It was largely because of Malone's presence that Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson said early last week, "The way I look at it, if we were better than them, we'd have won 65 games and we would have the home-court advantage."
Milwaukee's offense all year had been generated by the dazzling duo of Guard/Forward Sidney Moncrief and Forward Marques Johnson. In Game 1 in Philadelphia, Johnson had 30 points, getting 12 of them consecutively at the end of the first half to help cut a 16-point Philly lead to two. It took a spectacular steal by Bobby Jones of an inbounds pass and his blind pass to Richardson, who dunked for his sixth point in overtime, to clinch Philly's 111-109 victory.
Despite the loss, the Bucks had reason to be pleased going into Game 2. They had controlled Malone and come close to winning despite a seven-point performance by Moncrief. Milwaukee committed 25 turnovers in the opener, but before Game 2 Nelson said he had taken care of that problem, too. "I told all my players at practice today that I have a size 14 shoe and that I will plant it up their you-know-wheres if they don't take care of the ball better," Nelson said. "Of course, some of their rears are so big that my foot might disappear."
Instead, it was the Milwaukee offense that disappeared—just when it had in Game 1—during the final few minutes of Philadelphia's 87-81 victory. And again Jones made the key defensive play, blocking a layup attempt by Brian Winters that resulted in an Erving slam that effectively iced the game.
"They've tried to slow the game down, tried to bully us. I don't know what else they can do, but they have to do something, don't they?" Richardson asked after the second Philly win. Indeed, a victory in Game 3 would be crucial to Milwaukee. No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
Clearly Erving, who had scored just six points in Game 2 and two points in the second half of Game 1—following a 17-point first half—was due to break out as the series shifted to Milwaukee. To be sure, he had missed one practice with a sore left knee. Said Marques Johnson, "He has to be hurting. He's not playing like he usually does on offense. When he's at his best he just explodes on you."
It was Milwaukee that did the exploding in Game 3. Bridgeman, who had been made a starter in Game 2 to get some scoring going, but shot a ghastly 1 for 12, got 16 points in the first half as Milwaukee took a 48-45 lead.
The lead had reached seven, 78-71, with 9:57 to play in the game, when Cunningham leaped off the bench and called time, presumably to berate the 76ers. Before he could begin, Cheeks, who was out of the game at the time, gave Cunningham a slap on the rear, as if to say, "Don't worry, things are going to be all right."
Cheeks helped by going in and scoring seven consecutive points to tie the game at 78 with 8:24 to play. Then Erving, who would finish with 26 points, took over, scoring 11 points in the last eight minutes to ensure victory and erase any doubts about his health.
But it was Cheeks—the most consistent Philadelphian during the postseason, according to Cunningham—who hadn't let the game slip away. As in years past, Little Mo has elevated his game during the playoffs. His 18.8-point average through Sunday was six higher than his regular-season pace.