Well, here it is April already and nobody in the National Basketball Association has strangled, stabbed, tortured, chain-sawed or shot anybody else. Not even a teammate. Such inactivity has not necessarily made this a dull season, merely slightly disappointing. Just remember how much we were promised.
All season long—from merger pangs to the referee strike last Sunday—the NBA has seemed to be a bubbling volcano ready to explode. It looked like there would be all kinds of nasty stuff this year. Julius Erving and George McGinnis slashing the tires of each other's Mercedes as the 76ers went slouching toward Bethlehem (Pa.). Jerry West and Jack Kent Cooke dictating subpoenas in a divorce action as the Lakers slid into the San Andreas fault. The Detroit Pistons immolating themselves in protest over...over having to play in Detroit...with each other. Instead, all the NBA offered in extracurriculars was the usual greed, jealousy and petty bickering among soul mates, most of which we can get enough of under our own roofs.
Shortly before the end of the season, for instance, Detroit's Marvin (Sad News) Barnes let the Pistons know that, given a choice, he'd just as soon skip the playoffs, not pass Go and go directly to Jail to serve his sentence for violating his probation. This was not meant to be particularly funny.
On the other hand, the fact that under the new playoff system the NBA completed 902 games to eliminate 10 of its 22 teams from contention for the league's 31st championship was not meant to be absurd either.
April 18, 1977
The merger created a deep talent pool out of which PT (playing time, to you non-participants) became a cherished commodity. The fact that there was not enough PT to go around caused more than the usual intrateam strife, not to mention individual frustration. Philadelphia and Detroit, the two most talented clubs in the league, were torn by dissension. Fights broke out among players in all four divisions. In what is believed to be a first, even for the NBA, radio announcers Terry Stembridge of San Antonio and Johnny Most of Boston almost came to blows over a controversial interview.
But the wedding of the NBA and the late, great ABA also produced as evenly matched a league as pro sports has witnessed in some time. Six teams won 48 games or more. Nine others won at least 40. Through the season's final games the playoff participants were still grappling for home court advantages and positions in the four first-round mini-series that began this week.
As a result of all this balance there is a rumor around that any one of eight teams can win the championship. This is nonsense. In reality, nobody can win. Of the four division leaders Houston is too slow, Denver too sissy, Los Angeles too dependent on the sky hook and the 76ers too preoccupied with being hateful to one another.
Be that as it may, the Eastern and Western conference representatives can be broken down into favorites, dark horse, no chance.
EAST. Favorites: Philadelphia, Washington, Boston. Dark Horse: San Antonio. No Chance: Houston, Cleveland.
WEST. Favorites: Los Angeles, Portland, Denver. Dark Horse: Golden State. No Chance: Chicago, Detroit.
But as often happens in pro basketball, the luck of the draw is half the battle. Last spring, to take one instance, every single round worked to the Boston Celtics' advantage in their drive to the title. Because of styles and jinxes and psychology, just to mention but a few factors, the Celtics wanted to face Buffalo instead of Philly, Cleveland rather than Washington and Phoenix rather than Golden State. And voil√†! They got them all and, after that, the championship.
Last week the embattled defenders got back Charlie Scott from the injured list where he had spent 38 games with a fractured left forearm. With John Havlicek inventing a marvelous year (at age 37, he averaged 37 minutes and 17.6 points a game); with the prodigal pivot, Dave Cowens, working himself into shape; and with the two newcomers, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, now solidly (?) converted to "Celtic pride," Boston overtook Cleveland and thus forced the Cavaliers to contend with dangerous Washington in the first round.
Having added backcourt leader Tom Henderson at midseason in a deal that turned the team around, Washington can run with anybody including, specifically, Cleveland. Using Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and rookie Mitch Kupchak, the Bullets can muscle underneath with most teams as well. Certainly they should avenge last year's playoff upset loss to the Cavaliers, who seemed to peak in October (a bad time to peak unless you're Johnny Bench), then lost their soul when Nate Thurmond damaged a knee.
A quick knockout here might propel the Bullets a long way. Or at least to Texas, where the Houston Rockets' too tall trio of 7' Kevin Kunnert, 6'8" Rudy Tomjanovich and 6'10" Moses Malone lies in ambush. The vastly improved Rockets, once the worst defensive team in the pros, are now the seventh best. They outrebounded opponents by seven a game, and Malone set an NBA record for offensive rebounds with 437. Houston emerged as the winner of the best-balanced division, the Central, by one game. But Coach Tom Nissalke admits "we have serious weaknesses. Anytime we face a team with speed, we're in trouble."
On the other hand, Malone and little Calvin Murphy are quick enough to embarrass the Bullets' Unseld and rookie Guard Larry Wright. But again, Nissalke says, "I'm just not sure we're as deep as Washington is." The Rockets aren't.
A Washington victory is expected. And yet...Hayes and Unseld have never performed exceptionally well in important playoff crunches (around the league this is called c-h-o-k-i-n-g) and Phil Chenier, the Bullets' outside threat, is too streaky.
The Celtics, meanwhile, will have to cope with San Antonio, the NBA's answer to Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch. The Spurs are capable of making the Celtics' blood run cold. "Those sum-bitches get started," says Jo Jo White, "you can be in hell."
Despite all the talk, San Antonio has yet to beat the Celtics this year, even in the havoc of the HemisFair Arena, where other teams may get the quivers but the sophisticated New Englanders keep their cool, even to the point of enjoying the whanging of electric guitars.
The Spurs seem incapable of guarding anything that has a tendency to move. George (Ice) Gervin describes his defense this way: "I put my hand in Havlicek's face. If he can shoot over a picket fence, he deserves what he gets." Yet because of their massive firepower—are 200 points in one game impossible?—the Spurs are the scariest team in the tournament.
No one is more aware of this than the Philadelphia 76ers, whom San Antonio has defeated three games out of four. "Playing at their gym is like being in a zoo," says Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams. "We have no control of the game."
"Who would I like to play?" asks 76er Coach Gene Shue. "Not them."
Nor probably Boston. But Philly will have to face the rages of one or the other. "Celtic mystique will not affect our team," says Shue. Defense might, however. Cowens destroys the Philadelphia centers, Havlicek held Julius Erving to seven for 24 in their last meeting and George McGinnis, who should have a field day against non-defenders Rowe and Wicks, nevertheless has been under his average in three of the four Boston-Philly games. Still, Erving and McGinnis together averaged nearly 50 points a game down the stretch, and their history of ruling the ABA playoffs is a matter of impressive record.
Does this mean that the troubled 76er superstars will turn into monsters at the prospect of a championship ring? "I've never seen it happen," says Havlicek. "Everyone thought West and Wilt and Baylor were going to do that right away, but they didn't. There can always be a first, but I've never seen it."
A second-round loss to either Boston or San Antonio would mean financial disaster for Philadelphia, a tragic denouement to the team's late-season problems, which have included Turquoise Erving's article blasting 76er players and management for everything from selfishness to bad seats for players' wives. "No one respects Shue," she wrote. "If we lost I wouldn't shed a tear."
Shue's unhappy thrillionaires should advance to the NBA finals on raw skill alone, but if they don't there won't be a wet eye in the house.
Such is not the case in the Western Conference playoffs, which will feature more sentimental favorites than a Bette Davis testimonial. For devotees of the fairy tale, there are the Los Angeles Lakers; for supporters of the oppressed minority, the Denver Nuggets; for fans of midwestern-heartland comebacks, the Chicago Bulls; for lovers of the fallen dynasty, the Golden State Warriors. And if you favor redheaded centers who rebound with fury and subsist on granola, there are the Portland Trail Blazers.
Ironically, a famous greeting from an old Davis movie—"Ah'd love to kiss you but ah just washed mah hair. Bye!"—might have served as Portland's theme after Bill Walton had cleaned up his act and was leading the vaunted Blazer running game past everybody. Then the Mountain Man was struck down by injuries, causing him to miss 17 games. Of those 17 the Blazers lost 12. Is it revealing enough that Portland's record with Walton (44-21) projected over the entire season would be the league's best; their projected record without him, the league's second worst.
Inasmuch as Detroit held off Chicago's furious late-season charge, Portland must face the coal-hot Bulls in the first round. Artis Gilmore, Norm Van Lier and their Chicago friends scorched the league by winning 20 of their final 24 games, but they were unable to whip Portland all year—even though the Blazers twice faced them without Walton. Chicago's gravest problem is matching up with the power forward of the year, Maurice Lucas, of whom former 76er (and current Milwaukee Buck) Mad Dog Carter says, "Lucas treats George McGinnis like a little boy." Now that the games really count, Lucas may treat the Bulls like little calves.
In a more fascinating mini-series, Detroit takes on the enigmas of the day, the Golden State Warriors, in a confrontation that could turn on just how well Bob Lanier's right hand holds up, not to mention how motivated Rick Barry decides to be.
At this time a year ago, the Warriors were pro basketball's best team. Now, with the same crew strengthened by a fine rookie center, Robert Parish, they are the most puzzling, one night scoring 150 points in a game, another night scoring eight in a quarter. Phil Smith often hogs the ball. Jamaal Wilkes has talked of quitting the game. The team misses a consistent playmaking guard and its record of 0-15 in games in which it scored less than 100 points reveals serious defensive shortcomings. Nonetheless, Barry proved he is still the game's best all-round forward during his battles against Philadelphia. When he is not pouting, Barry is magnificent enough to carry a team, even one lacking the cohesion and camaraderie that made it a champion two years ago.
Lanier helped Detroit defeat the Warriors three of four times, and now the big center is ready to play again despite the fact he broke his non-shooting hand only a month ago. But the Pistons often seem more interested in fighting among themselves than with opponents, and against such an unstable group as this it does not seem too late for Golden State to pick up its own pieces and nail the Pistons first thing out of the box.
This would set up Denver-Portland and Los Angeles-Golden State semifinals in the West and demonstrate the significance of the draw: the Nuggets can beat the Lakers but probably can't run or rebound with the Trail Blazers. Los Angeles thinks it has the Indian sign on Portland but probably does not against Golden State.
Denver went into its patented late-season tailspin even after the Nuggets had finally picked up some backcourt scoring so that David Thompson could move to forward. But they still looked tired and vulnerable toward the end when they played barely over .500. In addition, published reports had unnamed Nuggets criticizing Coach Larry Brown and accusing Center Dan Issel of a small heart. General Manager Carl Scheer threatened to give lie detector tests to his players, and Brown retreated into a shell.
The week off earned by a division winner will serve Denver well. "We're going back to training camp and put in some new stuff," said Brown.
The Nuggets always lost ABA playoffs because opponents roughed them up. Issel, backup Center Marvin Webster and muscleman Paul Silas must have exceptional playoffs to win. Unfortunately, Portland may be Denver's toughest match; Bobby Jones can't handle Lucas, and the Nuggets' overplaying defense gets burned by Dave Twardzik driving the middle and dishing off. Conversely, the Nuggets (especially Issel) have an easier time against the Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For that matter, so does Golden State's Barry, who put on one of his outrageous shooting shows the last time the Warriors played L.A., scoring 40 points in a 132-103 victory.
But nobody has taken the Lakers seriously from the beginning. Contrary to popular opinion, Coach Jerry West did not recruit his supporting cast backstage at Captain and Tennille. Cazzie Russell, Lucius+ Allen, Don Chaney and the rest have had exceptional seasons, especially since enforcer Kermit Washington ruined his knee in the team's 53rd game. All the Lakers did then was replace Washington with rookie Tom Abernethy and go on to win the most games in the NBA (53) and set a record for home court victories (37). Earlier West talked of his "misfits, rejects and castoffs." Last week he changed his tune. "This team has worked hard," he said. "It deserves to be where it is. We got the chemistry. If we play tough and smart, we'll be there."
The Lakers were so into their work they requested that management ditch the pregame organ music so that Russell could choreograph his own rock 'n' roll tapes, the better to disco dunk. "L.A.'s supposed to have blasé crowds," Cazzie said. "We want them jacked up and lost in the excitement."
Los Angeles may get hopelessly lost in the excitement of dealing with the Chicago slowdown and/ or the Denver passing game and/ or the Portland break and/ or Rick Barry, but it is difficult to imagine that Abdul-Jabbar, who is sure to be named MVP for the fifth time, will end his brilliant season on a downer, particularly with the home court advantage in every matchup.
Recently Kareem was asked why he was hanging on the rims during practice at the Forum. "Just working on some Abdul medicine," he said. Which might bear remembering in any playoff analysis.
The other day, on the opposite coast, the 76ers' Williams observed that his team was "unpredictable, but we could win it all going away with our manes flowing in the wind."
Besides the manes of young lions, Philadelphia also has a genuine physician, name of Dr. J. The question may well turn out to be, finally, does the Doctor actually have an antidote for the strong Abdul medicine?