When the word came in from Portland a couple of weeks ago that Bill Walton had fractured a foot and was out of the playoffs, the reaction in Philadelphia was immediate. The 76ers began pondering how to rearrange their jewelry so as to clear fingers for NBA championship rings.
The Sixers had romped through the Knicks in four straight and were expected to clobber the old, crippled Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference finals. O.K., so they got caught fiddling around in Game 1 and Washington upset them at home, 122-117 in overtime. However, Bullet Center Wes Unseld sprained his right ankle in the game and two days later Kevin Grevey zapped himself with his hair dryer. And so, before Julius Erving could sincerely remind his fans for the zillionth time that "We owe you one," the Sixers would surely have the whole thing wrapped up and be on beaches from Aruba to Zanzibar, "Sunnin' and funnin', restin' and digestin'," as Center Darryl (Daddy Dunk) Dawkins might say.
But by sundown last Sunday the Sixers were squawkin' and walkin', losin' and confusin', down 3-1 to the Bullets and on the edge of extinction.
"Embarrassed?" Erving said to a reporter after Washington's Bob Dandridge ate him alive in Game 3. "Why should I be embarrassed?"
"Why? Because you are such a great team," said the reporter, not without a touch of sarcasm.
Erving pulled himself up gravely, the way he does, and replied, "I think that can be somewhat overstated."
But certainly no one ever thought of the Bullets as a great team, even when everyone was healthy, which they were for a total of eight games this season. What has made them the big story of the playoffs is 1) they are winning, and 2) they are winning by running. "Please try to believe it," Coach Dick Motta says.
It also helped the Bullets that Elvin Hayes, trying to undo his reputation for folding in the clutch, was playing the best basketball of his 10-year career, while his opposite number on the Sixers, George McGinnis, was re-creating his "McGoonis" role of last year's championship series against Portland, what with a 15.5-point average on .392 shooting. Hayes won Game 1, scoring nine of the Bullets' 13 points in overtime to finish with 28, plus 18 rebounds, six blocked shots and four steals. He also stayed close to the basket on defense to help Unseld rope off the middle and dominate the rebounding 64-57, leaving McGinnis free to fire at will from the outside.
"Before this series is over," said Big George, unruffled after missing 11 of 16 shots, "I'll be as big a factor as any forward on the floor." Mmm hmm.
At a practice session before Game 2, Grevey, who had scored 26 points and helped hold Doug Collins to 12 in the opener, "felt something pop" in his neck while blow-drying his hair. It appeared for a while that he would have to join Unseld on the bench along with Guard Phil Chenier, who had been there for four months with back problems. But Grevey took 12 showers on game day to loosen his neck and scored eight points in the first half. Dandridge got 16 against Erving, taking off downcourt as soon as the Sixers put up a shot and completing fast-break layups after Hayes, Greg Ballard or Mitch Kupchak, Unseld's replacement, cleared the boards and fired him the ball. "Julius doesn't get back on the break," said Dandridge matter-of-factly.
Three times the Bullets led by 10 in the first half, but in the first two minutes of the second half Erving transformed himself into Dr. J and majestically threw in seven points. On one occasion he grabbed a one-handed rebound, drove the length of the court and hit a spinning cross-lane layup for a three-point play. The Sixers led 61-54 and would not trail again.
Four minutes and 40 seconds into the half, Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham sat down McGinnis, who had shot 4 for 11 and had only four rebounds. His replacement, burly Steve Mix, kept him on the bench the rest of the night, scoring 15 points and stopping Kupchak cold in the 110-104 win.
Afterward, Cunningham geared up for another of McGinnis' blasts. "It was no slap at George," Cunningham explained. "This is the playoffs. We're here to win."
"I'm not going to say anything," said McGinnis, and then did. "I don't want to sound like a crybaby, but Billy never played me 16, 18 minutes at a time. Steve played great, but if I had stayed in there, there's no doubt I would have been better."
Over in the Bullets' dressing room, McGinnis' complaining made Hayes grin. "I don't think Cunningham has much confidence in McGinnis," he said, "because when the tough time comes, he puts in Mix. They can't hide George out there." Back to you, George.
"Elvin!" McGinnis spit out the name. "If he thinks I'm the choker, he ought to check out his own playoff records. If you take a survey in this league, on his own team—and one of his teammates told me this—you'll find that Elvin is the least respected player in the league. As a person, he's a phony guy."
Warming up before Game 3 at Landover, Md., the Sixers were again unconcerned. McGinnis laughed about his slump and joked about Hayes. "I'll be guarding him, so he should get 40 tonight," he said.
McGinnis began the game by dramatically refusing to shake Hayes' hand before the tip-off. Then, on the first five times he handled the ball, he was called twice for traveling and twice for charging, on each occasion letting the Washington crowd know that he intended to dance on Elvin's head. He threw exactly one pass in the first quarter. To keep the ball away from McGinnis, Erving would go one-on-one and bounce it off his knee; Collins would look for screens that no one was setting; Henry Bibby would launch 25-footers. And meanwhile—whoosh!—Hayes or Kupchak or Ballard would snare a rebound and whip it down to Dandridge or Grevey, who had spent the day in the hospital with his neck in traction, for a deadeye pull-up jumper.
At the half, the Bullets had a 62-45 lead. Dandridge had burned Erving for 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting, while the good Doctor was 1-for-6, Collins and McGinnis 1-for-5 each and Lloyd Free 1-for-9. All this was punctuated by 37 fouls, including one in which McGinnis, frustrated by his third charging call, hurled the ball at Hayes, daring him to throw it back.
As though the 76ers were not getting knocked around enough, even their fans took punishment. At least one fight broke out between two women spectators. Could that be Turquoise Erving landing that pretty right? Right.
The Sixers cut the deficit to nine in the fourth quarter, with Erving and McGinnis on the bench. The final score was 123-108 Bullets. Hayes, who seemed to be in there only when Washington needed him, outrebounded McGinnis 12-7 and though they each scored 16, Big E clearly got the best of Big Mac. Dandridge outscored Erving 30 to 12 and Grevey had it over Collins 21 to 15.
"I know what," said Mix after the game. "If we try any more of that bleeping one-on-one stuff we could lose by 40 on Sunday."
It wasn't quite that bad, though the Sixers were blown out again in Landover 121-105. The script was slightly different. Philadelphia started Game 4 playing tough, with McGinnis defending Hayes harder and smarter than he had previously and Erving scoring 10 straight Philadelphia points. This helped account for a 48-37 Sixer lead two-thirds of the way through the second quarter. The 76ers should have taken the 11 points and caught the Amtrak back home.
With 4:11 left in the half, the Bullets went to work, scoring 17 points to the Sixers' zip. Hayes had 11 of those, jamming and jumping, spinning and boarding, scattering bodies like bowling pins. "I could feel the game ripping open," said Motta. "I was watching them earlier," said Hayes. "They were winning but the confidence was not there." At the half the Bullets were up 54-48 and were never behind again. As the game wound down, Hayes, who finished with 35 points and 19 rebounds, even began making Waltonesque circles over his head—a sure sign of a champion.
"We should all be talking," said Free in the Sixer locker room. "To each other. Not having arguments. Running hard in practice. They run hard in practice. But now I guess it's too late. Of course, if we turn this thing around we're all great again." But no one was giving the Sixers much chance of becoming the third team in NBA history to do that, not even the Sixers, as Free had intimated earlier.
Before the series moved to Washington, Free, who styles himself All World, was standing in front of the Free Throw, his Philadelphia sporting-goods store, when a fan came bounding up to him. "World, my man," he said. "Don't forget, baby. You owe us one."
"Hey," said Free. "You're talkin' about what the Doc said. I don't owe you nothin'."
Hey there, Doc. Are you going to owe them two?