Nissalke was worrying mainly about McGinnis and Erving—"They're the guys," he said. "What's Lloyd Free going to do to us?"—but the Rockets might be playing Boston instead of Philadelphia except for Free, the self-acclaimed Prince of Midair, who makes basketball purists cringe with his one-on-one 25-footers.
"I love it when people put the rap on me," says Free, a 6'3" second-year man out of Guilford College via the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. "They're just waiting for me to mess up, the same ones who have been waiting for Muhammad Ali to put his foot in his mouth. Look at our records, his and mine. My teammates know that when there's a game to be won I'll win it for 'em. You can't stop me. You try to cut off my driving, I'll jump on you. If you jump on me, I'll jump over you. I don't care if you're David Thompson. The only man who can stop Lloyd Free is Gene Shue, and he just tells me, 'Lloyd, the ball is yours. Put it up when you need to.' How many second-year players you ever see can play like me? Before the last Boston game, Dave Cowens came up to me, looked me up and down and said, I don't believe you.' " Free laughs. "The NBA is like the ghetto. Only the strong survive. And I'm one of the strong ones."
And what of Dawkins, the 20-year-old, 6'11" 257-pounder with the 33-inch thighs and 36-inch waist who went directly from the cradle into a Cadillac Fleetwood last year? He has become what is known in the NBA as a "force." He moved from No. 3 center to No. 2 behind Caldwell Jones in late January when starting Center Harvey Catchings injured an elbow, and arrived in April with a 20-point, nine-rebound game against New Orleans. "Within two years, he will unquestionably be the franchise." predicts McGinnis, of all people.
Dawkins was superb, playing 25 minutes in Game One against Malone in the Battle of the Babies. On one play he blocked a shot by Lucas, dribbled halfway upcourt, passed to McGinnis, streaked to the basket, took a pass thrown behind him and slammed home a rim-shaking reverse dunk.
"It wasn't quite a gorilla dunk like I wanted," said Dawkins, who threw down the single most-watched dunk in basketball history. That was the "De Laurentiis Dunk" he made against Portland, and which CBS now runs in slow motion on its NBA promos, four or five times a telecast. "That dunk gave me a new public image," Dawkins says. "Used to be people always said, 'He's the one who went right from high school to the pros.' Now they say, 'That's Dawkins. He's the one be dunkin' on CBS.' "
Even with Free's ICBMs and the awesome Dawkins added to the Philadelphia attack—and not forgetting the 76ers' other capable substitute, Forward Steve Mix—one big question remains: Can the 76ers ever be as great as the sum of their parts? "No problem," says Erving. "We've always been cool spiritually. It's taken us this long to do it on the court."
"This club has been the most scrutinized club in the history of basketball," says McGinnis. "We've been like a wagonload of gold moving cross-country. Everybody waited in ambush to get their piece. Now we have arrived. Intact."
Not so fast. Shue still worries about the 76ers' execution breaking down from time to time—owing to the team's disdain for discipline and practice, where they behave like bored kindergarteners.
For his part, Nissalke works the Rockets as though they were on Parris Island, and the Rockets, who have come so far, are not about to be laughed off by Philadelphia.
"We can beat them," says Calvin Murphy. "They have the superstars, we have the shooters and the discipline. I've been waiting seven years for this. I just learned that when you're winning you're no longer 'too small.' " With the series moving back to Houston, his problem is to figure out how to start winning in the first place.