For fast-food and fast-break freaks alike, last week's NBA qualifying series between Buffalo and Philadelphia was made in Hamburger Heaven. Big Mac vs. Big Mac, Bob McAdoo of the Braves vs. George McGinnis of the 76ers—a confrontation people could sink their teeth into.
Strategies did not allow the lean Buffalo center and the muscular Philadelphia forward to confront each other often, the two of them scoring, rebounding and intimidating like circus stars in separate rings. Still, it was the success and failure of each that dictated the success and failure of their respective teams, and in the final game of the best-of-three series McAdoo and his Braves prevailed in overtime 124-123.
Buffalo and Philadelphia came into the playoffs as closely matched as twins, from their identical 46-36 records, which put them in a second-place tie behind Boston in the Atlantic Division, to their shared defense-be-damned style of play. And although the 76ers had won four of the seven regular-season games, no one was saying they were superior. "We're equal," said Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue. "Neither of us has a real advantage over the other." Even the intangibles seemed to balance out, since the Braves had the playoff experience, the 76ers the advantage of two games at home.
This was Buffalo's third straight postseason appearance and Philadelphia's first since 1971. "It's important to know how to prepare yourself mentally," said 76er Guard Doug Collins. Reassuring advice was hard to find, though. Brave Forward Jim McMillian, a veteran of five playoffs and an NBA championship with Los Angeles, admitted, "After all these years I still feel the pressure. Mentally it kills you. And even if you win, you can't enjoy it while you're out on the court."
April 25, 1976
Philadelphia's edge was supposed to be its superior play at the Spectrum, where it finished 34-7, compared to 12-29 on the road. Buffalo hoped to counter with a barometer of another sort: home or away, it had won 21 of the 24 games in which McMillian scored 20 or more points.
Everyone knew, of course, that the most important factors would be the number of points McAdoo and McGinnis scored. While a big game by either did not guarantee a victory, a poor one all but assured a loss. "If I don't play well, we won't win," said McAdoo, who averaged 31.1 points in capturing his third straight scoring championship. McGinnis, who averaged 23 in his first NBA season following four years in the ABA, echoed McAdoo. "When I'm not going right, everybody stands around and waits."
Buffalo's 95-89 victory on Thursday night in the Spectrum seemed to reflect these indices. The Braves won because McAdoo was brilliant (36 points, 21 rebounds and four blocked shots) and McMillian outstanding (23 points). The 76ers lost because McGinnis was held to four points in the second half and 20 overall. Philadelphia's home-court advantage became meaningless when several players, notably Collins and Center Harvey Catchings, developed playoff nerves.
Following McGinnis' opening basket the Braves never trailed by more than a point. And they allowed only one 76er, Guard Fred Carter, to surpass his season's average with 30 points. But like McGinnis, Carter was not a factor in the last 15 minutes.
McGinnis claimed personal responsibility for the loss. His showing had nothing to do with defender John Shumate, he said. "I just lost my rhythm when Carter got hot. I can go around Shumate when I want to and I can shoot over him when I want to." Indeed, this was true. On one baseline drive early in the first quarter McGinnis twisted past Shumate into the open and drew a roar from the crowd as he leaped to shoot. The shot, unfortunately, sailed over the backboard.
McGinnis was undaunted. "I'm not disturbed, I'm not upset and I'm not going to lose any sleep," he promised. "We will all play better in Buffalo. I just hope everybody is as confident as me." McAdoo, meanwhile, worriedly reminded himself of last year's playoff against Washington, when the Braves won the opener on the road, only to lose the next game at home. "We can't let that happen again," he said. "It would be bringing them back to life."
Philadelphia was not about to give up without a fight, though. On Friday, before leaving for Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium, Carter and Collins mugged a 5-foot-tall stuffed Easter bunny standing peacefully in the motel lobby. First Carter, who is not called Mad Dog for nothing, punched it in the head, twisted its arm and bent its ears. Then the other perpetrator, Collins, put a head lock on it. To his credit, the rabbit never said a word.
But those rabbit punches were nothing compared to the beating the 76ers gave to the Braves. They went ahead to stay midway through the first period, built a 15-point halftime lead, withstood a second-half rally which cut the margin to six and finally won 131-106. "We played absolutely super," said Shue. "It was our best game of the year." Buffalo Coach Jack Ramsay praised Philadelphia's "aggressiveness in every department," which was especially appropriate since bunny muggers Carter and Collins scored 22 and 20 points apiece.
McGinnis and McAdoo reversed their roles of the previous night, George scoring 34 points and Bob shooting poorly for 21. On one of the rare occasions they played head on, McGinnis faked right once, faked right twice and then canned a 20-foot in-your-face jumper. "Bob didn't play very well," said McGinnis. Bob agreed. But even he did not feel as badly as Shumate, who was in the hospital with a mild concussion following a fall in the fourth quarter.
Consecutive wins by the visiting teams seemed to defuse the theory of home-court superiority. The best explanation was offered by 76er veteran Billy Cunningham, who has been out with a knee injury since December. "When you know you are playing the same team for several games in a row, you can concentrate more," he said. "It's not like playing a different team in a different arena every night. You always work harder in the playoffs, anyway."
Even though the final game was the roughest, most exciting and best played of the series, it had much in common with the opener. The home team lost. McAdoo had 34 points and 22 rebounds. McMillian scored 25. McGinnis, who fouled out late in the fourth quarter, slumped to 15. But other players made significant contributions. Randy Smith scored 27 for the Braves and Shumate, playing with a four-stitch cut over his eye after a night in the hospital, put in 23. Buffalo's Kenny Charles contributed only eight points, but two of them were free throws, which put the game away in overtime.
Despite McGinnis' weak showing, Philadelphia might easily have won. The 76ers dominated the first half with superior shooting, rebounding and physical play. Ramsay tried one lineup combination after another to keep his team close—and to keep his job, which is said to be in danger—but still the Braves trailed 64-55.
Buffalo roared back in the third quarter when McAdoo regained his shooting touch and Philadelphia lost its cohesiveness. The Braves took a seven-point lead in the fourth period when Shumate powered inside for 11 points. The 76ers had one last surge, however, good enough to give them a two-point lead with six seconds left in regulation play.
The Braves asked McAdoo for the tying points, which is just what they have been doing for several seasons now. He took the inbounds pass, drove to the basket, missed, rebounded amidst a collection of bodies and, in a controversial call, was fouled by Clyde Lee. Then he calmly sent the game into overtime by sinking both free throws, even while a fan shook the basket support.
Philadelphia never led in overtime. Buffalo won it on foul shots, the Braves scoring seven of the 36 points they got from the line.
Even in defeat McGinnis remained something of an optimist. "There's always a tomorrow," he said.
Well, not really. Tomorrow for George McGinnis will be several months from now. It is Buffalo which advances into the best-of-seven series against the Celtics, which means going into Boston Garden, where all those championship pennants hang from the rafters and where such local legends as John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White stand ready to defend the Celtic tradition. The Braves will have to play four of the seven games there, assuming the series goes that far, and chances are that before it is over, they'll wish they were back in Philadelphia again.