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During game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, all the plaudits went to one man, Willis Reed, who despite playing for just 27 minutes inspired his team to a win by just being present on the roster. The Knicks won the 113-99 to take their first title to New York. Willis Reed had suffered an injury in game 5 of the series and had missed game 6, and it was unclear whether he would play, until tipoff time when he emerged onto the court.
Buildup to the Willis Reed Game
Before 1970, the Boston Celtics had dominated the NBA, but their fortunes had changed due to the retirement of Bill Russell prior to the 1969/70 season. A host of teams were raring to take the perch vacated by the Celtics, with the Knicks and Lakers at the head of this bunch. The Knicks were in formidable form throughout the season, winning a franchise record 60 games in regular season. They eliminated the Baltimore Bullets in the Eastern Division Semifinals and the Bucks in the division finals.
The Lakers started the regular season with the hangover of losing the 1969 NBA Finals but recovered well to finish second in the Western Division. Their playoff prospects got a boost from the return of Wilt Chamberlain, who had missed most of the season through injury. They dispatched the Phoenix Suns in the division semifinals and the Atlanta Hawks in the division finals, to set up the NBA finals meet with the Knicks.
Going into game 1 of the series, the Knicks were favorites to win the title. They easily subdued the Lakers 124-112 with Reed scoring 37 points. The Lakers won game 2 105-103 but the Knicks returned to winning ways in game 3 with a 111-108 margin in overtime. In game 4 the Lakers battled to a 121-115 win to even the series. In the first quarter of game 5 at the Madison Square Garden, with the Knicks trailing 25-15, Reed received a pass on the foul line, and as he attempted to dribble around the covering Chamberlain, tripped and fell forward. He tore his hamstring and lay writhing in pain as the game continued around him. the injury put him out of the rest of that game but the Knicks went on to win 107-100. Reed would also miss game 6 and in his absence, the Lakers were able to win 135-113 to bring the series level again.
Game 7 was set for New York on May 8, 1970 with Reed still uncertain for the game. with the game about to kick off, the Knicks took the floor for the pregame warm up. Reed was nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile deep in the bowels of the building, the lanky center was receiving the full attention of the team doctors. Compression packs had failed to relieve the pain and with the team’s management desperate for Reed to make an appearance even if for just 20 minutes, they resorted to painkilling injections.
How the Willis Reed Game Unfolded
With barely minutes to tipoff, Reed strode on the floor, to an immense roar from the home crowd. The Lakers, who had perhaps drawn their battle plan expecting Reed to sit out the game, stopped their warm-up to watch as Reed took some practice shots. He was at the circle to tip off against Chamberlain and he scored the Knicks’ first two baskets, while also providing excellent defensive cover. He stuck close to Chamberlain and harassed him into shooting an uncharacteristic 2-for-9.
By halftime, the Knicks were leading 61-37, and Reed took a rest for the rest of the game. The game ended 113-99 in favor of the Knicks. In Reed’s absence, Walt Frazier had taken over the mantle, registering 36 points and 19 assists. The franchise’s first ever championship was in the bag. Despite only registering 4 points in the game, the psychological lift that the Knicks Captain’s appearance had on the team was enough to cement his case for NBA Finals MVP.
Aftermath of the Willis Reed Game
In 1972, with Reed only managing 11 games the whole season, the Knicks and the Lakers met in the NBA Finals again. The Lakers managed to exert revenge for the 1970 upset. The Knicks would once again make amends in the 1973 finals, beating none other than the Lakers in five games. Reed was named Finals MVP but he would only make one more season as he decided to retire due to persistent injury problems. In 2010, ESPN named the Willis Reed game to be the greatest ever NBA Finals game 7 of all time.