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On This Date in Sports May 8, 1970: Willis Reed Inspires the Knicks

in collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

 

Willis Reed, who missed Game 6 of the NBA Finals, hobbles on to the court before Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Reed’s presence in a New York Knicks nearly caused fans to blow off the roof of the Garden, as he scored the first two baskets of the game. Those baskets would fire up the Knicks and psych out the Los Angeles Lakers. The Knicks would win the game and the championship 113-99.

It had been a magical season for the New York Knicks, who were a founding member of the NBA and won their first championship in 1970. The team got off to a fast start, winning 23 of their first 24 games, including a then NBA record 18 game winning streak. Despite some struggles down the stretch, the Knicks finished the season with the best record in the NBA at 60-22 as Willis Reed was named NBA MVP. 

The Los Angeles Lakers began the season with a new coach as Joe Mullaney replaced Butch van Breda Koff after they lost Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. The Lakers had gotten used to losing in the NBA Finals as they lost to the Celtics six times in eight years between 1962-1969. The Lakers finished second in the Western Division with a record of 46-36. On their way the finals, the Lakers survived a first-round scare against the second-year Phoenix Suns, winning in seven games as they became the first team in NBA history to rally from down 3-1 in playoff series. The Lakers would carry the momentum as they swept the Atlanta Hawks to reach the NBA Finals. 

The Knicks were also tested early in the playoffs as they needed seven games to take out the Baltimore Bullets. In the Eastern Division Finals, they faced Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, winning in five games. It was the fourth time the Knicks reached the NBA Finals, having lost three straight NBA Finals appearances from 1951-1953. 

The NBA Finals began at Madison Square Garden, with the Knicks beating the Lakers 124-112 as Willis Reed led the way with 37 points and 17 rebounds, while Dave DeBusschere and Mike Riordan each scored 19. Leading the way for Los Angeles was Jerry West, who had 33 points, while Wilt Chamberlain had 17 points and 24 boards, and Elgin Baylor had 21 points and 20 boards. In Game 2, the Lakers evened the series with a 104-102 win as Jerry West had a game-high 34 points, with Chamberlain again having 24 rebounds. 

At the Forum, Game 3 turned into an instant classic as the Knicks and Lakers staged a dramatic back and forth battle. The Knicks appeared to have game won when DeBusschere gave New York a 102-100 lead with three seconds left. The Lakers though, sent the game to overtime when Jerry West threw up a prayer from center court at the buzzer. Had the three-point shot existed, the Lakers would have won. Instead, the Knicks regrouped and won in overtime 111-108 as Willis Reed led the way with 37 points and 17 rebounds, while Dave DeBusschere had 21 points and 15 boards. West ended the game with 34 points to lead the way for LA. Game 4 would also go to overtime, with the Lakers winning 121-115 to square the series at two games apiece. Jerry West was the high man for the Lakers with 37 points as Baylor added 30. The Knicks, meanwhile, were led by Dick Barrett’s 29; he was among three Knicks to score 20 or more. 

Back in New York for Game 5, the Knicks championship hopes took a severe blow when Willis Reed suffered a thigh injury. The Knicks MVP played just eight minutes, scoring seven points. However, the rest of the team rallied behind Reed as Walt Frazier scored 21 and Cazzie Russell scored 20 to lead the way, while Dick Barnett and Bill Bradley each scored 16 points to lead the Knicks to a 107-100 win, using strong defense to keep the high scoring Lakers stars in check. Willis Reed was unable to play in Game 6, and Lakers dominated at the Forum, winning 135-113 as Wilt Chamberlain free to roam the middle scored 45 points with 27 rebounds.

The drama was set at Madison Square Garden on a Friday Night. Heading into Game 7, the question was, will he or won't he as fans of the Knicks awaited a decision on the playing status of Willis Reed. The injury was severe, a torn thigh muscle, but with the championship on the line, he wanted to try and play in the game. No decision was announced until Willis Reed came out during warm-ups and made a layup to electrify the crowd. When the ball was tipped, Reed scored the game’s first four points, nearly blowing the roof of the Garden. It would be the only points that Willis Reed scored in 27 minutes, but the Knickers were fired up and inspired while the Lakers were psyched out. Walt Frazier had a game-high 36 points for the Knicks adding 19 assists, as Barnett had 21, DeBusschere had 18, and Bill Bradley had 17 points. The Knicks would build a 69-42 lead at the half and never trailed as they won the game 113-99. For his inspirational performance, Willis Reed was named NBA Finals MVP.