Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part III: Consistency, Frustration and then a Glorious Championship Run"I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose or draw, the work is really what counts. As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to every year--that every game, every night, I did the best I could."--Julius Erving
Julius Erving and the New York Nets did not have much of a chance to celebrate after winning their second ABA championship in three years; during the summer of 1976, the ailing ABA reached an agreement with the NBA to form--as a Sports Illustrated cover called it--"one big league" featuring "Dave" (Cowens) and "The Doctor." Four ABA teams--the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs--joined the NBA at a cost of $3.2 million each; Kentucky owner John Y. Brown received a $3 million settlement for folding his franchise, while the Silna brothers--owners of the St. Louis franchise--negotiated what was later called "the greatest sports deal of all-time": instead of getting a lump sum payment in 1976, they arranged for each of the surviving ABA teams to pay them a share of NBA television revenue in perpetuity.
In addition to the $3.2 million payment to the NBA, the Nets also had to compensate the New York Knicks $4.8 million over the next 10 years as indemnification for operating in the Knicks' territory. While Nets' owner Roy Boe scrambled to put together enough cash to keep his franchise afloat, Erving declared that the Nets had promised to redo his contract if the leagues merged; Erving's sublime talents and his box office value were a major reason for the merger, so Erving understandably wanted to be properly compensated but Boe denied that he had ever made that agreement with Erving and, in any case, Boe did not have the necessary funds to pay Erving more money. Erving missed training camp and the preseason as a result of the contract dispute. Boe tried to trade Erving to the Knicks in exchange for cash plus cancellation of the indemnification payment but the Knicks refused that offer. Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams seized the opportunity to acquire the game's best player and right before the 1976-77 season began the New York Nets sold Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers in a $6 million deal, a staggering sum for that era, with roughly half of that amount paid to the Nets and the other half to Erving over the course of a six year contract.
Pat Williams' 20-20-20 Vision
Erving joined a Philadelphia team that already had two All-Stars: forward George McGinnis (who shared 1974-75 ABA MVP honors with Erving before jumping to the NBA) and guard Doug Collins. Erving explained the situation to this writer: "The first day that I reported to Philadelphia, Pat Williams said, ‘We are going to be a really good team, but we really need to have three guys scoring 20 points. We don't need anybody scoring 30 points on our team.' He said, 'You, Doug Collins and McGinnis can be 20 point scorers for us and that will make us a better team.' That was a specific conversation. Hey, I had no problem scoring (only) 20 points. I’m trying to collect the 'Ws.' I had already been on title teams in the ABA and we thought that this would bring us to the championship."
The 76ers started out 0-2 before winning four straight games to take over first place in the Atlantic Division, a position that they maintained the rest of the way (save for a couple days when they slipped a half game behind Boston) en route to a 50-32 record and the franchise's first division title since 1968. The 76ers were maligned as a run and gun, one on one offensive team that did not play defense but they ranked first in the league in blocked shots, third in the league in defensive field goal percentage and fourth in the league in defensive rebounds. Erving made a strong contribution at that end of the court, ranking second on the team in defensive rebounds (6.1 drpg), steals (1.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.4 bpg).
Erving instantly turned the 76ers into the biggest gate attraction in the NBA. The 76ers improved to 1-2 with a 110-101 win over the New Orleans Jazz in front of an NBA-record crowd of more than 27,000 in the Louisiana Superdome. The next night, Erving scored 27 points (tying McGinnis for game-high honors) in a 116-94 win at Houston, playing before a crowd of 15,676--the best attendance ever for an NBA game in Texas. Only 5832 fans showed up for the Nets' NBA home debut without Erving but a few days later 18,116 fans packed the Spectrum to watch Erving's 76ers improve to 3-2 after pounding his former team 104-80.
Erving finished fifth in the MVP balloting; he led the 76ers in scoring (21.6 ppg, 15th in the NBA) and the team came close to achieving the 20-20-20 balance that Williams wanted: McGinnis averaged 21.4 ppg (16th in the NBA) and Collins averaged 18.3 ppg despite missing 24 games due to injuries. Erving averaged 8.5 rpg (second on the team), and 3.7 apg (fourth) in addition to his aforementioned defensive contributions; he was still an excellent all-around performer but his per game statistics declined across the board because he played fewer minutes than he had played in his first five seasons. Erving's rebounding average was 2.2 rpg lower than his lowest ABA rebounding average but it turned out to be the highest rebounding average of his NBA career. This is not unusual; as the following chart shows, most of the top 10 rebounders in pro basketball history (based on rpg average) posted their best rebounding average early in their careers:
Rank Player Career RPG average/Best RPG average (season)
1) Wilt Chamberlain 22.89/27.2 (second season)
2) Bill Russell 22.45/24.7 (eighth season)
3) Bob Pettit 16.22/20.3 (seventh season)
4) Jerry Lucas 15.61/21.1 (third season)
5) Nate Thurmond 15.00/22.0 (fifth season)
6) Mel Daniels 14.91/18.0 (fourth season)
7) Wes Unseld 13.99/18.2 (first season)
8) Walt Bellamy 13.65/19.0 (first season)
9) Dave Cowens 13.63/16.2 (third season)
10) Elgin Baylor 13.55/19.8 (third season)
50) Larry Bird 10.00/11.0 (fourth season)
111) Julius Erving 8.47/15.7 (first season)
176) Magic Johnson 7.24/9.6 (third season)
222) Michael Jordan 6.22/8.0 (fifth season)
Rebounding is a skill set that does not tend to improve with age/experience, at least at the professional level. It is important to note that even Erving's reduced NBA rebounding averages still annually ranked among the best at the small forward position.
The 1976-77 season shattered any old guard NBA pretense about the ABA being inferior; ex-ABA players accounted for four of the NBA's top 10 scorers, two of the top four rebounders and 10 of the 24 All-Stars. Erving won the All-Star Game MVP, one of the few individual honors that he did not capture during his ABA career. Indiana Pacer Don Buse led the league in assists and steals. Five of the starters in the NBA Finals began their careers in the ABA: Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik. David Thompson made the All-NBA First Team, while Erving, McGinnis and George Gervin made the All-NBA Second Team. The Nuggets and Spurs kept their rosters intact and immediately became perennial playoff teams; the Nets understandably had to rebuild after Erving's departure, while the Pacers similarly had to rebuild after the core players from their three championship teams aged, retired or finished their careers on other teams.
The 76ers earned a first round bye and then faced their old rival the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions but the 76ers enjoyed home court advantage because the Celtics only went 44-38 in the regular season. Erving scored a game-high 36 points in the series opener, including a dunk with eight seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 111--but after being fouled on that play he missed both free throws in a two to make one penalty situation. Jo Jo White missed a jumper and the game seemed to be headed to overtime after Erving blocked Sidney Wicks' shot but the ball bounced to White, who hit the game-winning jumper from the left baseline as time expired. White scored 21 points in the Celtics' 113-111 victory. "I feel empty," Erving said after the game. "We came here to win and we don't have anything. We are 0-1." However, Erving also noted that even if he had completed the potential three point play, "We would have lost by one instead of two." Erving's former Virginia teammate Charlie Scott led Boston with 22 points.
In a battle pitting a veteran future Hall of Fame forward against a Hall of Fame forward in his prime, 37 year old John Havlicek poured in a game-high 31 points on 11-25 field goal shooting but the 27 year old Erving had 30 points on 14-24 field goal shooting as the 76ers evened the series with a 113-101 victory. Havlicek also had nine rebounds and six assists, while Erving countered with six rebounds and four assists.
Erving scored a game-high 27 points as Philadelphia reclaimed home court advantage with a 109-100 game three win in Boston. Collins added 25 points and Lloyd Free--he had not yet legally changed his first name to World--scored 22 points on 9-13 field goal shooting in just 18 minutes. The Celtics had not lost at home in the playoffs since 1975, a 13 game streak. Havlicek led the Celtics with 25 points.
Dave Cowens had 37 points and 21 rebounds for the Celtics--including 23 first half points on 10-10 field goal shooting--in Boston's 124-119 game four win. Collins led the Sixers with 36 points, McGinnis added 27 and Erving had 23. White contributed 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Havlicek only scored 12 points but he dished off for 15 assists.
The 76ers achieved Pat Williams' 20-20-20 balance in game five at home--but the third member of the 20 point trio was Steve Mix, not McGinnis: Collins (23 points), Erving (22) and Mix (20) led the way as Philadelphia took control of the series with a 110-91 win. Scott topped Boston with 20 points.
The proud Celtics forced a seventh game as both White and Havlicek played all 48 minutes to carry Boston to a 113-108 game six win. White scored a playoff career-high 40 points and Havlicek added 25 points. Collins led the Sixers with 32 points, McGinnis scored 22 points and Erving had an off game with just 14 points on 7-20 field goal shooting.
The first six games of the series were high scoring and free wheeling but game seven was a grind it out slugfest. Free missed his first six field goal attempts before scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-27 field goal shooting as his 76ers outlasted the Celtics 83-77. McGinnis scored 22 points before fouling out. Erving contributed 14 points on 6-19 field goal shooting and he also had eight rebounds. Erving said, "Our bench and depth was the key to the win. We had more depth than they did. I never thought the starters would neutralize each other as much as they did." Collins was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 3-11 field goal shooting). White led the Celtics with 17 points on 7-24 field goal shooting but he did not score in the second half. Cowens pulled down a game-high 27 rebounds and blocked three shots but he only scored 11 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. This was just Boston's second loss in 13 seventh games.
Erving and Collins each scored 166 points (23.7 ppg) versus Boston. In his first NBA playoff series, Erving averaged 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.9 spg and 1.3 bpg while shooting .464 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. This was the first time in 10 career playoff series that Erving averaged less than 26.0 ppg but he decisively won his matchup with Havlicek, outscoring his rival in five of the seven games (Havlicek averaged 19.9 ppg). McGinnis averaged 15.6 ppg and shot just .380 from the field.
Philadelphia faced the 49-33 Central Division champion Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers led 100-81 with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter of game one but the Rockets cut the margin to 120-113 late in the fourth quarter before Erving hit a jumper and two free throws to seal Philadelphia's 128-117 win. Erving led the 76ers with 24 points, Collins added 23 points and McGinnis finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Erving said, "I thought we were capable of getting good shots any time we wanted. If we rebound and go to the boards like we did, we can run. If we do, we'll continue to win."
Moses Malone poured in a game-high 32 points but he only scored 10 points in the second half as McGinnis--not known as a staunch defender--used his brawn to knock young Malone off of his favorite spot in the post. Houston Coach Tom Nissalke declared that Erving and McGinnis comprised "the best two players on one team in the league."
In game two, the 76ers' three star attack flourished again; this time McGinnis led the way with 21 points while Collins scored 20 points and Erving added 18 points as Philadelphia won 106-97. Malone only had seven points but Calvin Murphy (32 points) and Rudy Tomjanovich (22 points) picked up the slack.
When the series shifted to Houston, Malone returned to his dominating form with 30 points and 25 rebounds as the Rockets cruised to a 118-94 game three victory. This was the second of Malone's five 30-20 playoff games as a Rocket. Nissalke called Malone "the best rebounder in the game today" and Nissalke predicted, "In three years he will be one of the best players in the game"; Malone fulfilled that prophecy in 1978-79 when he won the first of his three MVPs. Nissalke changed his starting lineup for game three, replacing Goo Kennedy with the seven footer Kevin Kunnert. Kunnert responded with 12 points and 14 rebounds as the bigger Rockets won the rebounding battle 59-34 and slowed the 76ers' fast break to a crawl.
Erving led the 76ers with 28 points and he also had six assists but McGinnis only had 15 points on 6-18 field goal shooting and Collins scored nine points on 4-12 field goal shooting. "They killed us on the boards, they shot a lot better than we did, they had more control of the game than we did and they won the game," Erving said. "It might have been that we were lackadaisical or it might have been good defense. We were too liberal with the ball. We pushed it up fast, went for the jumper and missed it. The first two games we made it."
Free left the game in the second quarter with a bruised rib cage, an injury that would limit him for the rest of the postseason.
The 76ers' running game was back in high gear in game four and they raced to a 107-95 win to take a 3-1 series lead. Collins scored 36 points--including 10 straight points during the decisive fourth quarter run--and Erving added 29 points. Kunnert had another strong game (21 points, 17 rebounds) but an ineffective Malone only scored five points. Rudy Tomjanovich led the Rockets with 24 points.
The Rockets overcame Erving's 37 point explosion to avoid elimination, sending the series back to Houston after a 118-115 game five win. The 76ers squandered an 84-69 third quarter lead. John Lucas and Tomjanovich each scored 21 points.
Houston led for most of game six until Darryl Dawkins and Mike Dunleavy hit consecutive baskets to put Philadelphia on top 91-87 near the end of the third quarter. Dawkins, who jumped to the NBA straight out of high school in 1975, scored 13 of his 20 points in the third quarter. The 76ers pushed the lead to 104-97 with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter but then they went scoreless for three minutes, allowing the Rockets to make one final rally. Erving broke that drought with a basket and two free throws to make the score 108-105 and then Houston countered with hoops by John Lucas and Mike Newlin. Henry Bibby made what turned out to be the game-winning shot with :37 remaining. Lucas' driving layup with five seconds left was disallowed by Jake O'Donnell, who ruled that Lucas had charged into Collins. Erving scored a game-high 34 points, snared nine rebounds and dished off for six assists in the 112-109 win.Collins added 27 points. Free did not play due to his rib injury and a partially collapsed lung. Lucas led the Rockets with 24 points.
"They didn't come out with any of that cheetah stuff," said Nissalke, referring to the 76ers' fast break attack. "They were coming down and setting up and shouting, 'Where's Doc?' It's unbelievable that a team that has lived and died by the fast break would run set plays like that, but he's the best forward who has ever played the game."
Erving averaged 28.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 spg and 1.2 bpg versus Houston in the Eastern Conference Finals while shooting .570 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. Erving's rebounding was below the standard he set during his ABA career but in all other statistical categories his performance mirrored his outstanding all-around production in his three previous "Final Four" (Division Finals/Conference Finals) appearances. Collins averaged 23.5 ppg and shot .604 from the field. McGinnis averaged 13.7 ppg and shot just .353 from the field. Malone averaged 17.2 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals, the best rebounding performance in a series in franchise history at that time (Malone later surpassed that mark twice).
Philadelphia faced the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals. Portland center Bill Walton finished second to the L.A. Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the MVP voting, earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and beat out Abdul-Jabbar for All-Defensive First Team honors. Walton led the NBA in rebounding (14.4 rpg) and blocked shots (3.2 bpg). Portland finished second in the Pacific Division with a 49-33 record but defeated the 53-29 Pacific Division champion Lakers 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals.
Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue closed the team's practices to the public and the media prior to game one. Asked if Shue did this out of secrecy, a 76er official quipped that Shue did it because of "embarrassment" (the 76ers were not known for their diligent practice habits, something that irritated the hard-working Erving)--but once game one of the NBA Finals began it became clear what the 76ers had been hiding: the 76ers nullified the aggressive trapping of Portland's guards by having center Caldwell Jones bring the ball up the court. After Philadelphia's 107-101 win, Shue explained, "The strength of the Portland team is in the pressure their guards apply, so we attacked them at their weakest link."
"It was a good tactic," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay admitted. "It worked very effectively. We tried several things against it, but none worked very well." Ramsay also said that to win the series Portland had to hold the Erving-McGinnis-Collins trio to around 60 total points.
"This is what I call net cutting time," Erving said. "The playoffs--I love them. This is the best time of year, what we work for all winter. Not everybody gets the chance to be here and as long as I'm here I'm going to do something. I'm going to make my presence felt."
Erving scored a game-high 33 points, shooting 14-24 from the field and making all five of his free throws. He also had five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Collins had a similar stat line: 30 points, 12-23 field goal shooting, 6-6 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, two steals. McGinnis scored just eight points on 3-12 field goal shooting in 22 foul-plagued minutes and his game one struggles foreshadowed what would become one of the major stories of the series. Walton's performance also provided some foreshadowing: he produced 28 points, a game-high 20 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Portland committed 34 turnovers, an astounding total for any game, let alone game one of the NBA Finals. Philadelphia also enjoyed the advantage from the free throw line, shooting 27-32 compared to Portland's 15-18.
Collins scored a game-high 27 points as the 76ers took a 2-0 lead with a 107-89 win. Erving added 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals. Bibby scored all 15 of his points in the first half as the 76ers built a 61-43 lead and he finished with a game-high 11 assists. "People put us down all the time," Bibby said. "They say we're a bunch of one on one players, we can't play team ball, we don't execute our plays well, we can't do the job on defense. They keep saying it--but we keep winning."
Erving added, "A lot of people think that we're a bunch of renegades. They think that a good, well-drilled team can run us apart. We are trying to prove them wrong. Portland is very singular in its offensive strategy. There is one basic play they like to run 75 percent of the time--they set up Walton in the pivot and then try to free their cutters for layups. We know this, we've drilled against it and we've been able to stop it."
Walton led Portland with 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Portland turned the ball over 29 times.
In the fourth quarter, Dawkins threw Portland small forward Bobby Gross to the court as they battled for a loose ball. Dawkins took a swing at Gross but missed him and instead connected with Collins, who needed stitches above his right eye after the game. As the officials tried to restore order--not just among the players but also among dozens of fans who came on to the court--Portland power forward/enforcer Maurice Lucas came up behind Dawkins and hit Dawkins in the head. Dawkins and Lucas squared off to fight but emerged unscathed after several wild punches failed to connect. Both players were ejected; NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien fined Dawkins and Lucas $2500 each but did not suspend either player. That skirmish may have initially seemed like just an afterthought--tensions erupting in a blowout game as one team takes a seemingly commanding 2-0 series lead--but in retrospect the entire tide of the series turned. The Blazers pulled together and rallied, while the 76ers--an emotionally fragile group under the best of circumstances--fell apart the rest of the way, a development that would have seemed improbable after their two impressive victories. Dawkins ripped a urinal off of the wall in the locker room and later expressed disappointment that none of his teammates had warned him about Lucas' sneak attack.
Enjoying the comforts of home after suffering two brutal road losses, the Blazers ambushed the 76ers in the first quarter of game three, taking a 32-12 lead. The 76ers battled back to only trail by four in the fourth quarter but Walton's consecutive hoops ignited a 26-10 run to put the game away. Portland won 129-107, their 16th straight victory at Memorial Coliseum and their 44th in 49 games (regular season and playoffs). The Blazers slashed their turnover total to 16 and Walton dominated at both ends of the court: 20 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, four blocked shots, two steals. Lucas scored a game-high 29 points and he swiped 12 rebounds. Erving paced the 76ers with 28 points and five assists while also grabbing 11 rebounds but he received little help from anyone other than Collins (21 points on 9-13 field goal shooting). McGinnis scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, though he did contribute a team-high 12 rebounds.
If the 76ers thought that a 22 point blowout loss would be the low point of the series then they were sadly mistaken. The Blazers made nine of their first 10 field goal attempts in game four, sprinted to a 19-4 lead and never let the 76ers get closer than 11 points the rest of the way, cruising to a 130-98 win. During garbage time, the Portland reserves pushed the margin to 41 (126-85). Speedy guard Lionel Hollins scored a game-high 25 points for the Blazers, while Lucas (24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) and Walton (12 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots) controlled the paint. Erving, who led Philadelphia with 24 points, did not like his team's mindset: "We got to challenge the other team. Be aggressive. Get some big axes and chop arms and legs." No other 76er scored more than 15 points and McGinnis was almost invisible (five points, six rebounds, 2-8 field goal shooting).
Game five started out very much like game four; the Blazers took a 16-9 lead as the 76ers missed 11 of their first 14 field goal attempts. The Blazers led by 22 points in the fourth quarter but this time the 76ers rallied, cutting the margin to 101-96 after Joe Bryant's long jumper with 3:26 remaining. Lucas countered with a jumper and then Hollins' layup extended the lead to nine. The Blazers won 110-104 to move within one victory of the young franchise's first NBA title. Gross led Portland with 25 points, Lucas added 20 points and 13 rebounds and Walton dominated inside (14 points, 24 rebounds, two blocked shots). Erving poured in a game-high 37 points, grabbed nine rebounds and passed for a team-high seven assists but only three other 76ers scored in double figures--and none of them shot better than .400 from the field.
The 76ers led 22-18 in the first quarter of game six before the Blazers went on a 39-20 run. Portland led 67-55 at halftime. The 76ers stayed in contact throughout the second half and then pulled to within two points after McGinnis' jumper with :18 left in the fourth quarter. McGinnis then tied up Gross for a jump ball and won the tap. The 76ers missed three potentially tying shots in the waning seconds--by Erving, Free and McGinnis--as Portland held on for a 109-107 win. Walton posted one of the most awesome stat lines in Finals history--20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocked shots, seven assists--and he was selected as the Finals MVP. Gross led Portland with 24 points, while Hollins chipped in 20 points. Lucas had a very solid game (15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals).
Erving authored the first and only 40 point game of his NBA playoff career (he scored at least 40 points in seven of his 48 ABA playoff games). In addition to his 40 points on 17-29 field goal shooting, Erving had a game-high eight assists plus six rebounds and two steals. McGinnis broke out of his long playoff slump with 28 points and 16 rebounds but Caldwell Jones was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting).
Erving averaged 30.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 5.0 apg in the NBA Finals. He shot .543 from the field and .857 from the free throw line. His 2.7 spg is still a record for a six game NBA Finals. Collins scored prolifically (19.7 ppg) and efficiently (.505 field goal shooting), while McGinnis was neither prolific (13.0 ppg) nor efficient (.388 field goal shooting).
According to information collected by Harvey Pollack and published in the 76ers' 1978 media guide, Erving led the team in playoff dunks (34, with a single-game high of five) and three point plays (converting 15 of 20 opportunities). Erving scored at least 20 points in 16 of Philadelphia's 19 playoff games--including each of the final 10--and he also posted six of his 11 highest scoring NBA playoff games. The 1977 postseason turned out to be Erving's most prolific NBA playoff campaign in scoring (27.3 ppg, third in the league), field goal percentage (.523) and steals (2.2 spg, fourth in the league).
Shortly after the 1977 NBA Finals ended, the New York Times' Sam Goldaper wrote, "The recently concluded National Basketball Association season will be best remembered for two significant events--the emergence of Bill Walton as one of the game's dominant centers and the proof that Julius Erving could play the game of basketball as well as anyone who had ever played before him."
We Owe You Two
The 76ers started 2-4 in 1977-78 before replacing Gene Shue with Billy Cunningham, the Hall of Fame Philadelphia forward who also won the 1973 ABA MVP. The 76ers posted the best record in the Eastern Conference (55-27) and trailed only the defending champion Portland Trailblazers (58-24) in the overall standings; the 76ers also continued to be both a huge gate attraction. "This is like traveling with the Rolling Stones," marveled Chuck Daly, a Philadelphia assistant coach who later won two championships as Detroit's head coach.
Erving again led the 76ers in scoring (20.6 ppg, 18th in the league) and the team nearly achieved Pat Williams' 20-20-20 dream as McGinnis averaged 20.3 ppg (20th in the league) and Collins averaged 19.7 ppg. Erving posted very good all-around numbers (6.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.3 bpg, .502 field goal percentage, .845 free throw percentage) and he was selected to the All-NBA First Team.
The 76ers earned a first round bye before playing the 43-39 New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. New York Coach Willis Reed knew that his team faced an uphill battle: "Personnel-wise, Philadelphia is the best team in the league." The 76ers sure looked like the league's best team after eight Philadelphia players scored in double figures as the 76ers blew out the Knicks 130-90 in game one. Philadelphia set a franchise record for most points in a playoff game, eclipsing the 128 points scored against Houston in 1977. Steve Mix led the 76ers' balanced attack with 19 points. Erving added 16 points, an NBA playoff career-high 15 rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots; during one explosive three minute stretch in the third quarter, Erving scored eight points, grabbed eight rebounds and guarded Bob McAdoo (the NBA's third leading scorer at 26.5 ppg), blocking two of his shots. Rookie guard Ray Williams scored a game-high 24 points for the Knicks.
Erving scored 14 of his team-high 22 points in the second quarter of game two as the 76ers rolled to another easy win, 119-100; he began his scoring spree after being called for just his second technical foul of the season (Erving felt that a foul should have been called when he drove to the hoop and challenged Spencer Haywood at the rim). Williams again led the Knicks with a game-high 24 points. Jones, Dawkins and Erving took turns guarding McAdoo, and they held him to 10 points.
The story did not change as the series shifted venues; the 76ers set a new franchise record for points scored in a playoff game, pushing New York to the brink of elimination with a 137-126 win. Erving had 28 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in a performance that Goldaper called "one of the finest efforts within the concept of team play." He added, "Defensively, Erving was all over the court, often forcing the Knicks to take poor shots and, at times, being matched against the Knick backcourtmen."
"It was one of the better games I've seen Julius play," marveled New York forward Jim McMillian. "He was moving constantly without the ball, and they were looking for him. When he's doing that he's so much tougher to play."
Free and McGinnis each scored a game-high 29 points, with Free collecting 18 of his points in the fourth quarter. "I want to prove I can be an All-Star in this league, even coming off the bench," Free declared. McAdoo emerged from his slump with 29 points.
The Knicks put up a better fight in game four but could not avoid the sweep as Philadelphia advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 112-107 victory. Collins scored a game-high 24 points and Erving contributed 23 points, including a free throw to give the 76ers a 98-97 lead after Lonnie Shelton was whistled for an ill-advised technical foul. "I thought it was the biggest play of the game," said Bibby. "It was not the best time to get a technical. Sometimes the officials miss a few calls but you have to control yourself at that point of the game." McAdoo led the Knicks with 24 points. Despite the win, McGinnis--who scored 10 points in 21 minutes--sounded a discordant note: "I'm in the lineup one minute and out the next. If I gotta be in that system, I don't want to be here."
Erving averaged 22.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 5.0 apg versus New York, shooting .515 from the field and .760 from the free throw line. He led the Sixers in scoring, assists, steals (1.8 spg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg) while ranking second in rebounding.
Philadelphia faced the 44-38 Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bullets' mediocre regular season record was deceptive; they had a talented squad--including two of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players (Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld), plus All-Star forward (and member of the 1971 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks) Bob Dandridge. The Bullets reached the NBA Finals in 1975 and they hit their stride during the 1978 playoffs with victories over Atlanta and San Antonio. Washington Coach Dick Motta liked his team's chances: "I've said all along there are five solid teams in this league and that we are one of them. We can stay in there with the others--especially under playoff conditions, when there is more rest, more specific preparation and more scouting."
Washington seized home court advantage in game one with a 122-117 overtime victory, the Bullets' first triumph at Philadelphia in over three years (a span including six straight losses). Hayes scored a game-high 28 points--including nine of Washington's 13 in the extra session--in addition to ripping down 18 rebounds, blocking six shots and swiping four steals. The Bullets squandered a four point lead in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter and Washington guard Kevin Grevey--who scored 26 points--admitted that losing under those circumstances might have ended the series before it began: "It would have been terribly demoralizing, because they weren't sharp. And, if we couldn't beat them when they weren't sharp, it would be tough doing otherwise."
Erving led the 76ers with 25 points and he also had 12 rebounds and four assists. He said, "We tried a lot of different things and they caused us problems. Maybe it's better for us to stick to one or two things and then we won't fluctuate so much."
Collins scored a game-high 28 points while Erving and Mix scored 22 points each as the 76ers won game two 110-104. Mix also had six rebounds, six assists and two steals; the local radio crew selected him as the star of the game. Erving contributed 11 rebounds and four assists. Unseld sat out because of a sprained ankle but Hayes had another strong game with a team-high 26 points plus 15 rebounds and he still felt like his team had control of the series: "By the time we come back here (to Philadelphia for game five) we should be (up) 3-1. We're a confident team. They had to have this game. It was kind of a panic situation for them. They couldn't afford to come to our place down two games."
Dandridge scored a game-high 30 points as Washington routed Philadelphia 123-108 to take a 2-1 series lead. Hayes had 16 points and 12 rebounds as Unseld missed his second game in a row. McGinnis led the 76ers with 16 points. Erving scored just 12 points on 4-14 field goal shooting after jamming two fingers on his right (shooting) hand. He refused to use the injury as an excuse for his poor performance and he also did not like the way that the 76ers were playing: "They're playing the team concept and we're doing the one on one stuff. With the depth we have, we can win the series if we get our act together."
Dandridge had a simple explanation for Erving's low scoring total: "They aren't going to him that much and that helps me. I'm playing basic defense. If he doesn't hit his outside shots, I let him keep shooting them. If he drives, I hope I get help."
Hayes expected his Bullets to win both games in Washington and he made sure that would happen by dominating game four with 35 points and 19 rebounds in a 121-105 victory. Dandridge added 27 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. Unseld still did not play; in most situations the absence of a future Hall of Famer would be a big story but the two big stories in the series were (1) Hayes eating McGinnis' lunch and (2) the 76ers spending more time bickering with each other than competing against the Bullets. Dawkins and Mix publicly complained about coming off of the bench and McGinnis made it clear that he did not like his role. Erving could only do so much in this dysfunctional environment; he scored 10 straight points in the second quarter to stake the 76ers to a 48-37 lead but the Bullets erased that deficit with a 17-0 run keyed by Hayes' 11 points. Erving finished with 24 points. Washington Coach Dick Motta cautioned that his team should not be overconfident about a 3-1 series lead: "It's not over. It's like an opera. It doesn't end until the fat lady starts singing and that hasn't happened in this one yet."
Philadelphia jumped to a 9-1 lead and never looked back in game five, extending the series with a 107-94 win. Erving and Collins each scored a game-high 24 points. Erving shot 11-19 from the field and he also had six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Larry Wright led Washington with 18 points. The 76ers held Hayes and Dandrige to 12 points apiece. Unseld returned to action with six points, 16 rebounds and five assists before fouling out.
In game six, Unseld contributed eight points and 15 rebounds, including what turned out to be the game-winning putback with 12 seconds remaining. Dandridge led the Bullets with 28 points and Hayes added 21 points. On Philadelphia's last possession, Free was supposed to drive and then pass to Erving but instead Free forced the action and Hayes drew an offensive foul on Free. Erving refused to blame Free: "The game doesn't come down to one play. The thing that got us is when we lost the first game at home. I don't think we ever recovered. Then in game (four) we had the lead and were in control when they ran off 17 points." Collins scored 31 first half points on 14-19 field goal shooting but he only scored two second half points after the Bullets switched Tom Henderson on to him. Erving scored 22 points.
Erving averaged 21.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 3.3 apg in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was Erving's worst "Final Four" performance to date but he still had a solid series and he was not the reason that the 76ers lost. Marty Bell summarized Philadelphia's problem: "The fact was, these Sixers were not a great team. No one was able to play up to their ability. Julius had the most ability and he sacrificed the most" (p. 187, The Legend of Dr. J).
Erving averaged 21.8 ppg (fifth in the league), 9.7 rpg (eighth in the league), 4.0 apg, 1.5 spg (tied for sixth in the league) and 1.8 bpg (ninth in the league) in the 1978 playoffs. He led the team in scoring, he tied for the lead in steals and he ranked second in rebounding, assists and blocked shots. According to Harvey Pollack's data, Erving again led the 76ers in playoff dunks (18). Erving was clearly the team's best all-around player; he should have been the focal point of the team's offense and his teammates should have embraced their respective complementary roles but instead the organization encouraged Erving to defer to lesser players and Erving went along with this plan even though that he had already won two championships by being a dominant performer.
After the 1977 Finals collapse, the 76ers ran an advertising campaign with the slogan "We Owe You One"; it seemed unlikely at that time that it would take six seasons for the 76ers to pay off that debt but after the 1978 season many fans felt like the 76ers now owed them two.
Critics Snipe as Erving Misses "Final Four" for the First Time Since 1975
The 76ers tired of McGinnis' act after he had two consecutive subpar postseasons while often complaining about his role, so they shipped him to Denver for Bobby Jones, an unselfish, all-around player who was arguably the league's best defensive forward. The 76ers traded Free to the San Diego Clippers for a first round draft pick in 1984 that became Charles Barkley. Prior to the 1978-79 season, Cunningham declared, "This is now Julius Erving's basketball team. George sacrificed a lot of his game for this team. And Lloyd Free might win the scoring title in San Diego. But I did what was best for my team. The Nets were Julius Erving's basketball team--and all he did for them was win championships" (p. 189, The Legend of Dr. J).
Even though contemporary reports suggested that the 76ers had some internal problems, Erving told this writer that he believes the team could have overcome those difficulties: "Probably, if our team had stayed together, instead of being broken up, I think we would have won the title prior to '83. I think that we had the makings of a great team and we had a lot of parts. All the teams that we beat to get to the Finals before we lost to Portland should have spoken volumes."
The 76ers initially did very well after the trades, racing to a 24-11 record with Erving leading the way and Collins serving as a strong second option, but when a leg injury sidelined Collins the 76ers--who once had a surfeit of scorers--suddenly struggled to put the ball in the basket; opposing teams could aggressively trap Erving and force the ball out of his hands. Erving averaged a then-NBA career high 23.1 ppg (11th in the league) and set his NBA career high with a 4.6 apg average but the media viewed his performance so negatively that he was left off of the All-NBA Team for the first time in his career. Various injuries, including a severe groin pull, limited Erving and decreased his efficiency (he shot a then-career low .491 from the field) but he still had an excellent all-around season, ranking second on the team in assists, third in rebounding (7.2 rpg), second in steals (1.7 spg) and fourth in blocked shots (1.3 bpg) for the team that finished second in the NBA in that department.
During the 1978-79 season, Erving received serious flak for the first time in his career; critics sniped that his rebounding and defense had slipped and that, while he was still a good scorer, he was no longer as explosive or as efficient as he used to be. A March 26, 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled "Hey, What's up with the Doc?" includes a quote from Erving explaining how his game had been transformed in Philadelphia:
What people don't understand is the apples to oranges context of this change I made. The situation was created on day one in Philly that I would not play my game. I mean here I was that very first week playing tough and going all out, playing my game, when Fred Carter said, 'Hey, easy man, you're working too hard.' Then I found out what he meant. In Philly when a man got hot and, you know, made three or four in a row, the defense didn't have to adjust to stop him because our own offense made an adjustment to stop him. By not giving him the ball. The first two years it was a ball-distribution thing--when it was your time, you had to do it even if you were swarmed under. You did it then because you knew you wouldn't see the ball again for a long time.
I got into terrible habits. Caldwell Jones said one day, "Man, why you shooting with three men on you? I never saw you do that before." I said, "Did I do that?" For Caldwell to say that to me, I must have done it. But that's not the way I learned how to play. That's not my game. Now we've got another offense in here, but there's no direction, and the same things happen. I don't think it's conscious. People have just been conditioned. I'll get turned on, you know, really want it, then I suddenly stop. Guys start looking at you funny, like you're hogging the ball. So we do something else.
The problem is we have no offensive identity. Seattle walks it up, so we walk it up. L.A. wants to run it and push it, so we do the same and get blown out. There is no time when we stop and say, "O.K., this is Philadelphia's game, and we're going to play it. We always play other people's game."
Look, yes, I think about what might have been had I stayed with the Nets. But that's counterproductive. I was the primary guy there. I think we could have been contenders for years because what we lacked in talent we made up for with Kevin Loughery's innovativeness. It was fun in the huddles when all else failed and Kevin would say to me, "It's time to do something." And, you know, I would. But I refuse to be pressured into forcing myself to take over here. I'm a follower.
Erving indicated that he was so frustrated that he planned to retire after the 1982 season when his contract expired: "The situation--my health, team personnel and morale, the state of the organization--would have to be very, very good for me to stay. I'll be 32, which might seem too young to retire. But I don't think so. I know the city is hungry for a championship. But I don't want anyone telling me I should be scoring 50 points a game unless we talk about that in the Philadelphia locker room. We don't. If we did, I'd go out and do it."
The 76ers finished 47-35 and earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference behind the defending champion Washington Bullets (54-28, best record in the NBA) and the 48-34 San Antonio Spurs; they swept Erving's old team, the Nets--now based in New Jersey instead of New York--2-0 in a best of three first round mini-series. Erving scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and passed for six assists in Philadelphia's 122-114 game one victory. New Jersey Coach Kevin Loughery, who received 42 technical fouls during the regular season, was ejected after receiving two technical fouls, as was John Williamson, who poured in a game-high 38 points but also committed 11 turnovers.
Caldwell Jones led the 76ers with 24 points and 21 rebounds as the 76ers closed out the series with a 111-101 win. Erving missed his first 10 field goal attempts before rallying to finish with 19 points. Bernard King scored a game-high 27 points for the Nets. Williamson scored 21 points but shot just 9-34 from the field.
The Eastern Conference semifinals matchup between Philadelphia and San Antonio turned out to be both a shootout and a slugfest; former ABA teammates Julius Erving and George Gervin faced off in an epic scoring duel (though they did not often guard each other), while the team's big men engaged in hand to hand combat in the paint. Gervin and and his running mate Larry Kenon--Erving's former New York teammate--struck first in game one, scoring 31 and 30 points respectively in a 119-106 San Antonio win. The well-rested Spurs--who had not played for a week--built a 73-47 lead before cruising to victory. Dawkins led the 76ers with 25 points, while Erving added 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. "They doubled our guards and rotated people," Erving said. "They took us out of the stuff we wanted to run. We lost the game on mental errors." The Spurs' pressing defense forced 27 Philadelphia turnovers.
Gervin (29 points), Kenon (27 points) and James Silas (25 points) provided most of the scoring in the Spurs' 121-120 game two win. The Spurs built a 12 point lead in the third quarter but had to hold off a furious Philadelphia rally that fell just short. Erving led the 76ers with 25 points while again posting nine rebounds and seven assists.
Erving scored a game-high 39 points--one short of his NBA playoff career high--on 15-23 field goal shooting as the 76ers won game three 123-115. He scored 15 first quarter points as the 76ers jumped out to a 40-32 lead. Erving scored two points in the second quarter, 14 in the third quarter and eight in the fourth quarter. He finished with nine rebounds for the third straight game and he also had six assists. Bobby Jones chipped in with 21 points. Dawkins had 14 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter as the 76ers outscored the Spurs 36-27; he finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Silas led the Spurs with 32 points, while Gervin contributed 24 points.
Gervin scored 32 points as the Spurs won 115-112 to take a 3-1 lead. Kenon added 23 points and Silas had 19 points. Rookie point guard Maurice Cheeks scored a game-high 33 points for the 76ers and he also had nine rebounds and six assists. Erving only scored 15 points on 6-17 field goal shooting. San Antonio Coach Doug Moe made a key strategic move, switching Kenon onto Erving in place of Allan Bristow. "This is the first time I've ever played defense on Erving," Kenon noted. "I really concentrated on overplaying him." Kenon had a great all-around game, contributing nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. Cunningham, who received a technical foul, criticized the officials for not keeping the physical play under control. Despite the long odds against Philadelphia winning the series, Cunningham defiantly--and prophetically--declared, "If we win down there Thursday, it's going to be a seven game series. I'll tell you one thing. We will not quit."
Cunningham shifted Erving to guard for game five, enabling the 76ers to use a big lineup to combat San Antonio's strength in the paint. Erving responded with a game-high 32 points--including 24 in the second half--as the 76ers routed the Spurs 120-97. Mix scored 21 points and Cheeks added 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds while also playing outstanding defense against Gervin, holding the league's scoring champion to just 13 points. Silas led San Antonio with 19 points.
The Spurs built a 13 point fourth quarter lead in game six but Erving, Dawkins and Cheeks keyed a late Philadelphia rally that culminated in a 92-90 win. The 76ers trailed 90-89 with 20 seconds left when Cunningham drew up a play for Erving; the Spurs double-teamed Erving, who then found Cheeks cutting down the lane for a layup. Cheeks completed the scoring by sinking a free throw with three seconds left. Caldwell Jones led the 76ers with 20 points and 17 rebounds, Dawkins added 18 points and Erving and Cheeks scored 15 points each. Silas scored a game-high 27 points.
Dawkins sprained his ankle early in game seven and the Spurs built an 18 point first half lead but the 76ers bounced back to go ahead with two and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Mark Olberding split a pair of free throws at the 1:59 mark to tie the score at 104 and then Gervin made a free throw with 1:27 left to put the Spurs up by one. Mike Green added two free throws, Erving hit a basket to pull the 76ers to within one and Green countered with a long jumper to make the score 109-106. Gervin's two free throws with 11 seconds left sealed the deal. Gervin led the Spurs in scoring (33 points on 12-23 field goal shooting) and rebounding (12) in the Spurs' 111-108 win. Kenon supported Gervin with 27 points and eight rebounds. Erving played 46 minutes, pouring in a game-high 34 points on 11-16 field goal shooting and tying his NBA playoff career highs in both free throws made (12) and attempted (16). He also had eight assists and five rebounds. He averaged 26.0 ppg in the series. Cheeks contributed 20 points, a game-high 13 assists and five rebounds.
Erving averaged 25.4 ppg (fourth in the league), 7.8 rpg, 5.9 apg (third in the league), 2.0 spg (tied for fifth in the league) and 1.9 bpg (eighth in the league) during the 1979 playoffs, despite battling an assortment of injuries. He shot .517 from the field and still looked like an elite player, not a player who supposedly had declined dramatically. Reaching the Final Four is a major accomplishment for a college basketball team; the "Final Four" in the NBA is the Conference Finals round and one of the most underrated aspects of Erving's career is that he led his teams to the "Final Four" in 10 of his 16 seasons. In 1979, Erving did not reach the "Final Four" for the first time since 1975 but his performance was not as subpar as the media portrayed it to be.
"More Singularly Purposeful"
Perhaps the only way to explain the media backlash against Erving during the 1978-79 season is that media members often seek to create controversy and/or to promote contrarian views; Erving had justifiably been billed as the best all-around player in the sport, so it made for good newspaper/magazine headlines to assert that young guns like Marques Johnson and Walter Davis had surpassed Erving. Someone who just reads selected articles from that time period without understanding the proper context could easily get the wrong impression about the NBA's real pecking order but if you do enough research you can find accurate rebuttals; in the 1979-80 edition of Street and Smith's College, Pro and Prep Basketball Yearbook, Dick Weiss took aim at Erving's critics:
Erving--despite speculation to the contrary--is still an outstanding player. Last year, the 6-7 forward averaged 23 points despite playing only 32 minutes per game. Unfortunately, when it came time to select the All-Pro teams, Erving's personal success was measured in terms of how far the 76ers advanced into the NBA playoffs...
Erving played the last half of the season in tremendous pain, suffering from a severe groin pull that became so agitated in the playoffs that Erving himself admitted recently, "If we had advanced to the next series, I don't think I could have played without an injection."
Erving was mysteriously quiet about the protective padding he was forced to wear following the initial injury in January. "Certainly," he said, "I could have used a few days rest. But Doug Collins was hurt (with a bone spur and then a stress fracture of the right foot) at the time and I didn't want to give people the idea we were making excuses."
Fortunately for the 76ers, team management wisely figured out that Erving was not the team's major problem and they began to surround him with better, more complementary teammates (by the time the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983 Erving was the only remaining player from the 1977 squad that lost to Portland in the NBA Finals). Despite the disappointing finish to the 1978-79 campaign, the 76ers were on the right track because they had finally made Erving the focal point of their attack.
In 1979-80, Erving proved that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated and he reclaimed his status as the best forward in the league and, arguably, the best player in the sport: Erving regained his spot on the All-NBA First Team and he finished second in MVP voting to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Erving ranked fourth in the league in scoring with an NBA career-high 26.9 ppg, he ranked seventh in steals (2.2 spg) and he ranked 10th in blocked shots (1.8 bpg)--people rave about LeBron James' chase down blocks but Erving was not only getting chase down blocks but he was blocking shots all over the court at a much higher rate than James ever has: James has yet to block 100 shots in a season even once while Erving blocked at least 100 shots in 12 of the 15 seasons during his career when such statistics were officially tracked. Erving's career-low 82 blocked shots at the age of 36 would be the second best total of James' 10 year career! Erving also continued to post excellent rebounding and assist numbers, ranking third on the team with 7.4 rpg and second on the team with 4.6 apg.
In a February 3, 1980 New York Times article ("Julius Erving is Finally Getting his Old ABA Act Together") written by Carrie Seidman, Erving's former coach Kevin Loughery called Erving the third greatest player in basketball history (behind only Bill Russell and Bill Walton) and said that even though Erving was enjoying the best season of his young NBA career he still was not being permitted to fully unleash his skills. "It's a shame, I'd say, for the people to be missing the greatest show in pro basketball." Loughery added, "He was at his best when he went end to end with the ball. He could be so creative. He could go all the way or slam dunk an offensive rebound. That was the Doc at his exciting best. At this stage, the NBA hasn't seen the Doc we knew in the ABA. Maybe they never will. The game is changing. It's a little sad to think that maybe there isn't room for that kind of ballplayer."
In a May 12, 1980 Newsweek article titled "The Spirit of the 76ers," Diane K. Shah wrote, "Erving finished the (1978-79) season with a pulled groin, a torn stomach muscle and a wretched--for him--49 percent shooting average. Some people began phrasing his eulogy." She quoted Erving: "When I came to Philadelphia they told me they had so many good players they didn't need me to dominate. They wanted me to become just another member of the cast." In the summer of 1979, Erving decided, "I was going to be more singularly purposeful." Cunningham explained what that meant: "From the first day out, he played like he was really trying to prove something. That something was that he's the best forward who ever played."
In the May 19, 1980 issue of Time, Erving said, "I thought the reputation I had built up over all these years was slipping away. It is important to me to be recognized as one of the best players in the game."
Erving led the 76ers to a 59-23 record but they finished second in the Atlantic Division behind rookie Larry Bird and his resurgent 61-21 Boston Celtics. In the early 1980s, Erving versus Bird quickly became the NBA's best rivalry. A 1983 "Sports Champions" video includes a great Erving quote that encapsulates Erving's approach to competition and his overall basketball philosophy. The quote is presented as a voice-over narration by Erving as footage is shown of Erving driving to the hoop against Bird: "When I get the ball in my hands and when you turn and you face him, when you take the initiative to aggressively face him, then he has to react. He may not react physically but his heart jumps if you turn and you really look at him like you mean business. His heart might even stop for a second, especially if you are good. This is when you start playing the game as you were when you were a kid, because this is when you are playing basketball and you are not working. To me this has always been a beautiful experience because I can look in a guy's eye and I can also tell if he means business and I can also feel whether my heart stops or stands still or not. If I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and we have got the same thing in mind--playing basketball and playing it the way that nobody else in the world plays it--then I think we create something beautiful."
The 76ers faced the Bullets in a first round mini-series. The Bullets still had the key players from their 1978 championship team--Hayes, Unseld and Dandridge--but individually and collectively they had declined and were no longer a contending squad, finishing with a 39-43 record and not clinching a playoff berth until the final game of the season. Lionel Hollins led Philadelphia with 21 points in the 76ers' 111-96 game one victory; the 76ers acquired Hollins from Portland in the middle of the season after an injury once again knocked Collins out of the lineup and the speedy Hollins averaged 12.2 ppg for Philadelphia. Caldwell Jones added 18 points and a career-high 26 rebounds despite wearing a mask to protect his broken nose. Erving, hobbled by an injured right knee that had forced him to sit out the regular season finale versus Boston, scored 13 points. "I didn't have any pain in the knee but I was a little off balance. I was favoring that side. I probably could have tried to do more, if I was needed, but we had the game under control."
Erving provided a simple explanation for why the 76ers won: "We shut down their inside game. The Bullets are a very predictable team. They don't have the type of team they've had in the past." Kevin Grevey scored a game-high 34 points for the Bullets but future Hall of Fame big men Hayes and Unseld combined to score just 23 points on 9-23 field goal shooting.
Philadelphia built an 83-61 third quarter lead in game two but then began missing open shots and turning the ball over, allowing Washington to trim the margin to 106-102 with about one minute left in regulation. Erving stole the ball and drove to the hoop for a layup and the Bullets never threatened again, falling 112-104. Erving scored a game-high 31 points in 47 minutes and said, "I was a little less inhibited than I was the other day." Erving averaged 22.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.0 spg and 2.5 bpg against Washington, but he shot just .400 from the field. Hayes led the Bullets with 26 points. Erving's former New York teammate John Williamson went scoreless for the first three quarters before pouring in 14 points during the Bullets' fourth quarter rally.
Erving scored a game-high 28 points--including 11 in the fourth quarter--and he made several key plays down the stretch as the 76ers defeated the Atlanta Hawks in game one of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Atlanta led 87-81 with nine minutes left in the game when the Doctor took over by converting a three point play and sending home a dunk. Erving later hit the shot that gave the 76ers the lead and his two free throws put Philadelphia up 105-100 with :56 left but then Dan Roundfield countered with a jumper and two free throws to make the score 105-104 with :22 remaining. Erving faked a short pass and then threw a full-court inbounds pass to Bobby Jones, whose dunk provided the clinching points; Erving explained what happened on the game-winning play: "Bobby had the side to himself with a guard on the strong side. The guard came to the ball with Bobby and then Bobby left. The defense was concerned with the stack (on the inbounds play). Bobby had the side to himself and kept going. He had him beat by three steps easily. It was more difficult to make the catch and hit the layup."
It is typical of Erving to downplay his pass and focus on his teammate's catch; Jones told this writer, "He was a great teammate, was a great encourager of his teammates. He never put anybody down because they couldn't rise to his level. He would always just encourage everybody to do what they could do and wouldn't get on them because they couldn't do what he could do." Regarding the Atlanta play, Jones told reporters after the game, "Doc gave me a great pass. I didn't think I'd be that open but I was." Jones and Cheeks each finished with 21 points. Eddie Johnson led Atlanta with 26 points.
In game two, the Hawks again built a fourth quarter lead and the Sixers again rallied to win 99-92. This time, Dawkins and Bibby triggered the comeback, combining to score Philadelphia's first 15 points in the final stanza as the 76ers went on a 15-2 run to transform a 78-71 deficit into an 86-80 lead. Dawkins topped the 76ers with 22 points, while Roundfield scored a game-high 23 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. Erving picked up his fifth foul at the 9:33 mark of the third quarter with the 76ers leading 53-50; he watched helplessly from the bench as the Hawks took the lead but he returned with just under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to help the 76ers seal the win. Erving finished with 17 points on 7-8 field goal shooting.
Atlanta built a fourth quarter lead for the third straight game but this time the Hawks did not falter, going on an 18-7 run in the middle of the final stanza en route to posting a 105-93 win. Charlie Criss--at 5-8 the smallest player in the league--scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, while center Steve Hawes led Atlanta with 20 points off of the bench. Erving scored a game-high 26 points and he grabbed 12 rebounds.
Hollins and Bobby Jones each scored 20 points as the 76ers took command of the series with a 107-83 blowout win. Cheeks scored three straight hoops at the start of the second half and Philadelphia eventually outscored Atlanta 35-17 in the third quarter. Erving contributed 17 points and Roundfield led Atlanta with 17 points.
Erving and Dawkins each scored a game-high 30 points as the 76ers closed out the series with a 105-100 win. For the fourth time in five games, the Hawks squandered a second half lead. John Drew scored 29 points for the Hawks. Erving averaged 23.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.4 spg and 2.2 bpg versus Atlanta while shooting .470 from the field and .970 (32-33) from the free throw line.
Erving and Bird faced each other in four Eastern Conference Finals, including three straight from 1980-82; they battled to prove who was the best all-around forward--if not the best all-around player--in the NBA and their teams battled to reach the NBA Finals. Their playoff rivalry started dramatically as Erving scored a game-high 29 points and Bird led Boston with 27 points in Philadelphia's 96-93 game one win. Boston led 52-44 at halftime but Erving scored 14 third quarter points as the 76ers went up 76-72 heading into the fourth quarter. Philadelphia won in Boston for the first time, after losing the three regular season meetings by 23, 19 and 19 points; Boston likewise did not win in Philadelphia during the 1979-80 season.
Bird scored a game-high 31 points on 15-30 field goal shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds as Boston won game two 96-90. Bird made nine straight field goals as the Celtics built a 16 point first half lead but the 76ers rallied to tie the score at 62 in the third quarter. Erving led the 76ers with 24 points.
After a rough first half in game three, Erving took over in the third quarter. M.L. Carr delivered two hard fouls against Erving, provoking Erving to walk up to Carr and give him a piece of his mind. After the game, Erving explained, "That's the third time he's hit me like that. Once at the end of the last game, when he really didn't have to, and these two times. I just wanted to get it straight what kind of basketball we were going to play. I know M.L. I've been playing against him for seven years now. He plays good, hard defense. I just wanted to see if he was going to play this way now. I didn't want to fight. I just wanted to get it straight about how we were playing. I learned a long time ago that fights don't prove anything, that if you want to show somebody something, you show 'em with your abilities. Just play harder. There was a certain upheaval with my game at that point, sure. I wanted to play harder." Erving scored 22 second half points in Philadelphia's 99-97 win, finishing with a game-high 28 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. He shot 13-22 from the field. After the game, Erving said that he gave himself a halftime pep talk: "I'm going to go out there and give it my best shot. I'm going to play with reckless abandon. I'm going stronger to the basket." Bird led Boston with 22 points and 21 rebounds.
Erving scored a game-high 30 points--including 12 in the third quarter when the 76ers broke the game open--as Philadelphia took a 3-1 series lead with a 102-90 win. He also had 10 rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocked shots. Erving had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists in the first quarter as Philadelphia built a 28-21 lead. After his quick start and brilliant third quarter, Erving missed his final nine field goal attempts, turning a great shooting performance into a below average one (9-22). Bird led the Celtics with 19 points but he shot just 6-15 from the field and did not score in the fourth quarter. The 76ers survived a bizarre fourth quarter during which they shot just 2-23 from the field; the Celtics failed to come back because they only shot 6-22 from the field.
Hollins scored a game-high 24 points in the 105-94 win that propelled the 76ers into the NBA Finals for the second time in Erving's four seasons with the team. Cunningham declared, "If we didn't have Lionel Hollins, we wouldn't be sitting here. He's just about another coach on the court." Those proved to be prophetic words, as Hollins became an NBA coach after his playing career ended. Hall of Famer Pete Maravich scored four points for the Celtics in what turned out to be the final playoff game of his career; a few months earlier, Philadelphia pursued the free agent Maravich to fill in for the injured Collins but after Maravich rejected Philadelphia and signed with Boston the 76ers acquired Hollins from Portland. Both Erving (14 points on 4-10 field goal shooting, nine rebounds, four assists) and Bird (12 points on 5-19 field goal shooting, 14 rebounds, four assists) had solid floor games but subpar shooting performances. Nate Archibald and Dave Cowens led Boston with 22 points each.
Erving averaged 25.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.6 spg and 1.4 bpg in the Eastern Conference Finals while shooting .505 from the field and .769 from the free throw line. Bird averaged 22.2 ppg, 13.8 rpg and 3.6 apg while shooting .440 from the field and .857 from the free throw line--but he attempted just 14 free throws; the more aggressive Erving attempted 39 free throws.
While the 76ers waited to see if they would face the defending champion Seattle Supersonics or the L.A. Lakers, someone asked Erving which NBA Finals opponent he preferred and he replied with a laugh, "Whichever team's center breaks his leg is the team we want to play." As is often the case with humor, that joke contained more than a kernel of truth; the biggest roadblock preventing Erving from winning an NBA title was that most of the 76ers' rivals had a future Hall of Fame center patrolling the paint while Philadelphia had the game but overmatched Caldwell Jones and the athletic but often clueless Darryl Dawkins. Erving's all-around skill set and his consistency were unequaled but the one thing that he could not do was match up with a Hall of Fame center one on one; Erving did not necessarily need a Hall of Fame center to win an NBA title but he needed more than Dawkins and Jones provided.
After the Lakers defeated the Supersonics, Cunningham broke down the 76ers' game plan: "We have to stop their transition game and keep them from running on us. And of course there's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We have to neutralize the big guy or it's all over." The 76ers did not accomplish any of those goals in game one, as Abdul-Jabbar led both teams in scoring (33 points), rebounds (14) and blocked shots (six) during the Lakers' 109-102 win. The Lakers opened the second half with a 12-0 run to take a 65-53 lead. The Lakers outscored the 76ers 31-17 in the third quarter, holding Philadelphia to 3-20 field goal shooting. Erving scored 11 of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter as the 76ers cut the margin to 92-88 with 6:01 remaining but Philadelphia would not get any closer than that.
Norm Nixon (23 points, six assists), Jamaal Wilkes (20 points, seven rebounds and six assists) and Earvin "Magic" Johnson (16 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) all had strong performances for the Lakers. Rookie Johnson was nominally a guard but he told reporters, "My role on the team can change according to the game situation. I wait to see how the game is going to determine whether I will play forward or guard."
Five 76ers scored in double figures in addition to Erving but the 76ers shot just .444 from the field while the Lakers shot .539. The Lakers aggressively double-teamed Erving. L.A. Coach Paul Westhead later explained, "Julius is the motivator, the guy who spurs them on. Our game plan is not to let the Doctor go wild. When he gets it going he charges up his teammates and the crowd and the whole game changes."
Wilkes described how his team defended Erving: "We had one guy in his jersey and one guy running at him to double-team. And if he got past those two, Kareem was waiting for him."
In game two, the 76ers exploited the Lakers' double-teaming: Cheeks made his first eight field goal attempts as Philadelphia took a 31-21 first quarter lead. The 76ers extended that lead to 68-45 in the third quarter before the Lakers outscored the 76ers 33-18 in the fourth quarter to nearly steal the game. Philadelphia held on for a 107-104 win that not only evened the series but that also grabbed home court advantage.
Erving said, "They weren't as aggressive early in the game on their double-teams. I got rolling and later we mixed up how we attacked the double-team. We made the little guy who had to double-team run a little farther to get to me, so it took him longer to recover" when Erving passed the ball to the open man.
Trapping Erving left other players wide open but the Lakers were willing to take that risk. "We want to see anybody else with the ball but the Doctor," Wilkes emphasized. "One on one, the guy is incredible. We think that double-teaming Julius and forcing their other guys to hit the shots is still our percentage play over the long haul." Dawkins and Cheeks--the primary beneficiaries of the extra defensive attention Erving attracted--finished with 25 and 23 points respectively, while Erving had a magnificent all-around performance: 23 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, 10 rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots. The 76ers still had no answer for Abdul-Jabbar, who scored a game-high 38 points, grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds and tied Erving for game-high honors with five blocked shots.
The Lakers reclaimed home court advantage--and snapped a nine game losing streak at the Spectrum--with a 111-101 game three victory. The Lakers never trailed, they led 58-44 at halftime and they extended that margin to 21, though the 76ers pulled to within 104-96 with 2:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. L.A. outrebounded Philadelphia 56-37; one newspaper headline said it all: "Sixers Board to Death." Abdul-Jabbar again led both teams in scoring (33 points), rebounds (14) and blocked shots (four). Wilkes (19 points, 12 rebounds) and Johnson (16 points, 11 rebounds) also had double doubles, while Nixon contributed 22 points and seven assists. Erving had another excellent all-around game (24 points on 9-17 field goal shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, two steals, two blocked shots) but he did not receive nearly enough help. Cunningham shifted Erving to guard at times in order to use a big frontcourt lineup of Dawkins, Caldwell Jones and Bobby Jones, an adjustment that helped the 76ers make their second half run--but Dawkins' foul trouble prevented Cunningham from sticking with that lineup.
In game four, Dawkins showed flashes of the potential that tantalized--and ultimately disappointed--the 76ers and their fans; he scored 26 points on 12-23 field goal shooting and even blocked one of Abdul-Jabbar's shots as Philadelphia won 105-102 to even the series at 2-2. Dawkins only grabbed six rebounds in 41 minutes--he never became a great rebounder, despite being blessed with size, leaping ability and strength--but he still had a major impact in the paint. "The turning point of the game was when Darryl became effective inside," Erving said. "We struggled until Darryl became the dominant force on the floor."
Erving finished with 23 points on 9-17 field goal shooting, five rebounds, three assists, one steal and one blocked shot but this performance will always be remembered more for the artistry than for the numbers: Erving's "No Way Even for Dr. J Reverse Layup" is one of the signature plays in pro basketball history. Erving drove to the hoop along the right baseline, elevated to shoot but then decided to pass the ball after Abdul-Jabbar slid over. Erving seemed to walk on air underneath the basket, holding the ball over the out of bounds line in his huge right hand, before converting a one handed reverse layup after he did not have an angle to pass the ball. Erving's legerdemain was not just entertaining but it was also a crucial hoop, pushing Philadelphia's lead to 91-84; Erving scored 10 points in the final 7:36 to preserve the win.
After the game, Erving explained the mindset underlying his fourth quarter aggressiveness: "I was really depressed after Saturday's game. My wife drove me home and she said: 'What's wrong? Are you mad?' I said, 'No, I'm not mad. I'm disappointed.' I knew I could do better. I made a promise to myself to give more of myself today. What went through my mind was the San Antonio series last year, when they did all that double-teaming and stuff. All right, they (the Lakers) did that double-teaming stuff and I gave the ball up in the stretch Saturday. Today I didn't want to really give it up. I would force a shot, or get a foul, or something, until we got a cushion. At five points (ahead) I would give it up. But not at three. If you're being successful, yes, pass off. But we were down, 2-1. And I know I can go out and score 30 anytime I want to. It makes you think about it, anyway. I'm the leader. Down the stretch, the team looks to me to create something. Maybe I was setting an example for Darryl today, because I know it's a role he will evolve into." Erving never publicly lost faith in the underachieving Dawkins and he often spoke of Dawkins as his heir apparent, even though Dawkins never had the mindset to fill Erving's shoes as a team leader.
Johnson scored a game-high 28 points, the first time in 28 playoff games that Abdul-Jabbar did not lead the Lakers in scoring. Johnson also had nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 23 points, a game-high 11 rebounds and four blocked shots (tying Caldwell Jones for game-high honors in that category).
The pivotal game five in Los Angeles turned into a shootout between Abdul-Jabbar (40 points on 16-24 field goal shooting) and Erving (36 points on 12-24 field goal shooting). Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle in the third quarter and sat out for several minutes but he returned to score 14 fourth quarter points as the Lakers survived a rally led by Erving, who contributed 16 points in the final stanza (including 15 of the 76ers last 19 points). Erving's two free throws tied the score at 103 with :43 remaining but Abdul-Jabbar converted a three point play at the :33 mark. Bibby stepped out of bounds while trying to launch a potentially tying three pointer and Nixon wrapped up the scoring by making two free throws.
Erving finished with nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocked shots but he could not singlehandedly overcome Abdul-Jabbar (who had 15 rebounds and four blocked shots) and Johnson, who notched a strange but ultimately effective quadruple double: 14 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 turnovers.
"Kareem is the most awesome force in the game. He's a great credit to the game. If we win it, we want to win it with Kareem on the court," Cunningham said before game six. When Abdul-Jabbar's ankle swelled up and he was not able to make the cross country trip to Philadelphia, the Lakers shifted Johnson to center and moved Michael Cooper into the starting lineup at guard. The 76ers started out with Erving guarding Johnson, Caldwell Jones guarding Wilkes and Darryl Dawkins guarding Jim Chones. Without Abdul-Jabbar dominating the paint, many people assumed that the series was heading for a seventh game. However, CBS commentator--and 11-time NBA champion--Bill Russell cautioned that game six would be very challenging for the 76ers even without Abdul-Jabbar: "This is a distortion for both teams. I think that the pressure is on Philadelphia because they have to play this team. In other words, you can talk about Kareem in or out--it doesn't make any difference. He's not here and they've got to beat this Laker team that they are putting on the floor. Now, putting Magic Johnson at center is going to create some problems. What kind of problems? We'll have to wait and see. There are going to be some adjustments by both teams. How well Philadelphia adjusts to beating this team is what's going to count. The Lakers have got it pretty easy in that they've got nothing to lose." By "nothing to lose," Russell presumably meant (1) the Lakers might not feel pressure because the 76ers were considered the favorites at home with Abdul-Jabbar out of action and (2) the seventh game, if necessary, would be played in L.A. and it would be reasonable to expect that Abdul-Jabbar would be available.
Russell concluded, "If the 76ers don't play this team and make the changes that are necessary to exploit this team on the floor then the Lakers have a great chance of winning because, as I said, they have nothing to lose, they are going to be loose and they've got a much quicker team than they had before. This is a very fast basketball team and height can sometimes be overcome by speed." Right before the opening tip, Russell amplified this point by mentioning that the Lakers would enjoy mismatch advantages because neither Dawkins nor Jones could keep up with Wilkes if Erving guarded Johnson--and, however the 76ers decided to match up, the Lakers would enjoy speed/quickness advantages unless the 76ers abandoned their normal lineup and went small (which would of course be another "distortion" that could throw the 76ers off).
The 76ers led 52-46 with 4:10 remaining in the first half but the Lakers went on a 14-8 run to tie the score at 60 by halftime. The Lakers attempted 24 free throws in the first half, while the 76ers only attempted eight free throws. Russell observed, "So far, the 76ers have not adjusted to playing this team, which is a different team than the one they have been playing all the time." He added that the Lakers' lateral quickness more than made up for the 76ers' size advantage. The Lakers went on a 16-0 run from the end of the second quarter through the beginning of the third quarter and they eventually built a 74-60 lead. The 76ers committed several unforced turnovers and Russell noted that they should have used bounce passes or lobs instead of seemingly trying to throw the ball straight through the defenders. After a double-teamed Erving delivered a crisp bounce pass to Hollins for a jumper that trimmed the Lakers' lead to 95-87, Russell said, "Somebody on the team knows how to use a bounce pass." Soon after that, Erving caught the ball on the right block, made a quick spin move and dunked over Chones. Erving then posted up on the right block, elevated and nailed a turnaround jumper as four Lakers converged on him. Erving's runner off of the glass from the left side of the lane cut the Lakers' lead to 97-93 with 8:07 left in the game. During that stretch, Erving played guard alongside Cheeks while Caldwell Jones, Bobby Jones and Mix manned the frontcourt. Erving missed a runner from the left side of the lane but his drive had drawn Chones away from the hoop, enabling Bobby Jones to tip in the offensive rebound. The Lakers were now only up by two, 97-95.
The 76ers were still within two, 103-101, with 5:11 remaining but they fell apart down the stretch. Johnson tipped in a missed fast break shot to extend the margin to four. Johnson spotted a mismatch advantage in the half court set and passed to an isolated Wilkes, who drove around Caldwell Jones for a layup plus the foul. Wilkes' free throw put the Lakers up 108-101. Erving missed a turnaround jumper over Wilkes and Nixon but after the 76ers got a defensive stop Cheeks pushed the ball up the court and hit a pullup jumper. The 76ers had a chance to make it a one possession game after Erving ripped down a defensive rebound of Wilkes' air ball jumper, took one dribble and threw the ball ahead to Cheeks but Nixon jumped in front to swipe the ball. Nixon fed Johnson, who scored a layup and was fouled by Erving. That three point play put the Lakers up 111-103 at the 2:22 mark. Dawkins missed a fadeaway jumper and Johnson scored on a dunk after the 76ers' scrambling defense left him unguarded. The 76ers then started jacking up wild three pointers and Johnson capped off his great performance by shooting 4-4 from the free throw line in the last 40 seconds as the Lakers clinched the title with a 123-107 victory. Play by play announcer Brent Musburger said to Russell, "You were indeed an oracle," to which Russell wryly replied, "You know, I've been in a couple of these things."
Much like Russell expected, Wilkes had a big game: 37 points, 10 rebounds. The 76ers tried several different defenders against Johnson but Johnson used his quickness and ballhandling to get into the lane and either score or else find an open teammate. Johnson won the Finals MVP after his performance for the ages: 42 points on 14-23 field goal shooting and 14-14 free throw shooting, a game-high 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and one blocked shot. Cunningham said, "If you ask me to compare him with Larry Bird, I'd have to take Johnson." Bird won the media voting for Rookie of the Year but Johnson took his game to another level in the 1980 playoffs, culminating in his dominant game six performance against Philadelphia. Not many teams have a point guard who can also play center but Russell immediately appreciated that even though Abdul-Jabbar posed a huge matchup problem (literally and figuratively) for the 76ers that did not mean that Philadelphia would have clear sailing with Abdul-Jabbar out of action--at least in a one game situation. In the long run, Abdul-Jabbar's size gave the Lakers a tremendous advantage but the Lakers' other advantage was the versatility and quickness of several of their key players (most notably Johnson but also Wilkes, Cooper and Nixon).
Russell criticized Philadelphia's shot selection and said that Erving should have been given the ball more often. The Lakers frequently double-teamed Erving and they double-teamed Dawkins in the paint, daring the other 76ers to make open perimeter shots. Erving finished with a team-high 27 points on 13-23 field goal shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Mix was Philadelphia's second leading scorer, providing a spark off of the bench with 18 points on 8-11 field goal shooting. Dawkins scored 14 points on 6-9 shooting but he only had four rebounds. Russell pointed out that the 76ers did not hit enough wide open shots to make the Lakers pay for trapping Erving so aggressively. Cheeks and Hollins had 13 points each but no other 76er scored more than eight points.
Before Commissioner Larry O'Brien presented the championship trophy to Lakers' owner Jerry Buss, O'Brien said, "We've just finished the greatest season in the history of the NBA--record breaking--and I think we have just completed one of the greatest series in the history of the NBA." The matchup between Abdul-Jabbar and Erving had indeed been much anticipated and it fully lived up to the billing but Magic Johnson stole the show in the end, setting the stage for a decade of dominance during which he would lead the Lakers to five championships--including the NBA's first back to back titles since Russell's Celtics won the 1968 and 1969 titles.
The 1980 NBA Finals are best remembered for Erving's spectacular game four reverse layup and for Magic Johnson's tremendous game six outburst but the real story of the series is that the 76ers had no way to slow down Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged 33.4 ppg, 13.6 rpg and 4.6 bpg in the first five games of the series. Erving had a Finals MVP caliber performance--25.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.0 apg, .522 field goal percentage--but the 76ers got murdered on the boards (308-223, an astonishing 14.2 rpg difference over a six game series) and Erving's excellence could not make up for that nor could it cancel out the fact that the Lakers had at least two players who authored Finals MVP caliber performances (and Wilkes was not far behind with his averages of 21.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.2 apg).
Erving averaged 24.4 ppg (fourth in the league), 7.6 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.0 spg (tied for fifth in the league) and 2.1 bpg (tied for fifth in the league) during the 1980 playoffs. He shot .488 from the field and .794 from the free throw line. His scoring average increased in each series, from 22.0 ppg versus Washington to 23.6 ppg versus Atlanta to 25.0 ppg versus Boston to 25.5 ppg versus L.A. (Erving's scoring average also increased in each successive round of the 1977 and 1979 playoffs, a testament to his ability to rise to the occasion). He had indeed become "more singularly purposeful" and silenced any remaining critics but there was still one blank space on Erving's resume: he needed an NBA championship ring to complete the jewelry collection he started in 1974 and 1976 by leading the Nets to two ABA titles.
MVP Season Ends on a Sour Note
From the 1950s through the early 1980s, the NBA was a big man's league; most championship teams were led by a Hall of Fame big man and a center won the regular season MVP award every year from 1965-1980. Erving won three straight ABA MVPs (1974-76) before finishing fifth (1977), 10th (1978) and second (1980) in MVP voting after joining the NBA but in 1980-81 Erving's all-around brilliance helped him become the NBA's first non-center MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1964. Erving averaged 24.6 ppg (first on the team, seventh in the league), 8.0 rpg (second on the team), 4.4 apg (second on the team), 2.1 spg (second on the team, seventh in the league) and 1.8 bpg (first on the team). He ranked ninth in the league with 244 offensive rebounds, a very high total for a small forward.
Philadelphia drafted Andrew Toney to replace four-time All-Star Doug Collins, who missed the 1979 and 1980 playoffs due to injuries; Toney ranked fourth on the team in scoring (12.9 ppg) and assists (3.6 apg), while Collins played in just 12 games before retiring. Adding Toney might have kept the 76ers on top in the East if the Celtics had not completed the most lopsided trade in NBA history, sending the first and 13th overall draft picks to Golden State in exchange for center Robert Parish and the third overall draft pick, which Boston used to select Kevin McHale. Golden State drafted Joe Barry Carroll, who became a solid starting center, and Rickey Brown, who averaged 4.4 ppg in a five season NBA career; Parish and McHale became not just Hall of Famers but two of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, joining with Bird to form arguably the greatest frontcourt in pro basketball history--and in the early 1980s the Celtics also had Cedric Maxwell, who played so well that McHale began his career as a sixth man.
Philadelphia and Boston tied for the best record in the league (62-20); the teams split their six head to head meetings but the Celtics beat the 76ers 98-94 in the final game of the season in what was essentially a one game playoff: Boston captured the Atlantic Division by virtue of having a better divisional record (19-5 compared to 15-9). In the May 1982 issue of Inside Sports, Joe Klein noted that "espionage" helped the Celtics win that pivotal game; after Boston Coach Bill Fitch was ejected, he watched the game on TV in the locker room and he saw Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham diagramming various plays: Fitch, in Klein's words, "sent appropriate countermoves to his bench via messenger" and this proved to be the difference. Bird and Parish scored 24 points each, while Toney poured in a season-high 35 points on 13-19 field goal shooting, one of the performances that earned him his "Boston Strangler" nickname. Erving scored 19 points. Erving averaged 29.2 ppg versus the Celtics in the regular season, including an NBA career-high 45 points in Philadelphia's 117-113 overtime win on November 1, 1980. Bird averaged 23.0 ppg versus the 76ers.
The Celtics received a first round bye, while the 76ers played the 44-38 Indiana Pacers in a best out of three mini-series. Erving scored a game-high 32 points and passed for nine assists in Philadelphia's 124-108 game one rout and he had a game-high 23 points as the 76ers completed the sweep with a 96-85 win. He shot .579 from both the field and the free throw line during the mini-series while averaging 9.0 rpg and 6.0 apg.
Erving scored a game-high 38 points--two short of his NBA playoff career high--as the 76ers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 125-122 in game one of the Eastern Conference semifinals; he also grabbed nine rebounds, passed for one assist and contributed six blocked shots as Philadelphia set a playoff single game shot blocking record (20) that still stands. Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson said of Erving, "Trying to stop him once he gets the ball inside is impossible. He is amazing, just amazing." Erving shot 14-21 from the field, but he struggled a bit from the free throw line (10-16).
Erving exploded for 18 fourth quarter points, including two free throws with :38 remaining to put the 76ers up 123-122. Milwaukee guard Quinn Buckner fouled out of the game on that play. "We knew they would be going to Julius," Buckner said. "They have a lot of talent, just like we do, but there's no one else like him."
"Somebody had to drop some big numbers because they're a high scoring team," Erving said. "We needed a lot of offense today but this isn't the kind of game we wanted. They got off to a good start, but I don't think we were tentative in the beginning. Maybe we were too fast for ourselves. If anything, we were overzealous. But we're going to have to do a better job defensively. We're more comfortable when we're scoring around 110 points. Today it got into the 120s and we didn't want that to happen."
Cheeks (22 points) and Bobby Jones (21 points) were the only other Philadelphia players who scored in double figures. Junior Bridgeman led Milwaukee with 32 points, while Marques Johnson had 27 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.
In game two, Erving picked up where he left off, producing eight points and four rebounds as the 76ers took a 25-21 first quarter lead, but he only scored 10 points the rest of the way as the Bucks won 109-99 and grabbed home court advantage (the Bucks received a first round bye as the Central Division champion but the 76ers owned home court advantage in this series because they had a better regular season record). Erving had a game-high 13 rebounds but he shot just 7-20 from the field. Milwaukee outscored Philadelphia 32-22 in the fourth quarter. Marques Johnson led Milwaukee with 22 points, while Bobby Jones topped the 76ers with 22 points.
As often happens in a series between two evenly matched teams, the 76ers regained home court advantage right after losing it; Erving and Dawkins each scored 23 points in Philadelphia's 108-103 game three victory at Milwaukee. Dawkins keyed a 19-5 third quarter run during which the 76ers built an 83-69 lead, blasting open a game that had been tied 15 times. Marques Johnson scored a game-high 29 points while also leading the Bucks in rebounds (nine) and assists (eight).
Marques Johnson scored 15 first quarter points as Milwaukee took a 35-21 lead in game four. The Bucks won 109-98 as Johnson finished with a game-high 35 points on 16-25 field goal shooting. Erving said, "It was probably the best game I've seen Marques play." Bob Lanier supported Johnson with 23 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Erving led the 76ers with 22 points.
Philadelphia cruised to a 116-99 game five victory behind a balanced scoring attack featuring six players who scored between 10 and 20 points: Cheeks (20), Hollins (20), Erving (19), Mix (17), Dawkins (14) and Caldwell Jones (10). Hollins was particularly effective, shooting 8-11 from the field and passing for seven assists. Only three Milwaukee players reached double figures: Sidney Moncrief (20), Mickey Johnson (20) and Bridgeman (15). Back spasms limited Marques Johnson's minutes and effectiveness.
The Bucks forced a seventh game by routing the 76ers 109-86. After an Erving tip in tied the score at 47 early in the second half, the Bucks led the rest of the way. Mickey Johnson scored 22 points and Lanier added 20. Erving scored a game-high 25 points but the other four Philadelphia starters only scored 34 points combined. Milwaukee outrebounded Philadelphia 55 to 29; Mickey Johnson (12), Lanier (11) and Marques Johnson (10) each had double figures in rebounding, while Erving did his part (a team-high seven rebounds from the small forward position) but received little help from big men Caldwell Jones (six) and Dawkins (five).
Erving scored 28 points on 11-26 field goal shooting in 43 minutes in Philadelphia's 99-98 game seven win; he also had seven rebounds, three assists and tied his playoff career-high with six blocked shots. Bobby Jones added 21 points and seven rebounds. Cunningham pulled Toney after he picked up two fouls in the first two minutes and he never put Toney back in the game, trusting his veterans Cheeks (10 points, 11 assists in 46 minutes) and Hollins (eight points, five assists in 35 minutes) while also using second year reserve Clint Richardson for 13 minutes (six points, four rebounds). Marques Johnson (36 points on 16-25 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) and Moncrief (19 points, nine rebounds, four assists) each played all 48 minutes; Lanier contributed 24 points, 10 rebounds and four assists while shooting 9-12 from the field and he called the defeat the "most crushing" of his long career.
The game represented a bruising end to a very physical series. Lanier and Mix exchanged punches under the basket late in the first half and both players received technical fouls but neither player was ejected. Later, Milwaukee guard Brian Winters suffered a broken cheekbone after receiving an elbow from Mix. Winters lay on the court for several minutes but, remarkably, he continued playing (the fracture was discovered after the game).
The 76ers built a 16 point lead in the second half but the Bucks countered with a 19-3 run during a six minute stretch spanning the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter. Then Lanier hit a shot to put the Bucks up 86-85 but Dawkins tied the score with a free throw and Erving scored the next five points as the 76ers never trailed again.
With :21 remaining, Caldwell Jones made the two free throws that turned out to be the game-winning points. Bridgeman concluded the scoring with a three point shot but the Bucks were unable to stop the clock with a foul before time ran out. Only 6704 fans showed up at the Spectrum for this dramatic game seven, Philadelphia's worst attendance at a playoff game since the facility opened for the 1967-68 season. The Easter holiday may have partially explained the sparseness of the crowd but playoff games on previous Easters had attracted more fans.
Soon after the game ended, someone in the Bucks' organization noticed a discrepancy in the official play by play account that made it appear as if the 76ers had committed a 24 second violation before the foul against Jones was called (according to the play by play sheet, 31 seconds elapsed between Philadelphia field goal attempts prior to the Jones foul); the Bucks rescheduled their Sunday flight back to Milwaukee for Monday in case they needed to file a formal protest requesting that the final seconds of the game be replayed. Filing such a protest required submission of a non-refundable $5000 fee, so before the Bucks took that step Coach Nelson and other team officials traveled to the local CBS affiliate to watched a replay of the sequence in question. Coach Nelson then realized that the play by play sheet contained a clerical error but that no violation had occurred and he said, "Let's go home."
Erving averaged 24.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.4 spg and 2.9 bpg against Milwaukee while shooting .485 from the field and .774 from the free throw line.
Boston swept the Chicago Bulls in the other Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, setting up the second of four Eastern Conference Finals showdowns between Erving's 76ers and Bird's Celtics. A May 1982 Inside Sports article by Joe Klein described the sport's best rivalry:
Erving and Bird, arguably the two finest forwards in history, going head to head...but more than that, their private battle seemed to symbolize the contrasting styles and spirit of the two teams. Erving--supremely talented, instinctive, unemotional, loose, with the grace and flow of a fine jazz musician (it was not for nothing that Grover Washington Jr. played the national anthem before several playoff games in Philadelphia and dedicated a song--"Let It Flow"--to Dr. J). Bird--not quite so physically gifted, but furiously intense; more efficient than stylish, the ultimate technician. While Erving's 76ers were the last word in understated inner-city cool, Bird's Celtics were sweaty, muscular, almost awkward working stiffs. If he weren't so tall, one could easily imagine Larry Bird with a hard hat and a lunch pail, working an assembly line somewhere in the Midwest.
"That's us," Maxwell said proudly. "A blue-collar team a 9 to 5 team."
"Yes, they are kind of like that," agreed the Doctor. "And we're a jazz ensemble."
Erving and Bird, Boston and Philadelphia. After more than a decade, the fiercest rivalry in professional basketball had resumed center stage. The two finest players going head to head, the two finest teams...it almost was like the good old days, when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain would lead their teams in playoff battles that seemed always to come down to the final buzzer. Almost, but not quite.
The 76ers struck first, swiping home court advantage with a 105-104 win. The 76ers did not make a field goal in the final 4:23--late game scoring droughts became a recurring theme for Philadelphia in this series--but Toney, who scored a team-high 26 points, hit the game winning free throws with two seconds remaining. Erving had a very good all-around game: 25 points, nine rebounds, one assist, two steals, one blocked shot. Even though Erving was only credited with one assist, Alex Sachare's Associated Press game recap mentioned Erving's "brilliant passing." Bird played all 48 minutes and scored a game-high 33 points.
The Celtics never trailed in game two, posting a 118-99 win. Bird scored 34 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, while Toney led the 76ers with 35 points. Erving had a very quiet game (12 points, two rebounds, two assists, one steal, five blocked shots).
After Bird scored 67 points and grabbed 26 rebounds in the first two games with Caldwell Jones guarding him, Cunningham switched Erving on to Bird in game three, which not only helped the 76ers contain Bird's scoring but also freed up Caldwell Jones to focus on rebounding. "Bird was shooting from so far out, we just couldn't afford to have our seven footer roaming around chasing him," Erving said. "Whenever someone talks about my defense, it's usually to criticize it. They'll say, 'Well, you steal the ball and you block shots but you don't play good defense.' Everybody has their own way of doing things. I didn't get many steals or blocked shots, but I think my presence was felt."
Bird agreed with that assessment: "Doc did a good job on me. He overplayed me and I never got into the flow."
"Julius set the tone for the night," Boston swingman M.L. Carr said. "He came out playing that aggressive defense on Larry and that got his teammates going and that got the crowd (the 76ers' first playoff sellout of 18,276) fired up."
Erving had 22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and a blocked shot in Philadelphia's 110-100 game three win; Bird finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and four assists but he did not have the same impact that he did in game two. Erving, who made the ABA All-Defensive Team in 1976 but was an underrated defender throughout his NBA career, welcomed the challenge of guarding the 1980 Rookie of the Year: "People criticize me for not playing good defense. Actually, I really enjoy playing good defense. It's a challenge to play a guy like Bird."
Although it is true that Erving played good defense throughout his career and that he did a credible job against Bird in this series, Erving later felt that Cunningham's choice to switch him on to Bird backfired because the energy that Erving expended on defense affected his offense--and offensive droughts ultimately cost the 76ers this series.
The 76ers took a 3-1 lead with a 107-105 victory, extending their winning streak at home versus Boston to 11 games (including the regular season and the playoffs). Erving led the 76ers with 20 points on 8-16 field goal shooting and he had another excellent all-around floor game (seven rebounds, five assists, five blocked shots). Erving scored 10 first quarter points while holding Bird without a field goal as the 76ers took a 34-27 lead and Philadelphia extended that margin to 65-48 by halftime. Boston rallied to go ahead 83-82 in the fourth quarter but Erving scored Philadelphia's final six points to seal the victory. Bobby Jones scored 18 points and stole Archibald's pass with two second left to prevent the Celtics from attempting a shot. Maxwell led Boston with 20 points, while Bird finished with 18 points, 17 rebounds and six assists in 48 minutes but he shot just 7-19 from the field. Archibald scored 18 points and had 14 assists.
The 76ers defeated the Celtics in five games in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and they seemed to be well on their way to matching that feat before the wheels fell off in the final two minutes; the 76ers built a 10 point second half lead and were still up 109-103 with 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter but then the Celtics scored the game's last eight points to emerge with an improbable victory. The 76ers committed four turnovers and missed both of their field goal attempts in the final two minutes. Bird led both teams in scoring (32 points) and rebounds (11). Hollins scored a team-high 23 points, while Erving scored 21 points on 9-18 field goal shooting and he passed for five assists but he only had two rebounds and he did not score in the fourth quarter.
In his May 1982 Inside Sports article, Klein reported that after game five Erving and Cunningham could be heard "behind closed doors...shouting at each other." Klein noted that Cunningham's strategy of having Erving guard Bird "appeared so brilliant at first" but "was beginning to sour." After initially expressing enthusiasm about guarding Bird, Erving felt that the assignment of covering his bigger and younger rival was taking a toll on his own offense. After the series ended, Erving said, "We should have stayed with the system that got us there...I'm our best offensive player and I had to face-guard Bird, which was the most demanding defensive assignment. You try chasing that guy around the floor sometime. Our defense wasn't a problem in that series. Our problem was an offensive letdown, and part of that was because I was taken out of my game."
Cunningham explained his thinking: "There are lots of reasons why I made the switch, but those will stay with me. We needed Caldwell on the boards. Anyway, Bobby Jones played Bird a lot, too."
Another concern for the 76ers was Cheeks' health; he left game five with just 45 seconds elapsed in the second quarter and he did not return due to a sinus problem/migraine. Cunningham said after game five that Cheeks would be admitted to a hospital once the team returned to Philadelphia and that his status for game six was unknown.
Cheeks played in game six but only scored six points before fouling out. The 76ers built a 17 point first half lead and were up by as many as 15 points in the third quarter but they once again collapsed down the stretch as the Celtics won 100-98. Bird scored a game-high 25 points and he pulled down 16 rebounds. Dawkins led the 76ers with 24 points. Erving contributed six rebounds, four assists, three steals and a blocked shot but he struggled on offense, missing his first six field goal attempts before finishing with 16 points on 5-17 field goal shooting.
Much was at stake in game seven; the 40-42 Houston Rockets had already won the Western Conference title, so the Boston-Philadelphia winner would be a huge favorite in the NBA Finals. Maxwell declared, "There's no doubt these two teams are the cream of the crop. We had the best records during the regular season and we've been the best in the playoffs. The winner of this series will win the championship, I don't think there's any doubt about that."
The game followed the typical pattern that had held true throughout the series: the 76ers jumped out to an early lead and then the Celtics rallied. Erving's finger roll over McHale late in the first half put Philadelphia up 47-36 but Boston sliced that margin to 53-48 by halftime. Erving scored 11 first half points on 5-8 field goal shooting, while Bird had 12 points on 5-10 field goal shooting. Maxwell and Caldwell Jones each also had 12 first half points. The 76ers shot 63% from the field but they committed 10 turnovers; Boston shot just 40% but took much better care of the ball, committing only five turnovers.
Philadelphia took a double digit lead in the second half after Cheeks grabbed an offensive rebound, made a layup and got fouled; Bird was whistled for a technical foul on the play and after Bobby Jones made the technical foul free throw, Cheeks completed his three point play to put the 76ers up 67-56. Boston closed the gap while Erving rested during the third quarter; Erving returned with the 76ers clinging to a 69-66 lead but he went right back to the bench at the 3:18 mark after committing his fourth foul. CBS' Kevin Loughery pointed out that Toney made a defensive mistake on that play, giving up a middle drive to Chris Ford, which broke down the team defense and resulted in Erving's foul against Bird.
The 76ers led 75-71 entering the fourth quarter. Erving watched from the bench as Boston scored six straight points, capped by an Archibald jumper. Erving returned to action and the Doctor operated from all angles: he hit a turnaround bank shot from the right wing, he drove from the free throw line before lofting a scoop shot over McHale and then he converted a fast break dunk on a feed from Cheeks after Bird missed a layup. He later hit a jumper and converted an offensive rebound into a reverse layup. Overall, Erving scored 10 points during a 14-3 run to put the 76ers up 89-82 with 5:24 remaining--but the 76ers did not score a field goal the rest of the way. Their final possessions consisted of a litany of missed shots and senseless turnovers; the Celtics repeatedly double-teamed Erving, content to let anyone else beat them, and that proved to be a wise strategy. Loughery commented that the 76ers needed to take--and make--the outside shot instead of forcing passes inside.
The 76ers shut out Bird for most of the fourth quarter but he hit two free throws to tie the score at 89. Erving saved a Philadelphia possession by diving on the floor and rolling the ball to Hollins just before the shot clock expired but Hollins missed a jumper. Dawkins missed a layup in heavy traffic--there was a lot of contact on the play but no foul was called--and then Bird dribbled up the court and nailed what proved to be the game-winning jumper, banking in the shot from the left wing with 1:03 remaining. A double-teamed Erving threw the ball away but the 76ers regained possession after Hollins poked the ball away from Gerald Henderson. Cheeks scooped up the loose ball, drove to the hoop and was clobbered by Carr. Cheeks made one free throw, the 76ers got a defensive stop and Bobby Jones called timeout with one second left. Bobby Jones lobbed an inbounds pass to Erving from halfcourt but the ball hit the top of the backboard and time expired.
Erving guarded Bird for much of the game, while Bird usually guarded Caldwell Jones, who was not an offensive threat. McHale guarded Erving most of the time, though Maxwell also checked Erving. Bird finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and five steals while shooting 8-17 from the field. Erving had 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots while shooting 11-21 from the field. The two superstars canceled each other out, so the two biggest factors proved to be turnovers (Philadelphia committed 22 while Boston only committed 13) and free throws (Boston shot 22-35 while Philadelphia shot 12-15). The physical play seemed to knock the 76ers off stride, particularly down the stretch. Cunningham said, "It was a great series. One thing that disappointed me was the contact at the end and the inconsistencies of the officials," referring to Darell Garretson and Jake O'Donnell.
In the May 4, 1981 edition of The Boston Globe, Bob Ryan praised the 76ers: "The Celtics most likely defeated not only the best team ever to lose an NBA playoff series, but also the classiest. Among the visitors to the sweltering, overcrowded Boston locker room following yesterday's seventh-game epic were coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Lionel Hollins, Maurice Cheeks and Steve Mix, all offering their congratulations to the victors." Ryan's words should be read by anyone who thinks that storming off of the court without congratulating the winners is the right way to act after a defeat.
During the Eastern Conference Finals, Erving averaged 19.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.3 spg and 2.4 bpg while shooting .433 from the field and .829 from the free throw line; Bird averaged 26.7 ppg, 13.4 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.9 spg and 1.4 bpg while shooting .486 from the field and .894 from the free throw line. This was the first time in 23 career playoff series that Erving averaged less than 20 ppg and it represented a very disappointing end to a great regular season that had been followed by an excellent postseason run prior to the Eastern Conference Finals; even with those subpar Eastern Conference Finals numbers Erving still posted very good overall statistics during the 1981 playoffs: Erving averaged 22.9 ppg (fourth in the league), 7.1 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.4 spg and 2.6 bpg (second in the league) while shooting .475 from the field and .757 from the free throw line.
So Close, Yet So Far
In the 1981-82 season, Erving almost matched his MVP numbers, averaging 24.4 ppg (first on the team, fifth in the league), 6.9 rpg (second on the team), 3.9 apg (second on the team), 2.0 spg (second on the team) and 1.7 bpg (second on the team, 10th in the league) while shooting a career-high .546 from the field and .763 from the free throw line. He earned All-NBA First Team honors and finished third in the MVP voting behind Moses Malone and Larry Bird. Toney only started one game but he emerged as the team's second offensive option, averaging 16.5 ppg.
The 76ers posted the second best record in the NBA (58-24) but did not earn a first round bye because the team with the best record--the 63-19 Celtics--beat them out for the Atlantic Division title. The Celtics enjoyed a brief rest while the 76ers faced Atlanta in a best out of three mini-series. Dawkins, who missed two months of the regular season after suffering a broken right leg, dominated the Hawks in game one, scoring a game-high 27 points, grabbing nine rebounds, blocking eight shots and shooting 12-17 from the field as the 76ers rolled to a 111-76 win. Dawkins said that he still felt only 75% healthy but he called his performance the best of his NBA career. Erving contributed 20 points on 8-12 field goal shooting plus six rebounds and four assists. John Drew led the Hawks with 18 points and Dan Roundfield (13 points) was the only other Atlanta player who reached double figures.
The margin of victory in one playoff game is often not a good predictor of what will happen in the next playoff game; the grounded Hawks soared to life in game two and the favored 76ers needed to play overtime before prevailing, 98-95. Erving led the 76ers in scoring (28 points) and assists (six) while also grabbing six rebounds; he scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and he made a key defensive play late in overtime to preserve the win, blocking Roundfield's shot to keep the 76ers ahead by two. Toney scored 19 points. After his great game one performance, Dawkins authored a quiet single single (eight points, eight rebounds in 42 minutes). Roundfield led both teams in scoring (29 points), rebounds (11) and blocked shots (four).
Cunningham called game two "an absolute war": the contest included 75 total fouls, five technical fouls and one particularly nasty incident. The trouble began when Hollins drove to the hoop at the 7:21 mark of the second quarter and was elbowed in the head by Atlanta center Wayne "Tree" Rollins; Hollins retaliated by elbowing Rollins in the head and a bench clearing fight ensued, during which Hollins suffered a fractured knuckle on his left pinkie finger. Technical fouls were assessed against both Hollins and Rollins but neither player was ejected. Atlanta Coach Kevin Loughery filed a formal protest with the league, contending that Hollins should have been ejected for throwing the first punch. Loughery said of the protest, "We owe it to our players. I think if you will look at the replay you will see (referee) Paul Mihalak was the MVP in the game. I thought Paul was absolutely brutal." NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien rejected Loughery's protest, stating that Rollins' elbow caused the fight and concluding that the game officials correctly applied the NBA's rules (those rules have since been changed, of course, and in today's NBA a player will be ejected just for throwing a punch, even if that punch does not connect).
Erving averaged 24.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.0 spg and 1.5 bpg in the mini-series while shooting .607 from the field and .737 from the free throw line.
The 76ers faced the Milwaukee Bucks for the second year in a row. Erving scored 34 points on 12-19 field goal shooting in Philadelphia's 125-122 win--yes, that is the exact score from game one of the 1981 Philadelphia-Milwaukee series! Erving also had eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Hollins did not play due to the broken bone that he suffered in the previous game; he ended up missing the entire Milwaukee series and he scored just 21 points in six games during the rest of the 1982 postseason. Toney started in Hollins' place and scored 26 points on 11-16 field goal shooting; Erving also played guard for about eight of his 37 minutes. Mickey Johnson led Milwaukee with 27 points. Injuries to Bridgeman and Buckner forced Coach Nelson to use some very creative lineups. All-Star forward Marques Johnson, who finished with 26 points, spent some time at guard. The referees called 70 total fouls, a reflection of the mandate from the league to make sure that physical play did not get out of hand in the wake of the Hollins-Rollins melee.
The 76ers led almost wire to wire in game two, posting a 120-108 win. Toney scored a game-high 31 points and passed for six assists, while Erving contributed 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Winters led Milwaukee with 21 points.
All-Star guard Sidney Moncrief, who had just missed two practices due to a nagging knee injury, hit a 10 foot bank shot at the buzzer as the Bucks won game three 92-91. Moncrief finished with 20 points and four assists. Mickey Johnson scored a game-high 21 points, while Cheeks led the 76ers with 19 points, including two free throws with five seconds left that would have been the game-winners if not for Moncrief's heroics. The Bucks called timeout after Cheeks made those free throws and Coach Nelson drew up a nice play that his team executed perfectly: Moncrief inbounded to Lanier and Lanier handed the ball back to Moncrief, who drove to the right and nailed the shot. Cheeks and Bobby Jones--who scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half--led the charge as the 76ers battled back from an 18 point first half deficit. Erving had a subpar scoring performance (10 points on 3-9 field goal shooting) but he played a solid floor game (four rebounds, six assists) and his defensive rebound of Lanier's miss with :14 remaining set up the play when Cheeks drew the foul that provided what could have been the decisive free throws. Toney scored 18 points but made just seven of his game-high 16 field goal attempts.
Erving produced 21 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists as Philadelphia took command of the series with a 100-93 win. He shot just 7-19 from the field but he controlled the game with his rebounding and passing. The Bucks sent double teams and triple teams at Erving but those traps just opened up shots for Caldwell Jones, who finished with 20 points on 8-10 field goal shooting; Jones scored 14 points in the second quarter alone, the best quarter to date in his eight year ABA/NBA career. "The Bucks gave a lot of weak side help on Doc, and there was a tendency to forget about me," Jones said after the game. "I just tried to get an open shot. If you keep the ball in Doc's hands and you get open, he'll get it to you even if the play isn't called for you. The Bucks weren't necessarily giving me the shots but there was always somebody open because they were double teaming Doc." Toney, battling the inconsistency that sometimes plagues young players, scored just six points and picked up five fouls in 18 minutes. Caldwell Jones suffered a bone bruise to his right hand after colliding with Moncrief and Bobby Jones remained on the floor for several minutes after receiving an elbow to the head from Lanier, who fouled out on the play; Bobby Jones stayed in the game and sank both free throws to put the 76ers up 90-78 but he left the game a minute later after becoming nauseous. Marques Johnson scored a game-high 23 points and Winters contributed 22 points on 9-12 field goal shooting.
The 76ers squandered a chance to end the series at home, losing game five 110-98. Lanier (27 points, eight rebounds) led a trio of Bucks who scored at least 20 points, including Winters (23) and Moncrief (20). Erving scored a game-high 28 points on 9-14 field goal shooting, he led the 76ers with 10 rebounds and he ranked second on the team with seven assists. Toney scored 19 points on 8-20 field goal shooting but he collected five fouls in just 30 minutes.
The 76ers had only won three of their previous 11 games in Milwaukee but they closed out the series with a 102-90 road victory. Cheeks scored a game-high 26 points on 10-16 field goal shooting and he passed for six assists. Five other 76ers scored in double figures: Toney (17 points), Erving (13 points, eight rebounds and a game-high seven assists), Bobby Jones (12 points), Caldwell Jones (12 points) and Mike Bantom (12 points). Mickey Johnson led Milwaukee with 23 points.
Erving averaged 21.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.8 spg and 1.3 bpg versus Milwaukee while shooting .542 from the field and .792 from the free throw line. This marked the fifth time in the past seven playoff series that Erving shot at least .500 from the field.
The Celtics beat the Bullets 4-1 to set up their third straight Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the 76ers. Bird and Erving were clearly the two best forwards--if not the two best all-around players--in the league, so the basketball world eagerly anticipated this rematch. The 76ers would have liked nothing better than to wipe away all memories of their collapse after taking a 3-1 lead over the Celtics in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals, so it is hard to explain Philadelphia's listless game one performance: the Celtics routed the 76ers 121-81, building a 62-45 halftime lead before outscoring the 76ers 31-11 in the third quarter. The 40 point margin of victory in this game exceeded that of any previous Boston playoff win and any previous Philadelphia playoff loss--and it also exceeded the combined point differential in Boston's seven previous wins over Philadelphia! Bird led the Celtics in scoring (24 points), rebounds (15) and assists (10), while Parish also had a double double (24 points, 14 rebounds). Toney led the 76ers with 15 points. Erving finished with 12 points, six rebounds and one assist.
The Celtics' starting frontcourt of Bird, Parish and Maxwell combined for 56 points, 34 rebounds, 10 blocked shots and six steals, while the 76ers starting frontcourt of Erving, Caldwell Jones and Dawkins only had 19 points, 11 rebounds, two blocked shots and one steal. Dawkins played just 17 minutes and he said after the game that his right leg hurt as much as it did when he first broke it. However, postgame X-rays were negative and Philadelphia owner Harold Katz publicly blasted Dawkins: "He says his leg is hurting but my opinion is it's a cop out for the way he's playing. Darryl's leg may hurt but I don't think that's why he couldn't play. Other guys on our team play with just about anything. You can hit Mo Cheeks over the head and he still plays. All I can do is talk to him, tell him we need him."
Many observers have noted that no matter how big the margin of victory in the previous game, the next game always starts out 0-0. The 76ers took advantage of that fresh start to beat the Celtics 121-113 in game two; the aggregate point differential in the series still favored the Celtics by 32 but the 76ers had just seized home court advantage. Toney scored a game-high 30 points on 13-22 field goal shooting as the Celtics had no answer for his array of moves, including quick drives and devastating pullup jumpers. Caldwell Jones took advantage of the defensive attention drawn by Erving to score 22 points on 8-15 field goal shooting; in the half court set, Erving often received the ball on the left wing, drove to the hoop to attract Parish and then passed to a wide open Caldwell Jones. Erving contributed 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Seven of the eight 76ers who played scored in double figures, including Cheeks (18 points plus a game-high 14 assists). Archibald led the Celtics in scoring (24 points) and assists (13). McHale scored 20 points off of the bench, Parish added 19 points and 10 rebounds and Bird had 18 points, a game-high 14 rebounds and four assists. Bird did most of his damage (12 points, eight rebounds) in the closely contested first quarter, which ended with the 76ers leading 31-29.
In game three, the 76ers built an 84-70 lead at the 11:05 mark of the fourth quarter and then they withstood a strong Celtics' rally to win 99-97. Erving scored a game-high 19 points and swatted away Maxwell's layup attempt in the game's final seconds; Maxwell got the ball back but then Cheeks stole it from him before Maxwell could try another shot. Erving also had seven rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots. Cheeks and Bobby Jones each scored 18 points, while Toney added 16 points. Maxwell led the Celtics with 18 points. Bird authored his second triple double of the series (15 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists) but he shot just 6-16 from the field. Archibald separated his shoulder while diving for a loose ball less than two minutes after the game began and he did not play in the rest of the series.
Boston's game one rout seemed like a distant memory after Philadelphia won game four 119-94 to take a 3-1 lead. Toney scored 39 points on 14-21 field goal shooting and he also had six assists; Toney not only set a playoff career-high but he tied four-time regular season scoring champion George Gervin for the highest single game scoring total of the 1982 playoffs. "Any time during the year when Andrew has got it going, it doesn't matter who is guarding him, nobody can stop him," Cunningham said. Erving contributed 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots. Parish led the Celtics with 18 points, while Bird had 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
"I think we used that 40 point loss last Sunday as a stimulant," said Caldwell Jones. "I think all 12 guys on our team really believed we were the better ball club despite what happened. We just got together and talked about it. Everybody is contributing, not just one guy. Take Julius, for example. He's playing exceptionally well. He doesn't have to score 30 or 35 points for us to win. He's rebounding well and playing good defense."
Just when it seemed like the 76ers were in the driver's seat, the momentum shifted again: the Celtics blew out the 76ers 114-85 in game five. Parish scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Bird had 20 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. Maxwell contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds as the Celtics won the battle of the boards 64-49. Toney led the 76ers with 18 points but he shot just 6-20 from the field. Dawkins added 14 points and 10 rebounds but he also had five fouls in just 23 minutes. Erving had 12 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.
All the 76ers had to do was win game six at home in order to advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years; instead, the 76ers had one of their worst playoff performances in franchise history. Erving had a solid performance--24 points on 8-20 field goal shooting, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals, three blocked shots--but he received little help in the 88-75 loss; his teammates combined to shoot 18-54 from the field (.333) and Toney completely disappeared, scoring three points on 1-11 shooting in 31 minutes. Remarkably, the 76ers led by 15 in the first quarter and they were still up 48-42 at halftime; the 76ers scored just 27 second half points, setting a record (since broken) for fewest points in a half of a playoff game since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954. Erving contributed seven of Philadelphia's 11 fourth quarter points. Erving offered this explanation about the 76ers' struggles: "Sometimes two-footers don't go, and other times 25-footers do. Sometimes you do everything right and the guy still makes a shot. The game is as unpredictable as it is beautiful, and that's why I love it." Erving added, "You've got to take the shots they give you. We've been criticized in the past for being too much of a one on one team, but sometimes in a series like this, where the defense is so good and the other team knows your plays so well, that ability to play one on one can be what saves you."
McHale led the Celtics with 17 points, while Bird continued to struggle with his shooting (14 points, 6-19 field goal shooting) but he filled up the boxscore with a game-high 17 rebounds (tied with Caldwell Jones) and four assists.
Most commentators gave the 76ers little chance to win game seven in Boston; teams rarely win game seven on the road in the NBA playoffs and the 76ers seemed to be on the verge of making yet another epic collapse against their biggest rivals (the 76ers squandered 3-1 leads against the Celtics in both the 1968 and 1981 playoffs). The 76ers faced a daunting task against a bigger and younger team that was already championship tested/proven. Prior to game seven, Cunningham said, "Boston's front line, Parish, Bird, McHale and Maxwell, could be the best of all time. I can't ever remember a team with four rebounders and scorers like that."
Erving started slowly in game seven, missing his first three shots and not scoring in the first quarter but the 76ers still led 30-28. Erving's first field goal was a jumper that gave the 76ers a 37-34 lead. CBS' Dick Stockton mentioned that Erving was only shooting 45% from the field after six games of the series but Bill Russell replied, "45% is not that bad when you consider he's being double-teamed and their defense is keyed on him. The more you play the guys, the more familiar they are with your plays so that they will be more effective on you as the series goes by. So shooting 45% is excellent shooting in those conditions." Erving scored nine points in the second quarter and the 76ers led 52-49 at halftime.
The 76ers took control in the third quarter and Erving led the way, capping a 6-0 Philadelphia run by blocking Carr's shot, sprinting downcourt and receiving a feed from Cheeks for a dunk that put 76ers up 58-49. The Celtics had repeatedly shown the ability to come back against the 76ers but Erving made sure that would not happen this time, hitting a jumper from the right baseline and then blocking Maxwell's shot before drilling a left wing jumper as time expired in the third quarter; Philadelphia led 83-71 heading into the final stanza. Erving and Toney combined to score 17 of Philadelphia's first 21 points in the fourth quarter to put the 76ers up 104-89 and when it became clear that the 76ers were going to win the game the Boston crowd erupted into what became one of the most famous chants in sports history: "Beat L.A.!" Just before the end of the CBS telecast, Stockton announced that Erving had been selected as the Miller MVP. Erving finished with 29 points, four rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocked shots. Fitch declared, "It was Doc who did us in. He kept hitting that outside shot. I can think of four times he made those long jumpers when we were letting him have that shot and saying, 'You can't make that.' That demoralized us."
Erving said, "It was very important for me as leader of our team to reflect the attitude our players have and stand for. It's very important not to be boastful and maintain our dignity when we win and not be sad or embarrassed if we lose. I can win without bragging. I can lose without crying."
Erving concluded, "You hear a lot of talk about 'hate' in this series but I prefer to turn that around a little and say Boston has always been the team we love to beat the most. I don't hate the Celtics, I just love to beat them."
It would be 13 years before another NBA team won a game seven on the road (overall, home teams have won game seven nearly 80% of the time in NBA history). Cunningham, stung by the media's harsh criticism of his team, offered few words after the emotional triumph: "I just want to thank the Boston Celtics' fans, the way they responded at the end of the game. That truly showed me a great deal of class. And as competitive as these two teams are, it surely made me feel good, and that's what it's all about--the competition. The only other thing I'm going to say is that I'm just ecstatic for the 12 guys in there because everyone else abandoned us and I'm just proud of them. Period. Goodbye."
Later, a more reflective Cunningham said, "We could not have won without him (Erving). Not only did he score, rebound, pass, block shots and make steals, it was his screens that were getting Andrew open for his shots."
Dave Anderson of the New York Times made an important point about the overwrought media coverage of the series and the harsh criticism directed at the 76ers: "Occasionally, a team or an athlete in an individual sport crumbles. But mostly, a team or an individual loses because the other team or individual is better that day or that year...What some critics don't seem to understand is that a team can play poorly without choking, or even just badly enough to lose."
Toney cemented his "Boston Strangler" reputation by bouncing back from his subpar game six to score a game-high 34 points on 14-23 field goal while also dishing off for six assists. Cheeks added 19 points on 8-15 field goal shooting and a game-high 11 assists. Parish led Boston with 23 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Bird scored 20 points on 7-18 field goal shooting while also grabbing 11 rebounds and leading the Celtics with nine assists. McHale contributed 20 points and six rebounds.
Philadelphia assistant coach Jack McMahon praised his team's defensive focus: "Cheeks is the best defensive guard in the league because he creates so many turnovers with his steals, double-teaming and pressure. Julius does the same thing. When he makes a steal or block, he usually turns it into a fast break basket."
Erving averaged 6.7 rpg against Boston, ranking second on the team to Caldwell Jones (10.1 rpg). During the game seven telecast, Russell said that the way that the 76ers defended--with frequent switching and trapping--made it difficult for any 76er to post a high rebounding average. Erving no longer routinely posted double figure rebounding numbers but he still made an important contribution on the glass within the context of his role on the team; depending on matchups/injuries/foul trouble, the 76ers alternately required Erving to rebound like a power forward or pass like a point guard. He blocked shots like a center, stole the ball like a fleet-footed guard and consistently scored 20-plus ppg, though his average dipped slightly below that number in this series due to a pair of 12 point outings in limited minutes during Boston's blowout wins.
Toney led the 76ers in scoring (22.1 ppg) during the Eastern Conference Finals, the first time in Erving's Philadelphia career that he did not lead the team in scoring in a playoff series (Erving and Collins each averaged 23.7 ppg versus Boston in the 1977 playoffs). Toney shot 61-123 (.496) from the field and ranked second on the team in assists (4.4 apg) to Cheeks (8.9 apg). Erving averaged 19.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.6 spg and 2.6 bpg while shooting .453 from the field and .750 from the free throw line; Bird averaged 18.3 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 7.3 apg, 1.9 spg and 1.1 bpg while shooting .412 from the field and .731 from the free throw line. Bird said, "Personally, I'd like to see Philly win the championship so the Doctor can get himself a ring."
Three point shooting is an essential part of the modern NBA game but it was a rarely used weapon in the early 1980s: the 76ers shot 2-11 from three point range against Boston, with Erving (1-2) and Franklin Edwards (1-1) accounting for the only two made treys; the Celtics shot 5-22 from three point range and Bird--who later became renowned for his three point prowess--shot 1-5.
The 76ers enjoyed home court advantage in the NBA Finals versus the L.A. Lakers--but the 1982 Lakers may be the most underrated team in league history: they were not a dominant regular season team but they hit their stride in the postseason; they swept their first two playoff series and after beating the 76ers 124-117 in game one they set an NBA record with their ninth straight playoff win, breaking the mark of eight set by the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers were rusty at first in game one, the result of resting for nearly two weeks during the Eastern Conference Finals, and the 76ers led 83-68 at the 5:58 mark of the third quarter--but then the Lakers went on a 40-9 run. Nixon (24 points, 10 assists) and Wilkes (24 points, 10 rebounds) led the Lakers in scoring, while Abdul-Jabbar added 23 points--the 100th time in 105 career playoff games that he scored at least 20 points--and Johnson nearly had a triple double (10 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists). Erving scored a game-high 27 points in addition to pulling down nine rebounds and accumulating three assists and three steals. Toney added 20 points but after a strong first quarter he was silent until he padded his total in garbage time by hitting two three pointers (the 76ers never got closer than the final margin of seven points).
Erving led both teams in scoring (24 points) and rebounds (14) in the 76ers' 110-94 game two win. He shot 10-15 from the field as the 76ers overcame a subpar shooting performance from Toney (12 points on 6-16 field goal shooting), who still made his presence felt with a game-high 11 assists. Cheeks contributed 19 points and eight assists. Abdul-Jabbar scored 23 points as six of the seven Lakers who played reached double figures. Johnson had 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
In game one the Lakers stymied the 76ers with an aggressive trapping defense--or, an illegal zone, depending on one's perspective; in game two, the 76ers kept their composure, handled the ball better and forced the Lakers to match up one on one or risk being called for an illegal defense. "We exposed their trap in the first half and made them adjust," Erving explained. "We taught ourselves how to beat the trap between games."
"We worked hard preparing the last two days," Cunningham said. "We definitely handled the traps well this time, showed patience getting good shots and moved the ball around."
Whatever the 76ers figured out before game two, they were not able to apply it in game three: the Lakers cruised to a 129-108 victory. The Lakers jumped out to a 32-20 first quarter lead and never looked back. Nixon scored 29 points, Johnson contributed 22 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, Wilkes added 17 points and Abdul-Jabbar--limited to 28 minutes because of foul trouble--chipped in 16 points. Toney scored a game-high 36 points, including a rare four point play. Erving finished with 21 points despite missing part of the game to have a broken dental bridge repaired. The Lakers switched the 6-9 Johnson on to Erving to keep Erving off of the boards and Johnson helped hold Erving to three rebounds. The team that won the rebounding battle won each of the first three games of the series.
The Lakers won game four 111-101 to take a 3-1 series lead; during a 20 minute stretch the Lakers scored 52 points without making a single perimeter shot, a testament to the brutal effectiveness of their fast break. Johnson had 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Wilkes also scored 24 points and Abdul-Jabbar contributed 22 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. Toney led both teams in scoring (28 points) and assists (11) but he shot just 11-25 from the field. Erving scored 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting but he again grabbed only three rebounds. The Lakers built a 19 point lead early in the third quarter and even though the 76ers outscored the Lakers 59-54 in the second half they could not completely recover from the huge early deficit.
The 76ers staved off elimination with a dominating performance at home in game five, routing the Lakers 135-102. The 76ers led 30-20 after the first quarter despite committing seven turnovers; the 76ers only committed four turnovers the rest of the way and they scored a total of 28 points off of turnovers while the Lakers only scored four points off of turnovers. The Lakers recovered from their slow start to take a 68-64 third quarter lead but they committed 16 turnovers in that quarter as the 76ers went on a 27-13 run fueled by Erving and Toney, who scored eight points each. Overall, the 76ers scored 81 second half points on 37-51 field goal shooting. Toney finished with a game-high 31 points and passed for eight assists. Erving shot 0-7 from the field in the first 22 minutes before scoring 23 points on 8-9 field goal shooting in the next 26 minutes. He also had a game-high 12 rebounds and four assists. Bobby Jones added 21 points and Dawkins contributed 20 points. Three-time scoring champion Bob McAdoo, now a valuable sixth man, led the Lakers with 23 points. Nixon had 20 points and a game-high 13 assists. Johnson added 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Abdul-Jabbar committed two fouls in the first 1:36 of the game and never found his groove, finishing with a playoff career-low six points.
Erving scored a game-high 30 points and he grabbed eight rebounds but the Lakers prevailed 114-104 in game six to win their second championship in three seasons. The Lakers led 100-89 midway through the fourth quarter but Toney spearheaded a final charge as the 76ers cut the margin to 103-100 at the 3:45 mark. Rebounding again proved to be decisive; Abdul-Jabbar converted an offensive rebound into a three point play to make the score 106-100 and then McAdoo corralled a Cheeks miss, initiating a fast break that resulted in a Wilkes layup to put the Lakers ahead 108-100. The Lakers outrebounded the 76ers 59-43.
Erving said, "We got more disappointed this time than any other year. As to why, I don't know. It hurts more than any other year. It's very painful." Toney added 29 points but the 76ers' one-two punch could not overcome a balanced Lakers' scoring attack that featured six players who scored at least 13 points: Wilkes (27 points), Abdul-Jabbar (18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots), Nixon (16 points and seven assists), McAdoo (16 points, nine rebounds), defensive specialist Michael Cooper (16 points) and Johnson (13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists). Johnson earned Finals MVP honors after nearly averaging a triple double (16.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 8.0 apg); he was only the fifth leading scorer on his team (Wilkes paced the Lakers with a 19.7 ppg average) but his all-around play and his masterful orchestration of the fast break made the Lakers go.
Toney led the Sixers in scoring (26.0 ppg) for the second series in a row; he shot 64-121 (.529) from the field. Erving averaged 25.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.8 spg and 1.3 bpg while shooting 57-105 (.543) from the field and .720 from the free throw line. He led the 76ers in rebounding but the 76ers were outrebounded 284-238; the Celtics and Lakers routinely pushed the 76ers around in the paint and until the 76ers did something to address that problem they were just wasting the talents and efforts of Erving and Toney.
Erving led the 76ers in playoff scoring (22.0 ppg, fifth in the league), just edging out Toney (21.8 ppg). Erving ranked second on the team in rebounding (7.4 rpg), steals (1.8 spg, seventh in the league) and blocked shots (1.8 bpg, ninth in the league) and he ranked third in assists (4.7 apg). He shot .519 from the field and .752 from the free throw line.
Moses Leads the 76ers to the Promised Land
During Julius Erving's first six NBA seasons the 76ers posted the best overall regular season record, they reached the "Final Four" five times and they advanced to the NBA Finals three times; Erving also enjoyed great individual success, winning one MVP and earning five All-NBA selections (including four selections to the First Team). Erving and Abdul-Jabbar were the only active players chosen for the NBA's 11 member 35th Anniversary All-Time Team. Only one blank space remained on Erving's impressive resume: he had yet to win an NBA title. In 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982 the 76ers lost in the playoffs to teams anchored by a future Hall of Famer center--and in each case the team that defeated the 76ers won the championship that year. Caldwell Jones was an excellent, dedicated and intelligent player but he just could not match up physically with future Hall of Fame centers; Darryl Dawkins had seemingly limitless physical talent but he did not have the right mindset to develop into a consistent All-Star level performer.
It was obvious that the 76ers needed to pair Erving with a top flight center. The 76ers reduced their payroll by trading Dawkins to the Nets for a first round draft pick and then on September 2, 1982, Philadelphia signed Moses Malone--a restricted free agent who won the 1979 and 1982 MVP awards--to an offer sheet; Malone's old team, the Houston Rockets, matched that offer and then agreed to terms with the 76ers on a trade that sent Malone to Philadelphia in exchange for Caldwell Jones plus a first round draft pick. The Rockets had decided to slash salaries and rebuild their team from the ground up; the 76ers signed Malone to a six year, $13.2 million contract.
Adding Malone to a lineup that included 1981 MVP Erving--plus All-Star caliber performers Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones--created an almost unbeatable squad. The 76ers set a record by winning 50 of their first 57 games to start the 1982-83 season (that mark stood until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls started out 50-6).
The 76ers won 56 of 58 regular season games when leading going into the fourth quarter. Beat writer Jack McCaffery later said of Erving, "Late in the game, he seemed to have a different face. He went into another personality. He didn't have to say he wanted the ball; he gave a walk and a little sneer, which meant, 'Give me the ball. I'm going to find a way for us to win.'...He went from someone who was enjoying the game to almost anger. The '83 year was an entire year of that, an entire year of Doc's look."
NBA lifer Johnny Bach--who worked in the league as a player, assistant coach and head coach--said, "They attacked inside and outside, and they had a kind of joy that's missing today. They played like a bunch of kids on the playground and looked as if they actually enjoyed playing. Billy Cunningham brought that Brooklyn competitive spirit and coached them as a team and not as a bunch of individuals. That's the way all teams should play. The Sixers ran well and competed hard every night. That team played basketball the way it was meant to be played. They were a fun team to watch and brought me a lot of joy as a basketball purist."
Malone won his third MVP after leading the league in rebounding (15.3 rpg) for the third straight season and the fourth time in five years. Malone also ranked fifth in scoring (24.5 ppg)--the fifth straight year that he finished in the top five--and he ranked 10th in blocked shots (2.0 bpg). He earned his first--and only--All-Defensive First Team selection.
Meanwhile, Erving seamlessly accepted the shift from being the first offensive option to being the second offensive option; he did not finish in the top 20 in scoring for the first time in his 12 year career, missing out by just .009 ppg, but he was still a potent and efficient scorer (21.4 ppg on .517 field goal shooting, including a 44 point outburst that was the highest single game scoring total for any 76er in 1982-83). Erving ranked second on the team in rebounding (6.8 rpg), third on the team in assists (3.7 apg), second on the team in steals (1.6 spg) and second on the team in blocked shots (1.8 bpg). He finished fifth in MVP voting and he made the All-NBA First Team alongside Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Sidney Moncrief. Erving won his second All-Star Game MVP; Malone, Cheeks and Toney also played in the All-Star Game as the 76ers became just the fifth team to send four players to the midseason classic (the 1998 Lakers and 2006 Pistons later matched this feat).
The 76ers finished with an NBA-best 65-17 record and they probably could have won at least 70 games but when Malone experienced tendinitis in his right knee and then developed some fluid on his left knee the 76ers prudently sat him out to make sure that he would be able to dominate in the postseason. Malone missed the final four games of the regular season, resting from April 10, 1983 until Philadelphia's first playoff game on April 24, 1983.
When a reporter asked Malone about the 76ers' postseason prospects, Malone famously replied "Fo', Fo', Fo'"--which could either be interpreted as predicting three four game sweeps or as a simple statement that the 76ers needed four victories per round to accomplish their goal. After a first round bye provided some additional rest/preparation time, the 76ers began their championship quest with a 112-102 win against the New York Knicks, who had swept the Nets in a first round mini-series. Malone had a monster game (38 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots), while Cheeks contributed 14 points and a game-high 10 assists (tied with New York's Rory Sparrow). Clint Richardson added 12 points off of the bench in relief of Toney, who had a thigh injury that limited him to 11 points and five assists in 20 minutes. Erving had 11 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he shot just 4-16 from the field. Bill Cartwright led the Knicks with 17 points. Bernard King scored 11 points on 5-6 field goal shooting in 17 minutes before spraining his ankle.
The 76ers trailed 63-43 early in the third quarter of game two before outscoring the Knicks 22-1--part of a 40-11 run over a 16 minute stretch--in a 98-91 win. The 76ers outscored the Knicks 24-9 in the third quarter as the Knicks narrowly missed tying the playoff record for fewest points in a quarter (eight, set by L.A. versus Milwaukee in 1972). Malone again dominated the paint, leading both teams in scoring (30 points) and rebounding (17 rebounds). Cheeks had another excellent all-around game (26 points, six assists, six rebounds) and Erving returned to form (20 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots). Toney did not play because of his thigh injury. Truck Robinson led the Knicks with 22 points and 14 rebounds. King played despite his ankle injury, contributing 16 points on 6-15 field goal shooting.
Franklin Edwards' last second jumper lifted the 76ers to a 107-105 game three win in New York. "We wanted to go to Doc," Cunningham explained after the game. "The play was to isolate Doc with the ball, with Maurice going to the corner. Doc was handling the ball so well, that's what we wanted to do. If there was no double team, we wanted him to go one on one with Bernard King." Edwards popped open after the Knicks double-teamed Erving.
Malone scored a game-high 28 points and he grabbed 14 rebounds; he made two highlight plays late in the game, drilling a twisting 17 foot jumper and then dribbling coast to coast for a layup. "Coach is always saying that when you get the ball, break out and look for the guards," Malone said. "But when I broke out, the guards were behind me. So I just decided to start truckin'. I play a little guard back on the playground." Cheeks scored 24 points and dished for a game-high seven assists. Erving had 20 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Toney returned to action but scored just two points on 1-7 field goal shooting in 19 minutes. King scored 21 points. Truck Robinson added 10 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.
Game four featured 23 lead changes and 18 ties but in the end Malone proved to be the difference with 29 points and 14 rebounds as Philadelphia completed the sweep with a 105-102 victory; he scored nine points in the third quarter and 14 points in the fourth quarter, wearing down New York's defense. Erving had 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Cheeks had a quiet game (six points, team-high seven assists) but Toney bounced back with 14 points and five assists in 21 minutes. King scored a game-high 35 points on 13-23 field goal shooting.
Malone averaged 31.3 ppg and 15.5 rpg versus the Knicks. Cheeks ranked second on the team in scoring (17.5 ppg) and led the Sixers in assists (7.5 apg). Erving averaged 17.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg and 2.0 bpg. Erving tied Malone for the team lead in blocked shots, he ranked second behind Malone in rebounding, he tied Malone for second in steals (Cheeks averaged 1.8 spg) and he ranked second in assists. Erving was no longer the focal point of the offense but his all-around game was still an essential part of the team's success, particularly his ability to draw double teams and his ability to rebound like a power forward from the small forward position.
The 76ers faced Milwaukee for the third straight year but for the first time in the Eastern Conference Finals; the Bucks had just eliminated the Celtics 4-0. The Bucks pushed the 76ers to the brink in game one but the 76ers prevailed 111-109 in overtime. Malone had an off game (14 points, 12 rebounds and nine turnovers) but Cheeks picked up the slack, leading the 76ers in scoring (26 points), assists (seven) and steals (four). He shot 12-18 from the field and also grabbed six rebounds. Toney scored 22 points on 11-15 shooting and passed for five assists before fouling out. Erving scored 19 points but he only had two rebounds and he fouled out with 2:14 remaining in overtime after making contact while Winters hit a jump shot; Winters' free throw put the Bucks up 109-106. Richardson finished with nine points but he scored all seven of Philadelphia's overtime points, including the game-winner after Jones stole Alton Lister's inbounds pass and fed Richardson for a dunk to put the 76ers up 110-109. Richardson closed out the scoring by making a free throw with nine seconds left. Winters missed a three pointer at the final buzzer. Marques Johnson scored a game-high 30 points.
Milwaukee came back from a 77-66 deficit with 9:20 remaining to tie the score at 80 but then the Bucks only scored one free throw in the final 3:10 as the 76ers won game two 87-81. Malone led both teams in scoring (26 points) and rebounding (17 rebounds). Toney added 20 points and a game-high tying four assists. Cheeks had 15 points and four assists. Erving, limited by a nagging left knee injury that had caused him to miss one practice, scored a playoff career-low six points on 3-11 field goal shooting, though his dunk off of a Cheeks feed at the 2:18 mark gave the 76ers an 84-80 lead; by the end of game two he had scored just eight points on 4-15 field goal shooting in his previous 56 minutes of action. Marques Johnson led the Bucks with 25 points and 11 rebounds.
The Bucks opened game three with a 9-1 run. Erving scored the 76ers' first point on a free throw after Lanier received a technical foul. The 76ers missed their first five field goal attempts before Erving made a finger roll to cut the margin to 9-3. Milwaukee led 11-5 when Erving made a spectacular play, grabbing a defensive rebound with his right hand and rifling a perfect full court pass in one motion to Toney, who scored a layup. Erving never touched the ball with his left hand and if LeBron James made that kind of play today it would be endlessly replayed on every highlight show; Pat Williams told this writer that if Erving played in today's media saturation era he would be a bigger star than anyone: "If he were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."
The Bucks led for most of the game but the 76ers made their move in the fourth quarter. Cheeks scored seven straight points as Philadelphia took the lead with an 11-2 run; the other two Philadelphia hoops were an Erving turnaround jumper that tied the score at 80 and an Erving tomahawk fastbreak dunk over Alton Lister to put the 76ers up 82-80. Lanier answered with a three point play but then Richardson hit a jumper from the left baseline and Erving converted a finger roll over Bridgeman. Erving's turnaround jumper at the 4:28 mark gave the 76ers the lead for good, 90-88. Malone scored on a post move and drew a foul for a big three point play to extend the margin to 95-90. Malone then hit a tough turnaround jumper from the left baseline to make the score 97-90. Erving scored a game-high 26 points on 10-16 field goal shooting and he grabbed eight rebounds. Cunningham said, "If there were any questions about Julius Erving, they were answered today." Malone contributed 25 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Cheeks (16 points, nine assists) and Toney (15 points, four assists, four rebounds) both posted solid numbers. Bridgeman led the Bucks with 24 points, adding six rebounds and four assists.
After playing the 76ers tough for three games but falling just short each time, the Bucks avoided being swept by winning game four 100-94. The 76ers led 73-71 after the third quarter and 88-85 with 5:42 remaining but the Bucks closed the game with a 15-6 run. Marques Johnson led the Bucks in scoring (19 points) and he nearly posted a triple double (10 rebounds, eight assists). A trio of Bucks scored 17 points each (Bridgeman, Lanier and Moncrief). Toney seemed to be back in his old form, scoring a game-high 24 points on 10-21 field goal shooting. Erving added 19 points and five rebounds, while Malone had a quiet game by his MVP standards (17 points, 12 rebounds).
The 76ers' Big Three each scored more than 20 points in a game for the first time in the playoffs as the 76ers won 115-103 to advance to the NBA Finals. Toney scored a game-high 30 points on 10-14 field goal shooting, adding seven assists and five rebounds. Malone controlled the paint at both ends of the court, finishing with 28 points, a game-high 17 rebounds and a game-high tying four blocked shots. Erving had 24 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots. The 76ers methodically pulled away from the Bucks, winning the first quarter by two points, the second quarter by three points, the third quarter by four points and the fourth quarter by three points; the Bucks never cut the margin to less than seven points in the fourth quarter. Marques Johnson led Milwaukee with 21 points and Bridgeman had 20 points.
Erving said, "This is our third (Eastern) title in four years. In comparison to other years I feel we are as well equipped as a team can get. It wasn't always that way, when we had weaknesses in some areas. But we don't seem to have any weaknesses this time. I'm confident. I'm looking forward to winning the last game of the season. This year is going to be very, very special."
Toney only averaged 9.0 ppg in three games versus the Knicks but he led the Sixers in scoring (22.2 ppg) in the Eastern Conference Finals. Toney shot 45-85 (.529) from the field and ranked second on the team in assists (4.2 apg). Malone averaged 22.0 ppg while shooting 44-84 (.524) from the field. He led the team in rebounding (14.4 rpg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). Erving again ranked third in scoring (18.8 ppg) and second in rebounding (6.0 rpg). He tied Bobby Jones for second in blocked shots (1.6 bpg). Cheeks led in assists (7.2 apg). The Sixers attempted just three three pointers during the series, missing all of them, while the Bucks shot 3-14 (.214) from beyond the arc.
While Erving looked forward to winning his first NBA title, he was also able to place his journey into a larger context: "Winning has to be a goal. As the end result, it can't be denied. But the thing that must be most enjoyable is the work itself. The end result cannot be your only joy. If it was and you played on a losing team, you wouldn't be getting anything out of it. The game is the thing. Those experiences with the 76ers helped me grow. In looking back, maybe some of them were necessary for me. If they hadn't happened, I'd be a different person. I wouldn't be as prepared to handle some of the other things I wanted to do. I've accomplished a lot I can be proud of. So instead of feeling sorry for myself, it's a matter of setting an example. There can be satisfaction in that."
The 76ers faced the Lakers in the Finals for the third time in four years--but this time the 76ers had a player who could more than match Abdul-Jabbar point for point and rebound for rebound. Malone led both teams in scoring (27 points) and rebounding (18 rebounds) as the 76ers defeated the Lakers 113-107 in game one.
The Lakers led 57-54 at halftime but early in the third quarter the 76ers went on a 10-1 run--with Erving and Cheeks scoring four points each--to put Philadelphia on top 70-64 and the 76ers never trailed again. This was the first time in the three 76ers-Lakers battles that the 76ers enjoyed a series lead. Toney (25 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, four assists) and Erving (20 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, five blocked shots) also had big games. Richardson provided a boost off of the bench with 15 points (all in the second half), four rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Nixon led the Lakers with 26 points despite separating his shoulder in the first quarter after colliding with Toney and Johnson narrowly missed posting a triple double (19 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds) but the big story--literally and figuratively--was that the Lakers no longer enjoyed an advantage in the paint: Abdul-Jabbar finished with 20 points and just four rebounds--none in the second half. In the 1982 Finals, the Lakers outrebounded the 76ers by nearly 8 rpg but in game one of the 1983 Finals the 76ers outrebounded the Lakers 53-47.
In game two the Lakers again led at halftime--55-51--and the 76ers again made a run in the third quarter but this time Malone picked up his fifth foul at the 7:58 mark. He went to the bench with the 76ers clinging to an 83-79 lead and with backup center Clemon Johnson unavailable due to a urinary tract infection. Seldom-used third string center Earl Cureton stepped into the fray and in the next 5:34 he grabbed three rebounds, hit a sky hook over Abdul-Jabbar and twice stole the ball when the Lakers forced passes into the post. When Malone checked back in, the 76ers led 95-87 and they were never seriously threatened the rest of the way; the Lakers only scored 18 fourth quarter points, including two late three pointers by McAdoo when the result was no longer in doubt. Even though the foul trouble limited Malone to 31 minutes, he still led both teams in scoring (24 points) and rebounds (12). Cheeks (19 points, eight assists, three steals) and Toney (19 points, five assists, four rebounds, two steals) both played well. Erving finished with 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots; this was the first--and only--time that he scored less than 20 points in an NBA Finals game. Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 23 points but he again only had four rebounds as the 76ers outrebounded the Lakers 44-40. Johnson finished with 12 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds.
After the series shifted to L.A. for game three, nothing changed: the Lakers outplayed the 76ers in the first half--leading 40-25 in the second quarter and still enjoying a 52-49 advantage at intermission--and then the 76ers wore them down in the second half. After McAdoo hit back to back baskets to put the Lakers up 76-72 early in the fourth quarter, the 76ers went on a 14-0 run during which five different players made at least one field goal (two apiece by Jones and Toney and one each by Erving, Malone and Cheeks). The 76ers outscored the Lakers 39-22 in the fourth quarter en route to a 111-94 victory. Malone again led both teams in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (19), Erving added 21 points and 12 rebounds and Toney contributed 21 points and five assists. Jones, who had lost nine pounds in the previous two weeks while battling strep throat, scored 17 points. Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 23 points and 15 rebounds but he shot just 8-20 from the field, a far cry from his normal field goal percentage. Johnson had 18 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and eight turnovers.
Cunningham praised his team's ferocious defense: "In the fourth quarter, the Lakers ran one fast break in 21 possessions. In the third quarter, they had two field goals, which is amazing enough, but neither of those came against an initial set defense. The concentration level necessary to accomplish that defensively is unbelievable. But there is a special quality to this team. What I've told them now is, we can't let up. The Lakers are going to play as hard in game four as they've ever played in their lives. They don't want to lose in four straight, and if we're not ready for their best shot, they're just gonna knock us on our butts."
Cunningham concluded: "We want to end it in four. We want people to remember this team."
Game four unfolded much like the three previous games; the Lakers led 65-51 at halftime and 93-82 after the third quarter but the 76ers once again wore them down. Fittingly, Erving--who starred in the "We Owe You One" ad campaign six years earlier--provided the coup de grace, scoring the 76ers' final seven points. He stole the ball from Abdul-Jabbar and drove coast to coast for a dunk to tie the score at 106 and then he converted a three point play to give the 76ers the lead for good, 109-107. After Abdul-Jabbar made a free throw, Erving buried a top of the key jumper over Johnson to push the lead back three, 111-108. "There wasn't time to drive, there wasn't time to swing the ball, so I let it fly. I didn't find that shot. It found me," Erving said. The 76ers won 115-108, the last points coming courtesy of Cheeks as he made two uncharacteristic plays: one, he did not notice Erving cutting to the hoop and two, he dunked the ball instead of just laying it in or simply dribbling out the clock. Cheeks just got caught up in the moment and understandably so. As Erving said, "Seven years is a long time. But it was worth the wait."
Erving finished with 21 points, six assists, five rebounds, two blocked shots and one steal. "We didn't write the script," Erving said during the postgame celebration. "We just lived it it out." Toney scored 23 points and had a game-high nine assists, while Cheeks scored 20 points and passed for seven assists. Malone dominated the paint (24 points, 23 rebounds--including 10 points and nine rebounds in the fourth quarter) and he was the unanimous selection as Finals MVP after leading the 76ers in scoring (25.8 ppg) and rebounding (18.0 rpg). Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 28 points and team-high tying seven rebounds. Johnson had 27 points, seven assists, five rebounds and nine turnovers.
For the third series in a row Erving ranked third on the team in scoring (19.0 ppg) and second in rebounding (8.5 rpg). Erving tied the Finals record for blocked shots in a four game series (2.8 bpg), a mark that still stands 30 years later--not bad for a 33 year old small forward! Erving ranked third on the team in assists (5.0 apg). Erving is one of the greatest and most consistent performers in NBA Finals history, a fact that many fans may not realize because most of Erving's career took place before the NBA's popularity boom in the mid to late 1980s and because Erving "only" won one NBA title (of course, Erving also won two championships in the ABA). Erving scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games, including a streak of 19 straight that was at one time the third best such streak in league history. Erving's 25.5 ppg career NBA Finals scoring average ranks ninth in NBA history; he averaged 33.4 ppg in two ABA Finals appearances, so his overall ABA/NBA Finals career scoring average is 28.1 ppg. He scored at least 20 points in 31 of 33 career Finals games while topping the 40 point mark four times (three times in the ABA, once in the NBA) and exceeding the 30 point plateau 13 times (eight times in the ABA, five times in the NBA).
Toney averaged 22.0 ppg in the Finals but he shot just 30-71 (.423) from the field. He also ranked second on the team in assists (5.8 apg). Cheeks ranked fourth in scoring (15.3 ppg) while shooting 26-47 (.553) from the field and he led the 76ers in assists (6.3 apg). The Lakers were a banged up team--rookie forward James Worthy did not play in the Finals because of a broken leg and both McAdoo and Nixon were hobbled by injuries--but the 76ers were so focused on their mission that, for one season at least, they were as good as any team in pro basketball history.
Malone led the 76ers in playoff scoring (26.0 ppg) and rebounding (15.8 rpg) and he ranked second on the team in blocked shots (1.9 bpg). Toney ranked second in scoring (18.8 ppg) and assists (4.6 apg). Erving finished third in scoring (18.4 ppg), second in rebounding (7.4 rpg), third in assists (3.4 apg), first in blocked shots (2.1 bpg, fourth in the league) and tied for fourth (with Jones) in steals (1.2 spg) while shooting .450 from the field and .721 from the free throw line. "I can do all the things I used to do," Erving said, "but with our team, we don't need a forward to dominate the game." Although Erving did not post dominant individual playoff statistics, he made his impact felt, ranking first on the team with a 6.8 plus/minus number (Cheeks ranked second on the team with a 6.2 plus/minus number and Malone ranked third with a 4.7 plus/minus number). Erving led the Sixers in playoff dunks (29, easily outpacing Malone's 13) and he converted all five of his three point play opportunities, third on the team behind Malone (15-19) and Cheeks (8-12).
Shortly after the 76ers won the championship, Erving told Philadelphia Daily News writer Phil Jasner, "In my 12 pro seasons, there was only one time I cried after a game and that was right here last season after the sixth game and the Lakers had the championship. Nothing has ever affected me that way, not even now. I'm standing here, feeling so strong, so purposeful, so good because I know--we all know--we came the long way, the hard way. As sweet as this is, I can't take it for granted. I love the moment but the feelings I have are more than anyone could expect. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the people in this room, who stayed together, did what had to be done. Whatever criticism we heard during the season, whatever doubts anyone had, the ones who were with us, were with us."
Twenty three years later, Erving told Jasner, "Most people consider the Hall of Fame the ultimate accomplishment and recognition for an individual in a sports career, but the most significant for a team is to be a champion, to win it all. It starts the day you sign a contract, with the ultimate goal being the crown. For everybody to share in that moment, it connects you at the hip forever and a day."
That 1983 Philadelphia team had great camaraderie and displayed tremendous unselfishness; they were on a singular mission not just to win a title but to make history and the players all wanted to do their part to help Erving get his cherished NBA championship ring. Malone was a superstar in his prime while Erving was a superstar heading out of his prime but even as Malone dominated on the court he was very deferential to Erving's status: "That was Dr. J's team," Malone said years later. "I was just another piece of the puzzle...Doc was one of the greatest players ever, no doubt, and I always thank him for giving me the opportunity to win a championship." Malone and Erving did not battle over whose team it was; each Hall of Famer understood his role: Malone was the focal point while Erving was a still potent all-around threat. Malone did not have to say that he was the best player in the league; his game spoke for itself. Erving did not have to remind anyone that he was a Philadelphia icon and a league treasure; he just went about his business professionally the way that he always had done.
Sources (in addition to those specifically mentioned in the article): Various NBA Media Guides, exclusive one-on-one interview with Julius Erving (March 23, 2004), selected archival syndicated AP and UPI newspaper game recaps, The Legend of Dr. J by Marty Bell, Pat Williams' Tales From the Philadelphia 76ers by Pat Williams and Gordon Jones, personal correspondence with Nikola Simic (who provided some research done by Frank Leonardo and who also wishes to acknowledge research done by Krzysztof Michalski).
Notes: My research uncovered four statistical discrepancies:
1) The 1978 Philadelphia 76ers Media Guide states that Erving had 43 rebounds in the 1977 Boston series; the box scores printed in the Boston Globe during that series credit Erving with 41 rebounds.
2) The 1978 Philadelphia 76ers Media Guide states that Erving had 19 assists in the 1977 Boston series; the box scores printed in the Boston Globe during that series credit Erving with 21 assists. The easiest explanation for these first two discrepancies would be to assume that the game six boxscore that listed Erving with three assists and one rebound simply transposed those numbers. In the text of this article I used the 1978 Philadelphia Media Guide totals, not the totals derived from the box scores.
3) Erving is officially credited with seven blocked shots in the 1977 NBA Finals but the box score totals in the 1978 NBA Guide only add up to five blocked shots.
4) Erving officially shot 42-56 from the free throw line during the 1978 playoffs but the individual box score totals at NBA.com only add up to 42-55. The discrepancy stems from NBA.com's box score for game six of the 1978 Philadelphia-Washington series, which indicates that Erving shot 2-4 from the free throw line; Erving shot 2-5 from the free throw line according to the box score published in the Washington Post after the game. Both the NBA.com box score and the Washington Post box score credit the 76ers with 18 free throws attempted but the numbers listed in the NBA.com box score only add up to 17; that is why in this case I believe that the Washington Post box score is correct, while in the case of the first two discrepancies I suspect that the Media Guide is right and the Boston Globe is wrong.
Major League Baseball has updated decades-old RBI records when new information comes to light, so it is not too late for the NBA to research these discrepancies and then post the correct statistics at NBA.com.
Previous articles in this series:
Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can Fly
Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part II: Two Championships in Three Years with the Nets
posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM