After losing in the 1953 NBA Finals, the Knicks struggled throughout the ’60s before returning to playoff contention in 1969 thanks to the arrival of defensive stalwart Dave DeBusschere. The team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the following season saw them win a franchise-best 60 games, including an 18-game winning streak — earning center Willis Reed the league MVP award. In the playoffs,the Knicks first defeated the Baltimore Bullets in a first-round that saw the home team win every game, and in the Eastern Conference Finals New York defeated the upstart Milwaukee Bucks in five games to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1953.
Known around the league as the lovable losers, the Lakers had lost six times in the NBA Finals in the ’60s when they started the 1970 season. Led by scoring champion Jerry West, they won 46 games in the regular season, good enough for the second seed in the west. In the playoffs, Los Angeles was forced to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to overcome the Phoenix Suns in the first round. In the Western Conference Finals the Lakers swept the Atlanta Hawks, clinching their third straight appearance in the NBA Finals and looking to win their first title since moving from Minneapolis, although they were considered the underdog to New York.
The Knicks starting backcourt consisted of Walt “Clyde” Frazier at point guard next to Dick Barnett at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, Bill Bradley started at small forward alongside Dave DeBusschere at power forward and league MVP Willis Reed at center in the middle.
Off the bench, Mike Riordan served as the primary backup at guard, while Cazzie Russell and Dave Stallworth functioned as the backup forwards. Players to see few minutes in the NBA Finals include Nate Bowman, Bill Hosket, and John Warren.
For Los Angeles, Jerry West was the starting point guard in the backcourt next to Dick Garrett at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, Keith Erickson started at small forward next to power forward Elgin Baylor and four-time league MVP Wilt Chamberlain at center in the middle.
Off the bench, the Lakers utilized Johnny Egan as the primary backup at guard, and Happy Hairston served as the third big man on the roster. Players to see limited minutes in the NBA Finals include John Tresvant, Mel Counts, Rick Roberson, Mike Lynn, and Willie McCarter.
Game One: Lakers 112, Knicks 124
The Knicks built a large first half lead but had to rally in the fourth after letting the Lakers back into the game in the third quarter. Reed exploded for 37 points to go along with DeBusschere and Riordan’s 19 points apiece. West struggled from the field en route to 33 points, but Los Angeles fell behind 1-0.
Game Two: Lakers 105, Knicks 103
The Lakers evened the series after a back-and-forth affair. A jumper from Garrett proved to be the difference maker while West led Los Angeles with 34 points. Reed poured in 29 points to lead the Knicks, but the series was now tied at one game apiece as it headed west to Los Angeles.
Game Three: Knicks 111, Lakers 108 (OT)
The Knicks had to rally in the second half after falling behind early. With three seconds left, DeBusschere hit a shot to give New York a two point lead. As time expired, West hit an impossible 60-foot shot to force overtime, where the Knicks prevailed. Reed erupted again with 38 points to lead New York to a 2-1 series lead.
Game Four: Knicks 115, Lakers 121 (OT)
For the second straight game overtime was needed to determine a winner. The Lakers avoided a dreaded 3-1 series lead behind 67 points combined between West and Baylor. Reed scored a relatively tame 23 points as Los Angeles tied the series again.
Game Five: Lakers 100, Knicks 107
The Lakers again led early, but New York’s defense was the catalyst in the second half, forcing 30 turnovers. Willis Reed left due to injury in the first quarter, but a balanced scoring effort saw six different Knicks score in double figures. Baylor, Chamberlain, and West combined for 63 points, but Los Angeles trailed again 3-2.
Game Six: Knicks 113, Lakers 135
Los Angeles tied the series up again after a gargantuan 45 points from Chamberlain and 33 points from West. The Lakers were able to build a 20-point lead after the first quarter and cruised to the home victory. Without Reed, the Knicks were unable to withstand Wilt’s onslaught, and the series turned back to New York for a decisive game seven.
Game Seven: Lakers 99, Knicks 113
Despite playing injured, Willis Reed hit his first two shots from the field, igniting the Madison Square Garden crowd. The Knicks demolished the Lakers in the critical game seven, building a 27-point lead by halftime and cruising to their first championship. Reed only scored four points but proved to be inspirational for playing injured, and Frazier played a great game with 36 points and 19 assists.
For his dominant play early in the series, Willis Reed was named Finals MVP. The Knicks were upset by the Baltimore Bullets in 1971, ending their dreams of a repeat championship, but the team would return to the NBA Finals in 1972, their second appearance in the championship series in three years.
The Lakers were devastated again after losing a seven-game championship series for the second year in a row. In 1971, the team would lose to young Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Western Conference Finals, but Los Angeles would reach the NBA Finals again a year later in 1972 after winning 69 regular season games.