On the eve of the Philadelphia 76ers' opening-round playoff series with the New Jersey Nets last week, Julius Erving, the Sixers' guru in matters both physical and metaphysical, spoke eloquently of the tribulations of the 76ers, who have gone to the NBA finals four times in his eight seasons with them but have won only once, in 1983. "Those trials have created a humility about our team," Erving said, "one that won't be eliminated through trades or adversity."
Little did Erving know how strongly the Nets would reinforce that humility. Only a 108-100 win at the Meadowlands Arena last Sunday—a game Philly could easily have lost had New Jersey made more than nine of 20 free throws—kept alive the Sixers' goal of successfully defending their championship. The Nets had stunned the 76ers in the first two games of the best-of-five series in Philadelphia 116-101 and 116-102.
"We just didn't make the transition from the regular season to the playoffs well," Erving said after his 42-minute, 27-point performance in Game 3 helped make up for his meager 23 points in the first two games. "I'm just glad it wasn't a miniseries." Indeed, if the opening-round best-of-three miniseries format hadn't been junked this year, the Sixers would have succumbed to the biggest upset since the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers lost their miniseries in 1981 to the Houston Rockets, who were led by a center named Moses Malone.
The return to form of the swarming, overplaying defense that was the hallmark of the 76ers' 12-1 sprint through the playoffs a year ago saved them from the ignominy of becoming the first defending champs since the 1956-57 Warriors to be swept in their first playoff series. Led by forward Bobby Jones, starting his first game of the year, in place of the ineffective Marc Iavaroni, and the guttiness of hobbling guard Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia was able to disrupt the Nets' half-court offense by cutting off the passing lanes. More important, the Sixers choked off New Jersey's blistering fast break. In the first two games, the Nets had averaged 21.5 points off the break; Sunday they scored just 10.
Until Philadelphia's victory, the Nets—0-6 in their three previous NBA playoff appearances—had achieved the biggest surprise of the playoffs' opening week. And no one was more stunned than the Sixers.
"Everything they did, they did well," said Cheeks after Game 1. "Everything they tried, they did exactly right." Added Jones after Game 2, "It's just happening so fast. Play two games, get down 2-0. Last year we had the confidence to eat teams alive, and it was fun."
Eating teams alive—i.e., getting big early leads and coasting to impressive victories—was the stock-in-trade of the 76ers' 65-17 regular season and playoff romp of 1982-83. This year the Sixers were hampered by illness and injuries that caused various players to miss a total of 90 games and the team to finish "only" 52-30 during the regular season, but there was always a feeling in Philly that last year's magic was just an opening playoff tip-off away. "We have become reacquainted with our destinies," Erving intoned after the 76ers, by then hale and hearty, went 13-3 in March.
But New Jersey coach Stan Albeck, whose Nets had won 19 of their last 27, had other ideas. Before the opening game, the normally upbeat Albeck, sometimes referred to as Stanley Screamer for his penchant for letting off steam, seemed about to explode with optimism. "We're going to hand them their butts on a plate," Albeck said.
In preparing for the series, Albeck, who before the regular season had put together a film of center Darryl Dawkins committing silly fouls in hopes that the clip would persuade Sir Slam to stop making such transgressions, had a member of the Nets' sales staff, Mitch Kaufman, create films that stressed the strengths of each of the 76ers versus New Jersey during the regular season. Thus, Dawkins would see what Malone did best, guard Otis Birdsong could check out the Andrew Toney highlights, etc.
By the same token, the films also showed a few of the Sixers' deficiencies—when Malone dribbled, for example, the New Jersey guards were seen swarming around him and often stealing the ball. The Nets had taken advantage of these 76er shortcomings as effectively as any team in the league the past two seasons, as their 6-6 record against Philadelphia indicated. "Philly's a great defensive half-court team," Albeck said. "You can get by one defender, but the second always comes over to trap you or block the shot. The thing we did best against them was break that pressure down by taking the ball right to the basket. Nothing stops pressure defenses better than layups."