On Sunday, a few hours after the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, Phil Collins, the forlorn-looking rocker, took center stage at the Spectrum. How appropriate. The Sixers' 115-104 victory had given them One More Night. Their effort to dethrone the champion Celtics, however, would continue Against All Odds because no team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series.
To become the first, Philadelphia would have to bounce back from a week of disappointment and even a little recrimination. After their 108-93 loss to the Celtics in Game 1, the Sixers came up short by a 106-98 score in Game 2 in Boston. Sixer guard Andrew Toney, the erstwhile Boston Strangler, shot 3 for 17, and that left the 76ers stunned. "We're like a ship with a hole in it," guard Clint Richardson said. "We can still go, but we're taking on water." With the series returning to Philly for Games 3 and 4, Toney set sail again, twice scoring 26 points. And Charles Barkley, who had a modest 19 points and 22 rebounds in the first two games, went for 38 points and 31 rebounds in the second two. But the captain of the ship was not his old self. On Saturday, Julius Erving suffered through the most feckless playoff game of his 14-year career. A clear path to the basket would open for Erving—and a Celtic would reach in and flick the ball out of bounds. Or, Erving would come away with the ball right under the Sixer basket—and send a follow shot skidding off the glass. Maurice Cheeks would find Julius with a perfect lob pass—and the ball would confound Erving's venerable hands. His normally seamless fall-away jumpers meandered all over the Spectrum.
Erving finished Game 3 with five points and a single field goal in 10 attempts, a finger roll early in the third quarter. Even that clunked around the rim disagreeably before going down. This was not Dr. J, but Julius (Clifford) Erving. "He did a great defensive job on me," the Celtics' Larry Bird offered magnanimously. "When I busted loose in the fourth quarter [for 10 of his 26 points], he wasn't on me."
Erving laid part of the blame for his dismal afternoon on Sixer coach Billy Cunningham, who yanked him three times after he missed shots in the second half. "It was hard to get any confidence out there," Erving said. "All I knew was, if I missed a shot, I was coming out."
May 26, 1985
But Erving's poor performance wasn't the only reason for the Sixers' 105-94 loss in Game 3, which they themselves had designated as a game they had to win. And Game 3 was only one-third of the reason they were down three games to none. A panoply of factors had staked Boston to its surprising lead, including:
•The Celtics' size. The Sixers are the smallest team in the NBA, but they usually compensate with skill, quickness and tenacity. However, the Celtics' imposing front line only grew bigger when 6'8" forward Cedric Maxwell hurt his knee in February and the 6'10" Kevin McHale began starting in the Rubberband Man's spot alongside Robert Parish, who's 7 feet, and Bird, who's really 6'10". Boston's big people ran down scores of second shots and harassed any Philliputian who went to the hoop.
•The Sixers' panic. Neither team had won on the other's home court during their six regular-season meetings, so Philly's two losses in Boston were no surprise. Yet, in the three-day hiatus between Games 2 and 3, Cunningham kept open the possibility of benching Toney and starting Richardson, even though Richardson went on record against the idea. Meanwhile, Sixer owner Harold Katz, in his most Steinbrennerian utterance to date, bleated loudly about shaking up the team during the off-season, perhaps by trading for a big forward. Indiana's Clark Kellogg was mentioned.
•The Celtics' mental edge. Boston was the sharper team, committing fewer turnovers, shooting better from the line and moving the ball more adroitly. The Celtics' edge in control gave them the confidence to sink the clutch shots and come away with more loose balls. Even when the 76ers did what they had to do, the Celtics did more. At the half in Game 3, Philly led in rebounds, free throws taken and field goals attempted, and had made fewer turnovers. Still, the Sixers trailed. Boston sank a buzzer-beater at the end of each of the first three quarters. "They were momentum-getters," Bird said. "If they hit the last shot, their crowd goes off for five minutes."
•The Celtics' perimeter shooting. Each time a Celtic guard held the ball outside, Cunningham yelled for his men to "back off." That is, drop down and double-team Boston's big men near the basket. But, as Bird said, "We're kinda glad to see that." Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Ray Williams consistently stepped up and interred critical open jumpers. Even the cornermen, notably Bird and Scott Wedman, joined in the bombardment. As usual, Bird did most of his damage late. "Come the fourth quarter," he says, "that's my quarter."
Erving played better on Sunday, though he still shot miserably (4 for 21), again prompting questions about whether his era had indeed come to an end. He demurred, calling them "off-season thoughts." But if his dotage has given him anything, it's a sense of history. He pointed out how the 1981 and '82 Philly-Boston playoff series had each gone seven games after starting out 3-1. Of course, neither of those series had begun 3-0. Even with the Sixers' Sunday reprieve, it was the Celtics' turn to play Doctor. Maxwell volunteered. "Their pulse is fading fast," he said. "Better call a priest."