Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can FlyYoung Julius Erving in flight was a sight to behold, though few people actually saw him play because ABA games were poorly attended and were rarely shown on national television. Erving averaged 27.3 ppg (fifth in the ABA), 15.7 rpg (third in the ABA) and 4.0 apg (12th in the ABA, third among frontcourt players) for the Virginia Squires during his sensational 1971-72 rookie season. He led the league with an astounding 476 offensive rebounds in 84 games, a 5.7 offensive rebounds per game average that renowned rebounder Dennis Rodman only exceeded four times in his career. Erving's 2290 points rank eighth on pro basketball's all-time rookie single season scoring list. Erving made the All-ABA Second Team and the All-Rookie First Team but finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Artis Gilmore. Erving's teammate Charlie Scott won the scoring title with a 34.6 ppg average before jumping to the NBA's Phoenix Suns late in the season.
Scott's departure meant that Erving had to carry an even larger load for the 45-39 Squires during the postseason--and Erving came through with a historically great all-around performance, averaging 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg during the 1972 playoffs while shooting .518 from the field and .835 from the free throw line. Erving did this with almost no rest, playing a remarkable 45.8 minutes per game. The ABA did not officially record steals and blocked shots until the following season but based on Erving's numbers in those categories throughout his career it is reasonable to assume that he averaged at least 2.0 spg and at least 2.0 bpg in addition to his other superhuman numbers. Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring average and playoff rebounding average and he ranked second in both minutes per game and assists per game. The only other player in ABA/NBA history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 20 rpg in the same postseason is Wilt Chamberlain (1960-62, 64); the only other players who led the NBA or ABA in playoff scoring average and playoff rebounding average during the same postseason are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those four players came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average.
Erving had an outstanding playoff debut, pouring in a game-high 32 points--including six in overtime--and pulling down 19 rebounds as the Squires defeated the Floridians (a regional franchise known by just one name) 114-107 and he scored a game-high 27 points while grabbing 17 rebounds in Virginia's 125-100 game two victory but those two excellent performances were just a prelude to Erving's game three masterpiece: Erving tallied 53 points on 21-28 field goal shooting--including 1-1 from three point range--and 8-9 free throw shooting, tying Roger Brown's ABA single game playoff scoring record, matching Wilt Chamberlain's professional rookie single game playoff scoring record and setting the mark for the most points ever scored by a rookie in his first road playoff game. Erving scored 16 points in the final seven minutes to seal Virginia's 118-113 victory, including two free throws with 34 seconds left to put the Squires up 117-113, and he finished with a team-high 14 rebounds. After the game, Erving said, "We were ready. We came down here on business--this wasn't a pleasure trip."
Adrian Smith, Erving's Virginia teammate who won the 1966 NBA All-Star Game MVP award, declared, "I have seen Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and the other greats but I have never seen anyone play better than Erving did that night."
Warren Jabali--the 1969 ABA Rookie of the Year who made the All-Star team four times in his seven year ABA career--had the unenviable task of guarding Erving during the Squires-Floridians series. In an exclusive 2005 interview, Jabali described to me what it was like to face Erving in the 1972 playoffs: "Well, it was complete frustration. We had a squad where Mack Calvin, Larry Jones and I were starting. I would play the point guard, Larry Jones would play the small forward and then on defense Larry would go back out and pick up a guard, Mack would move to the point guard and I would defend the small forward. So I had to match up with Julius Erving. The person who he put all those numbers up against was me! (Jabali laughs) I'm out there trying to guard this boy and he'd go to the hoop and when I tried to stop him he would do like I told you I did to Spencer (Haywood, who was the ABA's MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1970)--he'd just reach around and spin the ball up on the backboard and it would bounce around and go in. Or he'd stop and pull up and shoot over my head. It was just sheer frustration. There was nothing that you could do--other than hitting him upside his head and knocking him down--to stop him."
Erving performed those majestic feats in front of a crowd numbering fewer than 3000; his 53 point game was not broadcast on national television (though Virginia's game two win was shown on CBS) and it is highly unlikely that any footage of it exists--but no ABA player ever surpassed that total in a playoff game and no ABA or NBA rookie has matched Erving's single game playoff standard in the 40 years since Erving dominated Jabali and the Floridians. Those facts underscore the significance of what Erving accomplished.
Erving scored a game-high 39 points and hauled in 27 rebounds as the Squires completed the sweep of the Floridians with a 115-106 win. "The Floridians came out to play a physical game," Erving said afterward. "I got knocked around pretty good." Erving averaged 37.8 ppg and 19.3 rpg in his first playoff series, one of the most overpowering postseason performances by a rookie in pro basketball history.
Next the Squires faced the 44-40 New York Nets, who had shocked the 68-16 Kentucky Colonels 4-2 in one of the biggest upsets in pro basketball history. Coaches and players generally tend to not answer the cliched question about which team they would prefer to face but, after the Squires swept the Floridians, Virginia Coach Al Bianchi declared, "It's no secret I'd rather play New York. We beat them [7-4] in the regular season series and I'm sure we can do it again." Those bold words seemed prophetic early in the series. The Squires routed the Nets 138-91 in game one, setting an ABA record for playoff margin of victory. Erving scored 26 points--tying Nets' guard John Roche for game-high honors--and he added 20 rebounds and a team record 15 assists to notch a triple double of Wilt Chamberlain/Oscar Robertson proportions; imagine the hype that would be generated today if a superstar put up a 26-20-15 line in a 47 point playoff win--but Erving authored those numbers in front of fewer than 6000 Virginia fans and with no national TV coverage. How rare is such a performance? Basketball-Reference.com's records only go back to the 1985-86 campaign but since that time no player has assembled a 26-20-15 trifecta in the regular season or in the playoffs. The closest documented instance that I can find to compare with Erving's 26-20-15 happened on February 2, 1968, when Wilt Chamberlain posted the only 20-20-20 game in pro basketball history (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists for the Philadelphia 76ers) in a 131-121 regular season victory over Detroit.
Erving poured in a game-high 38 points and had 20 rebounds as Virginia took a 2-0 lead with a 115-106 win and it seemed like the Squires were poised to advance to the ABA Finals but the teams had to wait nine days to play game three because of scheduling conflicts with New York's home court, Nassau Coliseum; during that break, injured Nets' All-ABA First Team guard Bill Melchionni (who led the ABA in assists in 1971-72 and ranked 14th in scoring) healed enough to return to action, while Virginia's Doug Moe and George Irvine got hurt during practice sessions. The momentum in the series had clearly shifted, though the Nets needed a late shot by Rick Barry--described in conflicting game recaps as either a layup or a 15 foot bank shot--to escape with a crucial 119-117 game three win. This series would prove to be the only postseason battle between Hall of Fame forwards Barry and Erving even though their careers overlapped for nearly a decade. Barry got off to a slow start in the series but he finished with 25 points in game three. Erving scored a game-high 31 points, doing most of his damage in the first half with 27 points on 9-23 field goal shooting; Ollie Taylor's physical defense limited Erving to four second half points on 2-12 field goal shooting. "I played him without the ball," Taylor explained after the game. "Yes, it was a little assault and battery but I didn't beat him up that much. I just tried to muscle him a little bit, force him outside. From 15 feet in, he's murder--just unstoppable." Erving also had 22 rebounds.
Barry scored a game-high 33 points in New York's 118-107 game four win, while Erving scored a team-high 27 points and collected 23 rebounds. Barry scored the first 11 points of the game and the Nets eventually built a 20 point lead but the Squires cut the margin to 108-104 with 3:02 left. Barry scored the game's final six points to clinch New York's victory and tie the series at 2-2.
Virginia took a 3-2 series lead with a 116-107 victory in the nationally televised game five; Ray Scott led Virginia with 26 points, while Erving had a series-low 24 points but he reeled in 32 rebounds, the second most in ABA playoff history behind Tom Washington's 35 (Moses Malone later had a 32 rebound playoff game in the ABA as well, while the all-time playoff record is Wilt Chamberlain's 41 rebounds). Erving had 13 points and 21 rebounds in the second half after Taylor was forced to the bench because of foul trouble. Barry scored a game-high 34 points.
Barry's game-high 43 points helped New York to claim a 146-136 victory that forced a seventh game. Barry shot 17-23 from the field but he also received a lot of help from Roche, who added 37 points. New York center Billy Paultz contributed 33 points and 14 rebounds. Erving had 34 points and 10 rebounds. New York outrebounded Virginia 48-39, the first time the Nets claimed the advantage in that important category during the series.
Erving scored a game-high 35 points and had 20 rebounds in Virginia's 94-88 game seven loss to the New York Nets but no other Squire scored more than 11 points while four Nets scored at least 15 points each. Barry led the Nets with 27 points and his basket with 2:44 remaining in the game put the Nets up for good, 90-88. Erving averaged 30.7 ppg and 21.0 rpg in the first of his 10 professional "Final Four" appearances (i.e., the Division Final or Conference Final round); Erving began the series with five straight games with at least 20 points and at least 20 rebounds (including back to back 30-20 games plus one 20-30 game) and he posted 20-20 lines in six of the seven games. He had six straight 20-20 playoff games overall from game four versus the Floridians through game five against the Nets.
New York Coach Lou Carnesecca--a Basketball Hall of Famer best known to most basketball fans for his long, successful tenure at St. John's--said of Erving, "He's the most exciting pro ever. He creates. It just flows out of him. He has great imagination on the court. You can talk about this guy like a poet. He's a poet, an artist."
Erving jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks after the 1971-72 season and even played for the Hawks alongside Pistol Pete Maravich during the preseason before a court ruled that he had to return to the Squires. The Squires started the 1972-73 season 0-4 without Erving while Erving's case worked its way through the legal system but the Squires finally notched their first victory of the season when he scored 26 points and had 11 rebounds in his October 20 season debut versus the Nets. Erving lifted the Squires to 4-4 but it took a supreme effort from him just to keep the talent-deprived franchise in playoff contention. Erving led the league in scoring (31.9 ppg, more than 4 ppg ahead of runner-up George McGinnis) while ranking third in steals (181), sixth in rebounding (12.2 rpg) and seventh in blocked shots (127). He ranked second on the team and 14th in the league with a 4.2 apg average. For most of the season, the Squires' second and third scoring options were Jim Eakins and George Irvine, players who finished with career scoring averages of 10.8 ppg and 9.5 ppg respectively. The Squires received a late season boost with the acquisition of future Hall of Famer George Gervin, who had been toiling in the minor league Eastern Basketball Association after being kicked off of his college team as a result of throwing a punch during a game. Gervin averaged 14.1 ppg in 30 games with the Squires.
Erving suffered bruised ribs in his back during Virginia's 123-118 victory against Carolina on March 16 and that injury forced Erving to miss the final eight regular season games. The Squires went 2-6 during that stretch, finishing with a 42-42 record for the season; that turned out to be the worst regular season record posted by any of Erving's teams. Erving served as Virginia's bench coach during the last game of the season--a 121-106 victory over the Nets--so that Coach Bianchi could scout the powerful Kentucky Colonels in person to prepare for their first round playoff series. Gervin led the Squires with 26 points, at the time the highest scoring game of his brief professional career.
"Even today, I didn't run full speed or scrimmage. I jumped a lot and shot," Erving told reporters shortly before the playoffs began. "It felt pretty comfortable compared to before when I could barely stand up because of the pain." Team physician Dr. Joel Mason cleared Erving to play but Coach Bianchi said that a final decision about Erving's status would not be made until after the team's last workout before game one.
Kentucky finished with a 56-28 regular season record, won the regular season series versus Virginia 8-3 and continued that dominance in the playoffs; Dan Issel scored a game-high 43 points as the Colonels routed the Squires 129-101 to open the series. Issel made his first six shots from the field and he scored Kentucky's first 13 points. Erving led the Squires with 21 points in his first game in two weeks, while Gervin had 13 points in his playoff debut.
Erving retaliated with a game-high 41 points in a 109-94 Squires victory that evened the series and enabled Virginia to swipe homecourt advantage. Erving shot 17-22 from the field but admitted that he was still slowed by the rib injury. "I was shooting and jumping as well as I ever have," Erving explained, "but I'm not running as well yet, because when I am you don't see guys take the ball away from me from behind the way the Colonels did tonight." Gervin scored 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter and Erving added 10 fourth quarter points as Virginia outscored Kentucky 33-14 in the final stanza. Issel again made his first six shots from the field and he led Kentucky with 35 points.
Erving's game-high 35 points were not quite enough to stave off defeat in game three. He scored seven straight fourth quarter points to help the Squires take the lead briefly after trailing 86-76. The Colonels promptly went back in front but Gervin's two clutch free throws at the end of regulation forced overtime. With the score tied 113-113 late in the overtime, Mike Gale flicked the ball away from Erving and drove in for the game-winning layup. Issel led the Colonels with 31 points.
Gervin scored a game-high 23 points for the Squires in game four but Kentucky cruised to a 108-90 win. Issel, Gilmore and Rick Mount led a balanced Kentucky attack with 22 points each. Erving had a then playoff career-low 20 points.
Eakins had a game-high 32 points for Virginia in game five but a national television audience plus a then ABA record crowd of 16,887 in Freedom Hall saw Kentucky win 114-103 and eliminate the Squires, 4-1. The Colonels outscored the Squires 63-41 in the second half. Issel scored 27 points and Walt Simon scored 24 points while Gilmore and Mount had 20 points each. Gilmore also had a game-high 15 rebounds. Virginia led by one after three quarters but jumpers by Mount and Simon early in the fourth quarter put the Colonels up 86-83. Erving scored 31 points but uncharacteristically only managed to grab five rebounds.
Despite being clearly slowed by the rib injury, Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring for the second consecutive year (29.6 ppg) and he ranked eighth in two point field goal percentage (.541) but he dropped to 15th in rebounding (9.0 rpg), a steep decline from his rookie production in that category.
Sources: Various ABA Media Guides, John Grasso's ABA game by game logs, personal correspondence with John Grasso, selected archival syndicated AP and UPI newspaper game recaps.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM