The Knicks were shorthanded when they lost the 1972 NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, and they returned a year later with vengeance in mind. Though the team reeled off 57 regular season wins, they still only finished in second as the Boston Celtics dominated the league en route to 68 wins. In the playoffs, the Knicks easily dispatched the Baltimore Bullets in five games to set up an Eastern Conference Finals match-up with the Celtics. Boston won game one by 26 points, but New York won the next three to grab a commanding 3-1 series lead. After two Celtics victories, the Knicks were forced to win game seven at the Boston Garden to advance to their third NBA Finals in four years.
Coming off their championship in 1972 — their first since moving to Los Angeles — the Lakers were looking to win back-to-back titles. In 1973 they won 60 games in the regular season, a tie with Milwaukee for the best in the west. By virtue of a tiebreaker, the Bucks earned the number one seed, and the Lakers had to withstand the Chicago Bulls in a seven-game first round series. In the Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles faced the Golden State Warriors, fresh off of an upset over the Bucks. the Lakers easily beat the Warriors in five games to advance to the 1973 NBA Finals, their fifth appearance in six seasons.
The Knicks starting backcourt was comprised of Walt “Clyde” Frazier at point guard alongside Earl “The Pearl” Monroe at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, New York employed Bill Bradley at small forward next to Dave DeBusschere at power forward and former MVP Willis Reed at center.
Off the bench, Dean Meminger served as the Knicks’ primary backup at guard, and Phil Jackson and Jerry Lucas played the role of backup big men, spelling DeBusschere and Reed. Dick Barnett and John Gianelli rarely played in the NBA Finals.
Los Angeles utilized a backcourt of Jerry West at point guard next to Gail Goodrich at shooting guard. Jim McMillian played small forward in the frontcourt alongside Bill Bridges at power forward and reigning Finals MVP and four-time regular season MVP Wilt Chamberlain at center.
For the Lakers, Keith Erickson played the role of primary backup at guard, while Mel Counts provided depth in the frontcourt as a third big man. Happy Hairston and Pat Riley played little in the NBA Finals.
Game One: Lakers 115, Knicks 112
The Lakers jumped out early and led by ten at the half, and they built their lead up to 20 late in the third before Jerry West picked up his fifth foul and had to go to the bench. The Knicks closed the gap in the final period to within three, but Los Angeles withstood the charge and won the opener by a trey. Goodrich, McMillian, and West combined for 81 points to counter New York’s balanced scoring.
Game Two: Lakers 95, Knicks 99
The Knicks led wire-to-wire in game two, but they were never quite able to extend their lead. Bradley led the team in scoring with 26 points, supported by Frazier’s 20 and Monroe’s 14. West poured in 32 points of his own but had little support as McMillian and Goodrich both struggled from the field, and the Knicks tied up the series at 1-1.
Game Three: Knicks 87, Lakers 83
The Lakers led early before the Knicks stole the lead in the third with a 15-2 run. Los Angeles held tight and closed to within a basket late in the game, but they would not score again. Reed, Monroe, and Frazier combined to score 57 points, and the Lakers struggled from the field in game three as New York now held a 2-1 series lead and took back homecourt advantage.
Game Four: Knicks 103, Lakers 98
The Knicks built an early lead but struggled to put the Lakers away in a pivotal game four match-up. Poor offensive production allowed Los Angeles back in the game late, but the Lakers could not tie the game despite closing to within two. DeBusschere erupted for 33 points to lead New York and offset West and Goodrich’s combined 46.
Game Five: Lakers 93, Knicks 102
A back-and-forth affair saw the Knicks take the early lead, only for the Lakers to respond and claim the lead at the half. In the third, the Knicks poured in 32 points to re-establish their lead, and they fended off a final charge in the fourth to clinch their second championship in franchise history. Four players scored at least 18 points for New York. Chamberlain tallied 23 points and 21 rebounds in the final game of his career.
For his consistent play in the series, Willis Reed was named Finals MVP. The old Knicks team would fade in the coming years, however, and it would be 12 years before they found a new franchise center in 1985 with Patrick Ewing, although it wouldn’t be until 1994 that New York appeared in the NBA Finals again.
With Chamberlain’s departure, the Lakers had a gaping hole at center. They traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, but Los Angeles repeatedly came up short in the playoffs until they drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson in 1979. The Lakers reached the NBA Finals in Johnson’s rookie season of 1980.