whistles, New York somehow finished off Boston in four games to take the Eastern Division, while the Lakers eliminated Fort Wayne in five.
The big changes for New York were the trading of Max Zaslofsky to Fort Wayne after 29 games, and the presence of 6-foot-5 Carl Braun, who had returned from two years in the service to lead the team in scoring at 14 points per game. Five other Knicks averaged in double figures, reflecting the balance that coach Joe Lapchick had sought to build.
The Lakers, on the other hand, still got the bulk of their scoring from George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard. Mikan's average was down to 20.6 points per game, second in the league behind Philadelphia center Neil Johnston.
Slater Martin had crept into double figures (10.6 ppg), mostly by taking advantage of the opposing defenders who always crowded the Lakers' frontcourt. Martin would never take a shot unless it was an absolute necessity, but he nevertheless knew how to put the ball in the hole. He shot .410 from the floor that season, eighth best in the league. "He didn't care about scoring," coach John Kundla said of Martin. "He just played defense and ran the offense. He was a good dribbler, just so quick."
In the Finals, the Knicks quickly established that they had a new confidence and were out to prove something. They stayed even with the Lakers through three quarters of Game 1 in Minneapolis (played in the Armory, not the Auditorium, because of another scheduling conflict). At that point, according to the old script, the Knicks should have withered sometime in the fourth quarter. Instead, they produced a 30-point final period that brought a surprise ending: New York 96, Minneapolis 88.
"We had had a tough time with Fort Wayne in the previous series and were a little weary," Kundla said of the defeat.
Just like that, the Lakers had lost their home-court advantage. The next night they set out to mend things, and through the first half it appeared that they would, with a 47-30 lead at intermission. But the Knicks caught up and then took a one-point lead in the third. From there, the game became a free-throw shooting contest. Neither side allowed the other to shoot from the field. So each team went to the line, and the Lakers settled it there, hitting 9-of-13 while the Knicks made 6-of-10.
With a 73-71 win, the Lakers had evened the series at one victory apiece, but with a change in format, the next three games were to be played in New York. This seemed to give the Knicks a significant advantage. The circumstances, however, were decidedly extenuating.
First, Mikan was an old hand at playing in the Big Apple, dating back to his college days and the doubleheaders in Madison Square Garden. "They sort of liked me in New York," he recalled with a bit of understatement, "and I liked New York. Even today when I travel, people will come up to me and say, 'I saw you play in the Garden.'"
Second, the Lakers got an assist from the New York media. "I can still see the clippings," Mikkelsen said. "The New York newspapers were all saying that the series wouldn't go back to Minneapolis. They were right. It didn't."
In what the Lakers viewed as their sweetest championship, they blasted the Knicks in three straight games. Game 3 was tight through three quarters until the Lakers turned on a fourth-quarter scoring spree that ended the game at 90-75. The Knicks fought back in Game 4, which turned into another foulfest.
With 28 seconds left and Minneapolis leading, 69-67, the Lakers' Jim Holstein went to the line and missed. But Myer Skoog grabbed the rebound and scored for a 71-67 lead. Connie Simmons hit two free throws for the Knicks to bring it to 71-69, and New York even got a final shot to tie it. But Harry Gallatin missed a hook, and suddenly the home boys were down, three games to one.
Game 5 was on Friday, April 10, a dark day in New Yorkers' memories. The Lakers opened a solid lead in the second, stretched it to 20 points in the third, and then watched it slip away when Mikan developed foul trouble early in the fourth. The Knicks pushed back, paring the lead from 12 to five points, then down to 84-82 with less than two minutes left.
But all they could do was foul, and the Lakers made enough of their free throws to stay ahead. Plus, with a jump ball after every late foul, Mikan controlled the outcome. That was enough for a 91-84 win and the Lakers' fourth NBA title.
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