1972 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers 4, New York 1
Lakers' Legendary Season Leads to Elusive Title
Bill Russell, whose Boston teams defeated Los Angeles six times in the NBA Finals, had been retired for two years. But the Lakers still had no championship.
Time was running out for Jack Kent Cooke's collection of talent. Elgin Baylor was hobbled by injury, Wilt Chamberlain had turned 35 years old and Jerry West was 33. The answer, in Cooke's mind, was to try yet another coach.
This time it worked. Out went Joe Mullaney, and in came 45-year-old Bill Sharman, a former Boston Celtic who had just coached the Utah Stars to the 1971 American Basketball Association championship. He was a strange mix of fiery temper and quiet innovation. He was from Southern California, but he was also a Celtic. The Lakers weren't quite sure what to make of him.
Sharman's major change was actually a subtle one. He asked veteran forward Happy Hairston to concentrate on rebounding. A bulky 6-foot-7, 225-pounder, Hairston complied and saw his scoring average dip from 18.6 points per game in 1970-71 to 13.1 in 1971-72. But he averaged 15 boards over the last half of the season and became the first forward to pull down 1,000 rebounds while playing alongside Chamberlain.
That was only one of several firsts generated by the Lakers in 1971-72. They won more games than any team in NBA history, with a 69-13 record, which in turn gave them the best winning percentage ever at .841. They had the most regular-season victories on the road, with 31, and the most at home, with 38.
Best of all, they put together a 33-game win streak, which ran through Jan. 9, when they lost a road game to rival Milwaukee, 120-114. Bucks coach Larry Costello had scouted the Lakers' 33rd consecutive win, a road victory over Atlanta, and had quickly devised a defense to cut off their fast break.
The Lakers headed into the playoffs with no doubt in their minds about what they wanted to do -- and no doubt about what they could do. Gail Goodrich, who started with West in the backcourt, had become their leading scorer at 25.9 points per game. West scored 25.8 and led the league in assists. Chamberlain still held down the NBA's top spot in both field-goal percentage and rebounding.
The Lakers vanquished the Bucks 104-100 in Milwaukee to take the Western Finals in six games. Their opponent in the 1972 NBA Finals was the New York Knicks, who had beaten a resurgent Boston club in five games in the Eastern Finals.
The Knicks were not the team they had once been. They had lost Nate Bowman, Donnie May, Bill Hoskett and John Warren in the 1970-71 expansion draft. Cazzie Russell had been traded away after the 1971 season to get Jerry Lucas from the Warriors. And Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth had been shipped to Baltimore in exchange for Earl Monroe.
Willis Reed was out of action with his nagging knee injuries, and Dick Barnett was also out. Lucas, a veteran and proven scorer who had starred with John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried at Ohio State, filled in for Reed at center.
With his smooth outside shooting, Lucas did quite a bit to help the Knicks forget Reed's absence in Game 1 at the Forum. He scored 26 points but was only one of several Knicks who was red hot. Bill Bradley hit 11 of 12 shots from the field as New York shot 53 percent for the game. The team took advantage of a nearly perfect first half to jump to a good lead and won easily, 114-92. Early in the second half, the Forum crowd began filing out dejectedly. It looked like another Los Angeles fold in the Finals.
Just like that, the Lakers had lost their home-court advantage. Then, in Game 2, they got a lucky break. Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere hurt his side and didn't play after the first half. With no one to hold him down, Hairston scored 12 points in the second half, and Los Angeles evened the series with a 106-92 win.
At the Garden for Game 3, DeBusschere attempted to play in the first half and missed all six of his field-goal attempts. He was hurting and elected not to play in the second half. "I didn't feel I was helping the team," he explained later. The Lakers danced out to a 22-point lead and regained the home-court advantage with a 107-96 win.
The Lakers' luck seemed stronger than ever, although they felt a tremor in the first quarter of Game 4, when Chamberlain fell and sprained his wrist. Obviously in pain, he decided to stay in. It was a crucial decision.
The game went into overtime, but at the end of regulation Chamberlain picked up his fifth foul. In 13 NBA seasons, he had never fouled out of a game, a statistic of which he was immensely proud. Immediately speculation started along press row that he would play soft in the overtime. Instead, he came out in a shotblocking fury that propelled the Lakers to a 116-111 win. At three games to one, their lead now seemed insurmountable.
There did seem to be some hope for New York, however, when the early word on Chamberlain was that he would be unable to play in Game 5 at the Forum. But shortly before tipoff, Chamberlain received an anti-inflammatory injection and took the floor.
He almost single-handedly brought about the Knicks' demise, scoring 24 points and pulling down 29 rebounds as Los Angeles finally broke the jinx, 114-100. The effort earned Chamberlain his second Finals MVP Award.
For West, the finish was rife with irony. After years of losing in the Finals, he had been drained of emotion, and when the Lakers finally got the championship, it seemed anticlimactic.
"I played terrible basketball in the Finals," he said years later, "and we won. And that didn't seem to be justice for me personally, because I had contributed so much in other years when we lost. Now, when we won, I was just another piece of the machinery. It was particularly frustrating because I was playing so poorly that the team overcame me.
"Maybe," he said after a moment's thought, "that's what a team is all about."
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