New Skin for the Old Ceremony
This post marks the start of a new feature on Plissken, one I’ve titled “Bloggin’ to the Oldies” in a delicious pun. Essentially, I (and possibly Carter, too) will watch one of the many NBA’s Greatest Games we have on our DVR and write about our impressions. Because this kind of exercise has the potential to devolve into a bunch of comments reiterating that Michael Jordan was really good at scoring, I’ll do my best to relate the style of play and players’ games to the NBA of today. This feature is still a work in progress, though, so please feel free to comment with some constructive criticism.
Today, I’ll tackle Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics. This game doubled as the last game for both Sam Jones and Bill Russell, although the announcers’ reactions at the end of the game suggest that only Jones had announced that he was playing for the last time.
Unfortunately, NBATV massacred this game by only showing the fourth quarter. For a channel that usually does a great job with replays, it seems odd that they’d choose to show just one quarter of a game featuring Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, John Havlicek, and Sam Jones. As far as I can tell, this game’s also the only one from that era in the regular rotation. This choice wouldn’t be so bad if Wilt hadn’t hurt his knee midway through the quarter; essentially, viewers are robbed of watching one of the greatest players in league history. Did the tape get destroyed in a mysterious vault fire? Were the Pete Maravich dribbling drills on after the game really necessary? (Okay, those are actually pretty cool.)
What’s here is actually quite interesting, though. The most obvious thing about the game is that there’s no three-point line. Oddly enough, offenses still operated mostly the same way—or at least the way they do when teams have excellent post scorers. The Lakers regularly worked it inside to Wilt with the intention of sending it back outside for open jumpers. The clearest difference, though, is that those shooters set up much closer to the basket. Thus, you get situations like this one: Wilt passes out from the block to Jerry West at the free throw line. Would that ever happen now? It wasn’t even an odd angle, and there were four defenders in our right around the paint on the play. With no three-point line, everything happens in a much tighter space.
I’m no fan of what three-pointers have done to current players’ midrange games (or lack thereof), but watching this game made it clear to me that the NBA currently needs the three-point line if it wants offenses to score. Today’s extremely athletic players simply could not play in a confined space; defenders would roam all over the place and block many more shots. Teams likely would have adjusted and moved outside, but it’s still way too tempting to stay close to the basket when there’s no incentive to shoot from outside. If the purists got their wish, I think they’d see a very ugly brand of basketball for quite a while.
Referees still appeared to control the game way too much in 1969: Russell, Wilt, Jones, and Havlicek each had five fouls with about 7:30 left in regulation, and Sam Jones fouled out thirty seconds later. As such, no Wilt/Russell banging inside, and the legitimately thrilling (and series MVP) Jones didn’t get to finish out his career on the floor.
Jones, by the way, was the biggest revelation for me. I’d always heard about him as an important member of the Celtics championship teams, but history seems to have put him a notch or below Havlicek, Cousy, and Russell in the Boston pantheon, subsequently leaving him out of the history books for the casual fan. This might be an odd thing to say about one of the 50 Greatest, but I wish he got talked about more often and hope I get the chance to see more of his games.
The Wilt injury made it nearly impossible to see his full game (damn you NBATV!), although the few minutes I saw made it clear that he’d be able to hang with any franchise center of the modern era. Watching guys like Wilt make it clear that while the game has changed a lot in the last forty years, it’s still basically played the same way.
Bill Russell is a more difficult case, although I fully understand that I’m fairly ignorant on this case. Russell’s defense was clearly awesome, particularly on one play in the last minute during which he forced Mel Counts (Wilt’s replacement) to drive behind the basket and force up a hideous scoop shot. Russell’s offense was another story. On two separate occasions, he made a decent move to get clear looks from two feet, and in both he cases he bricked each attempt. This might seem like blasphemy, and please correct me if I’m just being stupid, but at this point in his career Russell seemed to have the same offense/defense split as Ben Wallace. Or maybe he just never worked on offense because he had Jones and Havlicek there to do most of the scoring.
Perhaps the worst part of having NBATV truncate the game was that I didn’t get a great feel for Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and John Havlicek. All three were clearly very good (and West and Havlicek’s unreal stat lines from the series prove it), but I can’t make any intelligent comments on any of them.
As a Warriors fan, I was very interested to see Don Nelson. Watching him play, one can see why he’s so good at teaching players to shrug off their mistakes. During one offensive possession, Nellie took the ball at the top of the key facing the near sideline so that he was looking right at Jerry West, who already had defensive position. Nelson then ran right into West, executing one of the worst charges I’ve ever seen. Instead of getting down on himself, though, Nellie hit a tough jumper with a hand in his face on the very next possession. Just goes to show that there’s always some continuity in the NBA.
A true prince of the tubes has uploaded the fourth quarter of this game to YouTube. Embedding's been disabled, but check out these links to Part 1 and Part 2.