1970 NBA Finals: New York 4, L.A. Lakers 3
Gutsy Reed Rallies Knicks in Game 7
At 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, New York Knicks center Willis Reed was a big man, but not quite big enough to dominate the NBA merely with his size. Instead, he used his hunger for winning.
After years of domination by Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, the championship was up for grabs in 1970. Russell had retired and Boston's fortunes fell with his leaving. As a result, a lot of NBA teams rushed for the open seat at the head of the table.
The 1969-70 Knicks epitomized pro basketball at its best. They didn't have a dominating player -- just a bunch of guys with guts and a coach who taught them to believe in defense.
After five years in the NBA, Reed's time had come. First, he was named the MVP of the All-Star Game. Later that spring he was voted the league MVP. He capped that by picking up the MVP Award in the Finals, becoming the first player to capture all three honors in a single season.
New York stepped up to face the Lakers in the NBA Finals. It had been an up-and-down year in Los Angeles. Butch van Breda Kolff was out as coach, replaced by Joe Mullaney, a veteran from Providence College.
Wilt Chamberlain, now 33 years old, had suffered a knee injury nine games into the season and appeared to be lost for the year. But as the playoffs neared he announced his intention to return, a move that surprised even his doctors. He played the final three games of the regular season and was enough of a force to help the Lakers thrive in the Western Division playoffs. They had finished in second place in the regular season behind the Atlanta Hawks and "Sweet" Lou Hudson, but with Chamberlain the Lakers swept Atlanta in the division finals.
Despite that win and the Lakers' overwhelming edge in playoff experience, oddsmakers favored the Knicks in the Finals. Game 1 showed why. New York opened a quick lead and pumped it up to 50-30, but the Knicks coasted a little too much in the second half and lost the lead late in the game. But the Knicks turned up their defense with guard Mike Riordan in the game. With Cazzie Russell scoring frequently they blew by Los Angeles rather easily over the last eight minutes to win 124-112. Reed finished with 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists.
For Game 2 the scenario was somewhat reversed. It was the Lakers who got the early lead, then struggled to keep it at the end. As promised, Chamberlain was much more active on defense. But with a minute left, Walt Frazier scored to tie it at 103 apiece. Then Riordan fouled West, who made two free throws at the 46-second mark.
Trailing 105-103, the Knicks got one last possession with 22 seconds left, but Chamberlain blocked Reed's shot. The Lakers held on to even the series.
Back home for Game 3 on April 29, the Lakers rolled out to a 56-42 halftime lead. But the Knicks abruptly reversed the momentum in the third period. Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett started dropping shots in from the perimeter, setting off a run that allowed New York to tie it at 96 apiece with two minutes left. Reed hit a free throw a minute later to give the Knicks the lead, 98-97. West knocked down a jumper from 19 feet at the 38-second mark to get the Lakers back up, then Barnett returned the favor at 18 seconds.
Los Angeles called time to set up a play, but when the action resumed, Barnett did the smart thing -- he fouled Wilt, who shot 45 percent from the line for the season. Chamberlain managed to make the second of two free throws, and the score was tied at 100 apiece with 13 seconds to go.
The Knicks' play called for DeBusschere to set a pick for Bill Bradley to take an open jumper. "Dollar Bill" couldn't get open, so DeBusschere took a pass from Frazier, used a head fake and dropped in a neat little jumper, making it 102-100, Knicks. There were three seconds left, but the Lakers were out of timeouts.
Chamberlain halfheartedly tossed the ball to West, who dribbled three times as Reed dogged him. Two strides short of midcourt, some 60 feet from the basket, West let fly. ... Good!
DeBusschere, underneath the basket, threw out his arms in disgust and collapsed. Wilt laughed and ran off to the locker room, thinking the shot had won it. But only the ABA had a three-point rule back then. The score was tied 102-102, and the officials brought Wilt back out for overtime.
With a little more than a minute left, the score was tied at 108 apiece when Reed hit a foul shot. Then Barnett, the former Laker, clinched it with a bucket at the four-second mark. West could provide no more miracles. It ended 111-108, Knicks.
Game 4 was another nailbiter. Barnett went 6-for-7 from the field in the first quarter as the Knicks opened up hot. West answered for the Lakers. Despite a badly sprained thumb, he played 52 minutes and scored 37 points, with 18 assists and five rebounds. Still, the game went into overtime -- and into the hands of Laker reserve forward John Tresvant, who hit everything he put up -- before the Lakers emerged with a 121-115 win. Baylor did his part, too, with 30 points.
Game 5 back in the Garden is justly remembered as a golden moment in pro basketball history. With a little more than eight minutes gone in the first quarter, Los Angeles had raced to a 25-15 lead. Then Reed caught a pass at the foul line, and Chamberlain was there to meet him. Reed went to his left around Wilt but tripped over Wilt's foot and fell forward, tearing a large muscle in his leg. The New York center lay writhing in pain as the action raced the other way and Knicks coach Red Holzman screamed for the refs to stop the game.
Reed was out, and the Lakers still had the hot hand. The Garden crowd grew quiet. Holzman tried to boost his players' spirits during the timeout. He inserted Nate Bowman to play Chamberlain, and that worked for a time. Then Holzman went with 6-foot-7 reserve forward Bill Hoskett, who hadn't seen a minute of playing time in the entire playoffs. Hoskett hounded Chamberlain effectively enough, but it really wasn't getting the Knicks anywhere. By the half, they were down by 13 points.
In the locker room, Bradley suggested that they forget about using a pivotman and instead go to a 3-2 zone offense, which would either force Chamberlain to come out from under the basket or give them open shots. Holzman was happy with the idea. He sent Russell, Bradley, Barnett, Frazier and DeBusschere out to answer the horn for the second half.
"Outside, we had two wings with a point man," Bradley later explained. "Inside, we had one guy on the baseline and a roamer. When we saw Wilt not playing a man, it was like attacking a zone. Just hit the open spaces in a zone."
It began working in the third quarter. The Lakers seemed almost possessed by the notion of taking advantage of the mismatch in the post. Time after time, they attempted to force the ball into Chamberlain, and the Knicks got several steals and forced turnovers. The fourth period opened with the Lakers holding an 82-75 lead but in obvious disarray. And the Knickerbockers were surging, cheered on by the awakened Garden crowd. "Let's go Knicks! Let's go Knicks!" the 19,500 spectators chanted over and over.
After a brief flurry, the Knicks took the game, 107-100, and the series edge. Los Angeles had been forced into an incredible 30 turnovers for the game. In the second half, West didn't have a field goal and Chamberlain scored only four points, despite being guarded by much shorter players such as DeBusschere and Dave Stallworth.
"The fifth game," DeBusschere said proudly 20 years later, "was one of the greatest basketball games ever played."
The Lakers returned home and corrected their mistakes in Game 6. With Reed out, Wilt scored 45 points with 27 rebounds. The Lakers rolled to a 135-113 victory, tying the series at three wins apiece.
The stage was set in New York for the seventh-game drama. Would Reed play? The Knicks left the locker room for warm-ups not knowing. Just before they took the floor, Bradley and DeBusschere had asked Reed to give the team just one half. About 20 minutes would do it, they figured. In the training room, Reed was set to receive painkilling injections. There were problems, however, because the skin on his thighs was so thick. The doctor had trouble getting the needle in.
"It was a big needle," Reed recalled. "I saw that needle and I said, 'Holy cow.' And I just held on. I think I suffered more from the needle than the injury."
The doctors had to place the injections at various places and various depths across his thigh in an effort to numb the tear. "I wanted to play," he remembered. "That was the championship, the one great moment we had all played for since 1969. I didn't want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say that I wished I had tried to play."
In the Lakers locker room, West faced a similar situation: injections in both injured hands. "I don't even like to think about it," Mullaney said to the press. "A shooter getting needles in his shooting hand."
When Reed strode onto the Garden floor just before game time that Friday, May 8, it brought an overwhelming roar from the crowd. "The scene is indelibly etched in my mind," Frazier said later, "because if that did not happen, I know we would not have won the game." The Knicks watched him hobble out, and each of them soaked in the emotion from the noise.
The Lakers watched, too, and made no attempt to hide their scrutiny. They stopped their warm-ups and stood and watched as Reed took a few awkward shots. "I can't go to my right all that well," he joked to Chamberlain. (Reed couldn't go right even when he was healthy.)
He stepped into the circle against Wilt for the tipoff but remained immobile during the jump. That changed once play began. Reed scored New York's first two baskets and played incredibly active defense.
Seventeen times the Lakers jammed the ball into Chamberlain in the post. Reed harassed him into shooting 2-for-9. Reed finished 2-for-5 with four fouls and three rebounds, but it was enough.
The emotional charge sent the rest of the Knicks zipping through their paces. They simply ran away from the Lakers. New York led 9-2, then 15-6, then 30-17. When Reed left the game, having delivered the half that Bradley had asked for, New York led 61-37. From there, the Knicks rolled on to claim owner Ned Irish's first title, 113-99.
Frazier hit 12-of-17 from the field and 12-of-12 from the line to finish with 36 points and 19 assists. Barnett scored 21 points and DeBusschere had 17 rebounds. But their efforts took a back seat to Reed's appearance.
"He gave us a tremendous lift just going out there," said Holzman. "He couldn't play his normal game, but he did a lot of things out there. And he means a lot to the spirit of the other players."
In the locker room, a champagne-soaked Stallworth was beaming. "There was no way Reed could play," he told a reporter. "He was limping so bad. The guy is beautiful, just beautiful." Said Russell, "It's like getting your left arm sewed back on."
"There's not one other guy in the league that gives the 100 percent that Reed does every night, every game of the season, at both ends of the court," Bill Bridges of the Atlanta Hawks had said earlier in the season. It was true.
Reed was the darling of pro basketball at that moment. And it was a feeling that would last a lifetime.
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