Not long after the Philadelphia 76ers' 104-96 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals last Saturday, Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham, owner Harold Katz and Assistant General Manager John Nash were dining at The Clock, a Milwaukee restaurant, when they had to suffer through an impromptu monologue from a Bucks fan who had spent too much time drowning his sorrows.
"Wilt Chamberlain would've eaten Moses Malone alive," the man began. "Mo wouldn't score a point against Wilt." Cunningham kept his cool, perhaps secure in the knowledge that even if Wilt were suited up for the Bucks and even if he did shut down Malone, he wouldn't have been able to handle Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and the rest of this marvelous team.
Such is the overall beauty of the 76ers that the Bucks could win but one of the series' first four games, 100-94 last Sunday in Game 4, which prevented the Sixers from sweeping them as they had swept the New York Knicks in the conference semis. And these Bucks are no pushovers. In the Eastern semis they had given the broom to the Boston Celtics. "We were the ones making the big plays against Boston; now the Sixers are doing it to us," said Milwaukee Forward Junior Bridgeman after Game 3. "We have no excuses. We did what we wanted to do, but how can you defend against every player or every play?"
You can't, which is the main reason why Philadelphia had won 50 of its first 57 regular-season games en route to a league-best 65-17 record. But despite, or perhaps because of, that success—and because the 76ers have failed so often in the past to win the league title—there has been exceedingly heavy pressure on this Philly team to win it all. "We're not going to win games by 20 points now like we did in the regular season. We don't expect to," said Cunningham before Game 2. "In a way it's been nicer to win like this because each of our playoff wins has been different, and we've always been able to do whatever's necessary."
The man who perhaps feels it is most necessary to win this year's playoffs is Cunningham, who, despite a 395-173 career record in his six seasons, hasn't seemed to glean any real joy from his work. "There's been a lot of pressure on him," Guard Clint Richardson says. "You would think it would be fun coaching this team, but in a way it's not, because we have to win the title sometime.
"All along people have said that you really don't have to coach this team. But a very talented bunch like this can be poison if it's not coached, because everyone would just go off in his own direction and the team would get messed up. Cunningham hasn't gotten his due yet, but since his early years he's gotten much better. The big thing is he has more confidence in us; he'll stay with us a little longer. Before he lacked patience."
That patience was evident during Game 3. Rookie Forward Marc Iavaroni was yanked by Cunningham with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter after two consecutive turnovers leading to two Milwaukee scores. "The way Marc was playing then, I didn't think we'd see him the rest of the playoffs," one Sixer said later. Yet in less than five minutes Cunningham returned Iavaroni to the floor.
Such confidence-building moves have no doubt been helpful, but one shouldn't forget that the Sixers' march through the playoffs was preordained by Moses. As the Sixers trained for their opening round against New York, Cunningham asked Malone how he saw the upcoming playoffs. Malone rumbled, "Fo', fo' and fo'," as in three four-game sweeps on the way to Philadelphia's first title since 1967, when Cunningham was the sixth man and Chamberlain was The Man. But ever since Katz plucked Malone from Houston last September and gave him $13.2 million over six years, he has been The Man. A two-time MVP who has led the league in rebounding the past three years, Malone ended the power shortage that had caused the Sixers to fizzle out in the 1980 and '82 NBA finals against the Lakers.
This season Malone quickly defused criticism that he couldn't play the Sixers' running game. "It's Julius' team; I'm just here to work hard," he said before play began. But it soon became apparent that Malone was Philly's most important player. Indeed, when Malone sat out the last four regular-season games with tendinitis of the right knee, the Sixers won only one of them.
Then, during the Sixers' week off before the start of postseason play, Malone developed an inflamed left knee, causing much trepidation. But he exploded for 38 points and 17 rebounds in the opener against the Knicks and, apart from the first game against the Bucks—when Bob Lanier and a sagging Buck defense held Malone to 14 points—he has been a force that no one has been able to deal with.
It was largely because of Malone's presence that Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson said early last week, "The way I look at it, if we were better than them, we'd have won 65 games and we would have the home-court advantage."
Milwaukee's offense all year had been generated by the dazzling duo of Guard/Forward Sidney Moncrief and Forward Marques Johnson. In Game 1 in Philadelphia, Johnson had 30 points, getting 12 of them consecutively at the end of the first half to help cut a 16-point Philly lead to two. It took a spectacular steal by Bobby Jones of an inbounds pass and his blind pass to Richardson, who dunked for his sixth point in overtime, to clinch Philly's 111-109 victory.
Despite the loss, the Bucks had reason to be pleased going into Game 2. They had controlled Malone and come close to winning despite a seven-point performance by Moncrief. Milwaukee committed 25 turnovers in the opener, but before Game 2 Nelson said he had taken care of that problem, too. "I told all my players at practice today that I have a size 14 shoe and that I will plant it up their you-know-wheres if they don't take care of the ball better," Nelson said. "Of course, some of their rears are so big that my foot might disappear."
Instead, it was the Milwaukee offense that disappeared—just when it had in Game 1—during the final few minutes of Philadelphia's 87-81 victory. And again Jones made the key defensive play, blocking a layup attempt by Brian Winters that resulted in an Erving slam that effectively iced the game.
"They've tried to slow the game down, tried to bully us. I don't know what else they can do, but they have to do something, don't they?" Richardson asked after the second Philly win. Indeed, a victory in Game 3 would be crucial to Milwaukee. No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
Clearly Erving, who had scored just six points in Game 2 and two points in the second half of Game 1—following a 17-point first half—was due to break out as the series shifted to Milwaukee. To be sure, he had missed one practice with a sore left knee. Said Marques Johnson, "He has to be hurting. He's not playing like he usually does on offense. When he's at his best he just explodes on you."
It was Milwaukee that did the exploding in Game 3. Bridgeman, who had been made a starter in Game 2 to get some scoring going, but shot a ghastly 1 for 12, got 16 points in the first half as Milwaukee took a 48-45 lead.
The lead had reached seven, 78-71, with 9:57 to play in the game, when Cunningham leaped off the bench and called time, presumably to berate the 76ers. Before he could begin, Cheeks, who was out of the game at the time, gave Cunningham a slap on the rear, as if to say, "Don't worry, things are going to be all right."
Cheeks helped by going in and scoring seven consecutive points to tie the game at 78 with 8:24 to play. Then Erving, who would finish with 26 points, took over, scoring 11 points in the last eight minutes to ensure victory and erase any doubts about his health.
But it was Cheeks—the most consistent Philadelphian during the postseason, according to Cunningham—who hadn't let the game slip away. As in years past, Little Mo has elevated his game during the playoffs. His 18.8-point average through Sunday was six higher than his regular-season pace.
"In the playoffs there's a tendency for people to do things they're not capable of," Cheeks says. "Doc and Moses can take over a game. I have to do it by getting a steal and trying to pick up the tempo a bit. You know, work for it."
Despite the Sixers' overwhelming talent. Cheeks still tries to leave nothing to chance. During last season's playoffs he kept a rubber band around his wrist—just as Chamberlain used to—because the Sixers were on a hot streak. This year the good luck charm is the trace of a beard growing beneath his chin, another Wilt trademark.
Hold on a mo', Little Mo. With Big Mo and you and the Doctor and Jones and...who needs Wilt?