As the NBA championship finals bobbed and weaved their way along last week, it was fairly obvious that neither opponent, in the words of the eminent Mr. Rocky Balboa, was "just another bum from the neighborhood." At least not in its own neighborhood.
While the Philadelphia 76ers discovered how to run a playoff offense (somebody get the ball to Julius Erving or Doug Collins and everybody else take a cab to south Jersey), the Portland Trail Blazers learned how to survive back in Oregon by pretending the Doctor was only human and that they belonged in the same ring—uh, court—after all.
"We seem to get energy and sustenance from the response at home," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay said Sunday afternoon after his Blazers had stuffed the 76ers' 2-0 series lead back in their faces, in a 129-107 blowout. "The floor is made the same as Philly's. What is it?"
Perhaps it was Bill Walton, who finally discovered his passing lanes unclogged and joyfully passed off for nine assists to go along with his 20 points and 18 rebounds. Or Guards Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis, who made negligible contributions during the two 76er victories but who combined for 33 points in Game Three. Or Dave Twardzik and Lloyd Neal, who came off the bench to lead Portland's 42-point fourth-quarter fireworks.
Despite Erving's face-saving 28 points, Philadelphia appeared as lost and shaken—yes, as mismatched—as Portland had been earlier. "The Sixers just can't win here," said Portland's Bob Gross. Which, of course, had gone double for the Blazers in Philadelphia.
By outplaying the Trail Blazers in the psychological preliminaries so crucial to an NBA final, the 76ers took what seemed an insurmountable lead even before the series started. First there was the injury list, which started with Lloyd Free (partially collapsed lung, bruised rib), continued to George McGinnis (groin pull) and Steve Mix (bad ankle) and peaked with mysterious blurred vision in the right eye of Darryl Dawkins, who said he woke up one morning "all set to say 'Oh what a beautiful morning,' and I find I can't see."
To those who believe Dawkins' only responsibility is to get the colors on the uniforms right as he takes names and blasts bodies, this appeared to be (and subsequently was) as serious a threat to the health and welfare of his own teammates as it was to the enemy. Nevertheless, the specter of a partially blinded Dawkins roaming unchained must have given the Trail Blazers pause.
There was also the matter of Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue's closed practices. Everybody knew the series would be one of contrasts: Blazer calculation vs. 76er creativity; Portland discipline vs. Philly anarchy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the teams' practices, which, in style and substance, resembled, respectively, a recital by Horowitz and a picnic with Daffy Duck.
When Shue closed his picnic to outsiders, the public was spared such basic workout scenes as George McGinnis sneaking cigarettes and playing with Erving's children, Dawkins supine reading a newspaper, and assorted 76ers feigning boxing matches, twirling balls on fingertips and heaving mindless shots and passes as they non-listened to Shue.
These were our future NBA champions? Well, probably. As Shue conceded, "We have the best of one world—the playground."