1954 NBA Finals: Minneapolis 4, Syracuse 3
Minneapolis Makes One Last Title Run
For the Lakers, the sweet memories didn't end with 1953, although the team went into the 1954 season with George Mikan pushing 30 years old and sporting an array of battle scars. During his amateur and professional career he had suffered two broken legs, broken bones in both feet and fractures of his wrist, nose, thumb and three fingers.
The beating had begun to take its toll on Mikan's game, as his scoring average dipped to 18.1 points per game, fourth in the league behind Neil Johnston, Bob Cousy and Ed Macauley. Still, he was dominant enough to carry the Lakers to the league's best record, a 46-26 finish.
The Lakers accomplished this with a few changes in the team roster. First, the club had acquired 6-foot-9 Clyde Lovellette, the former Indiana schoolboy who had led the University of Kansas to the 1952 NCAA championship. With Mikan's career nearing its end, Lovellette figured to be the understudy at center, and he averaged 8.2 points while shooting .423 from the floor (fifth best in the league).
In another change, Myer "Whitey" Skoog had moved into the starting backcourt, where he averaged 7.0 points per game. Pep Saul played mostly backup minutes, along with 6-foot-5 Richard Schnittker out of Ohio State and 6-foot-3 Jim Holstein, a second-year player out of Cincinnati.
Excessive fouling continued to mar the playoffs, but the real irritant was the format. The Indianapolis Olympians had folded, leaving only four teams in the Western Division while the Eastern still had five. Facing this imbalance, the owners went searching for a playoff system and came up with a three-team round-robin for the first round, which gave no advantage to the teams with the best regular-season records.
The Lakers survived this illogical development in the Western Division, but the East produced a surprise.
The New York Knicks had won the regular-season crown, but they fell in the round-robin and were swept out of the way by the Syracuse Nationals, who had finished the regular schedule tied for second place with Boston.
The Nats arrived in the Finals somewhat bloodied but unbowed after the brutal Eastern Division playoffs. Particularly rough was a round-robin contest in Boston, where the Celtics knocked Dolph Schayes to the floor and broke his wrist. From there, it seemed, the Nationals' luck got worse, and the injuries mounted.
"The press took to calling us the 'bandage brigade,'" recalled Schayes, who finished the playoffs with a cast on his wrist.
Although the nucleus of their team remained, the Nats had undergone some changes since their appearance in the 1950 Finals. Having called an end to his playing career, Al Cervi had focused his efforts on coaching. Schayes led the Nats in scoring with an average of 17.1 points per game. Paul Seymour was still the man in the backcourt, and Billy Gabor was still a good backup. The newcomer at guard was George King, who ran the fast break nicely and scored in double figures.
In the frontcourt, Earl "Big Cat" Lloyd, a 6-foot-6 forward out of West Virginia State, delivered about nine points and seven rebounds per game. But by the Finals, Lloyd had joined Schayes in the bandage brigade. Both had fractured hands and were wearing casts. They both played, but a greater burden fell on the other key Nationals: Bob Lavoy, Wally Osterkorn and Bill Kenville.
Many thought the Nationals' injuries would bring the Finals to a swift conclusion. Instead, the league was treated to another seven-game series. It opened March 31 in Minneapolis, where the Nationals had found limited success. Some of the faces had changed in Syracuse, but the Cervi style remained the same: a thuggish defense balanced against a fast offense. The Nationals used that approach to get Mikan and Skoog in foul trouble early, but Lovellette filled in nicely with 16 points in the frontcourt. With Schayes and Lloyd limited by their injuries (they scored three points between them), Minneapolis rolled along to a 79-68 win.
Schayes and Lloyd totaled only four points in Game 2, but they played more. And Osterkorn, a bulky 6-foot-5 forward in his third pro season out of Illinois, scored 20 points and banged around inside with the bigger Lakers. The game developed into another defensive standoff. The score at halftime was only 28-27, Syracuse. But King got the Nats going in the third quarter, as they used a 16-1 run to build a 48-38 lead heading into the fourth.
Minneapolis answered with its power game and bullied back to almost even the score. With 90 seconds left, the Nats suffered yet another casualty when King drove under the basket and met Mikan, who tried to block King's shot but broke his wrist instead. King left the floor, the newest member of the bandage brigade.
Then, with 18 seconds left, Mikan took a pass from Holstein and scored to tie the game at 60 apiece. Syracuse headed back downcourt with one last chance. With seven seconds left, Seymour took a set shot from 43 feet out and swished it, giving the Nats a 62-60 win and stunning the crowd of 6,277. It was the first time the Lakers had lost a playoff game in the Minneapolis Auditorium, a streak that had extended through seven seasons.
After the game, the Lakers' Jim Pollard immediately went up to Seymour and asked him why he had taken such a shot with time on the clock for a closer attempt. "I was open," replied Seymour. The loss awakened the Lakers, Seymour thought. "We made 'em mad then, Mikan showed us how to play after that."
Schayes and Lloyd were able to play in Game 3 in Syracuse's War Memorial Auditorium, but King was out. Their remaining forces were too meager, and Minneapolis took immediate advantage. Mikan hit 11 of 18 shots from the field to notch 30 points along with 15 rebounds. The Lakers took an 81-67 victory and the series lead.
Syracuse returned the favor four nights later in Game 4. Seymour scored 25 points and the Nats evened the slate with an 80-69 victory. Their bad luck continued, however, as Billy Gabor went down with a knee injury that kept him out of the next two games.
Game 5 in Syracuse was all Lakers as they bulled inside for an 84-73 win. Down three games to two, the Nats headed back to Minneapolis, where they had just won their first game ever. The outlook for a second win there didn't seem promising, particularly with the injuries.
But Schayes was adjusting to his cast better, and King was able to see spot duty. With Schayes scoring 15 points and Seymour 16, the Nats performed a miracle of sorts. They found themselves with the ball and the score tied at 63 apiece in the game's closing seconds.
Cervi had them hold the ball for a final shot, then called a timeout to set it up. The ball was supposed to go to anyone but Jim Neal, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound rookie backup center out of little Wofford College. Cervi had kept him on the roster, figuring he was good for five fouls a game.
Neal played only 80 games in the NBA, but when his moment arrived he made the most of it. His shot, a 27-footer from the right side of the key, dropped through with four seconds left. Whitey Skoog took a desperation heave for the Lakers, but it sailed over the backboard. Syracuse won 65-63 and overshadowed a second 30-point performance by Mikan.
"It was a missed pass," Cervi said of the play. "Neal was at the top of the key and the ball came to him. He didn't know what to do with it, so he shoots it. He wasn't a bad shooter, though. He had a good one-handed pop. Afterward I told him, 'Hey, you weren't supposed to take that shot. But it worked out pretty good.'"
The Lakers were hardly panic-stricken, not with the seventh game in Minneapolis, and certainly not after four previous trips to the Finals. Still, there was more reason to worry than ever before. After all, they were a little older, and their spell at home had been broken.
Pollard stepped forward to lead them with 21 points. They grabbed an early lead and never relinquished it. Pollard scored nine of his points in the third period, when Minneapolis pulled ahead 61-45. The Nats worked their way back into it in the fourth quarter before losing 87-80. Despite his cast, Schayes led the Nats with 18 points.
It proved to be the end of the Lakers' glory days, at least in Minneapolis. Mikan surprised the NBA after the season by abruptly announcing his retirement. Before reaching age 30, he had mastered the pro game of his time, winning seven championships in eight years (including two NBL titles in the 1940s).
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