On the eve of the Philadelphia 76ers' opening-round playoff series with the New Jersey Nets last week, Julius Erving, the Sixers' guru in matters both physical and metaphysical, spoke eloquently of the tribulations of the 76ers, who have gone to the NBA finals four times in his eight seasons with them but have won only once, in 1983. "Those trials have created a humility about our team," Erving said, "one that won't be eliminated through trades or adversity."
Little did Erving know how strongly the Nets would reinforce that humility. Only a 108-100 win at the Meadowlands Arena last Sunday—a game Philly could easily have lost had New Jersey made more than nine of 20 free throws—kept alive the Sixers' goal of successfully defending their championship. The Nets had stunned the 76ers in the first two games of the best-of-five series in Philadelphia 116-101 and 116-102.
"We just didn't make the transition from the regular season to the playoffs well," Erving said after his 42-minute, 27-point performance in Game 3 helped make up for his meager 23 points in the first two games. "I'm just glad it wasn't a miniseries." Indeed, if the opening-round best-of-three miniseries format hadn't been junked this year, the Sixers would have succumbed to the biggest upset since the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers lost their miniseries in 1981 to the Houston Rockets, who were led by a center named Moses Malone.
The return to form of the swarming, overplaying defense that was the hallmark of the 76ers' 12-1 sprint through the playoffs a year ago saved them from the ignominy of becoming the first defending champs since the 1956-57 Warriors to be swept in their first playoff series. Led by forward Bobby Jones, starting his first game of the year, in place of the ineffective Marc Iavaroni, and the guttiness of hobbling guard Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia was able to disrupt the Nets' half-court offense by cutting off the passing lanes. More important, the Sixers choked off New Jersey's blistering fast break. In the first two games, the Nets had averaged 21.5 points off the break; Sunday they scored just 10.
Until Philadelphia's victory, the Nets—0-6 in their three previous NBA playoff appearances—had achieved the biggest surprise of the playoffs' opening week. And no one was more stunned than the Sixers.
"Everything they did, they did well," said Cheeks after Game 1. "Everything they tried, they did exactly right." Added Jones after Game 2, "It's just happening so fast. Play two games, get down 2-0. Last year we had the confidence to eat teams alive, and it was fun."
Eating teams alive—i.e., getting big early leads and coasting to impressive victories—was the stock-in-trade of the 76ers' 65-17 regular season and playoff romp of 1982-83. This year the Sixers were hampered by illness and injuries that caused various players to miss a total of 90 games and the team to finish "only" 52-30 during the regular season, but there was always a feeling in Philly that last year's magic was just an opening playoff tip-off away. "We have become reacquainted with our destinies," Erving intoned after the 76ers, by then hale and hearty, went 13-3 in March.
But New Jersey coach Stan Albeck, whose Nets had won 19 of their last 27, had other ideas. Before the opening game, the normally upbeat Albeck, sometimes referred to as Stanley Screamer for his penchant for letting off steam, seemed about to explode with optimism. "We're going to hand them their butts on a plate," Albeck said.
In preparing for the series, Albeck, who before the regular season had put together a film of center Darryl Dawkins committing silly fouls in hopes that the clip would persuade Sir Slam to stop making such transgressions, had a member of the Nets' sales staff, Mitch Kaufman, create films that stressed the strengths of each of the 76ers versus New Jersey during the regular season. Thus, Dawkins would see what Malone did best, guard Otis Birdsong could check out the Andrew Toney highlights, etc.
By the same token, the films also showed a few of the Sixers' deficiencies—when Malone dribbled, for example, the New Jersey guards were seen swarming around him and often stealing the ball. The Nets had taken advantage of these 76er shortcomings as effectively as any team in the league the past two seasons, as their 6-6 record against Philadelphia indicated. "Philly's a great defensive half-court team," Albeck said. "You can get by one defender, but the second always comes over to trap you or block the shot. The thing we did best against them was break that pressure down by taking the ball right to the basket. Nothing stops pressure defenses better than layups."
It was obvious at the start of Game 1 that the Nets had the right idea. When they weren't running the break, small forwards Mike O'Koren or Albert King brought the ball up the floor, which neutralized pressure from ballhawks like Cheeks and made Erving work harder on defense. The plan worked like a charm from the start; of New Jersey's 39 first-quarter points, an unusually high number to score against Philly, 22 came on layups, dunks or tip-ins.
The blistering second-half comeback was a standard feature of Philadelphia's play last season. But last week in Game 1 the Sixers' big run never materialized, for two reasons. The first was Albeck's adroit use of time-outs; whenever the 76ers began to make a move, the Nets would stop the action, regroup and mount a rally of their own.
The second was more disturbing for Philly. The Sixers were simply out-hustled. While they struck the haughty poses of defending champions, the Nets, especially power forward Buck Williams, who had 16 rebounds and finished with 25 points, gave up their bodies in pursuit of every rebound and loose ball. Once, while Cheeks argued with an official that he'd been fouled after a basket, Kelvin Ransey, whom Cheeks was supposed to have been guarding, broke free for an easy basket.
Such lackadaisical play was reminiscent of the regular season, when Cunningham often bemoaned the Sixers' reliance on their ability to turn it on in the fourth quarter to pull out victories. Cunningham had known that no team could depend on fourth-quarter heroics in the playoffs when Malone, Philly's bread and butter, could get only crumbs in the second half of Game 1, when he was 0 for 2 from the field and took down only four rebounds. No wonder 76ers owner Harold Katz was upset. On the way to the Philadelphia locker room, he was told to cheer up. "You cheer up," Katz snapped. "You pay these guys all this bleepin' money and see how you feel, watching them play like that."
Two nights later, Cunningham wasn't exaggerating when he said Game 2 would be "a seventh game for us"—as in win or be, in effect, eliminated. The adjustment to be made, he added, would have to come on defense. "If we play up to our maximum offensive potential, and they play up to theirs, they win easily," Cunningham said. "They just have to be stopped. Micheal Ray Richardson was doing things to us that we don't let Magic Johnson do."
Before the game, trivia was the order of the day, as in, "Do you know [wink-wink] the last team [nudge-nudge] to come back from a 2-0 deficit in a five-game series [outright laughter]?" Of course, the answer—the 1955-56 Fort Wayne Pistons, who beat the St. Louis Hawks—was thought to be irrelevant.
It wasn't after New Jersey's second win showed that, although Philadelphia didn't play badly, the Nets were simply clicking on all five cylinders. That hadn't been true during the regular season, when New Jersey appeared to be going nowhere fast. Although nine of the Nets' 12 players were first-round NBA draft choices, New Jersey was never in sync long enough to put all that talent to use. After starting the season 5-2, the Nets went through a stretch during which 17 of 22 games were away. They won but eight of them. Then, as one Nets official put it, "Sugar came back."
It was widely assumed at the time that Richardson's return would be worse for New Jersey than six West Coast road trips. In fact, there was good reason to think that the Nets' early season fizzle actually began on Oct. 5, when Richardson, "easily the best player in training camp at the time," says Albeck, disappeared for three days. Richardson would later disclose that his absence was the result of a recurrence of his drug addiction, for which he had twice visited rehabilitation centers last spring and summer. Richardson's odd behavior and his initial reluctance to undergo further drug treatment would cause the Nets to put him on waivers six days after his disappearance. Under pressure from the league to take Richardson back, the Nets hesitantly restored him to their roster in late December—but only after he'd agreed to three urine tests per week for the remainder of the season and to the stipulation that he'd be permanently banned from the league if he ever tested positively for drug use.
When Richardson returned to the Nets, his teammates' less than enthusiastic welcome was "based in reality," says Albeck. "It was like he'd conned us. He had to win our respect again, not once but two and three times." Since his return, Richardson averaged 12 points and 4.5 assists in 48 regular-season games, but perhaps more important, says Albeck, he "reacquired his self-respect and sense of dignity."
"I can understand what the players were thinking," Richardson says. "But I'm just grateful for the opportunity to play again. I knew what I could do if given a chance. Now I'm just doing it."
But never, even at his pre-drug peak when he made the All-Star teams in 1980, '81 and '82, had Richardson shown the controlled all-around game he exhibited against the 76ers. In Game 1 he scored 18 points and dished out nine assists. Then in Game 2 he singlehandedly buried the Sixers, scoring 24 points in the first half and finishing with 32 (including three 3-pointers) and nine assists. Plus, he ruthlessly exploited a matchup with Cheeks, who at 6'1" is four inches shorter than Richardson and was hampered by tendinitis in his right knee. "Yeah, Cheeks...he's a nice guy, but he's not 100 percent," said Richardson after Game 2. "And in this league, when you're not 100 percent, you're in trouble. If I was hurt, he'd do the same to me."
Cheeks, who is the Sixers' defensive catalyst, gave everybody a scare when, midway through the third quarter of the second game, he scaled Mt. Dawkins on a fast break and tumbled headfirst into a basket support. Cheeks needed three stitches over his left eye and didn't return to the game.
"I saw him yesterday and asked him how his knee was," said Cunningham just before Sunday's game. "He said fine. I asked him about his eye. He said fine. Then he said his back was killing him."
Things had gotten better by Sunday's second half when Cheeks finally found a way to shackle Richardson, who, after an 11-point, nine-assist first half, finished with just 16 and 11. Cheeks played Richardson chest-to-chest all over the floor, thus stopping Richardson's penetration and, to a great extent, the Nets' fast break. And, with the Sixers clinging to a two-point lead with just 28 seconds to play, Cheeks stole a King pass and scored the clinching hoop.
"Now on defense they know we're going to be there, but they won't be sure from where," Cheeks said afterward. "There's some indecision in their minds." That may have been so, but still, at week's end, it was Philly that looked as if it may have waited too long to make up its mind about how it would defend its championship.