As someone in the minuscule crowd of—this isn't a typo—6,704 at the Spectrum remarked after Game 7 was over and Philadelphia had won its Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks with a 99-98 heart stopper, it's a shame you have to wade through an 82-game season before you get to something this good. You could even have thrown out the first four games of the series. Irrelevant. In a best-of-seven involving two quality teams, they almost always are tied 2-2 after four. Now you're talking about a mini-series, best two out of three. What are you made of? The 76ers had to win Game 5 last Wednesday in the Spectrum. So they did, convincingly, 116-99. Advantage Philadelphia. A break in Milwaukee Friday night and it's game, set and match. No way. Milwaukee won, convincingly, 109-86.
Game 7, Easter Sunday, was the magnificent effort that it was meant to be. The Doctor and Marques strutted their stuff, then stuffed some more—the other Sixers acknowledging Julius Erving's greatness by clearing out and letting him operate in splendid isolation; Milwaukee's Johnson relentlessly going through all five defenders, if necessary, to score.
No quarter was given anywhere else, either. Philadelphia, manhandled throughout the series, gave notice that things had changed when burly Forward Steve Mix nailed the Bucks' even burlier center. Bob Lanier, with a well-placed elbow. Lanier retaliated by jolting Mix in the jaw with a forearm shiver.
And after it was over, after four free throws and four rebounds by Caldwell Jones in the final two minutes kept the Bucks at bay, after the 19 lead changes and 11 ties, after Milwaukee had battled back from a 16-point deficit and vainly positioned itself to win the seventh game of a playoff for the first time in four tries, then it still wasn't over. A review by league officials of the hectic final minute was necessary to confirm that the Sixers had endured and would face the Boston Celtics in what should be a slugfest of a conference final.
The evenness of the Philadelphia-Milwaukee series was evident from the outset. The two teams' numbers were almost interchangeable. Philly had tied Boston for the league's best regular-season record at 62-20, with the 60-22 Bucks third. The 76ers' 37-4 record at the Spectrum tied an NBA mark for wins at home; Milwaukee wasn't far behind at 34-7. On the road the Bucks' 26-15 record trailed only Boston's 27-14; Philadelphia was third at 25-16.
The two clubs have clearly the deepest benches in the game, and each has extraordinary players who were remarkably alike in effectiveness if not style: the two supreme forwards, Erving and Johnson; the league's best sixth men, the Bucks' Junior Bridgeman and the Sixers' Bobby Jones; and the behemoths in the middle, Lanier and Darryl Dawkins.
Small wonder that 76er Coach Billy Cunningham felt the series would be decided by "some little thing that wasn't really little." All the big things seemed to balance out. And despite the fact that the 76ers were in the NBA finals last season and the Bucks had never won a playoff that went more than five games, Milwaukee was conceding nothing. "This one's going to be a war, and we wouldn't want it any other way," said Bucks Co-captain Quinn Buckner. "A championship shouldn't be won easily. When you get to this point, everything should be a battle."
Outside the trenches, Cunningham and Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson were each looking for a wrinkle that would give his team an edge. Most of the actions were negated by counteractions. Philadelphia, for example, had only limited success using a 3-2 full-court zone trap, because the Bucks neutralized it by having lanky Forward Mickey Johnson bring the ball upcourt instead of the guards. As Cunningham said, "Besides, when all the strategy breaks down, you just play basketball."
Almost immediately it was apparent how the breaking down would happen. The Sixers, who usually run a blistering fast break, were content to slug it out with Milwaukee. They sent their two big men, Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, on a seek-and-destroy mission: beat up on the creaky 32-year-old Lanier and the frail Mickey Johnson, Milwaukee's "power" forward at 6'10" and 190 pounds. For their part, the Bucks chose to up the tempo to the point of even forcing the break at times, in hopes of opening up the court. Said Nelson, "When the game becomes physical, it's to Philadelphia's advantage, because the Sixers are bigger and stronger than we are."
Milwaukee's decision to run surprised Cunningham. "That was a bit of a shock, because teams are usually hesitant to run with us," he said. Equally surprising to Cunningham, albeit pleasantly so, was the fact that the 76ers didn't have to run to be effective. "When a team makes the commitment to run, as we have, it usually won't be as good when it decides to slow down," he said, "but this series has shown us to be a better half-court team than anyone thought we were."