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It was a few minutes before the start of Game 3 of the NBA championship series last Tuesday between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, and as Earvin Johnson stood on the sidelines at the Forum, his eyes grew wider and wider. In his customary pregame slouch, Johnson looked like someone standing in the stag line at a school dance, but if he was trying to affect an air of utter calm, his eyes gave him away. The festivities hadn't begun, but in Magic's head the drums had already started to sound.
The Lakers jumped out to an early lead over the Sixers that night as Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes each scored nine points in the first quarter, and in Magic's brain the beat became more insistent and his eyes got wider still. Five times in the second period Los Angeles got the ball out on the fast break, and five times it scored, twice opening 20-point leads. Soon Johnson's eyes were as big as demitasse saucers.
"To me it's the greatest high in basketball," he said afterward. "There you are in the middle, getting ready to create something. It's like dancing to music, so to speak. It's like Freddy Astaire. And this team, oh my, this is a boogie-woogie team. We all have our own styles, but as a team we dance real well."
After having split the series' first two games in Philadelphia the week before, the Lakers waltzed at the Forum in Games 3 (129-108) and 4 (111-101). With those victories L.A. stood one game away from the NBA championship and was 11-1 in the 1982 playoffs. A win in the next game would have given the Lakers the best postseason record ever. But on Sunday in Game 5, played before a frenzied Spectrum crowd in Philadelphia, the Sixers won decisively and kept alive their chances for their first league title in 15 years. The 76ers had held a players-only meeting on Saturday morning that boded well for their stunning 135-102 win: Philadelphia is 3-0 this season in games that have followed such meetings. Just what exactly is it the Sixers do in there behind closed doors? Stick pins in dolls?
Until Game 5 the 76ers seemed to be shuffling through the series in three-quarter time, while the Lakers were doing their inimitable steps. The 76ers had already gotten a dance card full of L.A. fast breaks in Games 1 and 2, and at the Forum they got some more. The Lakers scored 16 points off the break in the first half of Game 3, but it wasn't until early in the third quarter that Los Angeles unleashed its most staggering burst. The Lakers had run off eight straight points when, at 8:28 of the period, Forward Kurt Rambis stripped the ball from Philadelphia's Julius Erving in the Sixers' frontcourt and launched a desperate pass to Johnson, who had already headed toward midcourt. Johnson took a single dribble and rifled the ball to Norm Nixon, who had filled the left lane. Immediately, the ball was in flight again, headed for Wilkes as he thundered toward the basket for a layup. The L.A. lead was 23, and for all practical purposes the game was over. The Lakers went on to win 129-108.
Andrew Toney scored 36 points for Philly in Game 3, his first significant outburst of the series; but even his spectacular performance, which included the first four-point play (a three-point shot and a free throw) in championship series history, probably did his team as much harm as good against the Lakers' half-court trap defense.
"The way they're attacking the trap is playing right into our hands," said L.A. Coach Pat Riley. And who could argue with him? "They've completely taken us out of our offense," said 76er Guard Lionel Hollins. "We haven't really been able to run our plays at all. We're not primarily an outside shooting team, but that's where they're making us play." When Toney, who has a tendency to dribble a lot, often to little effect, was controlling the ball, Philadelphia's offense came to a standstill. "When they run a set play for Toney," Riley said, "if it isn't there, he just goes ahead and goes one-on-one. He usually doesn't look for the second or third option."
Riley had plenty of options last week. The trap, which didn't become a regular part of the Lakers' game until March, made him look like a genius. Whatever the trap's tactical merits, it had become a unifying force for the Lakers in the playoffs. "Our defense has been the key to our success," Nixon says, "and making it work is just a matter of us exerting ourselves. There were times during the season when three of us would play hard and two wouldn't, but at this time of year everybody can get up." Riley gambled that his players' egos would make his high-risk trapping defense work, not only as a means of stopping the Sixers from scoring, but also as the igniter for the Laker fast break. "If I'd put them in a straight man-to-man there would be room to rest," Riley says. "But in the trap, peer pressure won't let them let up. If it breaks down, everyone on the team knows who's responsible."
By Game 5 no one seemed to know who was responsible for turning the NBA's showcase event into a rout. Had the 76ers played ineptly in the third and fourth games? Or were the Lakers merely out there by themselves on some celestial dance floor? Even Erving had to concede after the Lakers' Game 4 victory, which wasn't as close as the 10-point margin indicated, that Los Angeles had been "awesome," a word Dr. J, who prides himself on his succinct usage, doesn't employ lightly.
"Let's use a little deductive reasoning," added Nixon, who studied logic at Duquesne. "If they're a great team and we keep beating them by 10 or more, what does that say about us?"