"This team hasn't played to its potential because of injuries and a laissez-faire approach," says Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams, "but I think everyone still fears the Sixers."
In the last few weeks, after injured Guard Doug Collins returned to the lineup and Erving reasserted himself, the Sixers were fearsome, getting 11 wins in a 13-game rampage down the stretch. But Collins was declared out of the playoffs because of a stress fracture in his left foot, so it will be up to Erving to inspire his teammates, as well as to contribute his own take-over skills.
The 76ers appear capable of handling the Nets whenever they wish, and they won the season series from the Spurs 3-1, "without our two centers and without Doug," as Coach Billy Cunningham points out. On the other hand, Collins has been the only Sixer able to contain San Antonio's incredible point machine, George Gervin. On still a third hand (in the NBA anything is possible), the Iceman's run for his second straight scoring title has come at the expense of the Spurs' vaunted passing game. Gervin isn't passing much anymore. In addition, he has criticized Coach Doug Moe for not giving him more playing time. Having recently lost five of six home games, the Spurs are hardly jingling into the playoffs—where they usually collapse anyway. As Moe so eloquently puts it, "When things are going bad, they ain't going good."
Just as San Antonio could be emotionally unequipped to beat Philadelphia, the Sixers (especially without Collins) may be physically unequipped to defeat Washington. This is cruel irony, in that Cunningham traded for defensive specialist Bobby Jones and quick Guard Eric Money with the express purpose of containing the Bullets' Dandridge and equalizing the Bullets' backcourt speed, respectively. Philadelphia beat the champions three out of four this season: once after squandering a 32-point lead; once without Erving, Collins or Money; and the last time at Landover when the Doctor was having one of his better nights. With Collins playing, the 76ers-Bullets might have been a classic series. Without him, not likely.
What everyone was able to witness in the Western Conference was a ferocious rumble right into the final weekend when the Pacific Division-winning Super-Sonics emerged with the best record (52-30), even though they finished the season with a shooting percentage (.468) that was the third-worst in the league. What the team lacks offensively, however, is more than made up for on defense; the Sonics led the league in lowest average point yield (103.9).
The Seattle defense takes over the moment opponents cross the center line and continues—unlike most teams' big-man fortifications—from the outside in. Dennis (D.J.) Johnson and Gus Williams are the finest pair of backcourt defenders in the sport, Johnson depending on his size (6'4"), strength and jumping ability to neutralize the big scorers, Williams relying on quicksilver hands and anticipation out front.
Down low, Jack Sikma and Lonnie Shelton give the Sonics the kind of muscle more often displayed in the local aircraft plants, while John Johnson, an exquisite passer, and Paul Silas, the aged bear, share the other forward spot. When Seattle lost Center Tom LaGarde early, Coach Lenny Wilkens moved Sikma to the pivot, where he averaged 12 rebounds. Shelton rapidly took over some of the scoring load (he hit 13 straight shots in one game) and the Sonics proceeded to lead the league in attendance—the Kingdome and that lovable buffoon of a mascot, T. Wheedle, helped—as well as to disprove the theory that their playoff performance of last spring was a case of astonishing luck.
Early in March, trouble appeared in the form of Silas' criticism that the Sonics were "a Cinderella team...built on emotion...but without foundation" and in the specter of Dennis Johnson's pouting about his contract. But a successful (5-2) late road trip laid the sniping to rest, and now only Downtown Fred Brown's fractured ring finger (on his non-shooting hand) might hinder the Sonics.
Until the championship round, Seattle would seem to overmatch any likely opponent. The Sonics have more quickness, more rebounding, more depth, a lot more defense than anybody else in the West and the intangible quality of knowing each other well, liking each other (gasp!) and understanding what this tournament is all about.
"We weren't respected last season," says D.J., whose complete-game qualities make him the best 43-percent-shooting player who ever lived. "But our adrenaline flowed into momentum, a piece stuck in everybody, and it's all still with us."