The NBA went from an unwieldy 17-team league to a more manageable 11 teams in two divisions, with Minneapolis, Rochester and Fort Wayne reverting to the Western Division. The Eastern Division began the season with six teams, but Washington, which had lost Coach Red Auerbach a year earlier, disbanded after going 10-25. The league also held its first All-Star Game on March 2, 1951, where the East defeated the West 111-94 at Boston Garden.
The season also marked the first appearance of black players in the league. Chuck Cooper became the first black player to be drafted when he was chosen by Boston; Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first to sign an NBA contract when he signed with New York, and Earl Lloyd became the first to play in an NBA regular-season game because the schedule had his Washington team opening one day before the others.
Philadelphia won the East by 2½ games, while Minneapolis bested Rochester by three games in the West. The season also was marked by what remains as the lowest-scoring game in the history of the league, a 19-18 win by Fort Wayne over Minneapolis. The game featured eight made baskets — four by each team.
The playoffs were a different story, however. New York blitzed Boston and barely edged Syracuse to reach the Finals, while Rochester, behind 6-foot-9 Arnie Risen and backcourt star Bob Davies, defeated Fort Wayne and finally overcame Minneapolis to meet the Knicks in The Finals.
When Rochester took the first three games of the 1951 Finals, a quick knockout of New York seemed in order. But the Knicks stormed back, winning three games by margins of six, three and seven points to send the series to a seventh and deciding game in Rochester.
The Royals led by as many as 16 points during the first half, but the Knicks battled back to take a two-point lead with two minutes to go. With 40 seconds left and the score tied, Davies was fouled on a drive to the basket and sank two free throws. The Royals hung on for a 79-75 victory, and temporarily interrupted the Minneapolis dynasty.
The jump shot, first popularized by Joe Fulks, was becoming more prevalent in the game, and its effectiveness was underlined as Philadelphia’s Paul Arizin, a young forward from Villanova, wrested the league scoring title from George Mikan with 25.4 ppg and led the league in field goal percentage (.448).
Also, the lane was widened from six to 12 feet in an attempt to cut down the big man’s dominance. But while the jump shot was advancing the game, some of the game’s rules were holding it back. The absence of a shot clock led to stalling tactics once a team gained a comfortable lead — and relief, in the form of a shot clock, was still three years away.
Mikan had healed from an ankle that had been fractured the year before, only to find a new challenge in the newly widened lane. Rather than let it bother him, he used it to his advantage.
“Actually, it opened up the lane and made it more difficult for them to defense me,” Mikan said. “Opposing teams couldn’t deter our cutters going through the lane. It moved me out and gave me more shot selection instead of just short pivots and hooks. I was able to dribble across the lane and use a lot more freedom setting my shot up.”
The effects of a point-shaving scandal that rocked college hoops in 1951 was also felt in the NBA. Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, two stars on the Indianapolis Olympians, were implicated for misdeeds while at Kentucky and banned from the NBA.
Meanwhile, for the first time in several years, all 10 NBA teams played 66 games, and all 10 teams that started the season finished it. The NBA was mining the best college talent, with Mikan, Arizin, Ed Macauley, and Bob Cousy all making the All-NBA First Team, with the fifth spot shared by Bob Davies and Dolph Schayes. For the second straight season, New York overcame a third-place finish to reach The Finals. In the West, Minneapolis reasserted itself by defeating Rochester to reach The Finals.
Another seven-game NBA Finals resulted, and the Lakers put the home-court advantage to good use, winning Game 7 easily, 82-65. It was the second straight year that the Knicks lost in The Finals in seven games.