Anyone who fancies him or herself a student of the game of basketball knows about “The Willis Reed Game”. It is an iconic moment in the history of the league and an inspirational one that has inspired similar situations like it to be dubbed, Willis Reed-esque. But what is the full backstory? I delved deeper into that question recently, and here is what I took away…
The NBA was at a strange point in 1970. The league was struggling to gain popularity in the mainstream and Bill Russell’s retirement left a void in one of the league’s major markets. Not to mention the fact that the Boston Celtics were two-time defending champs when Russell stepped away. The league probably needed the ’70 Finals to be a marquee matchup, and in New York and Los Angeles, the league got just that.
As game 7 drew closer, the speculation as to whether or not Reed would play grew louder. The pregame talk on the ABC broadcast was all about the injured captain. Howard Cosell interviewed Knicks coach, Red Holzman, before the game and Holzman indicated that Reed would give it a go. As the telecast goes back to Chis Schenkel and Jack Twyman (who would call the game) we get the moment. Twyman is mid sentence when he glances over and says, “I think we see Willis comin’ out”; as that is said the camera pans to a view of the tunnel and Willis Reed emerges as the crowd goes bonkers. It really is a special moment. The build up to this game obviously isn’t what we are used to hype wise, but it still feels massive; I mean, it is New York and LA in a game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Walt Frazier began his brilliant performance with a play that looks familiar to us in 2017. He pump faked, got his man to bite, then took the contact as the defender bumped him on his way down. It is always fun to see something that reminds us of the modern NBA and that players always are learning from the past. The Knicks, behind Frazier and Reed, jumped out to a 9-2 lead as the Lakers call their first timeout.
New York started the game on fire, really, as Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley began to knock down shots. Frazier was everywhere on both ends; offensive rebounds, steals and was the first man to multiple loose balls. The early pace of this game was excellent, not like some of the modern Finals game 7’s that grind a bit. DeBusschere was not shy at all in the first quarter, taking and making some tough shots. One of the striking things in this game, that became a theme, was how little Wilt looked to physically dominate, especially with a hobbled Reed guarding him. The Big Dipper took some tough shots early on and seemed slightly out of the game at times.
The Knicks took a 38-24 lead into the second quarter as Mike Riordan entered the game for Dick Barnett, the first sub of the game for New York. Riordan got a layup, and then hit a jump shot. Just after that, Frazier ripped Jerry West and went all the way for a layup and the foul, pushing the Knicks lead to 20. At this point Willis was really just acting as a screener and ball mover on offense, while still providing muscle in guarding Wilt on defense. Late in the second we see a close up of Reed heavily limping down the court. It is insane to me that the Lakers weren’t just abusing him on defense, getting him involved in the pick and roll, but teams just didn’t think that way at the time. It is probably unfair of me to apply a 2017 mindset to a game from 47 years ago.
Reed finally checked out for the first time just before Wilt air balled a free throw. Admittedly, the free throw didn’t count due to a lane violation, but I found it symbolic, as Wilt would go 1-11 from the foul line in this game. The Lakers were clearly rattled. I’m not normally one for reading too much into body language, but their demeanor and game plan was terrible. The Lakers offense looked totally lost. If it wasn’t a West pull up or Chamberlain post up then the possession just died. To be fair, the Knicks defense was awesome. They were far more active than LA and their hands were everywhere, getting deflections and generating turnovers. New York’s hot shooting continued too, as they took a 69-42 lead into the locker room. The title was practically theirs already.
There really isn’t much to say about the second half, as the Knicks were in cruise control. Here are some quick notes from the third and fourth quarters…
- Early in the third, Schenkel read an ABC promo for a press conference with President Richard Nixon.
- Jerry West began to look very frustrated late in the third quarter, forcing shots and turning the ball over. He had to feel like another chance at a title was slipping away.
- West did, however, fuel a Lakers run that at least saw them get within a dozen. The Knicks shooting regressed a bit, but they maintained full control.
- The second half felt like a coronation for New York, with the crowd going wild and the players playing with freedom.
- Nate Bowman gave New York some really good minutes off the bench once Reed was shut down for the night.
As the game wound down, the players were whipping the Garden crowd into frenzy. New York had one final possession where everyone touched the ball and a Frazier pass led to a Dick Barnett jumper, putting a capper on an all-around team performance. The buzzer sounded and both teams immediately headed for the tunnel, one obviously much happier than the other. The Knicks 113-99 win gave them their first NBA title.
This is one of those game Finals 7’s (similar to ’84, ’94, ’10, ’13 and ’16) that altered multiple legacies. I hate to put it that bluntly, but when the margins are so fine, it is fair to glean career information from an ultimate game like this. For Wilt, this was a tough one. Granted, he had missed most of the season with a major knee injury, but he had just put up 45 and 27 in game 6. His sense of urgency was off and, I am afraid to say, his team paid for it. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor fell short again in their 7th and 8th Finals appearances, respectively. The Knicks won the franchise’s first title on the backs of DeBusschere, Bradley, Barnett, Frazier and Reed. All of their legacies were enhanced, but particularly Frazier and Reed, who combined to give us one of the greatest moments in NBA history.