In a rematch of the previous Finals, New York proved to the world that basketball is played best as a team.
Jun 7 2013 12:31PM

Gotham Go-Getters

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In a rematch of the previous Finals, New York proved to the world that basketball is played best as a team.

It's tempting to look at the 1973 NBA Champion Knicks and consider them copies of their title predecessors from three years earlier. So many of the big names can be found on the roster: Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett. Red Holzman coached both teams. Heck, they even beat Wilt, Jerry and the Lakers in the Finals both times.

Don't be mistaken by the surface similarities. The two Knicks Finals winners were quite different. And it is the franchise's ability to mold those two personalities into winners that made it stand so tall during the early '70s.

"I'm often asked the difference between the '70 championship team and the '73 team," Frazier says. "The '70 team personified the meaning of the word 'team.' You can't remember Frazier then without Reed, Barnett and Bradley. The '73 team was more talented, thanks to the additions of Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe and Dean Meminger off the bench."

Those '73 Knicks may have had some more freedom to take advantage of their substantial individual skills, but during the season's most important moments, they worked just as cohesively as their '70 counterparts--or even the Celtics dynasty teams of the previous decades. Once the parts began to fit together, the Knicks became capable of using their outstanding talent to play at an extremely high level and blend their individual abilities into an effective team concept.

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By 1973, Walt Frazier (#10) had become the Knicks' best player, but he had plenty of help from teammates Dick Barnett (#12) and Bill Bradley (#24).

"It was a unique group of guys," says Meminger, who transformed himself from a collegiate scorer at Marquette to a defensive stopper in the NBA. "Everybody made a contribution."

Beyond the question of talent--and anybody who thinks the '70 champs were a bunch of YMCA heroes who happened to catch a break had better remember that four of the players are in the Hall of Fame--there is the route the teams had to take to the title. The 1969-70 Knicks posted the NBA's best record and had homecourt advantage throughout the postseason, while the 1972-73 club finished a startling 11 games behind Boston in the Atlantic Division and won three fewer games than the Lakers, their Finals foes.

That makes sense, because it took a little time for everyone to get together. After the 1970-71 season, when the defending champion Knicks lost to Baltimore in the Eastern Conference Finals, the team decided that it lacked frontcourt depth. So, New York dealt Cazzie Russell to the San Francisco Warriors for Lucas. Though Lucas was 31, he had averaged 19.2 ppg and 15.8 rpg in '70-71. Three games into the next year, the Knicks made a huge move, dealing Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth, key reserves on the '70 title team, for two-time All-Star guard Earl Monroe.

It was a bold move, and something of a risk. Monroe was one of the NBA's most accomplished offensive players, and many wondered how he would fit into a lineup that asked its best players--even Frazier--to bow to the team. Plus, there was worry that Monroe would not work well with Frazier, since both needed the ball in their hands a lot of the time.

"Earl and I didn't go out together or anything, but we had a mutual respect," Frazier says. "When we traded for him, people said we would need two basketballs to play together. They didn't realize the respect we had developed for each other as opponents."

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Jerry Lucas

Monroe was an offensive savant who had averaged 25.8 ppg just three seasons before coming to the Knicks. He scored from all over the place, and at times, he made moves that some people couldn't imagine, much less defend. The Knicks, who had lost to Monroe's Baltimore team in the '71 Eastern Finals and had struggled to score points in the seven-game series--while Monroe averaged 24.4 ppg--needed a boost. Sure, the move involved some risk, but New York felt Monroe would embrace the team concept.

"A lot of people thought Earl couldn't play with the team," Meminger says. "I knew that every great player can make an adjustment when he's trying to win."

Frazier certainly didn't take a step back to let Monroe have the lead role. "Clyde" didn't do that for anybody. One of the NBA's most flamboyant personalities and among the first to have a signature basketball shoe, the PUMA "Clyde," Frazier was clearly the top Knick. Much was made when the team beat L.A. in 1970 to win the NBA title about Reed's dramatic entrance onto the Madison Square Garden floor before the seventh game and then his two early jumpers against Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain. But it was Frazier's 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds that keyed the 113-99 victory.

By the 1972-73 season, Frazier was at his peak, in the middle of a seven-year run of All-Star appearances and the clear team leader. It didn't matter that Monroe was on the team; Clyde was still the main man.

"He was such a smart player and just a tremendous point guard," Lakers guard Gail Goodrich says. "He controlled the tempo and got the ball to the right people at the right time. He was also a great team defensive player who got into the passing lanes. And he took really high percentage shots. His shot selection was terrific."

Though the Knicks jelled together the previous year, they were unable to overcome the juggernaut Lakers in the 1972 Finals. L.A. had won a record 33 in a row that year, and the Lakers were determined to erase a decade of championship futility. It didn't help the Knicks that Reed was out for the Finals series and that DeBusschere suffered a muscle pull in Game 2.

When 1972-73 dawned, New York was in good health and ready to erase the memory of the five-game loss to the Lakers in the previous title series. But the Knicks weren't guaranteed anything. Boston was the cream of the League, at least in the regular season, posting a 68-14 record, one game off the best mark in NBA history, established by the Lakers the previous season. The Knicks won 57 times, but that was good only for fourth overall in the league. They struggled against the better teams, splitting season series with the Celtics, Bullets, Hawks, Bucks, Lakers and Warriors--all of whom made the playoffs.

But there was one game, early on in the year, which showed the Knicks what they could do when they pulled together. Down 18 to Milwaukee late in the fourth quarter, the Knicks scored 19 straight points in the Garden to win, 87-86.

"I thought we were going to fall down the steps on the way to the locker room after that one," Frazier says. "People were jumping and yelling and screaming that night.

"That's the greatest comeback in Knicks history."

New York disposed of Baltimore easily in the first round of the playoffs, winning in five games. Then came the expected battle with Boston. The Celtics were removed from their glory days, when Russell and Co. dominated the League. But in John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White, they had a potent trio that was complemented by a collection of reliable role players. After dropping the first game, the Knicks won three straight, including a 117-110 triple-overtime thriller in New York. It appeared as if another trip to the Finals was guaranteed.

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Willis Reed (#19) and Dave DeBusschere (#22) handled the heavy lifting of the interior while guards Earl Monroe and Dean Meminger (#7) gave Frazier plenty of help in the backcourt.

But the Celtics won two in a row, including a 110-100 decision in MSG that forced a series decider in Boston--a place where the Celtics had never lost a Game 7.

"There was a sense of doom and gloom," Frazier says about the Game 6 aftermath. "We couldn't believe we lost the game in the Garden. We had a chance to finish them off."

Instead, they were off to Boston, where team president Red Auerbach had the psychological warfare tactics out in force. He put the Knicks in a cramped "cubby hole locker room," according to Frazier. "He wanted to make sure you were visiting the Boston Garden, and that you weren't welcome," Meminger says.

But Auerbach's strategy backfired. The difficult conditions galvanized the Knicks, who pulled off a stunning 94-78 rout to reach the Finals for the third time in four years. Meminger was a dynamo, manning the off-guard spot for much of the game, hectoring White and shutting him down.

"He had an extraordinary game," Frazier says of Meminger. "He provided the impetus in the second half. Havlicek was hurting, but we took care of business. It was a terrific win."

The Lakers were waiting. Winners of 60 games, they were well rested, having eliminated Golden State in the Western Conference Finals six days before. The Knicks, however, had to jet across the country and suit up only two days after ending the draining Celtics series. Although New York requested a delay in the Finals' commencement, that wasn't happening. But like the Knicks, the Lakers were hardly young, either. Five of their six top scorers were at least 32 years old. Chamberlain was playing his final season, and West was in his penultimate campaign.

Still, the first game went L.A.'s way. Goodrich poured in 30, Jim McMillian had 27, and West added 24 in a 115-112 triumph that wasn't as close as it appeared. The Lakers built a 93-73 advantage late in the third quarter. Though the Knicks closed to within three, they could get no closer. DeBusschere (25 points) and Bradley (24) led the Knick effort. "Dave was a tough guy, and Bill constantly moved," Meminger says. The Knicks weren't at all overwhelmed by their 1-0 deficit, largely because they remembered that the year before, they won Game 1 of the Finals and then dropped four straight to L.A.

Game 2 was a different story. Although the game was taut, the Knicks assumed the lead in the second quarter and never relinquished it in a 99-95 triumph. Bradley led the way with 26 points, and Frazier had 20. Although West had a game-high 32, Meminger harried Goodrich into a 5-of-15 shooting night. The series was heading back to New York tied, 1-1.

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Frazier (#10) provided offense for the Knicks while Willis Reed (#19) and Dave DeBusschere (#22) handled the dirty work in the paint.

Defense was the story of the third game. Los Angeles shuttered the Knicks in the first half and held a 47-43 halftime advantage. But a 15-2 Knick run and a 13-point Laker third quarter turned the contest New York's way, and the homestanding Knicks took a 2-1 series lead with an 87-83 victory. Reed, who had been hampered all season by the lingering effects of a knee injury, came alive, scoring a team-high 22 points. It was a fine vindication for the captain, who had split time with Lucas throughout the year. His minutes may have diminished, but his influence never waned. "He was not allowing us to rest on our laurels," Frazier says.

The first quarter of Game 4 proved that New York wasn't about to let that happen. The Knicks bolted to a 21-8 advantage and led, 55-44, at the half. Although he scored 23 points, West was hampered by a pair of hamstring pulls. "He was a shadow of himself," Goodrich says. "His full presence would have altered how they would have defended us." The Lakers had no strategy for controlling DeBusschere, who scored 33, pulled down 14 boards and converted a huge three-point play in the late going after the Knicks had missed seven straight shots. Feeling strong and receiving little trouble from his cranky knee, Reed had another big game, with 21 points and 11 rebounds. The Knicks triumphed, 103-98, and headed to L.A. up 3-1 and ready to clinch.

Securing the title wouldn't be easy. The Knicks led after one, 23-16, but couldn't keep the Lakers off the foul line in the second quarter and trailed, 41-39, at the half. A big third quarter helped the Knicks take a 12-point lead into the final 12 minutes, but the Lakers fought back. An 11-5 run made the score 84-80 Knicks, but a Bradley (20 points) layup, two jumpers by Reed (18) and a Monroe (23) three-point play did the job. Monroe scored eight points over the last two minutes to secure a 102-93 triumph and the Knicks' second championship in three years. Reed was awarded his second Finals MVP trophy, but the players thought someone else was just as deserving.

"The catalyst of it all was Red Holzman," Frazier says. "He demanded that we play as a team, that we hit the open man and play defense."

So, in the end, even with all that talent, the '73 Knicks' title came down to old-fashioned teamwork.

Just like it had three years earlier.

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Most members of the 1973 championship team got together in April to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the occasion.

This story was originally published from the 2013 Official NBA Finals Program