Before last Saturday night's game between the Boston Celtics and his Philadelphia 76ers, Andrew Toney spent some time gazing at a television set in the Sixers' Spectrum locker room. A tape of a recent Celtic game was on the screen, and Toney watched as Celtic Guard Dennis Johnson displayed the kind of prowess that had placed him on the NBA All-Defensive Team the past five seasons. That D had encouraged Boston to trade Forward Rick Robey to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Johnson in the off-season, a deal made in large part to stop Toney—a man who has yet to meet a shot he didn't like or couldn't make.
But as Johnson's likeness flickered on the set, Toney was unmoved. "I can't worry about one man," Toney said. "All I can do is go out and play my game. What's gonna go down is gonna go down. And what's gonna go up is gonna go up."
All Toney did was come off the bench to score six points in the final two minutes and propel the Sixers to a 92-91 win in the season's first meeting of the archrivals. "Up until then I thought we'd done a good job on him," said Johnson, who got burned at the end. That wasn't good enough for Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "We made a major boo-boo," Jones said. "You don't leave Toney alone in the crucial stages of a game."
Boston has learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to leave Toney alone anytime. Since he came into the NBA from Southwest Louisiana four years ago, the 6'3", 190-pound guard has almost made a career of destroying the Celtics with a jumper that he launches while thrusting his chest forward, in the manner of Mr. America. His career scoring average is 16.7 points a game, yet against Boston it's 20.3. In the fourth quarter of a Philly-Boston game in March 1982, Toney whipped in 25 points to establish a Sixer record for most points scored in a period. During the playoffs, Toney has always risen to the occasion. In his first postseason game in the Boston Garden, in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals, Toney scored 26 points as Philadelphia won 105-104. Not for nothing did the Hub media nickname him "the Boston Strangler."
Enter the 6'4", 200-pound Johnson. "There was a definite need for us to get the sacrificing kind of guard that Toney can't intimidate," says Red Auerbach, Boston's president and general manager. "I don't mean physically—I can't imagine Quinn Buckner being scared of him—but scoring-wise."
"The day I was traded to Boston, one of the first things impressed upon me was the need to stop Andrew Toney," Johnson says. "Everyone acts like we're both gonna be playing against each other for the whole 48 minutes of the game. But one person doesn't really stop anybody." Adds Jones, a peerless defensive guard during his nine seasons as a Celtic, "You have to guard someone like Toney as a team. Anytime you get a great offensive player against a great defensive player, I can tell you who's gonna lose."
The list of Celtics who have failed as Toney defenders includes Nate Archibald, Chris Ford, Terry Duerod, Gerald Henderson, M.L. Carr, Danny Ainge, Charles Bradley and Buckner. "Toney's got so many ways to beat you," says Carr. "From the outside and the inside. He'll drive, he'll pull up. He's strong, he's quick. There's no set way to guard him. It would be easier to play him on a playground."
But it is in that situation that the 76ers have an edge with Toney on their side, especially against a quality team like Boston. "When you have two teams that concentrate so hard on defense, like us and Boston, the game actually gets down to a one-on-one, playgroundlike situation," says Philadelphia Assistant Coach Jack McMahon.
From the start of Saturday's game, the Sixers either set Toney up underneath the basket, freed him outside with picks or stationed him in a corner beyond the three-point line and let him take the ball to the basket.
Nevertheless, for much of the game Johnson and the rest of the Celtics did an admirable job of containing Toney—who was playing with 10 stitches in his forehead as a result of a collision with Detroit's Kelly Tripucka—holding him to a quiet 11 points in the first half. Nonetheless, the Sixers led 60-46 at the intermission before Boston rallied to tie at 84. With 4:50 to play, Toney reentered the game, and the Sixers went to him almost exclusively—with spectacular results. Toney's most dazzling move was a running no-look bank shot over Larry Bird, who had just switched onto Toney. Asked afterward if he was surprised that the shot went in, Toney said matter-of-factly, "Whenever I shoot the ball I expect it to go in."
"If there was a turning point, that shot was it," said Johnson. That gave the Sixers an 87-86 lead with 2:00 remaining. Boston regained the lead, 88-87, but Toney hit two free throws with 1:09 left to make it 89-88. On the next possession Toney buried a 20-foot jumper over Henderson—giving him 19 points for the game—and put the Celtics away.
Round One to Toney. Back to the drawing board, Celtics.