A secretly prepared, minutely detailed script locked away for eight months in Commissioner Larry O'Brien's safe couldn't have made for a better NBA championship series than the one between the Lakers and 76ers. Glamour team West vs. glamour team East. Coach who quotes Shakespeare vs. Billy the Kangaroo Kid from Brooklyn. Kareem, the unquestioned superstar of the '70s, vs. the Doctor, who wasn't far behind. Magic here, Chocolate Thunder there.
The suspense was even greater than it might have been, because, under the league's new unbalanced scheduling format, East met West only twice this season, with the teams splitting. Thus when the Sixers arrived in Los Angeles last week for the tip-off, there was passionate disagreement over which team was better. Adding fuel to the flames, a poll showed that the 18 NBA coaches whose teams didn't reach the playoff semifinals favored the 76ers, 11-7.
"You're a one-man team," went the Phi My line. "Kareem can have his 30, we'll stop all the rest."
"We'll stop Dr. J and all the rest," said L.A. "And what about Magic?"
"Boston's Larry Bird was better," said Philly.
"You guys haven't seen Darryl Dawkins lately," said Philly.
"You mean Chocolate Blunder?" said L.A.
And that wasn't all. Philadelphia thought its Maurice Cheeks was better than L.A.'s Norm Nixon, and L.A. thought its Jamaal Wilkes was, well, almost as good as the good doctor, Julius Erving. Friends of Wilkes claim they've heard him say he is better, and Wilkes himself has said, "Doc doesn't even compare to Elgin Baylor." The Easterners felt that the 76er bench, with Bobby Jones, Henry Bibby and Steve Mix, was as good as any in the league, implying that the Lakers would have to send in such perennial Forum courtsiders as Walter Matthau and Jack Nicholson.
And so it went as the Lakers ran off with Game 1, 109-102. Philadelphia came right back to win Game 2, 107-104, and then returned home to the Spectrum and lost, 111-101. That forced the 76ers to suck it up for Game 4, which they did to beat L.A. 105-102. As the teams went back West this week all tied up at 2-2, the debate raged on.
The one constant, besides the best basketball to be found this side of Dawkins' personal planet, Lovetron, was the magnificence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His performance in Game 1—33 points, 14 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists—not only became his standard for the series, but it also proved what he has been saying for years: that the Lakers couldn't win on his shoulders alone. Nixon's 23 points, Wilkes' 20 and Johnson's 16, 10 assists and nine rebounds helped spread the load. So did a double-team defensive job on Erving by Wilkes in combination with Johnson or sixth man Michael Cooper that held Erving to 20 points, took away the Sixer fast break and destroyed what Erving calls "the flow." With jump-switching help by Nixon and Johnson on outside shooters Lionel Hollins, Cheeks and Bibby, there simply was no place to go. If the Sixers were foolish enough to direct their offense into the lane—the area players call "the paint"—Kareem just stepped in and stopped it.
This was made apparent early to Dawkins, who began the game with a "Gorilla Dunk" but soon found himself crawling sheepishly to the bench after a sudden attack of bad hands, offensive fouls, airballitis and the shakes, also known as a Kareeming. Even though his numbers were puny—12 points, three rebounds—Dawkins showed that his verbal game was still intact.
"I ain't afraid to go to the hoop on Kareem," said Dawkins. "But when the refs are calling 'em that way it's a waste of time. I lost my funk."
Erving, at least, understood what had happened to him. "Every time I caught the ball I had two people on me," he said. "First, I forced shots, hoping our four-three advantage would get us the rebound. Then I tried the quick pass. Unfortunately, our guards didn't shoot too well. What can we do? That's something for the coach to figure out and lay on the team."
What Billy Cunningham laid on the Sixers was this: he would keep Dawkins out of foul trouble and more into the offense by freeing him from the responsibility of guarding Abdul-Jabbar. ("How do you stop him?" said Dawk in response to a question. "Bump him, bite him, step on his foot.") Cunningham gave that job to Caldwell Jones. So, at a very loose between-games practice, Dawkins worked on his long-range jumper.
At the Laker workout, only Spencer Haywood's late arrival caused tension, compounding the trouble that had been building because Haywood had seemed lackadaisical, even somewhat drowsy, during stretching exercises a few days earlier. This prompted a wry Los Angeles Times headline: WILL HAYWOOD BE THE SLEEPER OF THE SERIES?
L.A. Coach Paul Westhead, who once taught Shakespeare at LaSalle, dropped some political science on the Lakers before Game 2. "We want to get the fast break every time," he said. "That's a democracy. Everybody gets the ball. But when we don't run, it's a monarchy. Get it to The Man. If we don't run and we don't get it to Kareem? Then it's anarchy. Let's see what kind of government we have tonight."
It was anarchy. The Lakers may have been a half step slower, but the 76ers had become the defensive team that destroyed Atlanta and Boston. They took away the Laker fast break and locked it in a closet. The Lakers got it to Kareem all right—he scored 38 points—but the help so evident in Game 1 was absent, until it was too late.
The 76ers played such crackling sharp defense that the Lakers made just eight free throws to Philly's 21. Erving, meanwhile, shook his chains and took the ball right in and over Kareem the first time he touched it. He scored 12 points in the first period on his way to 23. Cheeks, generally an average scorer (11.4 points a game in the regular season), hit his first nine shots and also had 23, and Bobby Jones had 13. But the biggest explosions came from Dawkins, who scored 25 points, 10 from downrange, the rest on layins and a couple of thunderclap jams.
After Philadelphia led by 10 and 18 at the ends of the first two periods and 20 in the fourth, Los Angeles went on a furious 25-7 tear and got to within one at 105-104 after two giant baskets and a blocked shot by Kareem. It would have been an alltime championship choke had Bobby Jones not canned an eight-foot jumper with seven seconds left.
But Dawkins did most of the postgame talking, as usual. "I was just feeling good," he said. "I had my rhythm and funk together and I kept dropping it through. I know I'm important to this team offensively, but this is the Doc's team. I'm just happy to play on it. The Big Guy owns the other team. I don't want a team. It's a headache."
Down the hall, Westhead was ridding himself of a headache—Haywood, who had been unhappy most of the season over the limited playing time accorded him and had "caused distractions" on the bench during Game 2, according to Westhead. In the locker room Haywood flared at his main rival for playing time, Jim Chones. Westhead could tolerate no more, so he suspended Haywood for the rest of the series. That done, Westhead, a Philadelphian born and bred, was asked to discuss how he felt about going back East to try to beat his hometown team in Game 3. "I'm more worried about whether it will be comedy or tragedy," said Westhead.
More to the point, Westhead made a defensive switch—Chones onto Dawkins, leaving Abdul-Jabbar with Caldwell Jones, who had said before the game, "If Kareem guards me I'll shoot from half court and hope the refs call him for playing a zone." Jones did, but the refs didn't. With Kareem camped securely under the basket again and Chones dogging Dawkins, the Sixers attacked from outside. Hollins, guarded by Johnson on yet another switch, missed his first five shots. And L.A. opened a 15-point first-quarter lead.
But in the second period, Erving caught fire with a swooping dunk, a finger roll and an underhand scooper. West-head called time. "Our scouting report says that anytime Doc scores two baskets in a row, do anything to stop the game," he said later. After the time-out, Erving was collared until late in the quarter, when he threw a memorable fake-left-go-right-flying-layin over Kareem. During the quarter, the Laker lead evaporated, but in the last 1:44 L.A. scored nine straight and led at halftime, 58-44.
The game was never close after that, with the Lakers ravaging Philly on the boards 56-37. Abdul-Jabbar's numbers were nothing if not ordinary—33 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, four blocks. The difference again: Wilkes, Nixon and Johnson with 57 points, after only 39 in Game 2. For its part, Philadelphia got just 13 points from its vaunted bench, which had contributed 23 in Game 2.
So everyone went home for the night, to come back again 25 hours later. As Erving said, "It's just a long halftime."
By now an interesting pattern was discernible. In Game 2, Philadelphia went to the foul line 15 more times than the Lakers. In Game 3, the Lakers went 13 more times than the Sixers. In Game 4, the officials finally found the Lakers in a zone defense—22 seconds into the game. Thereafter the Sixers went to the line seven more times than the Lakers, their 23 free throws to L.A.'s 14 spelling the difference in the game.
"Why did Kareem score only 23 points?" someone asked Westhead.
"I don't know," said the coach wryly. "He was perfect from the line." After 27 field-goal attempts, Abdul-Jabbar went to the line exactly once. "I can't be effective when they're holding my arms," he said.
This game was much closer than the first three, with the 76ers jumping to an early lead on defense and running, then losing it to turnovers and Laker rebounds and the shooting of Nixon and Wilkes.
In the fourth period, the Sixers had regained momentum and were leading 89-84. Wilkes was down with foul trouble and Erving found himself on the right wing holding the ball, with bumbling Mark Landsberger to get around. With one step and dribble, Erving was clear of Landsberger; and with another he was launched toward the hoop. "Then I saw Kareem coming and waving his arms," said Erving. A mid-course adjustment took him beyond the backboard and his right arm popped out behind Abdul-Jabbar's back. It went up, then down, then up again, scooping the spinning ball into the basket. Classic, vintage, save-it-for-the-replays Doctor, two of 23 points for the afternoon. That about finished L.A.
An hour or so later, the basketball court was being removed, revealing the Spectrum ice. Dawkins, with 26 points, and Erving had seen to it that the wood would be down again for Game 6. On his way out, Abdul-Jabbar stopped to say goodby to two of Julius' three children. As he walked away, 6-year-old Julius Winfield Erving III hollered after him, "You said you were going to win, Kareem! You didn't win! You lost!" Abdul-Jabbar chuckled to himself, and walked to the airport bus.