With the aging Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, the 1972 Lakers were expected to be a rebuilding team. After a 6-3 start, Baylor retired, but the team embarked on a 33-game winning streak that remains the longest in NBA history. The team ran away with the best record in the league at 69-13. In the playoffs, the Lakers easily swept the Chicago Bulls in the first round to reach the Western Conference Finals. Facing the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles dropped the opener but won a close game two to tie the series. The Lakers then won three of the next four games to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth time in the last five years — still looking to win their first title since moving to L.A.
After winning the championship in 1970, the Knicks were shocked in the playoffs in 1971 by the Baltimore Bullets, ending their hopes of back-to-back titles. The team traded for flashy guard Earl Monroe early in the 1972 season, and New York won 48 games in the regular season, good enough for second in the Atlantic Division. In the playoffs, the Knicks fell behind the Bullets 2-1 before winning three straight to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Looking to earn their way back to the NBA Finals, New York easily dispatched the Boston Celtics in five games to reach the championship series for the second time in three years.
The Lakers started a sharp-shooting backcourt of Jerry West at point guard and Gail Goodrich at shooting guard. The frontcourt consisted of Jim McMillian at small forward, next to Happy Hairston at power forward, and four-time league MVP Wilt Chamberlain played the role of center.
Pat Riley served as the first guard off a short bench, and Leroy Ellis filled in as a third big man on the roster. Players to see little time in the NBA Finals included Flynn Robinson, John Trapp, and Jim Cleamons.
The Knicks starting backcourt was comprised of Walt Frazier at point guard next to Earl Monroe at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, Bill Bradley played small forward next to power forward Dave DeBusschere, and Jerry Lucas played center in place of the injured Willis Reed.
Off the bench, Dean Meminger served as the first guard, and Dick Barnett saw time as a fourth backcourt player. Phil Jackson played the role of third big man on the roster, and players to rarely see time included Eddie Mast, Eddie Miles, Luther Rackley, and Charlie Paulk.
Game One: Knicks 114, Lakers 92
The Knicks came out hot, making 16 of their first 20 shots, and they coasted to an easy game one victory that came as a shocker against the favored Lakers. Bradley and Lucas combined for 55 points, and Frazier delivered a triple-double. Los Angeles struggled from the field as they fell behind 1-0.
Game Two: Knicks 92, Lakers 106
Los Angeles used a big third quarter to pull away in what was an early close game. Goodrich tallied 31 points, Chamberlain had 23 points and 24 rebounds, and West chipped in a double-double of his own. Frazier was the high-scoring Knick with 21 points, but the series was now tied headed back to New York.
Game Three: Lakers 107, Knicks 96
New York led early after the first quarter, but the Lakers defense cracked down on the Knicks and allowed Los Angeles to claim the lead as they coasted in the fourth quarter. Chamberlain, West, and Goodrich combined for 72 points as the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead, offsetting Frazier and Lucas’ combined 48.
Game Four: Lakers 116, Knicks 111 (OT)
The pivotal game four went to overtime after Frazier tipped in a basket with three seconds left in the fourth. The Lakers prevailed in the extra period, establishing a commanding 3-1 series lead. West scored 28 points to lead all scorers, and Goodrich had 27 of his own. Bradley, Lucas, and Frazier combined for 75 points, but the Knicks now faced elimination with the series headed back to Los Angeles.
Game Five: Knicks 100, Lakers 114
The Knicks responded to an early charge by the Lakers, and the first three quarters saw many lead changes before Los Angeles seized control in the second half. Four Lakers scored at least 20 points as the team clinched their first championship since moving from Minneapolis. Frazier was magnificent but his 31 points came in a losing effort for New York.
For his dominating play inside, Wilt Chamberlain was named Finals MVP. The Lakers returned a year later looking to repeat as champions, and they stormed through the west with 60 wins. After playoff wins against the Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors, they found themselves in the NBA Finals for a second straight year.
Willis Reed returned from injury in 1973, and the Knicks won 57 games in the regular season, good enough for second in the east. New York easily defeated the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs before outlasting the 68-win Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, setting up an NBA Finals rematch with the Lakers.