Not long after the Philadelphia 76ers' 104-96 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals last Saturday, Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham, owner Harold Katz and Assistant General Manager John Nash were dining at The Clock, a Milwaukee restaurant, when they had to suffer through an impromptu monologue from a Bucks fan who had spent too much time drowning his sorrows.
" Wilt Chamberlain would've eaten Moses Malone alive," the man began. "Mo wouldn't score a point against Wilt." Cunningham kept his cool, perhaps secure in the knowledge that even if Wilt were suited up for the Bucks and even if he did shut down Malone, he wouldn't have been able to handle Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and the rest of this marvelous team.
Such is the overall beauty of the 76ers that the Bucks could win but one of the series' first four games, 100-94 last Sunday in Game 4, which prevented the Sixers from sweeping them as they had swept the New York Knicks in the conference semis. And these Bucks are no pushovers. In the Eastern semis they had given the broom to the Boston Celtics. "We were the ones making the big plays against Boston; now the Sixers are doing it to us," said Milwaukee Forward Junior Bridgeman after Game 3. "We have no excuses. We did what we wanted to do, but how can you defend against every player or every play?"
You can't, which is the main reason why Philadelphia had won 50 of its first 57 regular-season games en route to a league-best 65-17 record. But despite, or perhaps because of, that success—and because the 76ers have failed so often in the past to win the league title—there has been exceedingly heavy pressure on this Philly team to win it all. "We're not going to win games by 20 points now like we did in the regular season. We don't expect to," said Cunningham before Game 2. "In a way it's been nicer to win like this because each of our playoff wins has been different, and we've always been able to do whatever's necessary."
The man who perhaps feels it is most necessary to win this year's playoffs is Cunningham, who, despite a 395-173 career record in his six seasons, hasn't seemed to glean any real joy from his work. "There's been a lot of pressure on him," Guard Clint Richardson says. "You would think it would be fun coaching this team, but in a way it's not, because we have to win the title sometime.
"All along people have said that you really don't have to coach this team. But a very talented bunch like this can be poison if it's not coached, because everyone would just go off in his own direction and the team would get messed up. Cunningham hasn't gotten his due yet, but since his early years he's gotten much better. The big thing is he has more confidence in us; he'll stay with us a little longer. Before he lacked patience."
That patience was evident during Game 3. Rookie Forward Marc Iavaroni was yanked by Cunningham with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter after two consecutive turnovers leading to two Milwaukee scores. "The way Marc was playing then, I didn't think we'd see him the rest of the playoffs," one Sixer said later. Yet in less than five minutes Cunningham returned Iavaroni to the floor.
Such confidence-building moves have no doubt been helpful, but one shouldn't forget that the Sixers' march through the playoffs was preordained by Moses. As the Sixers trained for their opening round against New York, Cunningham asked Malone how he saw the upcoming playoffs. Malone rumbled, "Fo', fo' and fo'," as in three four-game sweeps on the way to Philadelphia's first title since 1967, when Cunningham was the sixth man and Chamberlain was The Man. But ever since Katz plucked Malone from Houston last September and gave him $13.2 million over six years, he has been The Man. A two-time MVP who has led the league in rebounding the past three years, Malone ended the power shortage that had caused the Sixers to fizzle out in the 1980 and '82 NBA finals against the Lakers.
This season Malone quickly defused criticism that he couldn't play the Sixers' running game. "It's Julius' team; I'm just here to work hard," he said before play began. But it soon became apparent that Malone was Philly's most important player. Indeed, when Malone sat out the last four regular-season games with tendinitis of the right knee, the Sixers won only one of them.
Then, during the Sixers' week off before the start of postseason play, Malone developed an inflamed left knee, causing much trepidation. But he exploded for 38 points and 17 rebounds in the opener against the Knicks and, apart from the first game against the Bucks—when Bob Lanier and a sagging Buck defense held Malone to 14 points—he has been a force that no one has been able to deal with.