HPB 1969-73: The Streak

SWC75

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The Streak

In the offseason, Lew Alcindor announced that he had converted to Islam and that he would now be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “the noble one, servant of the Almighty”. It seemed as if only the Almighty could dethrone Kareem’s team from the NBA title. It turned out someone a little more down to earth than that could.

William (Bill) Sharman, which means, in a combination of German and English “Resolute protector…(and)…wool-shearer”, returned to the NBA after leading the Utah Stars to the ABA title to become the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. He invited another former Celtic, K. C. Jones, to join his coaching staff. Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke later said of Sharman: “He had that inner intensity” and compared him to Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls for Gibb’s Washington Redskins. “They were both seemingly quiet, almost shy. But I saw this quality after talking to them for 5 or 10 minutes.” People questioned the wisdom of taking over an aging team that had been so disappointing . “Everybody told me: You don’t want that job.” He took it anyway and declared his goal: “the world championship”.

Cooke complained about the personalities on his team. “Egads, they were prima donnas.” From “the NBA Finals”: “The owner, of course, was the granddaddy of them all. His demanding style set the tone for what was a substantial cult of personality. Chamberlain had his giant pride. West was sullen with frustration and “motormouth” Baylor struggled with his declining skills and influence. To go with them were Harry Hairston, an irascible locker room lawyer who chattered incessantly; Gail Goodrich, a determined scorer who liked to control the ball and Jim McMillian, a chunky Ivy leaguer pushing for a starting role. Among the bit players were Pat Riley, Keith Erickson and Flynn Robinson, all of whom had healthy self-concepts.”

He reorganized the team into something resembling the Bill Russell Celtics, with Wilt Chamberlain not dominating the ball so much but still dominating the boards and getting the fast break going. Gimpy-kneed Elgin Baylor retired early in the season, allowing Sharman to insert 23 year old Jim McMillan into the line-up along with Happy Hairston at forward. The backcourt was two sharp-shooters, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, both of whom could also handle the ball. Chamberlain averaged a Russel-like 14.8 points and 19.2 rebounds. Hairston averaged 13.1- both points and rebounds. McMillan scored 18.8 while West was 25.8 and Goodrich 25.9.

The team ran their way to 121.0 points a game, giving up only 108.7 for a differential of +11.65 points per game. Let’s put that in perspective. The following NBA teams have beaten their opponents by an average of 10 or more points per game:
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks 11.92
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 11.80
1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers 11.65
2016-17 Golden State Warriors 11.35
1971-72 Bucks and 1996-97 Bulls 10.70
2015-16 Golden State Warriors 10.38
2015-16 San Antonio Spurs 10.28
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 10.07
2014-15 Golden State Warriors 10.01
The best the Mikan Lakers could do was 8.25 in 1949-50. The Russell Celtics? 8.25 in 1960-61. The 1966-67 Sixers? 8.50. The 1969-70 Knicks were 8.42. The best the Magic Johnson Lakers ever did was 8.32 in 1986-87. The Larry Bird Celtics reached 9.06 in 1985-86. The best Shaq and Kobe Lakers was the 1999-2000 team at 8.41. So the 1971-72 Lakers were one of the very best NBA teams of all time – but so were the 1971-72 Bucks.

On November 5, 1971, the Lakers beat the Baltimore Bullets 110-106. It didn’t cause any special attention. The Lakers came in with a 6-3 record. The Bullets had been a disappointing 3-7. They would go on to win the weak central division but with only a 38-44 record. Earl Monroe had been traded to the Knicks and Gus Johnson’s knees limited him to only 39 games). The Lakers then moved up the coast to beat Golden State 110-89. The returned home to beat the Knicks 103-96. They went east to beat the Bills 122-109 and crush Wilt’s former team, the 76ers, 143-103. Back on the coast, they beat Seattle 115-107 and Portland 130-108 to push their record to 13-3. They’d won 6 games in a row.

Then they took on the resurgent Boston Celtics, (John Havlicek was becoming a star and Dave Cowen was a find at center: they would finish 56-26), in a Sunday game that likely would have bene nationally televised, beating them 128-115. It was the first of four consecutive home games: they also beat the Cavaliers 108-90, Rockets 106-99 and the Bucks 112-105. That was their 10th straight win. The Bucks had won 17 of their first 18 games, looking just like the championship team of the previous year. The Warriors had knocked them off in Oakland 100-107 the night before. Kareem out-scored the aging Wilt 39-11 but Goodrich scored 27, McMillan 25 and West 22 to lead the Lakers to victory.

LA then rolled through Seattle 139-115, Detroit 132-113 and the Supersonics again 138-121. Then came a trip to Boston, the site of so many Laker disappointments over the years. Havlicek scored 36 but West scored 45 and Goodrich 33 in a 124-111 win, the Laker’s 14th straight. They were now 20-3 and the Buck’s record of 20 wins in a row was within sight.

The Lakers were just chewing up teams and spitting them out: the Sixers 131-116; the Blazers 123-107; the Rockets 125-120 and the Warriors 124-111. Then came a scare: The Suns erased a 12 point 4th quarter deficit to force overtime. No problem: the Lakers won anyway 126-117. 19 in a row, 25-3.

The record tying game was a 104-95 win in Atlanta. Two days later in Portland, they whipped the Blazers 129-114 to set a new record with 21 in a row. But they were hardly done. People were looking up the record streaks on other sports and could find only one that topped what the Lakers did: the baseball New York Giants had won 26 games in a row in 1916, (sort of: they had a 1-1 tie called for darkness 12 games into the streak).

So the Lakers beat the Warriors 129-99, the Suns 132-106, the Sixers 154-132, Braves 117-103, The Bullets 127-120 and the Rockets 137-115. 27 in a row, 33-3.

They beat the Braves 105-87 and the Sonics 122-106. Then Boston came to town, 122-113. Havlicek and Cowens both scored 29 but Goodrich answered with 40 while West and McMillan had 27 each. 30 in a row 36-3.

Then came a 6 game road trip. First stop Cleveland 113-103. Second stop Atlanta 134-90. It looked like it would never end. Then they went to Milwaukee. Sunday, January 9, 1972. Ir was probably the most anticipated regular season game in NBA history, (or at least since Wilt first encountered Bill back in 1959). The Lakers were 39-3 and had won 33 games in a row. The defending champion Bucks were 35-8. The visitors won the first period 28-26. The Bucks moved ahead to take a 51-45 halftime lead. They increased it by one in the third quarter, 84-78. Then the pressed the accelerator to the floor with a 36-27 final quarter and a convincing 120-104 win to finally end the Lakers’ record streak. Kareem out-scored Wilt 39-15 and no Laker scored more than Jerry West’s 20. The Lakers had beaten every team in the NBA except the Royals during that streak. Their average margin of victory was 17 points (124-107).

The rest of their season was hardly disappointing. They went 30-9 to finish 69-13, one win better than the previous best NBA won-loss record of Wilt’s 1966-67 Sixers, who played one game less and were 68-13. They won the western division by 18 games. They played the Bucks again on February 4th in LA, beating them 118-105, out-scoring them 68-48 in the second half. Kareem again out-scored Wilt 40-18 but West had 37 and Goodrich 29 and the Bucks could not match that, (Oscar Robertson, nearing the end of the line, had 13). They beat them again on March 1st in Milwaukee, 109-108. Kareem had 33 to Wilt’s 8. West had 28 to Robinson’s 14. This one was won from the bench as Pat Riley scored 15 and John Trapp 8 to 6 points for Milwaukee’s reserves. The final regular season meeting between the two teams was in LA on St. Patrick’s Day and it was easy win for the Lakers, 123-107. A 35-27 second quarter and 34-21 third quarter gave the Lakers control of the game. Kareem scored 50 to Wilt’s 18. The torch had certainly passed between the big men. But the Bucks had only two other double figure scorers and Robertson didn’t even play. McMillan had 27, West 26 and Goodrich 22.

Boston won the Atlantic Division with a 56-26 record, 8 games better than the Knicks, who got only 11 games out of Willis Reed. They had obtained the very different Jerry Lucas from San Francisco to replace him. Lucas was a good rebounder but not the dogged defender Reed had bene and preferred to use his outside shooting skills to draw the other team’s center out to guard him. They also obtained Earl Monroe from Baltimore, creating a legendary back court with Walt Frazier. But this new version of the Knicks took time to gel.

The Celtics had taken time to gel themselves. In 1969-70, the year after Bill Russell retired, they were 34-48 with Henry Finkel at center. Then they drafted Dave Cowens out of Florida State. The under-sized but perpetual motion Cowens ran the league’s centers ragged and helped forge an improvement to 44-38 in the 1970-71 season. Then Red Auerbach pulled one of his famous deals. The Celtics had drafted Charlie Scott when he graduated from North Carolina. He had lost the bidding war to the ABA but retained Scott’s NBA rights – until the Phoenix Suns raided the ABA and signed Scott to a contract. Auerbach was due some compensation from the Suns and chose Paul Silas, a ferocious rebounder. They already had John Havlicek, who was maturing from a 6th man into one of the league’s stars. They also had former Kansas All-America Jo Jo White to run the point, future star guard Paul Westphal, 6-8 sharpshooter Steve Kuberski and a couple of hold-overs from the Russell days, 6-6 defensive specialist Satch Sanders and 6-8 back-up center Don Nelson. Former star forward Tom Heinsohn was the coach.

The Knicks and Celtics were the only teams with winning records in the east. Even the Baltimore Bullets, champions of the Central Division, were only 38-44. The west had 6 such teams. Dick Motta’s Chicago Bulls, playing fanatical defense, went 57-25, which would have been the best record in the east. Al Attles Golden State Warriors could also play some defense and went 51-41. Cotton Fitzsimmons coached the Phoenix Suns to 49-33 and Lenny Wilkins led the Seattle Supersonics to 47-35. All fine teams with famous coaches. It didn’t matter.

The Lakers swept the Bulls in four games: 95-80; 131-124; 108-101; 108-97. It didn’t matter what kind of game you played: the Lakers could play it better than you did. The Bucks took care of Golden State in five games, sweeping the last four: 106-117; 118-93; 122-94; 106-99; 108-100. Those were the third and fourth best teams in the west and the Lakers and Bucks had steam-rolled over them.

In the east, the Knicks upset the Celtics in five games. It was a rivalry this sport really needed: look what it’s done for baseball: New York and Boston. But this was the only period when they were really comparable- and the Knicks owned the Celtics, at least for two years, beating them 4-1 this season and 4-3 the next year when the Celtics had their best all-time record at 68-14. In game one, the Knicks roared to a 53-36 halftime lead and rolled 116-94, behind Walt Frazier’s 36 points. New York held off late rally to win game 2 by a single point 106-105. The Celtics had their one moment of glory in game 3, winning 115-109 but New York took game 4 in another blow-out 116-99 and overcame a 0-14 deficit in Boston to win game 5, 111-103, despite 32 points from Havlicek.

But all eyes were on the western semis. Two of the greatest reams of all time would be going head to head once again and the winner would be the odds-on favorite for the championship against the Knicks. Game 1 at the Forum in LA was a shocker. Neither team could score much in the first half with the Bucks taking a 37-34 halftime lead. In the third quarter the Laker’s woes continued as they scored only 8 points. The Bucks finally got their offense going and scored 21 to take a 58-42 lead. LA finally found the basket for a 30-25 fourth quarter but had suffered an ignominious 72-93 defeat at home to open the series. From “Fhe NBA Finals”: “The Milwaukee defense overplayed and double-teamed the Lakers, forcing them out of their favorite shooting spots and into a 27% performance from the floor. …In practice at the start of the series, Goodrich had complained about the ABC television lights that had been added for the broadcasts. (Laker owner Jack Kent) Cooke asked the network to remove some of them. Cooke wanted even more removed and ABC again complied. After game 1, the Los Angeles owner wanted even more adjustments. “It wasn’t the lights”, Sharman finally said. “It was that our good shooters were all way off.” The Laker’s high scorer was Happy Hairston with 16 points. Nobody else had more than 12. He was 6 for 11. The rest of the starting line-up was 12 for 65 and the first guy off the bench, John Trapp, was 2 for 10. Wilt had 10 points and 24 rebounds but Kareem had 33/18 and there was no one on the Lakers to match that.

West went 10 for 30 in game 2, saying “I know what I’m doing wrong. I’m turning my hand too much. But I can’t get it stopped. It’s got to go away by itself. Jerry was the only one who wasn’t “on” in this game, (and he scored 28 points). Jim McMillan scored 42 points, Gail Goodrich 25 and Hairston 17. Former Buck Flynn Robinson added 10 off the bench and Chamberlain scored 11 with 17 boards. The Bucks answered with 40 points from Kareem, 23 from Lucius Allen, 18 from power forward Curtis Parry, 16 from Jon McGlocklin, 15 from Bobby Dandridge and 10 from Oscar Robertson, (with 8 rebounds and 7 assists). When the dust settled, the Lakers had evened the series- barely, at 135-134. A ten point lead had barely survived a 29-38 final quarter. The Lakers were lucky not to fly to Milwaukee not down 0-2.

“Somehow they overcame 61% shooting from the Bucks in game 3 in Milwaukee. The Lakers drove frequently drawing fouls and shooting free throws. On defense, Wilt overplayed Kareem to stop his sky hook, forcing him instead into short jumpers and lay-ups. At one point, Chamberlain blocked five shots. In the critical fourth period, Wilt held Kareem scoreless for the first 11 minutes. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 33 points but Chamberlain had done his job.” This one was close all the way, with the Lakers taking a 56-50 halftime lead and holding on for a 82-81 lead going into a 26-24 fourth quarter for a 108-105 final. Chamberlain only had 7 points and 14 rebounds to Kareem’s 33/21. But Goodrich had 30, McMillan 27, West 22 and Hairston 16. Dandridge and Allen had 25 each and Robertson found enough of the old magic for 18.

The defending champs looked ready to repeat in game 4, crushing the visitors 114-88 behind an overwhelming rebounding edge of 75-43. The Bucks won the first quarter 32-21 and the fourth 37-23. It didn’t much matter what happened in between. Jabbar had 31/18, Chamberlain only 5/14. West had 24 but missed 14 of 23 shots. Dandridge made half of his 20 attempts and also scored 24. But the Lakers responded with a rout of their own back at the Forum, 115-90, almost the same score. Wilt had 12/26 to Kareem’s 28/16. The Bucks had only two other double figure scorers: Dandridge 15 and – blast from the past, Wilts former Sixer teammate Wali Jones, with 21 off the bench. The Lakers had 6 double figure scorers, led by McMillan with 25 and West and Goodrich with 22

Jerry West, to this point in the series, was 39 for 106, (37%). “They returned to Milwaukee for the sixth game and, in practice, West kicked at a press table after missing an open jumper. In the past, he told the writers, nobody seemed to notice when he had great scoring games because the Lakers always lost in the Finals. Now that they were winning, he said, all that people seemed to be interested in was his slump. As usual, Sharman said, people failed to notice that he could virtually rule the floor with his defense.” He had to continue to do in the game 6, missing 21 of 29 shots. But was 9 for 11 from the line and scored 25 points. Wilt rekindled his youth, to some extent, with 20/24 to Kareem’s 37/25. McMillan scored 18 for the Lakers and so did Goodrich, who also shot poorly at 7 for 20. Happy Hairston added 14.
Dandridge scored 19 for the Bucks, Allen 14 and McGlocklin 11. It was 25-25 after one quarter. The Bucks won the second and third quarters to make it 77-72 going into the fourth but the Lakers rallied with a 32-23 final quarter to win it 104-100 and take the series in 6 games, even though they’d been out-scored by 14 points. On the season they’d won 8 of 11 games from the defending champs.

The final series against the Knicks opened the same way the Bucks’ series had: with a strange, disappointing loss. Bill Bradley said before the series: “We operate on such a small margin of error. We don’t have Willis in there to make up for our mistakes.” They didn’t have a small margin for error in the opening game at the Forum. They hit everything in sight, especially Bradley, who hit an incredible 11 of 12 shots and scored 29 points. Lucas had 26 on 13 for 21 shooting. DeBusschere did the heavy lifting inside with 19/18. The pesky visitors lead 67-49 at the half and rolled to an easy 114-92 upset win. West’s shooting woes continued: 3 for 15. Overall, the Knicks had out-shot the Lakers 54%-37%. But they had shot their bolt in this one.

The Lakers won game 2, 106-92. DeBusschere hurt his side and missed the second half. West went 6 for 21 and scored only 15 but Goodrich broke out with a 14 for 18 game and 31 points. Without DeBusschere, Chamberlain had his way inside and got 23/24. A 28-11 third quarter was the key. DeBusschere tried to play in game 3 but missed his first six shots and returned to the bench. “I didn’t feel I was helping the team”. The Lakers raced to a 22 point lead and coasted, 107-96. Chamberlain and Hairston both had 20 rebounds and Wilt scored 26. Goodrich scored 25 and West 21, despite missing 18 of 28 shots.

The key game was game 4 in the Garden. The game was close all the way. The Knicks led by 2 after one, by 3 at the half and after three quarters. The Lakers finally tied it up at 101 by the end of regulation. “Early in the game, Chamberlain fell and hurt his wrist. Despite the pain, he elected to stay in the game, perhaps thinking of all the criticism he got for sitting out the end of the final game in ’69. Later he got a 5th foul. He had never fouled out of a game in 13 seasons. “Immediately speculation started along press row that he would play soft in overtime. Instead, he came out in a shot-blocking fury that propelled the Lakers to a 116-111 win.” Walt Frazier: “The patient is critical and about to die.”

The Lakers returned home to Los Angeles with a commanding 3-1 lead. “The early word on Chamberlain was that he would be unable to play game 5 but, as game time neared, Chamberlain received a shot of an anti-inflammatory drug and took the floor. Almost single-handedly he was the Knick’s demise. He scored 24 points and pulled won 29 rebounds and Los Angeles finally broke the jinx, 114-100. The effort earned Chamberlain his second finals MVP award. Afterward, the Lakers sipped champagne from wine glasses. There was no shaking and spewing. No riotous behavior. And certainly no rain of balloons from the Forum rafters.”

The Lakers, including the playoffs, had won 81 of 97 games (83.5%), including an all-time major league sports record 33 in a row. They’d beaten the defending champion Bucks, also one of the great teams ever, 8 time in 11 games. Wilt Chamberlain had answered his critics. Jerry West never did break out of his shooting slump, (38 for 107 for the final series .325 and 128/340 for the post season .375). But he finally had his championship since his 1956 East Bank, West Virginia high school team won the state title, despite having contending teams almost every year of his high school, college and pro career. And Los Angeles finally had an NBA title after losing in the final round 7 times, four times in 7 games. This is, arguably, the greatest season an NBA team has ever had.



Meanwhile the ABA was still afloat and a wave of new stars was pushing it along. 7-2 Artis Gilmore of Jacksonville, who had averaged 24 points and 23 rebounds for his career and led his tiny school to the NCAA final, joined Dan Issel on the front line of the Kentucky Colonels. 7-0 Jim McDaniels of Western Kentucky, a 28/14 man, became a Carolina Cougar. 6-8 235 George McGinnis, a 30/15 guy moved from Indiana U. to the Indiana Pacers, to be joined by 6-9 215 Darnell Hillman of San Jose State, a 15/14 guy. 6-6 Johnny Neumann, a Pete Maravich clone who had averaged 40.1 for Mississippi to lead the NCAA, would do his gunning for the Memphis Pros. The best of these was….none of them.

The most exciting basketball player of his generation, by acclamation, was Julius Erving, a skinny 6-7 200 jumping jack with all the moves and all the shots. Syracuse U. had gotten an early look at him when he scored 36 points and had 32 rebounds against the Orange in a 1971 game. “Doctor J”, (a reference to an early ambition to become a physician) averaged 26/20 for the UMASS Minutemen. They say that if you think you’ve seen Sugar Ray Robinson in action from looking at films of him fighting Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio, you haven’t really seen him because he was at his greatest in the 1940’s when he was a welterweight. Sugar Ray was 85-0 with 69-0 as an amateur and 40-0 with 28 knockouts when Jake LaMotta beat him on points on 2/5/43. He then beat LaMotta by decision just three weeks later -and had won another fight the week before! That launched an 8 year, 90 bout undefeated streak, (there were two draws) that included three more wins over LaMotta. At that point he was 31 years old with a pro record of 128-1-2 with 84 knockouts. He’d been Welterweight and Middleweight champion for 5 years. From that point on he was 45-18-4 with 24 knockouts, most of them over minor fighters. His great fights of that period were mostly 15 round wars over fighters he would have easily beaten in the old days when he was lightning fast with his feet, hands and reflexes.

I think it’s much the same with Doctor J. We remember him late in his career with the 76ers when he shared star status with McGinnis, Darrell Dawkins and Moses Malone. He was still a very productive player and an occasionally spectacular one. But old ABA fans have always said that the real Doctor J was the one they saw in the early 70’s, when he took the game to a new level. He was a great scorer and- something that faded in his later years - a tremendous rebounder. He had enormous hands and could easily control the ball with one hand. He could swing it around like the arms of a giant clock, shooting it high over defenders or gentle roll the ball into the basket. Or he could throw it down the hole with impressive force. Wilt Chamberlain made the dunk a weapon. Doctor J made it an art form. He was the template for Michael Jordan. And the ABA had him. The rest of the country just couldn’t see him because he was not on TV, (at least not very often).

The thing about basketball is that there are only five starters and you need only 2-3 good reserves. In football baseball and hockey, you need a lot more players to build a good team. I think that means that a n expansion n team or a rival league can improve to the level of the elite more quickly than in other sports and I wonder how close the ABA came to NBA level play in this period. The players associations of the two leagues got together in 1971-72 to play two games between the all-stars of each league as a fund raiser for under-privileged kids wanting to go to college. The results were very interesting:
20 Second Timeout: Supergames I & II: The 1971 and 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Games

Some video:
1972 ABA vs NBA All Star Game: centers - Wilt & Lanier vs Gilmore & Daniels part 1/2

The NBA won the first game 123-122 and the second 106-104. The top ABA players certainly proved they could compete with the top NBA players. Of course, they had a psychological advantage, much as the old Negro Leagues in baseball had when they barnstormed against the white major leagues, (they are supposed to have 57% of such games but the number varies depending on the source). They had more to prove. And these games didn’t measure the depth of the league or of its teams, although I suspect this would have been less of a problem for the top ABA teams.

There were also many individual exhibitions games between NBA and ABA teams and the ABA wound up winning 79 of those games to 76 for the NBA teams:
Remember the ABA: ABA vs. NBA Exhibition Game Results

It should be noted that when the BAA merged with the NBL to create the NBA, the first seven champions were all former NBL teams. The only former ABA franchise that had ever won an NBA title is the San Antonio Spurs and they didn’t win one until 1999, 22 years ager the NBA/ABA merger.

The Kentucky Colonels stormed to a 68-16 record with their front line of 7-2 Artis Gilmore, who averaged 24 points and 17 rebounds and became the league’s outstanding shot-blocker, 6-9 Dan Issel, who scored 30.6 and grabbed 11 rebounds a game and 6-7 Cincy Powell who averaged 16.1/7.7 and their double-barreled backcourt of Louis Dampier (16ppg) and Darrel Carrier, who was limited by a back injury but scored 14 a game. Dampier was the point man and averaged 6.2 assists.

A distant second were the Virginia Squires who didn’t miss Rick Barry because they had two superstars: Charlie Scott who led the league with 34.6 ppg and Julius Erving who averaged 27.3/15.7. They didn’t have a lot else and Scott jumped his contract with 11 games left in the regular season to sign a contract with the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, for whom he played 6 games, averaging 18.8, barely half his ABA average. He had a solid NBA career but never scored more than 25.4 and wound up averaging 20.7. That left it to Dr. J to carry the Squires through the playoffs. (Jim McDaniels also abandoned the Carolina cougars to sign with the Seattle Supersonics, where he flopped before being shown the door by Bill Russell. "I should have stayed in the ABA for a couple of years. I was just young and things started going bad for me there and I didn't know how to handle them.")

In third place in the east were the New York Nets, coached by Lou Carnesecca and led by Rick Barry (31.5ppg). Their point guard, Bill Melchionni, who had been on Wilt’s wondrous Sixers team in 1967, had a terrific year, scoring 21.0 ppg and passing out a league-leading 8.4 assists. The rest of the line-up consisted of Bill Paultz, Trooper Washington and John Roche. Roche had to take over the point when Melchionni broke his hand at the end of the regular season.

But this 44-40 team shocked the Colonels with two victories in Louisville to open the series. Barry went off for 50 in the first game and was aided by Roche’s 31 points, (he had averaged 13 during the season). A 36-24 third quarter broke open a close game and the Nets won 122-108. The Colonels expected to come back strong. The Nets put together consecutive 26-17 quarters to take an 18 point halftime lead and were never threatened after that, winning 105-90. Roche again had 31 and Barry 35. Barry had 39 and Roche 22 in game three but four Colonels had 19 or more points, led by Gilmore and reserve Walter Simon with 25 each as the Colonels final came back to win one 105-99 in the Nassau Coliseum. Barry developed Strep throat and missed game 4 but the Colonels were unable to take advantage of it as Roche continued to play out of his mind with 38 points while the little-used John Baum scored 25 and the Nets won, 100-92, thanks to a 29-19 fourth quarter. Barry was back for Game 5 in Louisville but the Colonels won there 109-92, with four 20+ scorers: Issel 24, 22 from reserve Mike Pratt and 20 each from Gilmore and another reserve, Les Hunter. But back on Long Island, Roche again was red hot with 32 points. Barry had only 15 and the Colonels had 6 double figure scorers but the Nets won it 101-96, taking a 9 point halftime lead and holding on to win. Roche and Barry had both averaged 30 points a game, (Barry 32.4). For the Colonels Issel and Gilmore both averaged 22 ppg but Dampier was held to 13 and Carrier hardly played, scoring only 6 points.

The bubble seemed to have burst when the Nets took on the Squires, who destroyed them 138-91 in the opening game. Virginia won every quarter but a 34-13 second quarter turned it into a blow-out and a 42-24 third quarter turned it into an historical blow-out. Roche again carried the team with 26 points but he was the Nets only 20 point scorer and the Squires had four of them. Erving had a triple-double with 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists. The second game was more competitive but the Squires still won, 115-106, behind Erving’s 38 points. Barry was back with 29 but Roche had returned to earth with 6.

The series moved to Long Island, but not for a while. The Nassau Coliseum was not available – it had bene booked for other acts and no one wanted to move back to the decrepit old Island Garden, where the nets had formerly played. So the teams had to wait 10 days to resume their series. It allowed the nets to re-group and get healthy, which allowed them to turn around the series. Erving scored 31 and reserve Bernie Williams had 25 but Barry and Roche scored 25. Melchionni was back and scored 20 and Billy Paultz had 23. This one was close all the way with the Nets leading by 4 after one period, by 1 at the half and by 2 after 3 quarters. That was the final margin, 119-117. The Nets had an easier time in game 4, taking a 9 point first quarter lead, stretching it to 15 after three and winning 118-107. Barry had 33, Roche 22 and Melchionni 18. Erving led the Squires with 27.

The Squires regained the lead in the series at home, 116-107, led by former Piston and Bullet Ray Scott with 26 and Erving with 24. Barry had 34, Paultz 26 and Melchionni 19 but the Squires had more double figure scorers with five. The Nets won a wild one, 146-136 back home to hold serve. The Squires won the fourth quarter 46-45. The Squires had seven double figures scorers led by Erving with 34 and Bernie Williams with 33. But Barry had 43, Roche 37 and Paultz 33. The two teams decided to play defense in game 7, back in Norfolk. It was another wire-to-wire close game with the Nets leading by 2 after one, 4 at halftime and after three and finally winning it 94-88. Erving was magnificent with 35 points but Barry had 27, Roche 19, Paultz 18 and Melchionni 15.

Out west, Stars dominated with a 60-24 record. The Pacers had probably the most talented roster in the league with George McGinnis joining Mel Daniels, Bud Netolicky, Roger Brown, Fred Lewis, Rick Mount and Billy Keller. But they never really jelled, hovering just above .500 all season before settling for a 47-37 record. Nobody else in the west had a winning season. One thing they had was tremendous balance, with 6 guys scoring between 15 and 19 ppg. The Stars had Zelmo Beatty scoring 23.6/13.2 and Willie Wise scoring 23 a game. They also had six double figure scorers.

The Stars looked great sweeping the Chaparrals in the first round but Indiana started putting things together in the western semifinal. The Stars put away the opener in Salt Lake City with a 26-19 final quarter, winning 108-100. George McGinnis had 31 and Roger Brown 28 but Jimmy Jones brought back the old days with 25 while Zeke Beatty and Willie Wise both had 23. The Stars also held court in game 2, winning 117-109 thanks to a 34-24 third quarter. Wise got 30, Jones and Beatty 23. McGinnis had 28 and Netolicky 27. The Stars seemed on their way to another title.

The series switched to Indiana and it switched around. Game 3 was close all the way. The Pacers, like several ABA teams, represented a state or region, not just a city and they played the game in Anderson High Schools’ “Wigwam” were up 1 at the half and 7 going into the fourth quarter. They held off the Stars to win 116-111. No star scored 20 points but six of them scored at least 12. But Roger Brown scored 30 and six of his teammates were in double figures. The Pacers then evened the series at Indiana Assembly Hall in Bloomington, (where Bobby Knight’s Indiana U. teams played), overcoming a one point halftime deficit to win comfortably, 118-108. Jones scored 26 and Wise 25 but Brown scored 27, Freddie Lewis 26 and Billy Keller 20.

Game 5 back in Utah, was a wild scoring affair won by the Stars 139-130, despite a 41-25 final quarter by the Pacers, which turned a blow-out in a respectable game. Wise scored 34, Jones 32 and Glen Combs 20. Four Pacers had 20+: Mel Daniels with 29, Keller 24, Lewis 22, McGinnis 20. Both teams had a roster full of guys who could have big games for them. But the Stars had scored their last win of the season.

The Pacers won game 6 in Bloomington, 105-99, falling behind 26-31 after the first quarter but winning the last three. Wise had 30 and Beatty 25 but they couldn’t overcome six double figure scorers for the home team. Daniels led with 20. Then they closed it out at the Salt Palace with a 117-113 clincher. The Stars had six double figure scorers, three of them 20+: Wise 26, Beatty 25 and Jones 23. But the Pacers had seven double figure scorers. Brown had 27, Lewis 23 and Daniels 19.

So that set up a final between Rick Barry and his supporting cast on the Nets and the balanced, deep Pacers. The fact that a New York team was involved was a big plus for the ABA as they got a lot more attention from the national press for their championship, even though it was between two teams with a combined regular season record of 91-77. But the Pacers easily beat that New York team in the opener in Bloomington, 124-108. The Nets actually had the lead at the half, 56-53 but that got blown away in the third, (22-35) and fourth (25-36) quarters. Barry was the leading scorer with 34 points and Roche continued his hot shooting with 28 but Lewis had 33, Brown and Daniels 23, Keller 17 and McGinnis 16.

The second game was played in the State Fair Coliseum where the Nets again got a halftime lead, 59-55. This time they extended it in the third quarter to 93-83, which allowed them to withstand a fourth quarter run by the deeper team and win 117-115. Both teams put five guys into double figures Barry had 29 and Melchionni 26. McGinnis and Brown had 22 while Lewis had 22.

A key game was #3 in the Nassau Coliseum and the Pacers won it 114-108. The first and fourth quarters were both even. The Pacers narrowly won the two middle quarters, despite a 44 point outburst from Barry. The Pacers overcame that with 30 from McGinnis, 22 from Lewis and 20 from Brown. Three days later, in the same venue, the Nets evened the series again with a 110-105 triumph- and they did it with a 32-21 fourth quarter. Bill Paultz went off for 30 points from the center position and Barry had 26. Lewis paced the Pacers with 22.

Back in the Indiana State Fair Coliseum, the Nets got off to a roaring start with a 33-15 first quarter. They were still up by 15 at halftime. Then came the turning point. A 34-20 third quarter got the home team to within one and the 4th quarter was a desperate struggle for control of the series:
Hidden Gems of the Pacers' Playoff History: #3 - 1972 ABA Finals, Game 5 | Indiana Pacers

The Nets could get even back in their home arena but they came up short. Both the first two quarters were 28-28. Indiana took control with a 32-24 third quarter and held on to win their second ABA title, 108-105. Roger Brown was the only Pacer with 20+ points but he had 32. McGinnis and Daniels both had double-doubles and the Lewis-Keller backcourt scored 31. Barry and Melchionni had 23 each and Paultz 20 but the nets had only one other double-figure scorer, Ollie Taylor with 16. SU fans complain about our shallow bench but seven players played 40 or more minutes in this game and the starters scored 188 of 213 points. (All stats are from BasketballReference.com).

The Pacers became the first team to win two ABA titles.
Hoosier History Part 2 - The Indiana Pacers of the ABA
 
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