Here were the Houston Rockets, coming off the finest season in their 10-year history, fresh from a surprising and confidence-raising victory over the Washington Bullets in the playoff semifinals, about to play the Philadelphia 76ers for the NBA's Eastern Division championship, progressing smoothly toward an improbable date with destiny in the NBA finals. And then, pow! The 76ers greeted them as if they had been a group of small-town choirboys who had somehow stumbled onto an inner-city playground.
As everyone knows by now, the 76ers make their own kind of music, while the Rockets can't dance when the tempo's too fast. Houston is a team of superior shooters and rebounders, quick, sure-handed guards—and lead-footed forwards. Moses Malone may be the best offensive rebounder in the game and a marvelous shot-blocker, but he guards people about as often as he speaks, and Rudy Tomjanovich could write a text on bank-shooting, but it would not include the word "defense." In the series against Philadelphia, these deficiencies were to plague the Rockets and prove particularly dismaying to Coach Tom Nissalke. The two Sixers whom Malone and Tomjanovich were to guard were George McGinnis and Julius Erving. "I'm afraid there is not a team we match up with worse," Nissalke warned, remembering that in the regular season the 76ers had a 3-1 record against the Rockets.
Thus, in Game One Houston failed to slow down the tempo, lost the boards (which it rarely did all season), conceded the outside shot and moved about like unguided missiles for three quarters while watching the 76ers win 128-117. Erving and McGinnis had 24 and 21 points respectively, 6'6" Guard Doug Collins used his three-inch advantage to burn rookie John Lucas for 23 points, and from the potent Philadelphia bench came Mr. Outside, Lloyd Free, with 18 and Mr. Inside, Darryl (Baby Gorilla) Dawkins, with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Only a 14-for-15 fourth-quarter shooting spree by the Rockets kept the score close.
"Frankly, it's a minor miracle that we've won as many games as we have," said Nissalke, who guided the Rockets to a 49-33 record in his first season as their coach.
It is a minor miracle and it was delivered in the person of Moses himself. Early in the season, the much-traveled Malone was taken in by Nissalke, who two years ago had coached him in his rookie season with the ABA Utah Stars. Once he found a home, the 23-year-old, 6'11" Malone made most of the difference on a team that finished a game below .500 a year ago. He averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds during the season, and 19.5 points, 17 rebounds and two blocked shots in the Washington series. Despite his lackadaisical defense on McGinnis, Malone singlehandedly saved the Rockets from total embarrassment in Game One with 32 points and 12 rebounds, snaking around and through bodies almost as he pleased.
From the 76ers' point of view, the beginning of the Houston series seemed like a recess, following as it did the grueling seven-game set they had just gone through against Boston. "That was our test," said McGinnis. "Boston could have had all five guys on crutches and we would have had to bust our butts to beat them. With Houston, well, first of all they have to stop us from running. And if they do, you get by Moses and there's no Dave Cowens there to help out. You've beaten their shot-blocker. Heck, this one should be easy."
And Game Two was hardly more difficult than the opener. With Nissalke starting Forward Eugene (Goo) Kennedy in an attempt to stop McGinnis, and moving Malone to center in place of Kevin Kunnert, the Rockets were at times able to control the tempo. But when they have a mind to, the Sixers can do things terribly quickly. After a poky start, they ran off 14 straight points and McGinnis finished the first quarter with 13 against Kennedy, Dwight Jones and, finally, Malone. Philadelphia coasted for a spell in the second period, then outscored Houston 21-7 in the blink of an eye to lead by 12 at halftime.
Houston was able to slow the pace again in the third period, while its two supershooters, Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy (on his way to a game-high 32 points), hit a combined 13 for 15, and with a quarter to go the Rockets trailed 80-77. Then along came Free, dropping in a 22-footer, Dawkins with a jumper and two shattering slam dunks, and a pair of jumpers by Erving, and the 76ers suddenly exploded an 86-83 lead to 100-85, disco-dancing away to a 106-97 win—with 21 points from McGinnis, 20 from Collins, 18 from Erving, 16 from Free and 13 from Dawkins.
Afterward the 76ers weren't even breathing hard, their ho-hum attitude suggesting a lurking overconfidence. Free laid that possibility to rest—sort of. "We were not overconfident against Boston," he said. "We are not overconfident against Houston, and we will not be overconfident in the finals."
Only eight weeks after the infamous "Black Sunday" when the season-long infighting among the 76ers came to a head with several players—notably Free and Dawkins—demanding to be traded and Coach Gene Shue laying a gag order on everybody, the Sixers are now cooing about "togetherness" and "team play."
Nissalke was worrying mainly about McGinnis and Erving—"They're the guys," he said. "What's Lloyd Free going to do to us?"—but the Rockets might be playing Boston instead of Philadelphia except for Free, the self-acclaimed Prince of Midair, who makes basketball purists cringe with his one-on-one 25-footers.
"I love it when people put the rap on me," says Free, a 6'3" second-year man out of Guilford College via the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. "They're just waiting for me to mess up, the same ones who have been waiting for Muhammad Ali to put his foot in his mouth. Look at our records, his and mine. My teammates know that when there's a game to be won I'll win it for 'em. You can't stop me. You try to cut off my driving, I'll jump on you. If you jump on me, I'll jump over you. I don't care if you're David Thompson. The only man who can stop Lloyd Free is Gene Shue, and he just tells me, 'Lloyd, the ball is yours. Put it up when you need to.' How many second-year players you ever see can play like me? Before the last Boston game, Dave Cowens came up to me, looked me up and down and said, I don't believe you.' " Free laughs. "The NBA is like the ghetto. Only the strong survive. And I'm one of the strong ones."
And what of Dawkins, the 20-year-old, 6'11" 257-pounder with the 33-inch thighs and 36-inch waist who went directly from the cradle into a Cadillac Fleetwood last year? He has become what is known in the NBA as a "force." He moved from No. 3 center to No. 2 behind Caldwell Jones in late January when starting Center Harvey Catchings injured an elbow, and arrived in April with a 20-point, nine-rebound game against New Orleans. "Within two years, he will unquestionably be the franchise." predicts McGinnis, of all people.
Dawkins was superb, playing 25 minutes in Game One against Malone in the Battle of the Babies. On one play he blocked a shot by Lucas, dribbled halfway upcourt, passed to McGinnis, streaked to the basket, took a pass thrown behind him and slammed home a rim-shaking reverse dunk.
"It wasn't quite a gorilla dunk like I wanted," said Dawkins, who threw down the single most-watched dunk in basketball history. That was the "De Laurentiis Dunk" he made against Portland, and which CBS now runs in slow motion on its NBA promos, four or five times a telecast. "That dunk gave me a new public image," Dawkins says. "Used to be people always said, 'He's the one who went right from high school to the pros.' Now they say, 'That's Dawkins. He's the one be dunkin' on CBS.' "
Even with Free's ICBMs and the awesome Dawkins added to the Philadelphia attack—and not forgetting the 76ers' other capable substitute, Forward Steve Mix—one big question remains: Can the 76ers ever be as great as the sum of their parts? "No problem," says Erving. "We've always been cool spiritually. It's taken us this long to do it on the court."
"This club has been the most scrutinized club in the history of basketball," says McGinnis. "We've been like a wagonload of gold moving cross-country. Everybody waited in ambush to get their piece. Now we have arrived. Intact."
Not so fast. Shue still worries about the 76ers' execution breaking down from time to time—owing to the team's disdain for discipline and practice, where they behave like bored kindergarteners.
For his part, Nissalke works the Rockets as though they were on Parris Island, and the Rockets, who have come so far, are not about to be laughed off by Philadelphia.
"We can beat them," says Calvin Murphy. "They have the superstars, we have the shooters and the discipline. I've been waiting seven years for this. I just learned that when you're winning you're no longer 'too small.' " With the series moving back to Houston, his problem is to figure out how to start winning in the first place.