Julius Erving's hair is peppered with gray, as are some of his moves. Moses Malone is in street clothes and wearing dark glasses to hide the eye injury that ended his season on March 28. Bobby Jones is playing out the string, longing to rest his weary bones. Andrew Toney, the team's most deadly jump-shooter, is ailing, angry and absent. Playing in his place is a sixth-round draft pick named Sedale Threatt.
Bob McAdoo, signed in late January as a postseason insurance policy, could use one himself. He hobbles around with a bad knee and hasn't played in a month. An unobtrusive rookie named Greg Stokes starts at power forward, a 6'8" rookie named Terry Catledge starts at center, and a rookie coach. Matt Guokas, calls the shots on the sideline.
Doesn't all this make the Milwaukee Bucks nervous?
Actually, it probably does. These are still the Philadelphia 76ers, after all, the team that has eliminated the Bucks at one stage or another in four of the last five postseasons. And they look dangerous in the unfamiliar role of underdog in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
May 4, 1986
"We're in a perfect position to continue overachieving," said Erving Sunday.
The 76ers as overachievers seems a quaint notion, but it's an accurate one. Philadelphia needed five games to eliminate the Washington Bullets in the NBA's most competitive first-round series, the decisive win coming in decisive fashion, 134-109, on Sunday at the Spectrum. It's hard to say whether the clincher was the result of the Sixers' reaching down deep or the Bullets' not even bothering to stoop. The Sixers led 40-22 after one period and finished up by biting the Bullets on the break (42 points to 10), on blocked shots (13-5) and on the boards (49-42 and 255-192 in rebounds for the series). The total team effort (seven players in double figures, eight with three or more rebounds) may well have signaled the Sixers' readiness for Milwaukee, which won four of five regular-season meetings.
At the very least, Philadelphia hardly looked like a team that had lost players for a combined 119 games to a variety of injuries during the season, but it made sweet use of its adversity. Here's how:
Toney's six-game season was a nightmare, what with stress fractures of both feet, surgery to remove bone spurs from his left foot, surgery to repair a twist in his spermatic cord and an ongoing feud with management, which treated him, in Toney's words, "like raw meat." But in his absence, Maurice Cheeks, who this season became only the sixth guard to lead the NBA in minutes played, turned shootist. His 15.4 average was two points higher than his previous season best and four points higher than his career average. He was even better against the Bullets, scoring 21 per game, second only to Charles Barkley's 21.4. (If Cheeks hasn't recovered from the ankle sprain he suffered in the fourth quarter on Sunday—team officials said Monday that Cheeks would play in the first game—the Sixers can forget about beating Milwaukee.) And, save for a late-season slump, Threatt was a treat for the Sixers with his on-the-move jumper, which produced 9.9 points a game.
Erving's scoring average, never below 20 points in nine previous NBA seasons, dipped to 18.1, and he had a career low of 5.0 rebounds. Reason? The man turned 36 in February. But Doc's diminishing light was simply refracted to Barkley (20 points, 12.8 rebounds), and surely no one disputes Jones when he says, "Charles is the heart of this team right now." After Catledge scored a team-high 27 points Sunday, in fact, he gave considerable credit to Barkley's tutelage. "I'm like his father," said Barkley, who, at 23, is only six months older than Catledge. Father Barkley didn't do badly Sunday, either, with a triple-double of 19 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists.
Malone's season ended when the Bucks' Randy Breuer broke the orbit bone around his right eye during a scramble for a loose ball in March at the Spectrum. "It was an accident," says Erving, "but no one's forgotten that it happened against the Bucks." Malone's doctors wavered for almost a month on whether he could return—Moses himself sounded less than optimistic—before finally deciding last Saturday that he should not play again this season.
No one would seriously suggest that the Sixers are better without Malone, but his absence does make them different. Catledge, a non-factor for much of the season, averaged 15.8 points against Washington and showed moves that could bother the Bucks in the middle, where they are weakest. Also, Malone's absence creates "more open driving lanes," according to Erving, and more room for him and Barkley to post up.
With Barkley as the leader, maturity is obviously not a Sixer strength. Barkley drew a technical in games two, three and four in the Bullets series, including one while Guokas was standing in front of him telling him to shut up. Catledge, Stokes and Threatt made more than their share of youthful mistakes, too. But that's what makes the Sixers fun to watch, unpredictable and a little volatile.
There was Erving leaping over the press table in pursuit of a high pass Sunday. There was Jones wavering ever so slightly on his retirement decision—"Call it almost irrevocable," he says—because he has enjoyed watching this team overachieve. There was demon Johnson, 29, the solid, unassuming backup center, saying after Sunday's win, "We knew something good was going to happen before our feet hit the floor." And there was Cheeks comparing this team to the championship outfit of 1983. "That team was a bunch of workaholics. This one is harder to read because it's so loose, it exhibits so much energy. It's interesting."
Not as interesting as the Sixers' offseason might be. Outspoken owner Harold Katz, who openly accused Toney of malingering, has alienated...well, no one has an accurate count on that. But include Toney. There is the matter, too, of a megacontract for Erving, the walking conglomerate, who wants to play one more year. Cheeks is a free agent—count the Bulls and the Nets, among others, as instant contenders with Cheeks at the point—and his representative, Lance Luchnick, has been making $1 million-per-year noises. (Cheeks now earns about $350,000.) And Malone has hinted that he wants an extension of his six-year $13.2 million contract.
But that's in the future. The issue now is to make the Bucks stop here. The Sixers have done it before. Can they do it again?