When the word came in from Portland a couple of weeks ago that Bill Walton had fractured a foot and was out of the playoffs, the reaction in Philadelphia was immediate. The 76ers began pondering how to rearrange their jewelry so as to clear fingers for NBA championship rings.
The Sixers had romped through the Knicks in four straight and were expected to clobber the old, crippled Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference finals. O.K., so they got caught fiddling around in Game 1 and Washington upset them at home, 122-117 in overtime. However, Bullet Center Wes Unseld sprained his right ankle in the game and two days later Kevin Grevey zapped himself with his hair dryer. And so, before Julius Erving could sincerely remind his fans for the zillionth time that "We owe you one," the Sixers would surely have the whole thing wrapped up and be on beaches from Aruba to Zanzibar, "Sunnin' and funnin', restin' and digestin'," as Center Darryl (Daddy Dunk) Dawkins might say.
But by sundown last Sunday the Sixers were squawkin' and walkin', losin' and confusin', down 3-1 to the Bullets and on the edge of extinction.
"Embarrassed?" Erving said to a reporter after Washington's Bob Dandridge ate him alive in Game 3. "Why should I be embarrassed?"
"Why? Because you are such a great team," said the reporter, not without a touch of sarcasm.
Erving pulled himself up gravely, the way he does, and replied, "I think that can be somewhat overstated."
But certainly no one ever thought of the Bullets as a great team, even when everyone was healthy, which they were for a total of eight games this season. What has made them the big story of the playoffs is 1) they are winning, and 2) they are winning by running. "Please try to believe it," Coach Dick Motta says.
It also helped the Bullets that Elvin Hayes, trying to undo his reputation for folding in the clutch, was playing the best basketball of his 10-year career, while his opposite number on the Sixers, George McGinnis, was re-creating his "McGoonis" role of last year's championship series against Portland, what with a 15.5-point average on .392 shooting. Hayes won Game 1, scoring nine of the Bullets' 13 points in overtime to finish with 28, plus 18 rebounds, six blocked shots and four steals. He also stayed close to the basket on defense to help Unseld rope off the middle and dominate the rebounding 64-57, leaving McGinnis free to fire at will from the outside.
"Before this series is over," said Big George, unruffled after missing 11 of 16 shots, "I'll be as big a factor as any forward on the floor." Mmm hmm.
At a practice session before Game 2, Grevey, who had scored 26 points and helped hold Doug Collins to 12 in the opener, "felt something pop" in his neck while blow-drying his hair. It appeared for a while that he would have to join Unseld on the bench along with Guard Phil Chenier, who had been there for four months with back problems. But Grevey took 12 showers on game day to loosen his neck and scored eight points in the first half. Dandridge got 16 against Erving, taking off downcourt as soon as the Sixers put up a shot and completing fast-break layups after Hayes, Greg Ballard or Mitch Kupchak, Unseld's replacement, cleared the boards and fired him the ball. "Julius doesn't get back on the break," said Dandridge matter-of-factly.