For fast-food and fast-break freaks alike, last week's NBA qualifying series between Buffalo and Philadelphia was made in Hamburger Heaven. Big Mac vs. Big Mac, Bob McAdoo of the Braves vs. George McGinnis of the 76ers—a confrontation people could sink their teeth into.
Strategies did not allow the lean Buffalo center and the muscular Philadelphia forward to confront each other often, the two of them scoring, rebounding and intimidating like circus stars in separate rings. Still, it was the success and failure of each that dictated the success and failure of their respective teams, and in the final game of the best-of-three series McAdoo and his Braves prevailed in overtime 124-123.
Buffalo and Philadelphia came into the playoffs as closely matched as twins, from their identical 46-36 records, which put them in a second-place tie behind Boston in the Atlantic Division, to their shared defense-be-damned style of play. And although the 76ers had won four of the seven regular-season games, no one was saying they were superior. "We're equal," said Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue. "Neither of us has a real advantage over the other." Even the intangibles seemed to balance out, since the Braves had the playoff experience, the 76ers the advantage of two games at home.
This was Buffalo's third straight postseason appearance and Philadelphia's first since 1971. "It's important to know how to prepare yourself mentally," said 76er Guard Doug Collins. Reassuring advice was hard to find, though. Brave Forward Jim McMillian, a veteran of five playoffs and an NBA championship with Los Angeles, admitted, "After all these years I still feel the pressure. Mentally it kills you. And even if you win, you can't enjoy it while you're out on the court."
Philadelphia's edge was supposed to be its superior play at the Spectrum, where it finished 34-7, compared to 12-29 on the road. Buffalo hoped to counter with a barometer of another sort: home or away, it had won 21 of the 24 games in which McMillian scored 20 or more points.
Everyone knew, of course, that the most important factors would be the number of points McAdoo and McGinnis scored. While a big game by either did not guarantee a victory, a poor one all but assured a loss. "If I don't play well, we won't win," said McAdoo, who averaged 31.1 points in capturing his third straight scoring championship. McGinnis, who averaged 23 in his first NBA season following four years in the ABA, echoed McAdoo. "When I'm not going right, everybody stands around and waits."
Buffalo's 95-89 victory on Thursday night in the Spectrum seemed to reflect these indices. The Braves won because McAdoo was brilliant (36 points, 21 rebounds and four blocked shots) and McMillian outstanding (23 points). The 76ers lost because McGinnis was held to four points in the second half and 20 overall. Philadelphia's home-court advantage became meaningless when several players, notably Collins and Center Harvey Catchings, developed playoff nerves.
Following McGinnis' opening basket the Braves never trailed by more than a point. And they allowed only one 76er, Guard Fred Carter, to surpass his season's average with 30 points. But like McGinnis, Carter was not a factor in the last 15 minutes.
McGinnis claimed personal responsibility for the loss. His showing had nothing to do with defender John Shumate, he said. "I just lost my rhythm when Carter got hot. I can go around Shumate when I want to and I can shoot over him when I want to." Indeed, this was true. On one baseline drive early in the first quarter McGinnis twisted past Shumate into the open and drew a roar from the crowd as he leaped to shoot. The shot, unfortunately, sailed over the backboard.
McGinnis was undaunted. "I'm not disturbed, I'm not upset and I'm not going to lose any sleep," he promised. "We will all play better in Buffalo. I just hope everybody is as confident as me." McAdoo, meanwhile, worriedly reminded himself of last year's playoff against Washington, when the Braves won the opener on the road, only to lose the next game at home. "We can't let that happen again," he said. "It would be bringing them back to life."