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THIS IS THE ONE YOU OWE US. The banner hung in Philadelphia's Spectrum last Wednesday night, a message from 76er fans to the 76ers. Twenty minutes before game time a crowd that would reach a capacity of 18,276 was already stomping and screaming itself into a lather, and even the pregame warmups were unusually intense. Not many individual games in the long NBA season mean much anymore. This one clearly did.
Here were the two best teams in the league—the Philadelphia 76ers, the might-have-been-champions and suddenly the Team of Brotherly Love, versus the Portland Trail Blazers, the champions-in-fact. It took little more than the sight of Bill Walton hopping up and down, slapping his thighs, psyching himself during the national anthem, to summon up for 76er fans the awful memory of last spring's playoff finals. With Philadelphia ahead two games to none, Walton began making those funny rolling gestures with his hands above his head, and the Blazers responded by running the Sixers into whatever river happened to be nearest—the Schuylkill or the Willamette—on the way to winning four straight and the championship.
And there was an even fresher memory: in the next meeting of the two clubs, a nationally televised game in Portland on Oct. 28, the 76ers had taken a five-point lead into the fourth quarter, only to have the nightmare repeat itself. Same funny rolling gestures, and a 98-94 loss. Following that one, Walton reiterated what he had said after the playoffs: "Once we learn how to beat a team, we can do it and can keep doing it."
But though the names and faces were the same, the 76ers Walton & Co. faced last Wednesday were not the team the Blazers had learned how to beat. Coach Gene Shue was gone. Billy Cunningham had ridden up on a white stallion to hug and slap palms and joke with his love-starved millionaires, and the Sixers were off and running at their awesome best. Even with Darryl Dawkins, the youngest certified terrorist in NBA history, missing eight games after allegedly cutting his index finger washing dishes (some say it happened in a sword fight with his brother), the Sixers won 14 of their first 16 games under Billy C, including a string of 10 straight.
Portland, meanwhile, had been executing like a crack commando outfit, winning 18 of its 21 games, all 12 at home and six of nine on the road, outscoring its opponents by an astonishing average of 12.3 points a game, nearly double Philadelphia's second-best 6.3. And the Blazers did this with Forward Maurice Lucas out for five games with acute bronchitis.
On the afternoon of the Sixer game, Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay, fresh from a 116-94 win in Cleveland, Portland's eighth straight, downplayed the emotional aspect of the coming confrontation. Ramsay is one cool man.
"We beat Philadelphia in the playoffs because we played our game better than they played theirs," he said. "Right now we're even better. If we play well 1,000 times in a row, we should win 1,000 times in a row."
In the Spectrum, the 76ers were watching a videotape of the October loss to the Blazers, seeing themselves get hopelessly fouled up on defense in the fourth period, unable to switch fast enough to stay with Portland's perpetual motion. They watched their own offense break down into its once-characteristically selfish playground chaos. Cunningham turned off the sound so his players would not be distracted by the harsh criticism of the commentators, one of whom had been Billy Cunningham.
The coach still sounded like a TV man when he said, "What we have here tonight are the league's two hottest teams. But this game is not going to make or break either one." Cunningham is a cool one, too, and so are his players. Dr. Julius Erving, sounding curiously like Dr. Ramsay, said, "We feel if we play up to our potential, offensively and defensively, there is no way we can lose."
George McGinnis said he was anxious to even the score with Lucas, who had held him to 39% shooting in the playoffs. For his part, Lucas said, "Sure, Big George is waiting for me. Everybody is waiting for me. I'm like Billy the Kid."