As someone in the minuscule crowd of—this isn't a typo—6,704 at the Spectrum remarked after Game 7 was over and Philadelphia had won its Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks with a 99-98 heart stopper, it's a shame you have to wade through an 82-game season before you get to something this good. You could even have thrown out the first four games of the series. Irrelevant. In a best-of-seven involving two quality teams, they almost always are tied 2-2 after four. Now you're talking about a mini-series, best two out of three. What are you made of? The 76ers had to win Game 5 last Wednesday in the Spectrum. So they did, convincingly, 116-99. Advantage Philadelphia. A break in Milwaukee Friday night and it's game, set and match. No way. Milwaukee won, convincingly, 109-86.
Game 7, Easter Sunday, was the magnificent effort that it was meant to be. The Doctor and Marques strutted their stuff, then stuffed some more—the other Sixers acknowledging Julius Erving's greatness by clearing out and letting him operate in splendid isolation; Milwaukee's Johnson relentlessly going through all five defenders, if necessary, to score.
No quarter was given anywhere else, either. Philadelphia, manhandled throughout the series, gave notice that things had changed when burly Forward Steve Mix nailed the Bucks' even burlier center. Bob Lanier, with a well-placed elbow. Lanier retaliated by jolting Mix in the jaw with a forearm shiver.
And after it was over, after four free throws and four rebounds by Caldwell Jones in the final two minutes kept the Bucks at bay, after the 19 lead changes and 11 ties, after Milwaukee had battled back from a 16-point deficit and vainly positioned itself to win the seventh game of a playoff for the first time in four tries, then it still wasn't over. A review by league officials of the hectic final minute was necessary to confirm that the Sixers had endured and would face the Boston Celtics in what should be a slugfest of a conference final.
April 26, 1981
The evenness of the Philadelphia-Milwaukee series was evident from the outset. The two teams' numbers were almost interchangeable. Philly had tied Boston for the league's best regular-season record at 62-20, with the 60-22 Bucks third. The 76ers' 37-4 record at the Spectrum tied an NBA mark for wins at home; Milwaukee wasn't far behind at 34-7. On the road the Bucks' 26-15 record trailed only Boston's 27-14; Philadelphia was third at 25-16.
The two clubs have clearly the deepest benches in the game, and each has extraordinary players who were remarkably alike in effectiveness if not style: the two supreme forwards, Erving and Johnson; the league's best sixth men, the Bucks' Junior Bridgeman and the Sixers' Bobby Jones; and the behemoths in the middle, Lanier and Darryl Dawkins.
Small wonder that 76er Coach Billy Cunningham felt the series would be decided by "some little thing that wasn't really little." All the big things seemed to balance out. And despite the fact that the 76ers were in the NBA finals last season and the Bucks had never won a playoff that went more than five games, Milwaukee was conceding nothing. "This one's going to be a war, and we wouldn't want it any other way," said Bucks Co-captain Quinn Buckner. "A championship shouldn't be won easily. When you get to this point, everything should be a battle."
Outside the trenches, Cunningham and Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson were each looking for a wrinkle that would give his team an edge. Most of the actions were negated by counteractions. Philadelphia, for example, had only limited success using a 3-2 full-court zone trap, because the Bucks neutralized it by having lanky Forward Mickey Johnson bring the ball upcourt instead of the guards. As Cunningham said, "Besides, when all the strategy breaks down, you just play basketball."
Almost immediately it was apparent how the breaking down would happen. The Sixers, who usually run a blistering fast break, were content to slug it out with Milwaukee. They sent their two big men, Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, on a seek-and-destroy mission: beat up on the creaky 32-year-old Lanier and the frail Mickey Johnson, Milwaukee's "power" forward at 6'10" and 190 pounds. For their part, the Bucks chose to up the tempo to the point of even forcing the break at times, in hopes of opening up the court. Said Nelson, "When the game becomes physical, it's to Philadelphia's advantage, because the Sixers are bigger and stronger than we are."
Milwaukee's decision to run surprised Cunningham. "That was a bit of a shock, because teams are usually hesitant to run with us," he said. Equally surprising to Cunningham, albeit pleasantly so, was the fact that the 76ers didn't have to run to be effective. "When a team makes the commitment to run, as we have, it usually won't be as good when it decides to slow down," he said, "but this series has shown us to be a better half-court team than anyone thought we were."
That wasn't evident during Game 1, however. Both the Bucks and Sixers played run and gun, producing one of the two games in which both teams scored more than 100 points, with Philadelphia prevailing 125-122 on two Erving free throws in the final minute of play. Although the Bucks outscored the Sixers from the field 48 field goals to 44, the 76ers shot 13 more free throws, making 12 of them. In the first three games of the series, in fact, the team with the most field goals lost.
In Game 2 Milwaukee made 20 more foul shots than the 76ers and won 109-99, the first road victory of the series. It was a triumphant evening for Milwaukee's fourth guard, Mike Evans, who was the first to receive the award for best performance by a No. 8 to No. 11 player in a supporting role. He burned the Sixers for 13 points in 18 minutes.
If any Sixer was glad to be going to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4, it was Dawkins, who kept his jive talking to a minimum patter, a consequence of contending with Lanier as well as a public ready to vilify him for any 76er failures. "I'm just a target, I guess," he said. "I joke and jive a lot, and I think people pick up on that, so when I don't do well it's easy to pick me out and sting me."
In Games 1 and 2, Double D had averaged fewer than 10 points and four rebounds. For the series his numbers only increased to 11.4 and 5.4. Dawkins was also in foul trouble much of the time, putting more pressure on Caldwell Jones, who had the unenviable task of trying to shuttle between Marques Johnson and Lanier on defense, and on Cunningham, who had to adjust his substituting accordingly. Cunningham scoffed at the idea of benching Dawkins. "It's too late for that, and we're too far along," he said. "We need Darryl. You think about him being in the league six years and you tend to forget that he's only 24 years old, but Darryl knows we're all behind him."
Dawkins' supporters included people in faraway places. Before Game 3, he received an anonymous telegram from Wilmington, Del. bearing a somewhat enigmatic message: "What he thinks in his heart is what he is. Hit or miss you are the putdown." "I think it inspired me," said Dawkins after his 23 points—his best total, it would turn out, of the series—and six rebounds led Philadelphia to a 108-103 win.
Perhaps it was the frustration of not seeing the ball often enough down the stretch in Game 3 that inspired Marques Johnson to have probably the best individual game of the playoff two days later, when the Bucks evened the series with a 109-98 victory. Beginning with perfect 7-for-7 shooting from the field in the first period and ending with his seventh offensive rebound and subsequent layup for points 34 and 35, Johnson was nothing short of spectacular.
Even though Marques and The Doctor were rarely assigned at the same time to guard each other and both tried to deemphasize their ballyhooed matchup, one had to wonder what sort of payback Erving would have for Marques. Unfortunately, the Game 5 showdown didn't come off. At a Tuesday practice in Milwaukee, Johnson suffered a recurrence of the back spasms that have plagued him since college. "It's nothing new; it just happened at such a hell of a time," he said. "I kept telling everyone how cold the arena was, but I didn't think about putting my warmups back on."
Although Nelson attempted to nurse Marques through the game, Johnson was ineffective, scoring but nine points while the Bucks spent the evening trying to find their rhythm in a 116-99 loss. The Sixers, meanwhile, were getting outstanding performances from Mix, another of those Nos. 8 through 11 players, who scored 17 points in 17 minutes, and guards Maurice Cheeks and Lionel Hollins, who each had 20 points and combined for 17 assists. For Hollins, who had entered the game shooting a woeful 30%, his 8-for-11 night was a throwback to his 1976-77 championship days with Portland. "I'm not the shooter I used to be, but that's because I don't play the same offensive role I did in Portland," he said. "Maurice does most of the ball handling, so I set screens and take my shot when it comes."
After Marques' performance in Game 4 but before his injury, Cunningham had decided that Caldwell Jones would guard Johnson, full time if possible, freeing Erving to take charge on offense. Nelson's countermove was to keep Erving working on defense by putting the ball in the hands of Mickey Johnson, who would now be guarded by The Doctor. Mickey's 20 points and 13 rebounds in Game 5 didn't avert a loss, but he did give Erving something to think about, although Nelson afterward denied that the Bucks were specifically going after the Doc. "Mickey is an option in all our plays," Nelson said. "Tonight he just took his shot more."
In Game 6, Johnson, Mickey continued to take up the slack for Johnson, Marques, who went almost three quarters before his back loosened up. Mickey was 7 of 11 from the field and 8 of 11 from the line, and had a game-high 12 rebounds. In all, the Bucks outrebounded the Sixers 55-29 and evened the series for the third time. The ultimate compliment to Mickey's offensive talents came when Philly's defensive stopper, Bobby Jones, entered the game to guard him, not Marques.
Through the first six games, the self-assured Mickey Johnson may have gotten little of the attention reserved for Marques and Julius, but he was close to them in his level of play. In those games, he averaged 13.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and no complaints about being overlooked. "The attention given Marques has worked to my advantage," he said after Game 6. "Now, though, there's a little more pressure on Philadelphia to deal with me, which should take some of the heat off of Marques."
Mickey Johnson wouldn't be a factor in the deciding game, however; he picked up three fouls in the first seven minutes. In fact, he and Buckner—who suffered severe stomach cramps as well as three fouls in a 29-second span of the first quarter—went scoreless. "Losing Mickey so soon hurt because he'd been playing so well," Nelson said, "but it wasn't as if we didn't have someone to replace him." Indeed, Marques Johnson was himself again, playing the entire 48 minutes of the game and scoring 36 points, his personal high for the series. He got 12 of those in the first period as the teams played to a 28-28 tie.
But Erving, who would finish with 28 points, got 15 in that first period, many of them from one-on-one forays, which were conducted with Cunningham's hearty approval. "Why fool around?" he said. "We're going to go to Doc, anyway."
Until Guard Brian Winters canned a jump shot at 8:13 of the second period, all of Milwaukee's scoring had been done by Marques, Sidney Moncrief and Lanier, and a minute and a half later Lanier was almost ejected for his altercation with Mix. After the row, Philadelphia outscored the Bucks 20-10 en route to a 58-48 halftime lead.
Friday night the Bucks had overcome 37% first-half shooting to spurt ahead early in the third quarter. This time the Sixers held fast and gradually pushed their lead to 74-58. They seemed on the verge of running away with the game. But just as Milwaukee appeared to be losing its poise, the 76ers slowed down. Milwaukee went scoreless for almost three minutes, from 6:55 to 4:07 of the third period, but in that span Philly could only come up with a pair of layups by Cheeks.
As Cunningham had said earlier, "Teams with these kinds of records' and these players don't fold." Given their reprieve, the Bucks went on a 22-5 spurt and took an 80-79 lead at 9:47 of the fourth quarter as the irrepressible Marques and Bridgeman, who had gone 0 for 6 in the first half, combined for 17 points. "We were attempting to do things all game," Nelson would say later. "But from that point everything just seemed to start working."
The teams exchanged the lead for more than three minutes before Erving hit two free throws, stole a pass and sank a jumper to put his team ahead 91-86.
Now it was Marques' turn. He scored five points as the Bucks drew to within a basket at 93-91. With 2:30 to play, Moncrief tried a layup, and Dawkins was called for goaltending when he pinned the ball between the rim and the glass. The score: 93-93. That set the stage for Jones' late-game heroics and the semi-protest by the Bucks.
After a Hollins jumper, Jones' first two free throws put Philly up 97-93. Marques quickly cut the margin to two at 1:06. Then, with 45 seconds to play, Jones rebounded a shot missed by Erving. Eighteen seconds later, after a Cheeks field-goal attempt was blocked by Lanier, Caldwell picked up the loose ball and put up a shot from the top of the key. It missed, barely ticking the rim, but it beat the 24-second shot clock. Dawkins tapped the offensive rebound back to Hollins, who passed the ball on to Jones, who was fouled with 14 seconds to play and made both free throws. That made the score 99-95. The Sixers had held on to the ball for an incredible—and later disputed—52 seconds. A three-point goal by Bridgeman was too little, too late.
But even an hour after the final buzzer there was still a chance that the game hadn't truly ended. An error on the official play-by-play summary indicated that Jones' shot from the top of the key had come more than 24 seconds after the Sixers' previous shot. That prompted a trip by Nelson, Buck Vice-President Wayne Embry and the two game officials to WCAU, CBS' Philadelphia affiliate, to review tapes of those final seconds and determine whether the 24-second clock should have expired before Jones was awarded the free throws that produced the game's winning points. After watching and timing a replay, a dejected Nelson accepted the loss as nobly as he possibly could. "I just had to see if there were any discrepancies," he said.
At the Spectrum, Caldwell Jones already knew what Nelson would find out. "I didn't know if we'd outrebounded them or not today, or in the series," he said, "but I knew that in those last two minutes we had to eat up some glass and get the ball. I tell you, I was just one happy guy to see that ball bouncing around out there."
After 82 regular-season and nine playoff games, so were his teammates.