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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part IV: A Graceful Descent

Championship Defense Falls Short

The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers may be the greatest single season team in NBA history but age and injuries prevented that squad from becoming a dynasty. Julius Erving (34 years old) and Bobby Jones (32) were both well into their 30s by the time the 1984 playoffs began. In 1983-84, Andrew Toney made the All-Star team for the second straight season and he averaged a career-high 20.4 ppg, but his career lasted just four more injury-shortened seasons. In 1983, Maurice Cheeks earned the first of his four All-Star selections and he had another solid season in 1984 (12.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.3 spg, .550 FG%) but his emergence was not enough to overcome the declines suffered by the team's other key players.

Moses Malone was still young chronologically (29) but he was a 10 year veteran who had entered pro basketball straight out of high school and--even though no one could have realized this at the time and even though he played until he was 39--his best years were already behind him: Malone shot at least .500 from the field and averaged at least 14 rpg in each season from 1979-83 but he never matched either of those marks for the rest of his career; in 1982-83, Malone made the All-Defensive First Team for the first (and only) time in his career but in 1983-84 his 1.5 bpg average did not even lead his team in that category. In 1983-84, Malone led the NBA in rebounding (13.4 rpg) for the fourth straight season while also ranking 11th in scoring (22.7 ppg) but after winning back to back MVPs he dropped to 10th in the balloting and he slipped to the All-NBA Second Team after earning First Team honors two years in a row.

Erving ranked 12th in the league in scoring (22.4 ppg) and he averaged 26.2 ppg in February 1984 when Malone missed several games due to injuries. Erving led the 76ers in blocked shots (1.8 bpg, eighth in the league) and he ranked second on the team in scoring, steals (1.8 spg, 10th in the league) and rebounding (6.9 rpg) while also ranking third in assists (4.0 apg). He posted better averages than he did in 1982-83 in every category except for blocked shots (his average remained the same but he took over team leadership from Malone, a remarkable feat for an aging small forward). Erving earned his last All-NBA First Team selection in 1983 and he made the Second Team for the final time in 1984. Of the 20 oldest players in the NBA during the 1983-84 season (ranging in age from 33 to 37), Erving ranked first in scoring, edging out the 37 year old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (21.5 ppg). Erving and Abdul-Jabbar were the only two players on that list who averaged at least 20 ppg.

In a 1992 interview conducted by Academy of Achievement, Erving offered an interesting take on the impact that fans can have on the game and the role that psychology plays in the evolution of an elite athlete:
When the crowd appreciates you, it encourages you to be a little more daring, I think. That's probably what the home court advantage is all about. With the crowds on your side, it's easier to play up to your potential. Generally, you'll have more players on the home team playing up to their potential than on the road team. Talented people sometimes react adversely to being booed or jeered or going into a foreign arena. It takes them a little longer to get focused and to reach their full potential and to get into stride, get into sync. You'll find some teams that are good home teams that are lousy road teams because of that. The perception is that the home team will always have an advantage. When you find a team that's a great team on the road, they're generally listed as a championship caliber team, because they've been able to overcome this. This is simply one of the psychological aspects of the game, which a lot of people write about and very few people study. I don't think I began to study it until I was in my late 20s. The last eight or nine years of my career I spent more time in learning about it because that's where there was a greater learning curve available for me, versus trying to physically jump higher or shoot straighter or run faster. The psychic side opened doors for me, physically and mentally and allowed me to become a better player at an older age. In 1981, at age 31, I was voted the best player in basketball and the most valuable player in the league. That's considered old. You have a lot of guys who start out at 20 now and this was after playing for 10 years. I thought that was something that I needed to credit--understanding the psychic side of the sport versus physically going out and doing anything differently.
Clearly, Erving studied his craft--and himself--very carefully and he did everything he could to maximize his productivity as an older player but the 1983 championship proved to be the crowning point of the Erving era in Philadelphia because young dynasties were emerging in Boston and Los Angeles under the leadership of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson respectively. Bird's Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA (62-20), while Johnson's Lakers topped the Western Conference with the league's second best record (54-28). Those teams combined to win every NBA title from 1984-88, facing each other in three of those five championship series. The 76ers went 52-30 in 1983-84, the league's third best record but 10 games behind the Celtics in the Atlantic Division race.

Injuries decimated the 76ers during the 1983-84 season; they went 3-6 without Malone at one point, part of a 3-8 stretch extending from late January through mid-February that was their worst skid since a 3-10 run during February-March 1979. The 76ers even briefly dropped to a second place tie (with the Knicks) in the Atlantic Division, putting in jeopardy their streak of never falling below second place since Erving joined the team in 1976. Erving pinpointed another problem in addition to the injuries: during the 76ers' dominant 1983 playoff run four players--Malone, Erving, Toney and Cheeks--provided the bulk of the scoring while the other players had much less prominent roles but that is not sustainable during the 82 game grind of the regular season. Erving said, "Even if we had not suffered the injuries, mentally there were problems. We had developed bad habits that were directly because of our success last year."

In the first round of the playoffs, the 76ers faced the 45-37 New Jersey Nets. On paper and based on playoff experience, the 76ers superficially looked like clear favorites but the Nets went 3-3 versus the 76ers during the regular season and as soon as the teams took the court in the postseason it became apparent that the Nets were a nightmare matchup for the 76ers. Micheal Ray Richardson, a 6-5 multi-talented guard who led the NBA in assists and steals during the 1979-80 season, played some of the best basketball of his career during the 1984 playoffs; he only averaged 12.0 ppg and 4.5 apg in 48 regular season games while he battled drug addiction but during the postseason he seemed to be clean, healthy and at the top of his game (sadly, he suffered another drug relapse two years later and the NBA banned him for life). Second year power forward Buck Williams was too big and strong for Erving or Jones to guard. Center Darryl Dawkins, who never reached his full potential in Philadelphia, was eager to get some revenge against his old team.

The Nets raced to a 39-29 first quarter lead in game one at Philadelphia en route to a 116-101 win. Philadelphia cut the margin to 97-91 at the 6:56 mark of the fourth quarter but New Jersey responded with a 15-2 run. This was the 76ers' first loss in 10 playoff games and their worst playoff opening loss in 18 years, while the Nets posted the first playoff victory in the franchise's NBA history. Williams led both teams in minutes (46), points (25) and rebounds (16). Otis Birdsong scored 24 points and Richardson provided a glimpse of coming attractions with 18 points, a game-high nine assists and six rebounds. Toney had 24 points, five assists and four rebounds. Malone added 20 points and 11 rebounds but he shot just 6-14 from the field and he only scored four points in the second half. Erving contributed 18 points, a team-high eight assists and seven rebounds but he also shot poorly from the field (6-16). Cheeks, who finished with 15 points and four assists, said, "Everything they did, they did well. Everything they tried, they did exactly right."

The Nets countered the 76ers' aggressive, trapping defense by relentlessly driving to the hoop. New Jersey Coach Stan Albeck explained, "Nothing stops pressure defenses better than layups."

During the championship season, the 76ers often fell behind before rallying to win but Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham had emphasized throughout the 1984 campaign that the 76ers were relying too much on their confidence in their ability to overcome any deficit. He offered this blunt appraisal of the loss: "There is not really a lot I can say. They outplayed us in every phase of the game." Cunningham lamented his team's defensive breakdowns: "Micheal Ray Richardson was doing things to us that we don't let Magic Johnson do."

Philadelphia cruised through the 1983 playoffs with a 12-1 record but after New Jersey's 116-102 game two victory the 76ers were one loss away from being swept out of the 1984 playoffs. Richardson scored a game-high 32 points, passed for a game-high nine assists, grabbed seven rebounds and swiped four steals. He shot 12-23 from the field, including 3-7 from three point range--an outstanding percentage for a player who shot just 14-58 (.241) from behind the arc during the regular season. "We're going for a sweep," Richardson declared.

The Nets did not just beat the 76ers--they humiliated them, building a 79-55 third quarter lead. The 76ers trimmed the deficit to five points, 91-86, but Richardson nailed a three pointer and converted a three point play as the Nets pulled away again. Dawkins added 22 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots, while Williams contributed 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots in a game-high 44 minutes. The Nets won the rebounding battle 42-32 and they shot .563 from the field while holding the 76ers to .451 field goal shooting. The game did not look like an upset as much as it looked like a younger, faster and hungrier team outclassing an older, slower and lethargic team. Malone led the 76ers with 25 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 8-18 from the field  (.444, well below the .536 field goal percentage he posted in the 1983 playoffs). Toney finished with 22 points on 9-16 field goal shooting but he committed seven turnovers. Cheeks and Clint Richardson scored 13 points each but Cheeks needed three stitches over his left eye after taking a hard fall in the third quarter and he did not return to action after suffering that injury. Erving added 12 points and eight rebounds but he shot just 5-13 from the field.

The 76ers avoided the sweep by winning game three, 108-100. Erving wore his championship ring to the arena, explaining to the media, "I don't usually do that. I wore it to show the team how much it takes to win it." Erving scored a game-high 27 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter and five during the 76ers' 9-0 run to finish the game. He shot 12-20 from the field and tied Cheeks for team-high honors with five assists. In an April 23, 1984 article for the New York Times, Dave Anderson described Erving's heroics:

If the 76ers do survive this series, they will remember what Julius Erving did yesterday in their moments of truth down the stretch. With his team trailing, 100-99, and 91 seconds remaining, Doctor J put them ahead and kept them ahead. In those 91 seconds, he showed why he was the only current player among the 12 selected for the NBA's 25th anniversary team. In moments of truth, some players don't want the ball. He not only wants it, but even steals it.

Anderson's lyrical words are apt, though he got some of the facts wrong: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the other active player selected for the NBA's anniversary team in 1981 and the anniversary being celebrated was the 35th, not the 25th (that kind of inattention to detail could perhaps explain why Anderson later praised Vincent Mallozzi's terrible Julius Erving biography).

Malone returned to form with 21 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, a game-high 17 rebounds and a game-high five blocked shots. Cheeks added 19 points, while Toney had 17 points and four assists. Williams led the Nets with 21 points and 17 rebounds in 47 minutes. Richardson finished with 16 points and 11 assists but Cheeks held him to five points and two assists in the second half. Dawkins had 16 points and six rebounds. Cunningham said, "Our object is to make it back to Philadelphia. We don't lose three in a row in Philly very often."

The 76ers achieved Cunningham's goal, winning game four 110-102. Erving and Malone each scored a game-high 22 points. Malone had 15 rebounds and three blocked shots, while Erving contributed a game-high eight assists plus five rebounds. Cheeks scored 20 points and Toney added 18 points despite shooting just 5-13 from the field. Albert King led the Nets with 20 points. Williams had 16 points and a game-high 18 rebounds. Richardson tied Erving for game-high honors with eight assists but he only scored 13 points on 6-19 field goal shooting. The 76ers built a 95-77 lead and but the Nets, playing in front of a sellout crowd of 20,149 at Brendan Byrne Arena, cut the margin to 100-96 with 2:07 remaining. Bobby Jones scored a dunk and two free throws to hold the Nets at bay. Erving and Malone closed out the scoring by each sinking a pair of free throws. Erving said, "The inexperienced player's instincts are to go faster. The experienced player's instincts tell him to slow down, to gain control by maybe changing the pace. Those are the things the Nets are most lacking."

While Erving suggested that the 76ers were in the "driver's seat" now, the reality is that no NBA team had come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a five game series since Fort Wayne defeated St. Louis in the 1956 Western Division Finals. Perhaps that is why Cunningham sounded a more cautionary note than Erving: "We can't feel we've shown them anything. We won Sunday and Tuesday and can't relax now. We have to be even stronger." Cunningham also acknowledged that game four was a very tough contest: "It was as physical a game as I've seen in a long time. I'm glad it's not a seven game series. No one would survive."

After game four, Erving made an uncharacteristically brash statement, declaring that his team had not come all the way back just to "cough it up," that there was no way that the 76ers would lose and "you can mail in the stats." At first it seemed like Erving might not have to eat those words; the 76ers led game five 90-83 with 7:12 remaining but they collapsed down the stretch and lost 101-98. The 76ers had not lost three straight playoff games at home since 1969. The way that the young and physical Nets upset the defending champion was reminiscent of how the Spirits of St. Louis similarly stunned Erving's Nets in the 1975 ABA playoffs.

"Our season had more valleys than peaks and the playoff was indicative of the season--two peaks and three valleys," Erving said.

Some of the Nets' players said that veteran forwards Erving and Jones seemed tired in the waning moments, a charge that Erving declined to address. Erving scored just 12 points on 5-11 field goal shooting, though he contributed 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. After the game he said, "This is typical of the up and down season we had. I expected it to be a struggle. We forced them to play our kind of game and they responded to the challenge." He added, "The Nets made the big plays down the stretch and we didn't. They showed great character to win this series."

Richardson put on another great performance--a game-high 24 points plus six assists and six rebounds--but he also had plenty of help. Birdsong matched Richardson with 24 points and six assists, Williams had 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds in 46 minutes and King chipped in 15 points, four rebounds and four assists. Toney led the 76ers with 22 points on 8-15 field goal shooting. Malone finished with 19 points and a team-high 14 rebounds but he again shot worse than .500 from the field (6-14). Cheeks had 16 points and a game-high seven assists but he shot just 6-15 from the field.

Richardson averaged 20.6 ppg, 8.6 apg and 5.2 rpg during the series while shooting .494 from the field in 42.4 mpg. Williams averaged 18.4 ppg and a series-high 15.2 rpg in 45.0 mpg; he shot .597 from the field and was a dominant force in the paint at both ends of the court. Malone led the 76ers in scoring (21.4 ppg) and rebounding (13.8 rpg) but he shot just .458 from the field. Toney averaged 20.6 ppg on .519 field goal shooting. Erving ranked third on the team in scoring (18.4 ppg), second in rebounding (6.4 rpg) and first in assists (5.0 apg). He also averaged 1.6 spg and 1.2 bpg. Erving shot .474 from the field and .864 from the free throw line. Cheeks, who battled various injuries throughout the series, scored 16.6 ppg on .522 field goal shooting but he only averaged 3.8 apg, tying Toney for second on the team.

One More Eastern Conference Finals Showdown Versus Boston

In Erving's final three seasons he gradually descended from elite level to "merely" All-Star status: from 1985-87 he was still one of the 15-20 best players in the league but he was no longer consistently dominant. In 1984-85, Erving set career-lows in scoring (20.0 ppg, second on the team), rebounding (5.3 rpg, third on the team) and assists (3.0 apg, third on the team). He remained potent defensively, averaging 1.7 spg (second on the team) and 1.4 bpg (second on the team). Erving was the fourth oldest player in the NBA, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former teammate Billy Paultz and Artis Gilmore. Of the 20 oldest players in the NBA (ranging in age from 32 to 38), Erving ranked third in scoring behind only Abdul-Jabbar (22.0 ppg) and 33 year old George Gervin (21.2 ppg).
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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 PM

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