It was a few minutes before the start of Game 3 of the NBA championship series last Tuesday between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, and as Earvin Johnson stood on the sidelines at the Forum, his eyes grew wider and wider. In his customary pregame slouch, Johnson looked like someone standing in the stag line at a school dance, but if he was trying to affect an air of utter calm, his eyes gave him away. The festivities hadn't begun, but in Magic's head the drums had already started to sound.
The Lakers jumped out to an early lead over the Sixers that night as Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes each scored nine points in the first quarter, and in Magic's brain the beat became more insistent and his eyes got wider still. Five times in the second period Los Angeles got the ball out on the fast break, and five times it scored, twice opening 20-point leads. Soon Johnson's eyes were as big as demitasse saucers.
"To me it's the greatest high in basketball," he said afterward. "There you are in the middle, getting ready to create something. It's like dancing to music, so to speak. It's like Freddy Astaire. And this team, oh my, this is a boogie-woogie team. We all have our own styles, but as a team we dance real well."
After having split the series' first two games in Philadelphia the week before, the Lakers waltzed at the Forum in Games 3 (129-108) and 4 (111-101). With those victories L.A. stood one game away from the NBA championship and was 11-1 in the 1982 playoffs. A win in the next game would have given the Lakers the best postseason record ever. But on Sunday in Game 5, played before a frenzied Spectrum crowd in Philadelphia, the Sixers won decisively and kept alive their chances for their first league title in 15 years. The 76ers had held a players-only meeting on Saturday morning that boded well for their stunning 135-102 win: Philadelphia is 3-0 this season in games that have followed such meetings. Just what exactly is it the Sixers do in there behind closed doors? Stick pins in dolls?
Until Game 5 the 76ers seemed to be shuffling through the series in three-quarter time, while the Lakers were doing their inimitable steps. The 76ers had already gotten a dance card full of L.A. fast breaks in Games 1 and 2, and at the Forum they got some more. The Lakers scored 16 points off the break in the first half of Game 3, but it wasn't until early in the third quarter that Los Angeles unleashed its most staggering burst. The Lakers had run off eight straight points when, at 8:28 of the period, Forward Kurt Rambis stripped the ball from Philadelphia's Julius Erving in the Sixers' frontcourt and launched a desperate pass to Johnson, who had already headed toward midcourt. Johnson took a single dribble and rifled the ball to Norm Nixon, who had filled the left lane. Immediately, the ball was in flight again, headed for Wilkes as he thundered toward the basket for a layup. The L.A. lead was 23, and for all practical purposes the game was over. The Lakers went on to win 129-108.
Andrew Toney scored 36 points for Philly in Game 3, his first significant outburst of the series; but even his spectacular performance, which included the first four-point play (a three-point shot and a free throw) in championship series history, probably did his team as much harm as good against the Lakers' half-court trap defense.
"The way they're attacking the trap is playing right into our hands," said L.A. Coach Pat Riley. And who could argue with him? "They've completely taken us out of our offense," said 76er Guard Lionel Hollins. "We haven't really been able to run our plays at all. We're not primarily an outside shooting team, but that's where they're making us play." When Toney, who has a tendency to dribble a lot, often to little effect, was controlling the ball, Philadelphia's offense came to a standstill. "When they run a set play for Toney," Riley said, "if it isn't there, he just goes ahead and goes one-on-one. He usually doesn't look for the second or third option."
Riley had plenty of options last week. The trap, which didn't become a regular part of the Lakers' game until March, made him look like a genius. Whatever the trap's tactical merits, it had become a unifying force for the Lakers in the playoffs. "Our defense has been the key to our success," Nixon says, "and making it work is just a matter of us exerting ourselves. There were times during the season when three of us would play hard and two wouldn't, but at this time of year everybody can get up." Riley gambled that his players' egos would make his high-risk trapping defense work, not only as a means of stopping the Sixers from scoring, but also as the igniter for the Laker fast break. "If I'd put them in a straight man-to-man there would be room to rest," Riley says. "But in the trap, peer pressure won't let them let up. If it breaks down, everyone on the team knows who's responsible."
By Game 5 no one seemed to know who was responsible for turning the NBA's showcase event into a rout. Had the 76ers played ineptly in the third and fourth games? Or were the Lakers merely out there by themselves on some celestial dance floor? Even Erving had to concede after the Lakers' Game 4 victory, which wasn't as close as the 10-point margin indicated, that Los Angeles had been "awesome," a word Dr. J, who prides himself on his succinct usage, doesn't employ lightly.
"Let's use a little deductive reasoning," added Nixon, who studied logic at Duquesne. "If they're a great team and we keep beating them by 10 or more, what does that say about us?"
The Lakers so overwhelmed the 76ers in Games 3 and 4 that of the 48 minutes played in each, Los Angeles led by 10 points or more for 35:48 on Tuesday and 33:44 on Thursday. During one remarkable stretch of more than 20 minutes in Game 4—from 4:45 to go in the second quarter until 8:18 to go in the fourth—Los Angeles scored 52 consecutive points without benefit of a jump shot. Just fast-break layups, tip-ins, dunks, follow-ups, free throws, along with skyhooks from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had his best game of the series: 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Bob McAdoo shot eight of 13 for 19 points, mostly on jumpers and layups. And just as they had in the previous game, the Lakers assigned Wilkes to cover Toney and put Johnson on Erving. Toney shot 11 for 25 and was never a factor. And while Dr. J got his points—25 on 11-of-15 shooting—Magic was able to keep him away from the boards. Erving had damaged the Lakers with 23 rebounds in the first two games, but in Los Angeles he was held to three in each game.
Putting Magic on the Doctor two years ago, when the Lakers won the championship series also against the Sixers, would have been unthinkable. But this is a different Johnson, not so much Magic as just plain Earvin Johnson Jr. He finished the 1981-82 regular season with more than 700 rebounds and 700 assists, the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68 to do so, and he has downplayed the tinsel and glitter that once characterized his game. "There isn't the excitement of his rookie year," Riley says. "Then it was like going to Disneyland every day. Now he comes in and punches the clock like an old pro. But he's still our emotional catalyst. Everybody tunes into him. We struggle when he goes out of the game."
Johnson compares his role with the Lakers to his off-season alterego, E.J. the Deejay. "The D.J. is the key man," Johnson says. "He has to know what the people like and he has to give it to them."
If Johnson has given the Lakers more this season as a player, he has been decidedly less outgoing, probably as a result of the criticism he took from both the fans and the press because of his role in Coach Paul Westhead's firing last November. "It has been tough as far as keeping myself together mentally and trying to concentrate," he says. "Before all that happened it was like having an understanding with the fans. They like having someone they could reach out to and call a friend."
After Westhead was fired and replaced by Riley on Nov. 19, it seemed the only reason anyone reached out toward Johnson was to point a finger at him. Stung by the criticism and the first boos he had heard in his 22 years, Magic clung to his teammates for support. "All that stuff that happened kind of brought us together," he says. The players began going out together—hitting discos in clusters and going to movies in groups. "It's funny sometimes," says Magic, "eight giants sitting in a row at the movies."
Talking about giants, in a series replete with surprises, none was bigger than the competence of Rambis, a 6'8" forward who played in Greece last season and is technically a rookie. The Lakers maintain a statistic called rebounding efficiency: How many times does a player go to the boards when he has the opportunity? In Game 3, Rambis' was 95%—he crashed the boards 19 of 20 possible times and got eight rebounds. But it wasn't L.A.'s frontcourt players as much as it was the Lakers' guards who hurt the Sixers early last week. In Games 3 and 4 the 76er guards were consistently overmatched by Nixon, Johnson and sixth man Michael Cooper. Nixon scored 29 points in Game 3 and had 14 assists in Game 4, and, even in the 76ers' fifth game victory, he went for 20 points, 13 assists and five rebounds. With Magic (22 points, eight-for-nine shooting, nine rebounds and eight assists in Game 3) Nixon made sure the Lakers applied defensive pressure, particularly off the trap. "Nixon, Cooper and Magic all have created their own identities," Riley says, "and that's something they should be protective of. This could be one of the great trios of guards in the history of the league. They should all want to be the godfathers of each other's kids."
And then again, after the Game 5 debacle, maybe they should just adopt Toney. Little Orphan Andy put on a devastating shooting exhibition when the Sixers needed him most, making 13 of 18 shots for 31 points. Both Wilkes and Cooper tried sticking a hand in his face, but Toney kept the jumpers falling.
Riley might well have been expecting a game just like Sunday's, despite everything that had been said during the week about the Lakers' invincibility. "I didn't think we were that great," Riley had said of Thursday's win. "We have three great perimeter shooters in Norman, Jamaal and Mac, and we haven't had all of them shooting well at once yet."
Riley didn't see much that he liked in the fifth game. Wilkes, whose slingshot jumper had been missing for most of the series, sank only two of his seven shots in the first half. Abdul-Jabbar set some new personal lows. He got into early foul trouble when 76er backup Center Darryl Dawkins scored six points on him—en route to 14 second-quarter points. Abdul-Jabbar never recovered, getting only six points and four rebounds for the game. It was the first time in 379 regular-season and 110 playoff games that he had failed to score in double figures.
The first quarter was sloppily played—Lakers 11 turnovers, Sixers eight—and produced the first real back and forth excitement of the finals. Erving, too, struggled in the early going, missing his first seven shots. But the 76ers hung tough, battling Los Angeles to a 54-54 halftime standoff after the Lakers got their running game cranked up in the second period. "Even Doc, when he got down, kept on working," Philly Coach Billy Cunningham said. Then, early in the third quarter, Erving snared a Toney pass that was headed for the Walt Whitman Bridge, brought the ball down and went back up for a dunk. The play seemed to galvanize Erving and his teammates, and during the next 8½ minutes they went from a 68-66 deficit to a 91-81 lead. The Doctor hit eight of nine shots in the second half and finished with 23 points. And the Sixers committed just three turnovers in the last three quarters. "We played a good game until the middle of the third period," Riley said. "Then they became obsessed."
The game also marked the first time in the series that a team with the most rebounds—the Lakers, 49-39—lost. The probable reason for that was that the Sixers committed only 11 turnovers to the Lakers' 24.
After the game Erving was asked if he thought the Sixers could turn the series around. "Oh," said the Doc, "I think it's already been turned around."