With Bill Russell retired, the defending champion Celtics struggled to a 34-48 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in 20 seasons. Their clear departure as the East’s team to beat left the door open for a new contender to emerge, and the New York Knicks were that team.
New York first served notice of its new status by winning a league-record 18 straight games early in the season. Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Cazzie Russell and Dick Barnett played as a team on both ends of the floor, with no one player dominating the spotlight. The other team to be reckoned with in the East was Milwaukee, which catapulted to 56 wins in just its second season with the addition of 7-foot-2 rookie center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then called Lew Alcindor.
New York was extended to seven games in the East semis by Baltimore before advancing, but had a much easier time with Milwaukee, ousting the Bucks in five games.
In the West, Jerry West had won the league scoring title (31.2 ppg) almost out of necessity as Wilt Chamberlain hurt his knee nine games into the season and didn’t return until three games remained. As a result Atlanta won the division by two games over the Lakers. But with Chamberlain back for the playoffs, Los Angeles swept the Hawks in the West finals to meet the Knicks in The Finals.
The first six games were classic battles, with the Knicks winning one, then the Lakers tying the series, until a Game 7 loomed. Reed had been having a marvelous Finals, dominating the injury-slowed Chamberlain, until he tripped and tore a leg muscle in Game 5. The Knicks scrambled with undersized players against Chamberlain and hung on to win that game, but with Reed out of Game 6, Chamberlain poured in 45 points to tie the series.
The Knicks left the locker room before Game 7 in New York not knowing if Reed would be able to play. Just before tipoff, Reed hobbled through the tunnel and onto the floor of Madison Square Garden. The fans erupted, Reed scored New York’s first two baskets, and the inspired Knicks went on to a 113-99 victory.
“There isn’t a day in my life that people don’t remind me of that game,” Reed said years afterward.
Eastern Division semifinals
Milwaukee defeated Philadelphia (4-1)
New York defeated Baltimore (4-3)
Western Division semifinals
Atlanta defeated Chicago (4-1)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Phoenix (4-3)
Eastern Division finals
New York defeated Milwaukee (4-1)
Western Division finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Atlanta (4-0)
New York defeated Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
Points — Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers (31.2)
Assists — Lenny Wilkens, Seattle SuperSonics (9.1)
Rebounds — Elvin Hayes, San Diego Rockets (16.9)
FG% — Johnny Green, Cincinnati Royals (55.9)
FT% — Flynn Robinson, Milwaukee Bucks (89.8)
Most Valuable Player — Willis Reed, New York
Rookie of the Year — Lew Alcindor, Milwaukee Bucks
Coach of the Year — Red Holzman, New York Knicks
All-Star Game MVP — Willis Reed, New York Knicks
Finals MVP — Willis Reed, New York Knicks