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Retro recap, Nov. 27, 1970: Knicks 103, Bucks 94

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When the Knicks were the best of the best.

New York Knicks v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Vernon Biever/NBAE via Getty Images

“ABC Sports brings you, live and in color, NBA basketball.” That’s how Keith Jackson led off the November 27, 1970 game between the defending champion New York Knicks and the 17-1 Milwaukee Bucks, riding a 16-game winning streak. Today Jackson is remembered as the voice of college football. I didn’t know he called any NBA before this game. This was a different world.

Jackson worked alongside analyst Jack Twyman, In 1950 Twyman, a future Hall-of-Famer and six-time All-Star, was cut for the third straight year from his high school team, after which he began a routine of taking 100 free throws, 200 jumpers and 100-150 set shots every day. Twyman’s senior year he not only made the school team, he was named to Pennsylvania’s all-state team. Ten years later, Twyman was one of the first two NBA players ever to average 30 points a game for a season. The other was Wilt Chamberlain. Must’ve been some routine. Being 6’6” pro’ly helped.

On this date in 1815 the Kingdom of Poland adopted its constitution. The most popular baby names in 1970 were Michael and Lisa. It was the year the greatest American soap opera debuted.

How I loved me some Dixie Cooney and Tad “The Cad” Martin.

My sisters and I used to watch my mom’s taped soap operas with her for years. English and Spanish. Years later an anthropology teacher told me that groups in close proximity can differ to a greater extent than groups who are farther apart. Think of music: if the song calls for an F but you get an F-sharp, the dissonance is as jarring as can be, even though it’s the nearest note to the desired one. Compare America’s All My Children to a Mexican telenovela we watched around that same time, El extraño retorno de Diana Salazar.

Two weeks before the game, the Bhola cyclone, the most destructive cyclone of the 20th century, killed half a million people in eastern Pakistan. The next day a plane crashed in Wayne County, West Virginia, killing 75 people, most of them members of Marshall University’s football program. Two days before the game, the world lost one of its great writers when Yukio Mishima died. Mishima was famous for more than his writing:

Mishima was “a right wing nationalist [who] formed the Tatenokai, an unarmed civilian militia, for the avowed purpose of restoring power to the Japanese Emperor...Mishima and four members of his militia entered a military base in central Tokyo, took the commandant hostage, and attempted to inspire the Japan Self-Defense Forces to overturn Japan’s 1947 Constitution. When this was unsuccessful, Mishima committed seppuku.”

The day of the game, Pope Paul VI survived an assassination attempt in the Philippines by Benjamin Mendoza y Amor, a 35-year-old artist from La Paz, Bolivia. What are the odds someone with “Amor” and “Paz” in their bio tries to off arguably the most beloved person on Earth (non-Ntilikina division)? The top film that week starred Barbara Streisand and George Segal, with Streisand’s performance earning her a Golden Globe and reminding us every woman, no matter how talented, will still be celebrated for “extending her range” by showing more skin — even if no one sees it.

That week’s number one song would resurrect many years later in a jeans commercial.

1970 was the year Paul McCartney announced via a press release that he was no longer working with The Beatles. John Lennon made sure the door hit McCartney on the way out, telling Rolling Stone “The cartoon is this – four guys on a stage with a spotlight on them; second picture, three guys on stage breezing out of the spotlight; third picture, one guy standing there shouting ‘I’m leaving.’” So many momentous moments in one trip around the sun.

It was a momentous time in Knick history, too. The defending champs entered the night 18-7. There were narrow and big-picture stakes. The Bucks had won 16 straight coming into a home-and-home with the Knicks. The record for longest winning streak was set the year prior at 18, by the Knicks. So the Knicks were directly capable of protecting their record and asserting themselves as still kings of the mountain.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee was a true contender, having added Oscar Robertson prior to the season after his 10 years in Cincinnati, sending the Kings Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson. Paulk played 68 games for the Kings and was out of the league a year later. Robinson had been an All-Star as a Buck in 1970, but his numbers dropped ever after. This was the first time the Knicks faced a fully-loaded Milwaukee squad featuring both Robertson and second-year center Lew Alcindor.

After leading the Bucks to the title five months later, Alcindor told the world to call him Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The original Big Fella would win the MVP this year, only his second as a pro. The Bucks won 66 games; no other team won more than 52. They rattled off winning streaks of 10, 16 and 20 games. They were coming for the crown and you’d be hard-pressed to bet against them. But if you were gonna pick someone to upend Milwaukee, it would’ve been New York.

While the rest of the league was just 15-62 again the Bucks, the Knicks won four of their five meetings. Couple that with their season sweep of the Bucks Alcindor’s rookie campaign and that made the Knickerbockers 8-1 in nine games against him. Goliath was used to raining down death via hook shots against overmatched randos, but the Knicks were a quintet of Davids and all five of ‘em could sling passes and shoot rocks with unerring accuracy. But the Bucks weren’t just Alcindor and Robertson.

Bet you can’t guess what the missing name is. Here are the NBA’s leading scorers in every Finals over the decades:

1950s = George Mikan
1960s = Jerry West
1970s = ???
1980s = Kareem
1990s = Michael Jordan
2000s = Shaquille O’Neal
2010s = LeBron James

The absent appellation belongs to four-time All-Star, future All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team selectee Bob Dandridge. Years later, as one of the NBA’s first prominent free agents, Dandridge would help lead the Washington Bullets to a title in 1978.

And don’t sleep on Jon McGlocklin, who’d played with Robertson in Cincinnati before spending a year with the then-San Diego Rockets and being named an All-Star in 1969, his first year with the Bucks. McGlocklin and Alcindor ran one of the more devastating two-man games in the game. Lew would set a pick for McGlocklin. If the guard fell back to double #33, Jonny Mac would drill one of his patented rainbow jumpers (imagine Kevin Knox, only accurate); if either defender stayed out high on McGlocklin, Alcindor would have single-coverage, which was a concession to two points or free throws, or both.

These teams nearly met that season in the Finals, where the Knicks pro’ly would have felt like they had the edge, given their dominance over the Bucks. But in the conference finals New York blew leads of 2-0 lead and 3-2 before coming up short in Game 7 vs. the Bullets. Red Holzman did not sound like a man who valued the journey over the destination: “The game’s over, the season’s over, and it’s like death— you can’t change it.”

That may sound a bit much, but realize this was a time where as far as professional sports went, New York City was where winners went to win. The Jets won the Super Bowl in January 1969. 10 months later the Mets won the World Series; a little over six months after that, the Knicks won their first championship. That’s three titles in 18 months. In 151 combined seasons since, the Mets, Jets and Knicks have won just two more between them.

The beasts of the East vs. the best of the West. The league’s most dominant defensive team vs. its most explosive offense. Champs vs. challenger. Five HOFers vs. a pair of GOATs. A nationally televised game. Would it live up to the hype? It mostly did!

The Milwaukee crowd created a playoff atmosphere from the jump. The Knicks’ first two possessions resulted in a missed jumper and a turnover and the fans roared their approval of each. The game opened at a furious pace, with both teams moving the ball with purpose: the Bucks frequently feeding Alcindor on the left block, the Knicks swinging it around more. One offense was a hierarchy, the other a commune.

I’m always surprised watching sports from 50+ years ago how quicker everything gets done. The ball goes out of bounds and the official says it’s off Alcindor. He doesn’t like the call. That’s apparent. Yet within 2-3 seconds of making his displeasure known he’s defending the inbounds.

It’s remarkable just how much bigger Alcindor than everybody. Kristaps Porziņģis is 7’3” now and that’s enormous. Alcindor was 7’2” 50 years ago. It’s one thing to know that stat, it’s another thing entirely to see it in action. Along those lines: I’ve read a ton about the Holzman teams being such smart and willing passers, five minds working as one. But it’s something else seeing it in action. A Knick team where everybody can shoot, everybody can pass...is it ever sweet.

Speaking of: Dick Barnett’s little feet-kick action on his jumper = chef’s kiss.

Both teams were hitting a healthy percentage of their shots, in part because they were looking to their centers to center the offense. Future MVP Alcindor scored 12 in the opening frame to reigning MVP Reed’s 10. The Buckets blitzed off a 19-3 run that put them up a dozen, but the Knicks never panicked. Reed had success dipping under Alcindor’s reach and trying these up-and-under lay-ins. In the final minute of the quarter, Walt Frazier converted a 3-on-1 break, then Barnett stole Robertson’s inbounds and found Clyde for another bucket. By the end of the first the Knicks were within three and had weathered the Bucks’ charge as well as this dude in the Colt 45 commercial that ran during a first quarter timeout.

As the game went on it became clear the Knicks were taking a different approach in featuring Reed as much as possible. The typically egalitarian offense saw the Captain take 27 shots while no other starter reached 15. The strategy worked: Reed made 56% of his field goals and Alcindor ended up with five fouls. Reed dominated the second quarter and had 22 at the half, while Alcindor scored just two points in the quarter. As expected it was close at the break, with New York up one.

In the third the Bucks roared back to re-take the lead, led by Robertson hitting his first four shots. The one and only dunk of the game came after Alcindor got up the floor ahead of Reed late in the third, punctuating a 10-0 Milwaukee run. Lemme tell you, when the first and dunk in a game doesn’t arrive till late in the third, that dunk is exciting! Entering the fourth the Bucks were up nine.

The Knicks stormed out in the final frame, scoring the first eight points to cut the gap to one. This is where the exploits of Dave Stallworth demand recognition. “The Rave” was the quiet MVP in this game, making difficult shots at critical times. Near the midway point of the fourth his off-balance, off-glass leaner brought New York within two. A Stallworth-Dave Riordan-Stallworth sequence ended with a baseline jumper that tied the game.

A lesser team may have collapsed at this point. But the Bucks were on their way to a championship. 11 of their 16 straight wins had been by 10+ points. They took a punch, snorted, and resumed the fight. Shortly after the Stallworth leaner Reed picked up his fifth foul and Dave DeBusschere had to go to the bench after catching an elbow that drew blood over his eye.

Holzman decided endgame was as good a time as any to bust out a chageup. The Knicks started pressing the Bucks full-court, confident they could recover and mostly concede open looks for Greg Smith, who if you haven’t heard of him you have some idea why the Knicks left him open. Milwaukee managed only 11 points in the final frame, a new club record for futility.

The Knicks were lucky that Alcindor struggled all night at the line, including missing a pair in the fourth that would’ve put Bucks in front. Soon after, Phil Jackson did at least two unexpected things to give New York the lead.

“That was the one that just had to go in,” Jackson said after the game. “I’ve practiced that spinning layup before, although I’ve been too chicken to use it in a game. But I really wanted that shot from the corner to drop.” While Reed was out Jackson had an effective stretch defending the Bucks’ big man, forcing him into some tough looks and adding another basket while being fouled by Alcindor. Nothing chicken about that effort.

Once the Knicks got ahead they set about shutting up shop. Frazier dribbled out an entire possession before hitting a tough turnaround over Smith, then cooked another again over poor Greg. Another Stallworth baseline bucket made it 99-94 New York, which back then was a three possession game. Robertson and Dandridge missed Milwaukee’s last gasps at last gasps. The Knicks dominated the fourth by a 29-11 margin.

This was a different world, but some things were still the same, at least for a while. This victory sparked the Knicks to 22 wins in 33 games. They would not win it all that year, nor the year after, nor the year after that. But this game wasn’t about next year, nor the years after.

This was two historic teams at or near the peak of their powers colliding, both with something to prove to no one but each other. The Bucks went 12-2 in the playoffs after a 66-win season. They won 85% of their games against everyone but the Knicks and just 20% of their matchups with New York. The Knicks had already won a championship, so there was little glory to be had from a win in November. But no crown rests easy. There are always usurpers afoot. The head that wears the crown knows to be overthrown is to be forgotten; to be forgotten is to die. Those Knicks had an answer for the god of death.

Notes:

  • One of the obvious differences from 1970 till now is the absence of a three-point line. One unexpected consequence of this absence is that a LOT more of the action in halfcourt sets extended out near midcourt. I’d assumed there’d be more concentration in or around the paint. There were moments of congestion, with 9 of the 10 players on the floor around or in the key. Today there’s always at least five guys near or behind the arc. The perimeter back in the day, having no boundary marked, seemed to get smaller rather than bigger.
  • Every quarter used to start with a jump ball. I support bringing that back. It rewards players for an act that is otherwise purely ceremonial. You’d get different matchups a few times every game because of substitution patterns. It’s something else Mitchell Robinson could excel at. Do this, NBA.
  • In high school tryouts I guarded a kid named Paul Mandina. Paul was a few inches taller than me and many pounds and muscles bigger. He would go on to play D1 football and arena league football. I would not. But nobody else was willing to accept the assignment, so I did. The matchup usually broke down the same way: he’d get the ball down low and score right over me, I’d take him outside and hit jumpers over him. There were hints of that at times in the Reed/Alcindor match-up.
  • Man, Reed was such a smart defender. I knew that, intellectually. But watching it firsthand, seeing his kinesthetic intelligence on display — magnificent. Like seeing Mason or Pippen or Rodman defending bigger players, or Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping George Foreman.
  • In the first quarter after a whistle, Reed stuck his hand in referee Mendy Rudolph’s face, complaining that Alcindor was sticking his hand in Reed’s face on jump shots. Turns out this used to be a foul. Isn’t that just good defense? I wonder when that ended.
  • Rudolph was a legendary ref in the half of NBA history we don’t remember anymore (and who you may not here much mention of again, given that Rudolph incurred so many gambling debts he cashed in his pension to pay some off and still owed $100,000 after). Here’s a cool story: in the 1964 Finals, Boston faced Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors. In Game 5, Chamberlain punched Clyde Lovellette, knocking him out. Red Auerbach ran out on the court demanding Chamberlain be ejected. Wilt told Red if he didn’t can it he’d knock him out too. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Auerbach said. Rudolph answered “Red, do you have any other seven-footers who’d like to volunteer?”
  • Rudolph and Tommy Heinsohn for Miller Lite:
  • Oscar Robertson’s free throws were one-handed set shots. So cool to see!
  • Spekaing of free throw form: the left-handed Barnett would crouch down, then kick his right foot back behind his left foot.
  • Maybe it was something in the water, but somehow there used to be a time when players didn’t need to go into protracted dribbling exhibitions and a host of tics and shimmies between free throws. Back in 1970 cats just took their first shot, got the ball back and shot it again.
  • A Buck named Bob Boozer wore white knee pads that looked like the ones Patrick Ewing used to wear. It was a pleasurable association.
  • Keith Jackson announced during the game that the team who won the 1971 championship would earn an extra $16K per player, nearly double the share the year prior. Ignas Brazdeikis earns more than that per game.
  • No Cazzie Russell in this one. He was dealing with a broken left wrist.
  • Holzman coached parts of four seasons with the Milwaukee and St. Louis Hawks before taking over the Knicks. He had a losing season each of those four years. I think about people like Holzman and Joe Torre and Bill Parcells whenever the Knicks fire someone after a year or two. Maybe the virus and quarantine has me feeling sentimental for a simpler time, but whenever the NBA resumes give Mike Miller a chance. Invest in training staff and awesome assistants. Let Miller decide what he needs and give him a chance. It can’t work any worse than the current organization approach of treating head coaches like Bond girls.
  • My all-time G.O.A.T.s are Kareem and LeBron James. “Greatest” and “most successful” are not the same thing. Mozart wasn’t as successful as other composers in his time, but he was still better than his peers. The greatest players to achieve the most success are easy: Bill Russell, Kareem and Michael Jordan. But I look at Kareem’s entire life as a baller, where he’s arguably the greatest high school player ever, and the greatest collegian, and entered the NBA dominating right off the bat, and at age 37 started all but three games for the world champs while putting up 22, 8 and 2 blocks per on 60% from the field, and how over a 20-year career he played at least 74 games 19 times. I think about how LeBron would have been the top pick in the draft as a high school junior, and how he entered the NBA dominating right off the bat, and at age 37 started all but three games while putting up 26, 8 and 10.5 on 50% shooting, and how incredibly durable he’s been over 17 seasons. There’s reasons to pick whoever you like as the G.O.A.T. I’ve always felt it was Abdul-Jabbar. James is absolutely a fine choice.
  • I’d forgotten that the old Mobil commercials featured gasoline swishing around the “o.” I wonder when the sight of gasoline became something even a company that sells it didn’t want to be associated with.
  • My father’s father’s first language was Spanish. My dad tells me my grandfather used to call DeBusschere “El Carcinero” because it sounded similar. “Carcinero” is Spanish for “The Butcher.” It works on multiple levels.
  • One of the refs in this game was Jake O’Donnell, a blast from my early days as a fan. An NBA ref from 1967 to 1995, over a four-year span bridging the 1960s and 1970s Jake was the Bo Jackson of officiating, working both NBA and MLB games.
  • The 1970 NBA All-Star game in San Diego aired on ABC that year at 10:00 p.m. I think I’d be more excited for the ASG nowadays if they aired it that late.
  • Right after I finished this game, I put on the Knicks/Hawks game from two weeks ago. Visually, the difference in clarity was going from tea time sipping chamomile to LSD.
  • Thomas Rogers reporting in the Times after this game: “A bit anticlimactically, the teams will meet again tomorrow night in New York. ‘They’ll be tough again tomorrow,’ said Frazier. ‘They’ll want blood.’” The Knicks would win the second-leg 100-99, getting double-digit scoring from six players to overcome 61 from Lew and Oscar.

That’s all for this retro recap. There will be a few more between now and mid-April, when the season was slated to end. See you somewhere in time, space cadets.