Less than an hour remained before the Philadelphia 76ers' third game with the Boston Celtics in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals when Guard Maurice Cheeks put the finishing touch on his uniform: a dirty, broken rubber band tied around his right wrist. "Doc [Julius Erving] shot it at me before Game 2," Cheeks explained. "I put it on and we won, so now it's never going to come off."
Down the hall, Boston Center Robert Parish sat nonchalantly, or as close to that as a 7-footer can be when he's stuffed into a cubicle designed for a small forward. "Waiting is the worst part," Parish mused. Couldn't he be studying the Sixers? "Got a copy of Penthouse?" Parish asked. "That's the only studying I'd want to do now."
Rubber bands and girlie mags? Aren't we talking about the annual playoff series to end all playoff series? Well, yes and no. After Boston blew away Philly 121-81 in the first game and the Sixers came back to win 121-113 in Game 2, and even after Philly's 99-97 and 119-94 wins last Saturday and Sunday at the Spectrum, putting the Sixers ahead three games to one, no one was taking an ultimate 76er victory for granted. Who can forget last year's Eastern final, the 15th occasion these two teams met in a playoff? The Sixers went ahead three games to one and then blew sizable leads late in each of the next three games to lose the series.
But Philly clearly was the better team last week, and when Boston's Nate Archibald dislocated his left shoulder while diving for a loose ball in Game 3, which put him out for the series, the 76ers' guard superiority was emphasized even more. The Sixers hardly missed starting Guard Lionel Hollins, who suffered a broken finger on April 23 and didn't play against Boston until the final minutes of Game 4. With Andrew Toney's scoring (25 points per game) and Cheeks's leadership and scoring (14 ppg, three more than in the regular season) and Clint Richardson coming off the bench, the Sixers' running game was cutting the defending champs to the quick. "So much of what Cheeks does isn't noticeable, but we're just not the same team when he's not in the lineup," Sixers Coach Billy Cunningham said.
The person least appreciative of Cheeks's talents may be Maurice himself. "I don't think I do a lot to make people sit up and take notice," he says. "I've been that way all the time and I always will be. I just like to blend in, sort of melt my body onto everybody else's."
When Cheeks joined the 76ers four years ago after starting for four years at West Texas State, that Philly team boasted—besides Erving and Darryl Dawkins—Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant and Doug Collins. As Cheeks puts it, "With all the things those guys were doing, on and off the court, no one could notice anything else."
However, Cheeks has made a name for himself as the champion junk-food eater in the league. When asked if he deserved the title, Cheeks was shocked to learn there might be another contender. "I don't know if I'm the worst," he said, "but I know it's not a bum rap."
Chocolate chip cookies washed down with Hawaiian Punch apparently have little effect on Cheeks's stamina. Second on the team in minutes played during the regular season, Cheeks was averaging a club-leading 36.8 minutes a game against the Celtics. In Game 3, he played the entire first half, and 41 minutes overall.
But even Cheeks couldn't avert the Game 1 massacre in Boston, the worst playoff loss in 76er history. The Sixers showed their sole sign of life during garbage time. When Boston Guard Charles Bradley slam-dunked an alley-oop pass from Chris Ford with 1:09 to play, Cunningham immediately called time out, amid cries of showboating from the sunken 76ers. "I play five minutes, score two points and I'm some kind of bad guy," Bradley lamented. "That was just Billy's way of starting the clock on Game 2," said Boston Coach Bill Fitch.
Cunningham closed practice the next day and wrought a new wrinkle for an old play. Erving would move from the left wing to the top of the key, flip-flopping with Caldwell Jones. From there Doc would drive to the hoop, drawing Parish over to him in the process, then dump the ball off to a wide-open C.J.
In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Jones, who had fouled out of Game 1 after playing only 12 minutes and scoring no points, hit four consecutive long-range jumpers before someone finally guarded him. And when that happened, C.J. faked and hit a running hook from the lane for the last of his 22 points.
"I didn't want it to seem like I was being hoggish with the ball," Jones said, "but everybody kept looking for me, and the hoop looked so big."
Fitch wasn't as surprised by Jones's shooting as by his own team's 23 turnovers. "We just played a game in May with fundamentals from November," Fitch said. "If we had that many turnovers back then, we'd be out practicing as soon as the game was over."
Archibald's injury 1½ minutes into Game 3 served as a strong suggestion that it was going to be Philly's day. The Spectrum was sold out for only the fourth time this season, and the normally blasé crowd even initiated the cheers as the Sixers rolled to an 84-70 lead with 11:09 to play. But Boston then outscored Philadelphia 27-15 as the swarming Celtic press forced bad Sixer shots. With 21 seconds to play and Boston behind 99-97, an Erving shot was partly blocked by Kevin McHale and recovered by Danny Ainge. Larry Bird badly missed a 21-foot jumper, but the shot was rebounded by Cedric Maxwell, who missed a layup. Maxwell again rebounded, only to have his follow shot blocked by Erving. Again Maxwell retrieved the ball, but Cheeks stole it as time ran out.
"I was afraid to look during the last few seconds," Cunningham said afterward. "We were just hanging on for life at the end," concurred Cheeks.
"You can't make a steady diet of full-court pressure," Fitch said, "but you use it here and there and it makes them think." Fitch wrapped his hands around his neck. "It also gives them a chance to choke a little bit."
Unfortunately for Boston, Toney doesn't seem to know what the word choke means. In Game 4 he hit a career playoff-high 39 points, surpassing his previous best of 35 set last year against, yup, Boston.
In the third quarter Toney almost single-handedly put the Celtics away, scoring half of the Sixers' 30 points. "I think he's got more nerve than anything else," Erving said after Toney's performance. "Other guys have the ability, but if they miss a few shots they get timid, looking to get hooked from the game. He doesn't."
Then came the inevitable talk of last season's series. "Do we have them where we want them? That's what we were saying last year, isn't it?" asked Fitch.
"I'd still rather be up three to one," said Cunningham.
"I've forgotten what that feeling was like last year," Erving said. "We'll be reminded about it, but that should help if you don't let it become a distraction. I won't. Because I'll stop answering questions about it. Like now."