It's getting to be that time of year again in Philadelphia. You know, that time, when strong men stay a little longer in the pubs at night trying to forget; when mothers rise early to hide the sports pages from their children; when along the Main Line bankers and lawyers in three-piece suits wait for the Paoli Local and the inevitable. It's that time of year again, all right: The 76ers are getting ready for the NBA playoffs and their annual rite of spring—coming close to the title, only to find some new and cruel way to lose it.
Five years ago, the Sixers took the first two games of the NBA finals from Portland and then blew four straight. In 1980, the Lakers beat the 76ers in a six-game final round. But last year was even more excruciating. The Sixers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 99-98 in the thrilling seventh game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series and advanced to the conference finals, in which they ran up a 3-1 advantage over the Boston Celtics. But it was just a matter of time, as it always seems to be with the 76ers, before the Celtics came back to win the series in seven games and turn Philadelphia into the City of Brotherly Loathe. "We got a little Spanish peasants' proverb," Jimmy Stewart said to Main Liner Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story: "with the rich and mighty, always a little patience." And with the 76ers, too.
The Sixers won three of their four games last week, losing in overtime on the road to Milwaukee 116-114 and then knocking off Chicago 99-98, Cleveland 135-115, and New York 127-106 at home to run their record to 52-22. The loss at Milwaukee did more damage to the 76ers' psyches than to their position in the Atlantic Division standings, where they started the week 5½ games behind Boston and finished it six games out. The Bucks outscored Philadelphia 11-2 over the final 3:15 of regulation play to send the game into overtime, and demolished the Sixers 52-34 on the boards. With only eight games left in the regular season, the Bucks thus trailed the Sixers by only a half game in their battle for the home-court advantage in the playoffs, where they will surely meet again. And when they do, the Bucks can take solace in their 4-1 advantage in the teams' regular-season series and in having beaten Philadelphia last week without mainstays Quinn Buckner or Junior Bridgeman, who are injured and out for the year.
The memory of the playoff series they kicked away to the Celtics last spring—not to mention the title that probably went with it—is an especially painful one for the 76ers. "It's always on your mind," says Guard Maurice Cheeks. No doubt the Sixers will be thinking about it this Sunday when they try to knot this year's series with Boston at three games apiece when they play in Philadelphia.
The 76ers and Celtics have been chasing each other for so long that the rivalry has come to involve a mind game as well as the one played on the floor. "It's as if we're playing Philadelphia every night," Boston Coach Bill Fitch says. "Because we know the Sixers are going to win, we've got to win, too."
And the 76ers have won. Over the seven weeks from the All-Star break until March 21, Philadelphia went 17-4, won 10 games in a row in one span and maintained the second-best record in the NBA. The Sixers did all that without starting Center Darryl Dawkins, who broke his right leg on Jan. 17 and missed 28 games. And yet, during those seven weeks Philly fell from 2½ games behind Boston to 3½. Then, in Philadelphia on March 21, the Celtics built a 30-point lead in the third quarter before easing off for a 123-111 victory. That embarrassment sent the Sixers into a three-game tailspin that opened a 6½-game gap between them and the Celtics.
The plunge might very well have continued had it not been for a team meeting that was called on March 27, the day before the 76ers were to play in Boston. Julius Erving, the Sixers' captain, summoned the players to his Sheraton-Boston hotel room and insisted that each of them say something about the way the team was playing. "Iron fist, that's me," says the Doctor. "A lot of teams call meetings that don't really accomplish anything. This one was called because we had things to talk about."
Whatever was said seemed to help a day later as the 76ers whipped the Celtics 116-98, to end a team-record Boston winning streak at 18 games. "We were in a psychological recession," Erving said. Winning that game didn't balance the books, but it helped. "I've never experienced anything like the intensity of the rivalry between these two teams," says 76er Guard Lionel Hollins. "The only thing people talk about all year long is Boston. They say, 'If you can just beat the Celtics, then everything will be O.K.' "
Before the season began, Coach Billy Cunningham was concerned that the Sixers' veterans would cruise until the playoffs. "In the past five years these guys have been to the finals—last spring's Boston series was the finals as far as I'm concerned—three times," Cunningham says, "so getting up for the regular season could have been a problem." But it never was, and though the race with Boston for the league's best record probably had something to do with that, there were other reasons as well. The 76ers have won more games than any other NBA team over the past five seasons, a clear indication of their ability to keep their minds on the matter at hand, and when they weren't testing themselves against Boston, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, they still played at a high level. "People look at us and say we've won so much, where's the challenge?" says Hollins. "But we expect to win, so that's secondary. We play hard every night; not a lot of teams do that. We very rarely play down to the other team's level. This year we're not even worrying about the other teams so much. We just tell ourselves what we have to do, and then we go out and do it."
If Hollins makes it sound easy, it's Erving who makes it look easy. In his 11th professional season and sixth in Philadelphia, Dr. J is still the game's most electrifying player, an abstract sculptor carving wondrous figures in the air. "It's just the nature of his personality," Hollins says, "that he wants to show everybody—even the bad teams—what he can do." Erving, who is averaging 24.1 points a game, is the league's fifth-leading scorer, and though in recent years there have been few of the prodigious solo efforts for which he once was known, he has become a great ensemble performer.