A secretly prepared, minutely detailed script locked away for eight months in Commissioner Larry O'Brien's safe couldn't have made for a better NBA championship series than the one between the Lakers and 76ers. Glamour team West vs. glamour team East. Coach who quotes Shakespeare vs. Billy the Kangaroo Kid from Brooklyn. Kareem, the unquestioned superstar of the '70s, vs. the Doctor, who wasn't far behind. Magic here, Chocolate Thunder there.
The suspense was even greater than it might have been, because, under the league's new unbalanced scheduling format, East met West only twice this season, with the teams splitting. Thus when the Sixers arrived in Los Angeles last week for the tip-off, there was passionate disagreement over which team was better. Adding fuel to the flames, a poll showed that the 18 NBA coaches whose teams didn't reach the playoff semifinals favored the 76ers, 11-7.
"You're a one-man team," went the Phi My line. "Kareem can have his 30, we'll stop all the rest."
"We'll stop Dr. J and all the rest," said L.A. "And what about Magic?"
" Boston's Larry Bird was better," said Philly.
"You guys haven't seen Darryl Dawkins lately," said Philly.
"You mean Chocolate Blunder?" said L.A.
And that wasn't all. Philadelphia thought its Maurice Cheeks was better than L.A.'s Norm Nixon, and L.A. thought its Jamaal Wilkes was, well, almost as good as the good doctor, Julius Erving. Friends of Wilkes claim they've heard him say he is better, and Wilkes himself has said, "Doc doesn't even compare to Elgin Baylor." The Easterners felt that the 76er bench, with Bobby Jones, Henry Bibby and Steve Mix, was as good as any in the league, implying that the Lakers would have to send in such perennial Forum courtsiders as Walter Matthau and Jack Nicholson.
And so it went as the Lakers ran off with Game 1, 109-102. Philadelphia came right back to win Game 2, 107-104, and then returned home to the Spectrum and lost, 111-101. That forced the 76ers to suck it up for Game 4, which they did to beat L.A. 105-102. As the teams went back West this week all tied up at 2-2, the debate raged on.
The one constant, besides the best basketball to be found this side of Dawkins' personal planet, Lovetron, was the magnificence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His performance in Game 1—33 points, 14 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists—not only became his standard for the series, but it also proved what he has been saying for years: that the Lakers couldn't win on his shoulders alone. Nixon's 23 points, Wilkes' 20 and Johnson's 16, 10 assists and nine rebounds helped spread the load. So did a double-team defensive job on Erving by Wilkes in combination with Johnson or sixth man Michael Cooper that held Erving to 20 points, took away the Sixer fast break and destroyed what Erving calls "the flow." With jump-switching help by Nixon and Johnson on outside shooters Lionel Hollins, Cheeks and Bibby, there simply was no place to go. If the Sixers were foolish enough to direct their offense into the lane—the area players call "the paint"—Kareem just stepped in and stopped it.