Malone was shooting turnaround three-point jumpers as he warmed up for Game 4, laughing hysterically every time he fired one up. In the first quarter he shot 2 for 8 and stopped laughing as the Lakers pulled ahead by as many as 16 points during the second period. Los Angeles did some of its damage with backups like Landsberger, Dwight Jones and Mike McGee on the floor at the same time. Those three had logged only 21 minutes of playing time in the Lakers' previous series against San Antonio, but against Philadelphia they were called on often because of injuries to Guard Norm Nixon, Forward Bob McAdoo and rookie Swingman James Worthy.
Worthy had broken his leg two weeks before the playoffs began, and McAdoo had pulled a thigh muscle in the final game of the San Antonio series while attempting to come back from a three-month layoff after toe surgery. Nixon suffered what turned out to be a separated left shoulder—he said at the time it was a bruise—in Game 1 when he collided with Toney, and he was never a factor after scoring 26 points in the first game. In the third he strained a tendon in his left knee and McAdoo reinjured his thigh, and both of them sat out Game 4.
Given their depleted roster, it was remarkable that the Lakers entered the fourth quarter with an 11-point advantage, but Philadelphia outscored them 10-2 in the first three minutes of the period. "We gave them life," said Erving, sounding faintly apocalyptic, "then we took it away." Malone, who got 10 of his 23 rebounds in the final quarter, knew that the defending champs were about to fold. "I could see them tightening up," he said. "They saw us comin' again, comin' again. The train was comin' again."
The Sixers still trailed 106-104 when, with a little more than two minutes to play, Erving singlehandedly turned the game around with three stunning plays. First, as Abdul-Jabbar attempted to pass the ball to Michael Cooper, the Doctor deflected it upcourt. He beat Cooper to the ball and had the basket dead ahead of him. It was on almost precisely the same type of play in the sixth and final game a year ago that Erving had a breakaway layup blocked from behind by McAdoo. That was the decisive play of that game. This time Erving threw down what he later described as a "no doubt about it" dunk. "It was a struggle the whole time," Jones said. "It wasn't until that steal Julius made that we really had a chance. He took over the game and put it in his back pocket."
A minute later Cheeks hit Erving on another fastbreak drive, and the Doc's resultant three-point play gave the 76ers a 109-107 edge. But after an Abdul-Jabbar foul shot cut the lead to one, with 42 seconds left and the Sixers' offense stalled temporarily, Erving looked over the Lakers' defense from the top of the free-throw circle and saw no openings. The shot clock was down to :06. "There wasn't time to drive, there wasn't time to swing the ball, so I let it fly," Erving said later. "I didn't find that shot. It found me."
The ball cut through the net and the Lakers like a knife. Erving is unaccustomed to taking 18-foot jumpers, much less making them, but now he knew something special was happening to him. "While I was scoring those seven points," he said, "I lost my concentration for a while, thinking about what was going on."
In the 76ers' locker room afterward, Malone mugged playfully for the TV cameras, posturing and roaring in the manner of Muhammad Ali. For a man as reserved as Malone has always been in public, it was a rare and touching display of animation. "This was for the Doc," Malone said. "I wanted to be able to say that I played on a world championship team with Dr. J." Then Malone sagged visibly. "This is the first time I feel tired," he said. "As soon as a series is over, I get tired." Backup Center Earl Cureton wandered by with a friend who wanted to meet Malone. "I want you to meet Al Capone Malone," Cureton said. "He steals basketball games."
Moses' mouth curled into a wide smile. "That's me," he agreed, "the gangster of basketball."
Later that night Malone tried to make Cunningham an offer he couldn't refuse. The coach's contract with the Sixers has expired, and he has intimated that he may quit so he can spend more time with his family. In his six seasons as coach he has gone from being a mere figurehead who jumped up and down and screamed a lot to being the architect of one of the finest teams in the 37-year history of the league. Philadelphia won this year because it played great defense, and Cunningham was the one responsible for that. In the jubilant aftermath of Game 4, Malone threw an ursine arm around Cunningham's head and said gruffly, "You're stayin' and we're repeatin'." If anything can make Cunningham sign again with owner Harold Katz, it's probably a command like that.
Whether or not Philadelphia next season becomes the first NBA team in 15 years to successfully defend its championship, the 76ers have already stood a very unusual test of time. "All too often, teams that get to the finals and don't win are broken up," says Erving. "In Philadelphia that didn't happen. It was a team that took six years to build. We did it the hard way, we did it the long way, but we did it better than anybody else."