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1970 NBA Season – ‘Here Comes Willis’

March 22, 2013

willis road

Willis Reed was the ‘triple-crown’ winner winning the All-Star Game MVP, League MVP and Finals MVP in 1970 *photo courtesy of Ultimate NBA

With the retirement of Bill Russell, the NBA was wide open for a team and center to emerge.  But who would it be?  Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers? Nate Thurmond and the Warriors? Wes Unseld and the Bullets? or Willis Reed and the Knicks?  heck, the Milwaukee Bucks picked up 3-time NCAA Champion Lew Alcindor with the top draft pick.. but the expansion team wouldn’t be a factor this soon, right?

The Lakers would be favored but would lose Chamberlain to a knee injury 12 games into the season.  Wilt would miss the rest of the regular season and despite Jerry West leading the league in scoring with a 31.2 average, the Lakers finished 46-36.  Wilt would return for the playoffs though and the Lakers would be a factor.  Nate Thurmond missed 43 games due to a knee injury and the Warriors only won 30 games despite acquiring Jerry Lucas from Cincinnati.

The only other above .500 team in the West was the 48-34 Atlanta Hawks.  The Hawks had some talent with Lou Hudson, Joe Caldwell and Bill Bridges.  They also acquired Walt Bellamy midway through the season from Detroit, and he helped fill their center void left when Zelmo Beaty went to the ABA after the 1969 Season.

The other two playoff teams in the West were the 39-43 Chicago Bulls and 39-43 Phoenix Suns.  Both teams had young rosters.  Chicago had acquired Chet Walker from Philadelphia to go along with players like Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, Tom Boerwinkle, and Bob Weiss.  Phoenix signed Connie Hawkins, who had been previously banned from the NBA for his ‘involvement’ in the 1961 college point-shaving scandal.  Hawkins joined guards Dick Van Arsdale and Gail Goodrich as well as forward Paul Silas on the Suns.

The #3 seeded Bulls lost to Atlanta 4-1 in the Semifinals while the #4 seeded Suns had a 3-1 lead on the Lakers.  It had taken the Lakers a few games to adjust to Wilt Chamberlain’s presence after he returned.  But once they got it going, they overwhelmed Phoenix – winning the last three games of the series by scores of 138-121, 104-93, and 129-94 (each game of the Suns/Lakers series was decided by double digits).  The Lakers then swept Atlanta in the Western Division Finals.

The Baltimore Bullets, who finished with the best record in the NBA in 1969, were definitely factors again but went from 57-25 in ’69 to 50-32 in ’70 despite a better statistical season from the 1969 league MVP Wes Unseld (who didn’t even make the 1970 All-Star team).  Gus Johnson returned strongly from a torn ACL to average 17.3 points and 13.9 rebounds.  Earl Monroe had another strong season averaging 23.4 points (he wasn’t an All-Star either).  But the Bullets would finish in 3rd place.

Willis Reed and the New York Knicks would emerge as the favorite as the season went along.  Their strong lineup of Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, and Dick Barnett had returned from 1969 and won a record 18 games in a row early in the season to start 23-1.  They finished 60-22 and their only challenger for the best record was surprising.  The Milwaukee Bucks with the number 1 pick not surprisingly chose 7’3″ Lew Alcindor, who had won 3 NCAA Championships and 3 Most Outstanding Player awards at UCLA.  The Bucks even with Alcindor now aboard weren’t expected to do much, but do much they did.  They went 56-26 with Alcindor and fellow rookie Bob Dandridge leading the way.  Also emerging were holdovers Greg Smith and the backcourt tandem of Jon McGlocklin and Flynn Robinson.

The Philadelphia 76ers, coming off their surprisingly strong 1969 season, finished fourth with a 42-40 record.  Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer and Archie Clark led the way.  The 76ers though were no match for Lew Alcindor as big Lew averaged 36.2 points in the 5-game Semifinal victory for the Bucks.  Billy Cunningham averaged 29.2 and threw up 50 points in Game 4 versus Milwaukee.

The Baltimore Bullets/New York Knicks series was much tougher than the year before.  The Knicks survived Game 1 in double overtime, 120-117.  Regulation ended with Monroe missing a jumper over Frazier and the first overtime ended controversially.  Monroe had the ball stolen from him by Frazier, who got the ball ahead to Dick Barnett for what looked to be an uncontested winning layup.  But Baltimore rookie Fred Carter hustled and blocked the ball after it hit the backboard.  No goaltending was called despite vehement protests from everyone at Madison Square Garden and the game was still tied.  The Bullets came back from that loss to force the Knicks to 7 games, but New York won Game 7 127-114 and beat Milwaukee in 5 games in the Eastern Division Finals.

Before we get to the 1970 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Knicks, three 1970 regular season games will be highlighted.  The All-Star Game and two Nate Thurmond-less San Francisco Warriors games.  One versus the Chicago Bulls and the other versus the Cincinnati Royals, who finished in 5th place in the East (just two games in front of the Russell and Sam Jones-less Celtics) and had an increasingly dissatisfied Oscar Robertson.


Lew Alcindor was the Rookie of the Year in 1970 *photo courtesy of basketretro blog

January 20, 1970 – NBA All-Star Game at Philadelphia: East 142, West 135

It was mentioned in the pre-game by ABC announcers Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman that the West would be missing two big men in this game, Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond, as well as Unseld for the East.  Billy Cunningham, playing on his home court, got the first basket of the game on an offensive rebound.  But it was Reed and West who got their teams going.  Willis scored 11 of the East’s first 22 points while Jerry West had 7 of the West’s first 13 points.  But unlike West, Reed was getting some help and the East took the early advantage.  With the score 27-21 East, Hal Greer gave the home town crowd a thrill with back-to-back-to-back jumpers (he was fouled on the second one and made the free throw).  Then Gus Johnson made a long jumper at the end of the first quarter buzzer to complete the 9-0 run.  In the 2nd quarter, the big rookie Lew Alcindor came into the game and got two goaltendings but also a few baskets for his team to keep the double-digit advantage.  Lenny Wilkens did keep the West around with 8 second quarter points but they trailed 71-59 at the half.  Starting centers Reed and Elvin Hayes led their teams with 15 at the break.  They were followed closely by West with 11 and Oscar with 10.

West Coach Richie Guerin didn’t go with his starters to start the 2nd half.  His lineup was Wilkens, Jeff Mullins, and Joe Caldwell in the backcourt with Bob Rule and Connie Hawkins (the only starter) up front.  This lineup worked as the West started the 2nd half on an 8-2 run.  The East kept their advantage and game MVP Reed scored the last of his 21 points on a fast break driving layup to make the score 80-69.  Willis had blocked a shot then trailed the 3-on-1 break.  After the East went out to an 88-75 lead, the West went on a 7-0 run capped by back-to-back Dick Van Arsdale jumpers.  But then the Celtics’ Havlicek went on a 7-0 run and then Oscar on a steal and layup (plus the foul) made him the all-time leading scorer in All-Star Game history, passing Bob Pettit.  Robertson’s three-point play made it 102-85.  The East increased their lead to 21 after the third after a Dave DeBusschere fast break layup and a Greer short bank shot on an Oscar assist.

The East increased their lead to 25 in the fourth but was starting to get into foul trouble.  Both Reed and Alcindor ended up fouling out of this game.  The West made a run on free throws and Baylor and Hayes coming alive.  Then late in the quarter, Jumping Joe Caldwell (who got that nickname in college by jumping over a convertible) and Lou Hudson hit back-to-back jumpers to make the score 131-120.  After West hit a jumper and subsequent free throw with two minutes left, there was a murmur in the crowd as it was 131-123.  But the West was in a bit too much of a scramble mode and the East put the game away with four fast-break layups.

West starters (teams) and point totals

Elgin Baylor (Los Angeles Lakers) 9 – Small Forward

Connie Hawkins (Phoenix Suns) 10 – Power Forward

Elvin Hayes (San Diego Rockets) 24 – Center

Jerry West (Los Angeles Lakers) 22 – Point Guard

Lou Hudson (Atlanta Hawks) 15 – Shooting Guard

West bench (teams) and point totals

Jeff Mullins (San Francisco Warriors) 8

Bob Rule (Seattle Sonics) 5

Joe Caldwell (Atlanta Hawks) 13

Chet Walker (Chicago Bulls) 5

Bill Bridges (Atlanta Hawks) 4

Dick Van Arsdale (Phoenix Suns) 8

Lenny Wilkens (Seattle Sonics) 12

West Coach: Richie Guerin (Atlanta Hawks)

East starters (teams) and point totals

John Havlicek (Boston Celtics) 17 – Small Forward

Billy Cunningham (Philadelphia 76ers) 19 – Power Forward

Willis Reed (New York Knicks) 21 – Center

Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati Royals) 21 – Point Guard

Walt Frazier (New York Knicks) 7 – Shooting Guard

East bench (teams) and point totals

Hal Greer (Philadelphia 76ers) 15

Dave DeBusschere (New York Knicks) 10

Lew Alcindor (Milwaukee Bucks) 10

Gus Johnson (Baltimore Bullets) 10

Tom Van Arsdale (Cincinnati Royals) 5

Jimmy Walker (Detroit Pistons) 1

Flynn Robinson (Milwaukee Bucks) 6

East Coach: Red Holzman (New York Knicks)

February 25, 1970: Chicago Bulls 112 @San Francisco Warriors 104

NBA Archives uncovered a few games from the 1970 San Francisco Warriors season (the only season from 1967-1973 that the Warriors didn’t make the playoffs), but it gives a basketball fan the chance to hear a guy who was primarily an Oakland Raiders announcer Bill King (olddd mannn willieee).  This game was shown for a Jerry Lucas Vintage NBA, so they only showed most of the first half of this game.  The Bulls got off to a great start as their young star forward Bob Love scored 10 of their first 16 points for a 16-6 lead. Clem Haskins made a jumper to give Chicago their biggest lead of the first half at 18-6.  Love and Chet Walker scored 20 of the Bulls first 24 points.  But Lucas led the Warriors back and they tied it at 25 on a Lucas layup.

The Warriors grabbed as big as a 6-point lead in the 2nd quarter as the Bulls front court of Love, Walker and Tom Boerwinkle had 3 fouls in the 2nd.  But the Bulls grabbed the lead back with a 12-0 run.  A Jerry Sloan jumper made the score 55-47.  But once again, Lucas led the Warriors back.  He capped the first half with a wing jumper for his 16th point and it was 57-54.

I have no footage of the 2nd half but I can tell you that the Bulls led 85-81 after three and won the game.  But when you find the box score, you can tell as much as I.

Chicago starters (points scored)

Bob Love (32) – Small Forward

Chet Walker (20) – Power Forward

Tom Boerwinkle (7) – Center

Clem Haskins (15) – Point Guard

Bob Weiss (5) – Shooting Guard

Chicago bench (points scored)

Jerry Sloan (7)

Walt Wesley (8)

Shaler Halimon (10)

Ed Manning (6)

Bob Kaufmann (2)

Chicago Coach: Dick Motta

San Francisco starters (points scored)

Bob Portman (15) – Small Forward

Jerry Lucas (20) – Power Forward

Clyde Lee (6) – Center

Ron Williams (4) – Point Guard

Jeff Mullins (10) – Shooting Guard

San Francisco bench (points scored)

Joe Ellis (19)

Bobby Lewis (8)

Dave Gambee (6)

Adrian Smith (12)

Dale Schlueter (4)

San Francisco Coach: Al Attles


Jerry Lucas played two seasons for the Warriors *photo courtesy of Warriors World

March 7, 1970: Cincinnati Royals 121 @San Francisco Warriors 119

In terms of historically significant games, this doesn’t exactly fit.  Both the Royals and Warriors were not making the playoffs (Cincinnati was 32-42 going into the game which was 6.5 games behind the 4th place 76ers and San Francisco was 28-46 which was 5 games behind the 4th place Bulls with Seattle in between them).

Really the only story line for these two teams (other than Oscar’s growing dissatisfaction and Nate Thurmond’s injury) was that they had been involved in two trades earlier that season.  On October 25, the Royals traded Jerry Lucas to the Warriors for Jim King and Bill Turner.  It was felt by Royals new coach Bob Cousy that Lucas didn’t hustle enough and Cousy and the management weren’t happy that Lucas had gained weight, so they shipped him for two reserves.  Also, two months later the Royals traded Adrian ‘Odie’ Smith to the Warriors for a 1970 second round draft pick.  This pick turned into what would become a great point guard for the Royals franchise (who moved to Kansas City and became the Kings in the summer of 1972).  Nate Archibald would be the only player in NBA history to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season and would lead the Kings to the playoffs for the first time in 8 years in 1975.

For this game though, the Royals still had Oscar Robertson teaming with Tom Van Arsdale, Connie Dierking, and rookie Norm Van Lier (who would foul out in the 3rd quarter of this game).  But it was forward Fred Foster who gave the Royals early momentum in San Francisco, scoring 13 points in the first quarter to give Cincinnati a 31-28 lead.

The Warriors announcing team of Bill King and Hank Greenwald were back and their team started the second quarter on an 8-2 sparked by reserve guard Joe Ellis, who hit his first 5 shots from the field (that wouldn’t be the last hot streak he’d go on in this game).  The Royals would be sparked by veteran Johnny Green’s 10 2nd quarter points but the Warriors rode to a 63-58 halftime lead.  The third quarter was more back-and-forth action and the Royals would be sparked by a peculiar play.  With the Warriors up 70-68, they got a steal from Cincinnati and were running a fast break with Odie Smith in the middle.  Just after Smith crossed half-court with the ball, Green knocked it away from him and the ball was going out of bounds on the baseline under the Warriors basket.  But before the ball touched out of bounds, it hit referee Manny Sokol in the foot while Sokol was in-bounds and the ball stayed alive.  It went to the Royals’ Foster who threw a full-length pass to Tom Van Arsdale for a layup.  Cincinnati took that momentum to grab an 89-86 lead before the Warriors point guard Ron ‘Fritz’ Williams hit a long jumper with 7 seconds left to cut the lead to one.  Connie Dierking led the Royals with 24 after three.  He was followed by Foster and Van Arsdale who each had 20.  Oscar had been held to 9 at this point.  Jerry Lucas and Jeff Mullins had 19 and 18 respectively.

The fourth quarter opened with Joe Ellis hitting 6 shots in a row and Lucas contributing 2 baskets as the Warriors took a 109-96 lead on a Mullins jumper.  Cincinnati then made a run with Dierking and Van Arsdale getting key baskets.  Then Oscar came alive.  His first jumper made the score 112-104.  After a Warriors free throw, Green and Dierking each made two foul shots (as Nate Thurmond’s replacement in the middle Clyde Lee fouled out and Fritz Williams got a technical).  Then Robertson made another patented jumper from just inside the free throw line and it was 113-110 with 2:55 left.  Dierking got a layup and a foul on a pass from Foster to tie the game.  Then Oscar made two free throws after a loose-ball foul on Williams and the Royals took the lead with an 11-0 run at 115-113.  The last 2 minutes were back and forth as the Warriors matched Oscar’s two clutch jumpers and tied the game at 119 with 20 seconds left on an Ellis short jumper.  Cincinnati didn’t call time out and gave it to Oscar.  Robertson dribbled down the clock then penetrated to the free throw line.  He hit Van Arsdale on the right wing and Tom made a jumper with 1 second left.  Ellis missed a long shot off the back rim after a San Francisco timeout and Cincinnati took this one.

That would be one of the last few victories for Robertson in Cincinnati.  The Royals finished 36-46 and Oscar was traded to Milwaukee that summer for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk.  Oscar would join young Lew Alcindor to make the Bucks more formidable.

Cincinnati starters (points scored)

Tom Van Arsdale (28) – Small Forward

Fred Foster (22) – Power Forward

Connie Dierking (33) – Center

Norm Van Lier (4) – Point Guard

Oscar Robertson (19) – Shooting Guard

Cincinnati bench (points scored)

Johnny Green (13)

Bill Turner (2)

Jim King (0)

Cincinnati Coach: Bob Cousy

San Francisco starters (points scored)

Bob Portman (8) – Small Forward

Jerry Lucas (27) – Power Forward

Clyde Lee (8) – Center

Ron Williams (8) – Point Guard

Jeff Mullins (22) – Shooting Guard

San Francisco bench (points scored)

Joe Ellis (26)

Bobby Lewis (7)

Dave Gambee (4)

Adrian Smith (4)

Al Attles (4)

Dale Schlueter (1)

San Francisco Coach: Al Attles


Tom Van Arsdale of the Royals (shown here with a Kings uniform on) was twin brothers with Phoenix’s Dick Van Asdale.  They would become the only twins to play in the same NBA All-Star Game in 1970 and 1971 *photo courtesy of Omaha blogs

Before we look at Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Knicks, check out this Jerry West shot and reaction from Game 3 with the series tied at 1

The Knicks would go on to win in overtime.

May 8, 1970 – NBA Finals, Game 7: Los Angeles Lakers 99 @New York Knicks 113

With the series tied at 2, Game 5 was played in New York.  The Lakers raced out to a 25-15 when Willis Reed was at the top of the key guarded by Chamberlain.  Reed drove toward his strong hand (his left hand) to the lane past Wilt.  As he was driving Reed fell down, lost the ball, and was hurt.  Reed had a torn muscle in his upper thigh/hip area.  He was out for the rest of Game 5, but the Knicks rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to win and take a 3-2 lead.  Reed was in a suit for Game 6 at the Forum and Chamberlain put up 45 points and 27 rebounds as the Lakers won handily 135-113.  Rookie Point Guard Dick Garrett also had an effective game with 18 points against Walt Frazier, normally a defensive standout, that sparked Los Angeles to a 36-16 lead after one.

So even with Game 7 back at the Garden, the Knicks were shell-shocked at how Game 6 turned out and weren’t exactly confident that they could beat the Lakers without Reed.  Willis had warmed up a bit two hours before the game and New York Coach Red Holzman had told ABC reporter Howard Cosell that Reed could probably try to play.  But as the Knicks came out for regular warmups, Reed wasn’t among them.  He was still in the training room getting 2 CC’s of Cortisone (the original report was that he was receiving 200 CC’s of Cortisone.. holy hell!).  But just after ABC Broadcasters Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman introduced themselves and Twyman was talking about Cortisone shots, he noticed Reed coming out of the tunnel and pointed in that direction with an excited ‘I think we see Willis coming out!.’  The camera switched to the now famous shot of Willis coming out of the tunnel to a thunderous roar at ‘the new‘ Madison Square Garden.

As told many times by many Knicks, this appearance was inspiring and helped give them confidence.  When Reed was introduced as a starter to the crowd, he got a 25 second standing ovation before the PA Announcer John Condon announced the Knicks next starter.  The only thing Reed and the inspired Knicks lost was the opening tip as Chamberlain won that easily.  But Elgin Baylor airballed the first shot under good pressure from Dave DeBusschere.  The Knicks grabbed the ball and Walt ‘Clyde‘ Frazier pushed it up the court.  Reed trailed everyone but got the ball from Frazier open at the left elbow.  Willis nailed the jumper and the crowd went bonker-nuts.  After Wilt tied it at 2 on an offensive rebound and Bradley hit a free throw, Willis got the ball from Dick Barnett at the right wing this time.  He nailed his second jumper over Wilt and then limped back down the court.  It was the last basket he scored in this game.  The Lakers got off to a slow start as they tried jamming the ball in to Chamberlain and Wilt missed 2 shots and 3 free throws.  The Knicks grabbed a quick 9-2 lead on a long DeBusschere jumper and steadily built that advantage hitting their first 6 shots from the field.  The biggest key to the Knicks that first period was Frazier, who finished the quarter 5-for-5 from the field and 5-for-5 from the line.  Walt’s biggest play was when the Lakers cut the Knicks lead to 21-14, Frazier backed in to the elbow area against Garrett.  He made the turnaround over Garrett, while Dick fouled him.  Reed re-injured himself a bit on a defensive rebound but managed to play the entire first quarter and the Knicks raced to a 38-24 lead.

The second quarter was more of the same, DeBusschere scored his 12th point on another long jumper to make the score 40-25.  Frazier missed his first three shots of the quarter but pick pocketed West at half court and then drove for a layup that rolled around the rim three times and went in while the lunging West fouled him.  That three-point play made the score 51-31.  Another Frazier steal, this time from Garrett, and subsequent layup gave the Knicks their biggest lead at 67-38.  New York had a 69-42 lead at halftime and Frazier had 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists.  And on top of that, he was much more effective defensively against Garrett as he held him to 3 field goals and his effectiveness against the rookie slowed the Lakers offense.

Reed made another dramatic appearance at the start of the 2nd half.  His backup, Nate Bowman was set to jump against Chamberlain but Willis came out of the locker room again and ran onto the court to replace Bowman.  Reed went out for good with just under 6:00 left in the 3rd with the Knicks up 79-54.  After trailing 94-69 at the end of the third, the Lakers showed pride in the fourth quarter and made the final margin closer.  Baylor had 13 of his 19 in the fourth.  But the game was well salted away and the only drama was how many times Howard Cosell would get doused with champaign in the Knicks locker room (actually the post-game interviews were in the Rangers locker room, the Knicks locker room was too small to accommodate all the press – this only happens in Wrigley Field now – as I’ve experienced).  The count was two times but enough that Howard’s suit was drenched and he was smiling sheepishly.

Los Angeles starters (points scored)

Keith Erickson (14) – Small Forward

Elgin Baylor (19) – Power Forward

Wilt Chamberlain (21) – Center

Dick Garrett (8) – Point Guard

Jerry West (28) – Shooting Guard

Los Angeles bench (points scored)

Happy Hairston (6)

Johnny Egan (0)

John Tresvant (3)

Los Angeles Coach: Joe Mullaney

New York starters (points scored)

Bill Bradley (17) – Small Forward

Dave DeBusschere (18) – Power Forward

Willis Reed (4) – Center

Walt Frazier (36) – Point Guard

Dick Barnett (21) – Shooting Guard

New York bench (points scored)

Cazzie Russell (2)

Dave Stallworth (4)

Mike Riordan (5)

Nate Bowman (6)

New York Coach: Red Holzman

reed tunnel reed postgame

Willis Reed joining his teammates to warm up before Game 7 (top) and getting interviewed by a wet-with-champaign Howard Cosell post-game with Coach Red Holzman (bottom) *photos courtesy of Bleacher Report and ESPN


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