For nearly two weeks the Los Angeles Lakers hadn't been playing other basketball teams so much as they had been playing against history, and history didn't seem to know how to stop a fast break. Los Angeles had won eight straight playoff games going into last week's NBA finals, and after brushing aside the Philadelphia 76ers 124-117 in the championship opener Thursday night at the Spectrum, it seemed that the Lakers would sweep into the record books. They hadn't lost a game since April 13 (at Golden State) and had already tied the record for most consecutive playoff victories (set by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948-49 and 1949-50). Then just when it looked as if they had immortality in their grasp, Julius Erving, a historical personage if there ever was one, swooped and soared like an avenging angel.
That's the trouble with the Lakers; every 46 days or so they lose a game. On Sunday they absorbed a 110-94 pounding from the 76ers, and all talk of an L.A. sweep—which by Sunday morning was Topic A of media conversations in Philly—was laid to rest. Laker Coach Pat Riley had tried to minimize the importance of a sweep to his team, but privately he admitted that he hoped the streak would help motivate the Lakers. "Why not go for it?" Riley asked. "That's what I told them. I don't care about records, but if you've got an opportunity, why not try to be the greatest team of all time? Why not?"
It had been a week filled with intriguing questions. Would Dr. J finally get the NBA championship ring that had eluded him in two previous finals—one of them against the Lakers in 1980? Would Riley ever let down his set-it-wet hair and admit the Lakers were playing a zone defense? Could anyone stop Andrew Toney's jump shot? Could anyone find Kurt Rambis' jump shot? Would the Lakers finally suffer the effects of too many long layoffs—28 days of waiting altogether since the end of the regular season?
The Lakers had profited from the nine-day rest they had gotten before sweeping Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals and then another seven-day hiatus before taking apart San Antonio in the finals, but the 12-day wait for the league finals to begin was the longest in history before a championship series. Riley was less concerned that his team would be sluggish physically than he was that the players "might have forgotten what it felt like when they won those first eight games, what a terrific feeling it was to be riding so high."
To remind them, Riley drew on his experience as a former Laker broadcaster to put together a six-minute video highlight tape of L.A. playoff victories, the 1980 defeat of the Sixers, as well as this spring's games. Riley opened with footage from the sweeps of the Suns and the Spurs to Dan Hartman's Instant Replay, picked up the tempo with highlights of the '80 series to Ashford & Simpson's Make It Work Again, then brought the program to a stirring conclusion with a succession of L.A. fast breaks to the pulsating beat of Trammps, asking the musical question Where Do We Go from Here! When Riley tried out the tape on assistant coaches Mike Thibault and Bill Bertka, "Mike got really jacked up," Riley said, "and Billy had tears in his eyes. We showed it to the players right before the start of the game, and they really seemed to respond to it. Of course, it was right after that that they went out and played that bad first half."
The 76ers had received a rousing welcome back from the dead before Game 1 by a sellout Spectrum crowd that six days earlier had seemingly abandoned the team during its Game 6 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. And, for a half anyway, Philadelphia had the opener under control, dictating the pace with relentless defensive pressure at one end and offensive fireworks by Erving, Darryl Dawkins and Bobby Jones at the other. Dawkins came in midway through the first quarter and scored eight points in just over five minutes on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Sixers' 11-point halftime lead grew to 15 early in the third period as Erving put on one of his aerial shows. He threw one shot in backward over his head, converted a fast-break layup and slammed in an alley-oop pass from Bobby Jones to put Philadelphia up 69-54. The 76ers were able to nurse that lead for nearly five minutes before the bottom fell out. The Lakers began executing Bertka's half-court trap defense, forcing the Sixers to use up the 24-second clock trying to find a decent shot. "You get in a situation where you take the shot that's left," Erving said, "and if you miss it and then don't go to the offensive boards, the other team is off and running."
No team has ever pushed the ball up the floor with greater speed and skill than Los Angeles has for the past five weeks. "We knew if they got defensive rebounds they were going to go with it," said Bobby Jones. "We just couldn't keep up with them. They had three or four people on the break, sometimes five. We'd always try to get a couple of guys back, but they moved the ball so well it seemed like at least three of them touched it every time down. When that happens, you become indecisive about who to guard."
The Lakers rocked the 76ers back on their heels by closing a 15-point deficit in only three minutes and 55 seconds near the end of the third quarter, in which the Lakers outscored the 76ers 17-2 to tie things at 87. Then, in just over six minutes, Los Angeles built its lead to 16 points. Bob McAdoo, the Lakers' first forward off the bench, came in with 6:55 to go in the third quarter with Philly leading 79-64. When he left with 7:49 remaining in the game, L.A. was ahead 108-92. A 31-point turnaround. Where there's a McAwill, there's a McAway. During that stint Mac scored eight points, stole a pass and got three rebounds. All in all he had 14 points in the game. Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon each scored 24 and Abdul-Jabbar 23.
"All this means is that we're going to have to make something happen," the Doctor said after the game. "We've been through a whole lot in the playoffs already; now we're going through some more."
Philadelphia had won a lot of respect for its Game 7 victory over the Celtics in Boston a week earlier, but the Sixers' character always seems to be in question. And before Sunday's Game 2, Erving, whose leadership may mean as much to the 76ers as does his acrobatic play, dismissed the notion that the team lacked the resolve to beat the Lakers.
"We've got to play this one just like it's a seventh game," Erving said. "If you lack aggressiveness, the Lakers can leave you on your heels all day long. They can be awesome. It took the first game for us to learn how to beat them. Going into that game we thought we knew, but we didn't. Now we know. So if you know what it takes to beat a team and then you still can't do it, you're in a bad way."
Although it was the Lakers' fast break that widened everyone's eyes in Game 1, it was L.A.'s pressure defense that the Sixers had to counter if they were to have a chance in the second game, or indeed, in the series. Despite the brilliance of the Los Angeles running game, it wasn't until the Lakers began to generate defensive momentum that Game 1 swung in their favor. "When we got it going," L.A.'s Michael Cooper said, "it was strictly defense. We get our hands on a lot of passes, and our trapping has helped us with that. We're not really trying to steal the ball when we trap, we just want to make them go one-on-one and take some bad shots, to try to force a few turnovers. That's when the fast break begins."
What had been especially vexing to Philadelphia in the first game was the way the Laker running game had fed off its trapping defense (which is legal in the NBA) and its zone defense (which isn't). "They play a zone," Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham said on Saturday. "Trapping isn't illegal. We have traps, too—full-court, half-court, three-quarter-court. But once there are a couple of passes, they can't just be playing an area. They have to play somebody."
Riley also knew that traps would make it virtually impossible for the 76ers to slow down his team's fast break. "In trying to beat this kind of defense," Riley said, "they have to go to the open areas of the floor, and if they do that, it's very difficult to keep one or two guys back to guard against the break."
The Sixers are probably the second-best transition team in the NBA, and yet Los Angeles made them look club-footed in the first game. "We were trying so hard to get our baskets," said Sixer Guard Clint Richardson, "and it seemed as if they were getting theirs so easy. Sometimes it makes you wonder why you even bother to go down to the other end to play defense."
That, of course, was just the demoralizing effect the Lakers hoped to have on Philadelphia. "This team has got to run," Riley said. "We've got to constantly be on the go. Sometimes we have a tendency, if things aren't going well, to start a break and go 50% at it. A 'fake break' I call it. We've got to keep turning it on, have all the parts working, for us to win. That's when you make teams crack. When I played against the old Boston fast-break teams [Riley competed in the NBA in 1967-76], I remember thinking, 'Here they come, here they come, here they come. When are they going to stop so I can catch my breath?' That's what we have to do."
Try as they might, though, the Lakers couldn't do it to the Sixers on Sunday. Cunningham once again brought Dawkins off the bench, this time late in the first quarter, and just as he had in the first game, he showed why people mutter about his unrealized potential. Three straight times he maneuvered his massive frame into the lane and three times he scored. Then for good measure he hit a 16-foot baseline turnaround to put Philly up 34-26 at the end of the first quarter.
The 76ers increased the lead to 10 at the half, and in the process proved Cunningham right about the Lakers' zone by drawing a second illegal-defense call on Los Angeles and a technical foul. Still, the Sixers had blown bigger leads to lesser teams. And Cunningham had to turn to seldom-used third-string Center Earl Cureton when Dawkins and Caldwell Jones each picked up three fouls. Clearly the third quarter would be the 76ers' most important test of the series.
Throughout the playoffs, Los Angeles had been a superb third-quarter team, largely because that's when Nixon had repeatedly forced the ball up the floor and down people's throats. Against San Antonio, he had shot 72% in the third quarter and averaged just under 10 points, and against Philadelphia on Thursday he was 4 of 6 and scored 11 points. "Norman's our catalyst," Riley had said, and sure enough, when the Lakers needed to make a run on Thursday, Nixon usually led them.
But on Sunday he was nowhere. The 76ers outrebounded the Lakers 52-39 and kept hammering away at the offensive boards, picking up 23 points on follow shots. When the ball didn't come off the glass, the Lakers couldn't run. And when they couldn't run, they couldn't seem to handle the ball. Though Los Angeles wound up with three fewer turnovers than the Sixers, the Lakers seemed to make theirs at inopportune moments. "We never protected the ball well," Nixon said. "When we had the opportunity to cut the gap, we turned the ball over."
If the Lakers were their own worst enemies, they had help from Erving and Maurice Cheeks, the 76ers' point guard. Cheeks hadn't been effective in the second half of Game 1, but on Sunday he limited Nixon to six points, scored 19 and added eight assists. "In the first game I was just floating around," Cheeks said. "Today I tried to be more aggressive, to go to the hoop more."
Erving, too, was more assertive. He put the Sixers up by 11 in the third quarter when he waded through the entire Los Angeles defense with one of his best serpentine moves, and on the next exchange, he rebounded a Rambis miss and went coast-to-coast, dipping, pumping and finally finger-rolling the ball into the basket.
Toney, who had scored a quiet 20 points in Game 1, in which he slightly twisted an ankle and sprained a knee, warmed up in the third quarter, sinking 5 of 7 shots after a 1-for-8 first half. If Toney's hand was a bit unsteady at times, it's little wonder. His wife, Priscilla, gave birth to their first child on Friday night, a daughter named Chanel Andrea.
"We had a chance to do something no one else had done," Earvin Johnson said after the streak had been stopped. "Now we have a chance to be the champs. I guess we have to focus on that."
"Nobody can talk about the history thing now," Cooper said. "This loss is to our benefit in a way. Now we just have to concentrate on being an NBA ball club, not the greatest team of all time."