In late March into early April 1971, the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers met in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It would go down in NBA history as one of the league’s grittier playoff matchups. Having recently published the book Shake and Bake with NBA great Archie Clark, I have a thick clip file of the series. I’ve condensed the press coverage to offer gritty recaps of Games 1 – 6. Now, without further ado, it’s time to recapture the deciding Game 7.
Baltimore, April 4, 1971—Gene Shue: calm, cool, unemotional . . . Sure.
He became so frazzled after Philadelphia evened the series Saturday, he pulled Kevin Loughery and Jack Marin out of a card game on the bus ride home to discuss new plays. What Gene discovered was a new way to get the ball in deep to Wes Unseld and an easier way to spring Jack loose for a quick jumper.
The door to the Bullets’ dressing room was closed to reporters before the game, the first time that has happened in the series. Inside, Johnson was receiving the equivalent of a left knee transplant from the man he calls the “miracle healer,” the Bullets’ team physician.
“He aspirated it (drew off fluid), then gave me three shots (of pain-killer),” Johnson said. “I don’t want to be around when the stuff wears off. I know it will hurt like hell.”
Shue was one floor up from the court when the 6-6 Johnson challenged the 6-3 Fred Carter, a super-leaper, for the team dunking competition. The Bullets we’re downstairs smiling as Johnson missed one fancy dunk after another. “I wanted to get the guys psyched up,” he said. “The guys got loose when they saw me. Mentally, they were ready.”
76ers coach Jack Ramsay, who has been plagued throughout the seven-game series by Bullets players who miraculously heal on the day of the game, wasn’t smiling at all. But he was watching. “I saw him throw one over the backboard trying to dunk,” Ramsay said rather sourly.
“Timing’s bad,” Gus explained. He had been warned by the team physician to curtail his Honeycomb smashes because of the strain they put on his aching knees.
A wildly enthusiastic crowd of 6,662 fans saw the Bullets make a complete reversal of form in this showdown game. In the previous two contests, they spotted the 76ers big leads at halftime and just missed at the buzzer. This time, however, they came out with fire in their eyes. Marin set up on the weak side (opposite the ball). Then came the new play. He awaited a firmly implanted Johnson pick and hit his first of 11 field goals.
The first quarter was a near standoff as Billy Cunningham poured in 12 points to keep Philadelphia within a point at 31-30. Then the Civic Center roof fell in on them.
Baltimore buried the 76ers with a 43-point second period. The Bullets actually waited until four minutes into the quarter for their big breakout. Fred Carter took a quick pass from Earl Monroe and connected on a 12-foot pop. Three more long-range missiles followed. Three minutes later, it was 50-39, Baltimore, with Unseld going over rookie Dennis Awtrey for a rebound and a tap-in. Awtrey wound up on the floor and came up complaining. “He shoved me, he shoved me,” he wailed to ref Jack Madden.
“Why don’t you jump once in a while?” Madden came back.
Johnson and Monroe and Loughery might have been hurting, but no more than Unseld, their oak stump of a center. It was Unseld’s defense and board work in the second period that broke yesterday’s game wide open. The 6-7 strongman played the seven games on a puffed, mushy ankle and didn’t get one shot or one headline.
Time after time, he cleared the board on missed shots, made the fast outlet pass that started an overmatch on the other end. Wes resembled a squid, or an octopus—whichever has more arms. He was guarding everybody. He rejected shots like they were live hand grenades. Could Archie Clark penetrate? Wes snuffed out Archie’s shoulder fakes like blowing out a candle. Billy Cunningham drives? Not a chance. Wes altered The Kid’s attempts with the same force Superman bends a steel girder. Unseld sprinted out 20 feet to waylay an approaching guard, or remained underneath to battle anyone brave enough to try for a rebound.
“They played nearly perfect ball in that quarter,” said Ramsay. “Not one turnover. Good ball movement. Great rebounding, great shooting.”
Gene Shue: “Then, early in the third quarter, we over-passed the ball. But every time I looked up, we were still winning by 20.”
The 76ers played without a center, going with their ramble-scramble defense that caused the Bullets some semi-panic moments late in the game. “They did a lot of pressing with three guards in the fourth quarter,” said Shue. “But we had a few plays that worked to get us easy baskets. I was concerned, but not worried.”
Maybe so, but the 76ers thought they did have one brief shot at a breakthrough. That came with 1:30 left. They had run off nine straight points to cut the lead to 122-112, and Shue was making more substitutions than sanity allowed. He wanted to use up as much of the clock between shots, but Johnson had other ideas. He wanted to make up for three uncalled-for wild passes he had heaved earlier in the quarter.
So “Gutty” Gus sailed across the key and let fly with a wild one-hander the pros call a “Hail Mary.” It went in. If it hadn’t, Unseld probably would have got the rebound. Johnson’s basket was the last one scored by the Bullets. They got two braces of free throws to maintain their breathing room, and time ran out.
Bullets 128, 76ers 120.
After the game, there was no legitimate champagne popping in the Bullets’ dressing room. Just a couple of quiet swigs for the players. No spraying and pouring over the heads or anything like that.
“I had one drink,” said Marin. “I’m too tired to get up and get another.”
Johnson held court in the dressing room, telling everybody the three shots of xylocaine he got in his left knee and how he had to play on guts “because the leg is as numb as wood right now.” Earl Monroe was laughing and rubbing his tender right ribs. Loughery was soaking his tender heel, but the smile was bigger than ever and the inevitable postgame cigar obviously had the taste that satisfies. And Wes Unseld was sitting silent in one corner, his puffy ankle covered with a towel. “The ankle? No big thing. Just a little pain, not enough to affect my play.”
Fred Carter was being grilled on the other side of the Bullets’ locker room, but sounding like the guy who’s going to help negotiate Archie Clark’s next contract. “Oh God,” he exclaimed. “I really dig those moves of his. I call him ‘Shake and Bake.’ You know, he comes down the court, throws those wicked head fakes, then burns you with the jumper.”
“That forward is a tough white boy,” Johnson’s baritone broke through the noise in reference to Cunningham. “He’s comes to play every night. He gives you 200 percent.”
“Simple,” Monroe explained the victory. “When Gus Johnson does his thing, we’re a better team than Philly. I don’t see how you can dispute that.”
Later, Johnson emerged from the shower like a guy trying to wobble away from a train wreck. The drugs were beginning to wear off. “In two hours, I don’t want to be around me,” he said, trying to climb into a pair of double-knit slacks.
It was a happy place, the Bullets dressing room, except for one important point. Shue had just been told that the series against the Knicks will start in New York tomorrow night. “It isn’t right,” protested Shue. “We’re completely drained, physically and emotionally . . . I’ll tell you right now, we’re appealing to the commissioner, and I hope he’ll see this our way. If he doesn’t, I might have something more to say about it.”
Bring on NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy. Bring on the Knicks.