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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 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 fifth oldest player in the NBA, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former teammate Billy Paultz, George T. Johnson 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).

The 76ers improved to 58-24 but that was only good enough for the fourth best record in the league behind the Celtics (63-19), the Lakers (62-20) and the Bucks (59-23). The 76ers' 13 game winning streak from December 24-January 16 was the league's best in 1984-85 and that run pushed the 76ers' record to 33-6, only one game off of the pace set by the 1982-83 Philadelphia team that won the championship. It seemed like perhaps the 1984 campaign had been an aberration and the 76ers were once again an elite team but they faded down the stretch, never winning more than four games in a row the rest of the way.

Malone regained his All-NBA First Team status and finished third in MVP voting after averaging 24.6 ppg (ninth in the league) and 13.1 rpg (first in the league, Malone's sixth and final rebounding title). Although this was a good bounce back season after a disappointing--by his high standards--1983-84 campaign, Malone's game still showed signs of decline; his field goal percentage dropped to .469, the worst of his career up to that point.

Toney averaged 17.8 ppg and 5.2 apg but he missed 12 games and he would never have a fully healthy season again, a tragic outcome for such a talented and fearless player. Rookie Charles Barkley bulled his way into the rotation and the undersized power forward averaged 14.0 ppg and 8.6 rpg. Cheeks was dependable and consistent, as always (13.1 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.2 spg, .570 FG%).

The 76ers went 7-8 in the final 15 games of the regular season but that did not matter much when they faced the 40-42 Washington Bullets in the first round. Malone scored a game-high 26 points and Erving added 24 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, six rebounds and three steals as the 76ers won 104-97. The 76ers forced six turnovers in the last four minutes of the contest. Malone had a very unusual floor game for a low post player: five rebounds, five assists, six steals. Barkley, who came off of the bench but played more minutes (31) than starter Bobby Jones (27), scored 17 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, including eight offensive rebounds. Cheeks contributed 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals.

Cliff Robinson--not the one who played for Portland and Phoenix (among other teams) in the 1990s but an earlier version--had 24 points and nine rebounds for the Bullets, while Jeff Ruland had 20 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and four steals. The Bullets were coached by Gene Shue, who coached the 76ers in the 1976-77 season and in the first six games of the 1977-78 season.

Toney, who missed the final four regular season games because of a sprained ankle, scored a game-high 31 points as the 76ers rolled to a 113-94 game two win. He shot 13-22 from the field. Erving contributed 23 points on 9-16 field goal shooting, four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Malone only scored 10 points on 2-9 field goal shooting but he tied Barkley for game-high rebounding honors (14). Jones (16 points, eight rebounds) and Barkley (11 points) were the only other Philadelphia players who scored in double figures. Jeff Malone (no relation to Moses) led Washington with 30 points on 13-20 field goal shooting; he only scored five points in 16 minutes in game one before a back injury sidelined him.

Gus Williams (28 points), Ruland (25 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Robinson (21 points, seven rebounds) each scored at least 20 points as the Bullets won game three 118-100. Washington broke the game open by outscoring Philadelphia 30-13 in the third quarter as Robinson poured in 14 points. Moses Malone led the 76ers with 17 points plus six rebounds, Erving added 15 points and six rebounds, Cheeks had 11 points but just one assist and Leon Wood scored 10 points in six minutes of garbage time action. No other Philadelphia player reached double figures in points, though Barkley had nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Toney scored eight points on 3-16 field goal shooting.

Erving scored a game-high 25 points on 11-16 field goal shooting--including 11 points in the fourth quarter--as the 76ers won 106-98 and earned the right to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Erving also had five rebounds and two steals. Moses Malone contributed 18 points and eight rebounds, Toney scored 17 points on 7-9 field goal shooting and Barkley had 16 points plus a game-high 14 rebounds. Jeff Malone led the Bullets with 24 points. The 76ers took a 61-47 halftime lead after shooting 26-33 from the field--and they would have led by even more if they had not committed 16 turnovers--but then they only shot 4-22 from the field in the third quarter as the Bullets outscored them 21-13 to get right back into the game.

Erving led Philadelphia in scoring (21.8 ppg) versus Washington, the first time he led the team in scoring during a playoff series since Philadelphia's win against Milwaukee in the 1982 Eastern Conference semifinals. He averaged 5.3 rpg (third on the team), 2.3 apg (tied for third on the team), 2.3 spg (tied for second on the team) and .3 bpg while shooting .569 from the field and .867 from the free throw line. Barkley led the 76ers in rebounding (12.8 rpg) while also scoring 13.3 ppg, Malone averaged 17.8 ppg and 8.3 rpg and Toney scored 17.5 ppg while also notching a team-high 3.8 apg. Williams led the Bullets in scoring (18.0 ppg), just edging out Ruland (17.5 ppg, team-high 8.5 rpg, team-high 5.3 apg).

The Bucks were the 76ers' postseason punching bags in the early 1980s and this series proved to be no exception. Philadelphia swiped home court advantage with a 127-105 game one victory. The 76ers opened the game with a 10-3 run, they led 37-24 by the end of the first quarter and they outscored the Bucks in each of the next three quarters as well. Malone scored a game-high 27 points and he grabbed six rebounds. Clint Richardson scored 22 points off of the bench in just 21 minutes, Barkley had 19 points plus a team-high eight rebounds, Cheeks scored 18 points while dishing off a game-high nine assists and Erving scored 15 points on 5-14 field goal shooting while also accumulating four assists, three rebounds and three steals. Terry Cummings led the Bucks with 17 points but the All-Star power forward did not have a rebound in 32 minutes.

Cummings erupted for a playoff career-high 41 points on 14-25 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals but the 76ers still beat the Bucks 112-108 to take a 2-0 series lead. The 76ers opened the fourth quarter with an 8-3 run punctuated by an Erving dunk to take a 90-81 lead; Malone and Erving sealed the victory by sinking their free throws in the game's waning seconds. Malone again led the 76ers in scoring (25 points) but he only shot 8-20 from the field and for the second game in a row he grabbed just six rebounds. Erving authored a very strong all-around performance: 21 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, 10 rebounds, seven assists. Barkley had the best playoff game of his young career, finishing with 19 points on 8-11 field goal shooting and 12 rebounds, tying Cummings and Alton Lister for game-high rebounding honors. Erving said, "We are not the team that ended the season playing under .500 basketball; we've returned to the team that's won 80 percent of their games."

Toney scored a team-high 20 points, tied Cheeks with a team-high seven assists and also contributed six rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots as the 76ers won game three 109-104. The 76ers built an 18 point lead but the Bucks rallied to go up by two, 104-102, late in the fourth quarter. Erving tied the score at 104 by hitting a shot from just inside the three point line right before the shot clock expired; then, with less than :40 remaining, Cheeks stole the ball from Cummings and fed Erving for a fast break layup that proved to be the game-winner. The AP's Ralph Bernstein wrote, "They don't call Erving a 'money player' for nothing."

Erving said, "Definitely, when you're 18 points up you feel good. but you still have to finish the game and beat them. Now, we can't dwell on the fact they came back, but we must enjoy a hard fought victory." Erving finished with 19 points on 7-13 field goal shooting and eight rebounds.

Barkley added 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and five steals. Malone scored 17 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds but he shot just 6-19 from the field. Six of the eight 76ers who played scored at least 10 points. Cummings led the Bucks with 21 points and eight rebounds but Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson lamented Cummings' late turnover: "Terry has just got to know that he can't turn his back and spin like that against a great player like Mo Cheeks. With a great player like Cheeks guarding you, you can't turn around like that and spin with your back to the basket because he's going to be there anticipating it."

Malone scored a game-high 31 points and tied Cummings with a game-high 13 rebounds as the 76ers completed the sweep with a 121-112 win. The 76ers closed the third quarter with a 20-6 run to take an 83-77 lead and the Bucks never got closer than five points the rest of the way. All five Philadelphia starters scored in double figures and Barkley added 14 points and 10 rebounds as a reserve. Toney pumped in 23 points on sizzling 11-14 field goal shooting and he had a game-high 11 assists, Cheeks scored 21 points on 9-13 field goal shooting while passing for five assists and Jones contributed 12 points. Erving had a quiet but solid performance: 10 points on 3-6 field goal shooting, six assists, five rebounds. Sidney Moncrief led Milwaukee with 25 points and eight assists, Paul Pressey also scored 25 points and Cummings had 23 points but he shot just 9-22 from the field.

After the game, Erving declared that this 1985 Philadelphia team was better than Philadelphia's 1983 championship team: "This team is more competitive. Our bench is stronger. We're more serious. We play together. We're a better team than other people think."

Nelson agreed with Erving: "I think Philly is a sleeping giant that woke up during the Washington series. We are not a bad basketball team and you saw what they did to us. Philly is a championship caliber team and will be until Doc, Bobby and Moses retire."

This was Philadelphia's first playoff sweep since the 1983 NBA Finals and it was surprising not just because of how good the Bucks were and how poorly the 76ers played at the end of the regular season but also because the 76ers were battling so many injuries that one writer said that the team should be called "Infirmities R Us": Malone had a pulled groin muscle and two sprained ankles, Erving had a sore knee, Cheeks had a bruised shoulder and Barkley had a sprained left ankle plus a bruised left thigh.

The 76ers would now get a week off before facing the winner of the Boston-Detroit series. "I can't see how the time off will hurt us," Cunningham said. "I don't think we'll lose our intensity. The most important thing is our club is in a groove. I'm seeing the hunger again. We're starting to come together."

Malone led the 76ers in scoring (25.0 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg) versus Milwaukee and he tied Jones for the team lead with 1.5 bpg. Barkley averaged 17.8 ppg and 9.3 rpg while shooting .659 from the field. He also ranked second on the team in steals (2.5 spg) and he tied for fourth in blocked shots (.5 bpg). Erving ranked third in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (6.5 rpg), assists (4.3 apg) and steals (1.5 spg, tied with Jones). He shot .479 from the field and .826 from the free throw line. Toney scored 15.3 ppg on .533 field goal shooting and he ranked second in assists (7.3 apg). Cheeks averaged 14.3 ppg on .521 field goal shooting while leading the team in assists (7.5 apg) and steals (2.8 spg). Cummings averaged a team-high 25.5 ppg on .526 field goal shooting and he ranked second on the Bucks with 8.3 rpg.

It took the defending champion Celtics six games to eliminate the young Pistons, who were a rising power in the East, but that extra workload did not slow down Boston in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston's Hall of Fame frontcourt trio dominated as the Celtics cruised to a 108-93 victory. Kevin McHale scored a game-high 28 points on 9-14 field goal shooting, Robert Parish scored 26 points while leading both teams in rebounds (13) and blocked shots (four) and Larry Bird filled up the boxscore with 23 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Cedric Maxwell, the 1981 Finals MVP, only played eight minutes due to a knee injury but his absence created a mismatch advantage for the Celtics; Barkley (listed at 6-6 but closer to 6-4) was too short to check McHale, who enjoyed a weight/strength advantage over Jones. Malone kept Parish reasonably under control in the first half (10 points) but McHale went wild; in the second half, Malone limited McHale to six points on 1-6 field goal shooting but Parish got loose for 16 points while being guarded by Barkley, Jones or backup center Clemon Johnson. Dennis Johnson scored 15 points on 7-18 field goal shooting while leading the Celtics with eight assists but his greatest contribution came on defense; the Celtics acquired him in 1984 primarily to guard Toney, who finished with 16 points, five assists and four rebounds. Johnson refused to take credit, modestly saying, "He passed off a lot." Johnson held Toney to 13.8 ppg on .400 field goal shooting during the regular season.

Cheeks led the 76ers with 27 points and seven assists. Malone dominated Parish during the six regular season matchups between the teams--averaging 26.5 ppg and 16.5 rpg while Parish averaged 13 ppg and 8.5 rpg--but Parish outscored and outrebounded Malone (19 points, 10 rebounds). Erving struggled, finishing with just 12 points on 5-18 field goal shooting plus six rebounds and two assists. Barkley corralled a team-high 12 rebounds but he only scored 10 points on 5-13 field goal shooting.

The Celtics led 33-28 after the first quarter, 57-52 at halftime and 71-62 midway through the third quarter but Malone's jumper early in the fourth quarter put the 76ers up 77-76. The Celtics then went on an 8-2 run and never trailed the rest of the way. Toney, who only scored eight points in the first three quarters, hit a jumper at the 5:21 mark of the fourth quarter to cut Boston's lead to 82-79 but Bird scored eight of his 14 second half points in the final five minutes as the Celtics pulled away. Erving's jumper with 3:21 remaining trimmed the margin to seven but the 76ers did not make another field goal. Philadelphia committed eight turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Boston reserve swingman M.L. Carr said, "We've got more respect for the 76ers than any other team in the league, period...Both teams can rise above fatigue and injuries. The fact that we played only 39 hours ago doesn't have any effect. We talked about that coming back. We realized we had to forget the Detroit series."

Erving bounced back from his subpar performance to post a team-high 22 points on 8-13 field goal shooting, seven assists (tied for game-high honors), six rebounds and a game-high/playoff career-high six steals but the Celtics won 106-98 to take a 2-0 series lead. Malone added 20 points and 13 rebounds. Cheeks had 12 points and seven assists. Barkley added nine points and 10 rebounds. Richardson provided a spark off of the bench with 15 points but Toney scored just seven points on 3-17 field goal shooting. Cunningham said, "The most important thing is that I told Andrew I have confidence in him. We haven't seen the real Andrew Toney yet but we will."

Each of the five Boston starters scored at least 13 points, while the Celtics' bench players combined to score just nine points. Bird shot just 8-23 from the field but he scored a game-high 24 points, passed for seven assists and grabbed eight rebounds. McHale had 22 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots. Johnson added 22 points and seven assists. Parish scored 13 points on 4-11 field goal shooting and ripped down a game-high 16 rebounds. Danny Ainge contributed 16 points. The Celtics never trailed in the fourth quarter as what was expected to be a tightly contested series now looked like a sweep in the making. Bird scored 13 fourth quarter points and made it clear--both verbally and with his actions--that he considered the fourth quarter to be his time to shine.

In order to feature both games on national television over the weekend, the NBA scheduled the 76ers' home games without a rest day in between. This quirk did not decide the outcome of the series--the Celtics clearly proved that they were the superior team--but it obviously did not help the aging 76ers, either. Perhaps an even bigger problem for the 76ers was that some internal divisions became very public. Cunningham had some turbulent interactions with several players, most notably Barkley and Toney--two talented young players who Cunningham pushed very hard in order to extract maximum greatness from them. What Cunningham did was in their best interests, though neither player may have realized it at the time.

Prior to game three, Cunningham revealed that he was considering benching Toney in favor of Richardson, a move that Cunningham did not discuss with the team before he mentioned it to the media; several players disagreed both with the potential switch and with how Cunningham handled the situation. Erving said, "A lineup change? I don't know. Give us a chance to play at home the way we are. A lineup change could be misleading. If we start out well, it could be interpreted as because Andrew's not in there, and that may not be true."

Erving also had a possible explanation for Toney's struggles: "Billy says he wants Andrew to run the team instead of shooting, but when Andrew doesn't shoot, Billy tells him, 'Shoot, shoot, shoot.' He's confused about his role."

Richardson did not want to start ahead of Toney: "I don't like it. Right now, we have problems, and we don't need any more problems. We just have to stay together. It shows them (the Celtics) that we're worrying about ourselves too much instead of just going out and playing. Our priorities are wrong. We're worrying about things too much."

Ironically, one player who had no problem with benching Toney was Toney himself: "If coming off the bench will help us win, sure, I'll do that."

Cunningham kept Toney in the starting lineup and the "Boston Strangler" responded with a vintage performance, scoring a game-high 26 points on 9-14 field goal shooting in a game-high 43 minutes while also dishing out five assists. Unfortunately for the 76ers, Toney's return to form was not nearly enough to change the direction of the series, as the Celtics won 105-94. The 76ers shot 5-15 from the field in the fourth quarter; their 1983 championship team wore down the opposition in the second halves of playoff games but in the 1984 playoffs and in the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals the 76ers were worn down by younger, more energetic teams. The Celtics had a 5-21 record at Philadelphia in the Bird era prior to this contest, including 1-8 in their previous nine games at the Spectrum.

Malone scored 18 points, tallied a game-high 16 rebounds and swiped four steals but he shot 5-12 from the field, not providing the productivity or efficiency that the 76ers needed. Barkley scored a then playoff career-high 23 points and he had 11 rebounds.

Erving scored a playoff career-low five points on 1-10 shooting in game three and after the game he disagreed with how Cunningham used him: "It was hard to get any confidence out there. All I knew was, if I missed a shot, I was coming out." Erving still provided his normally solid floor game, contributing six rebounds and four assists.

It is sometimes said that Erving was the rare athlete who was never booed but--although it is true that Erving was beloved even by opposing fans--he was booed on at least three occasions: the first time happened after he won the 1977 All-Star Game MVP for the losing East team in Milwaukee (Milwaukee was then a Western Conference city and the fans were upset by the voting) while the second and third times happened during games three and four of the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Philadelphia fans expressed their displeasure as Erving repeatedly missed shots that he usually converted. Erving and Bird engaged in an infamous fight during a November 1984 game but Erving made a point of seeking out Bird for a pregame handshake the next time they faced each other, ensuring that no bitterness lingered--and Bird spoke out in Erving's defense after Erving's game three struggles: "I felt sorry for him. I was disappointed the way people treated him yesterday. An individual like that--tasteless. You won't find a better person in the league than him. He's done more for kids than anybody in the league. When they started booing him--very tasteless."

For the second game in a row, each Boston starter scored at least 10 points. Bird finished with 26 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals. He said, "This was probably our best effort since I've been with the Celtics. We really made all the big plays down the stretch. We were hitting the big shots and coming up with the loose balls." Ainge had 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds, Parish added 17 points and 14 rebounds, McHale had 14 points on 5-6 field goal shooting, nine rebounds and five blocked shots and Johnson chipped in 12 points and four assists.

The 76ers jumped out to a 31-16 first quarter lead in game four en route to a 115-104 victory. Barkley bravely--or foolishly--spoke of the 76ers becoming the first NBA team to come back from a 3-0 deficit but the reality was that this was the last gasp of a proud team that did not want to be swept, particularly at home. All five starters for both teams scored in double figures. Toney scored a game-high 26 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, Malone continued to struggle with his field goal shooting (8-20) but he finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots and Barkley--who replaced Jones in the starting lineup--added 15 points plus a game-high 20 rebounds.

Erving shot 4-21 from the field but he shot 7-9 from the free throw line to push his scoring total to 15 points. He led the 76ers with six assists, he grabbed six rebounds, he did not commit a turnover in 29 minutes and he played very aggressive defense against Bird.  

McHale led the Celtics with 25 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots. Johnson had 19 points, five assists and four rebounds. Parish added 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots, while Bird had 14 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, seven rebounds, six assists, eight turnovers and no excuses about the swollen right index finger that he injured during game three. "It is not a major injury," Bird explained. "I don't get major injuries. I can't use it as an excuse. I have to play as well as I can. If I put on a uniform, I don't like to think of it at all. It hurts but it's just another thing you have to accept. I can accept it. I've been able to overcome pain. If I had a regular job as a construction worker, I wouldn't stay home with an injury like this. So I'm not staying home from this job."

The 76ers fought valiantly to take the series back to Philadelphia one more time but they lost 102-100 after Bird stole the ball from Toney with three seconds left to prevent the 76ers from taking a final shot to win or tie. Johnson led the Celtics with 23 points and eight assists, including four points in the last two minutes. He also had five rebounds and three steals. Parish (20 points, 11 rebounds), Bird (17 points on 6-18 field goal shooting, five rebounds, five assists, three steals), McHale (17 points, 14 rebounds, two blocked shots) and Ainge (12 points, four assists, four rebounds) all made solid contributions as Boston's five starters again each scored in double figures. Cheeks capped off an excellent series with a game-high 26 points plus seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. Erving scored 16 points on 6-12 field goal shooting, adding three assists and two rebounds in the last Conference Finals game of his career. Malone had 13 points on 4-13 field goal shooting plus a game-high 15 rebounds. Barkley scored 13 points but had a playoff-low three rebounds. Toney contributed 13 points, six assists and four rebounds.

Bird's jumper with 4:13 remaining broke a 93-93 tied and started a 7-2 Boston run; the Celtics never trailed again. Barkley's third three pointer of the game trimmed the margin to 100-98, Johnson answered with a jumper and then Erving's drive again pulled Philadelphia to within two points. After Bird missed a shot in the lane with 12 seconds left, he picked Toney's pocket to preserve the win.

Cheeks led the 76ers in scoring (19.4 ppg) and assists (4.8 apg) against Boston. Malone averaged 18.2 ppg and a team-high 13.4 rpg but he shot just 32-79 (.405) from the field. Toney averaged 17.6 ppg and 4.4 apg while shooting .464 from the field but those contributions were somewhat offset by his team-leading 5.0 tpg. Barkley averaged 14.0 ppg, tied for the team lead in steals (2.0 spg) and ranked second on the team in rebounding (11.2 rpg). Erving led the team in blocked shots (1.6 bpg), he tied Barkley for the team lead in steals, he tied Toney for second in assists and he tied Barkley for fourth in scoring but he shot just 24-74 (.324) from the field.

McHale led the Celtics in scoring (21.2 ppg), field goal percentage (.535) and blocked shots (3.6 bpg). Bird had a pedestrian series by his lofty standards, shooting just .419 from the field and only averaging 7.2 rpg (third on the team). He ranked second on the team in scoring (20.8 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg). Parish led the Celtics in rebounding (13.0 rpg), he ranked second in blocked shots (2.4 bpg) and he ranked fourth in scoring (17.2 ppg). Johnson paced the Celtics in assists (6.4 apg) and finished third in scoring (18.2 ppg).

Malone led the 76ers in playoff scoring (20.2 ppg) and blocked shots (1.7 bpg) while ranking second in rebounding (10.6 rpg) but he shot just .425 from the field. Erving ranked second on the team in scoring (17.1 ppg) and steals (1.9 spg) and third in rebounding (5.6 rpg) and assists (3.7 apg). He also averaged .8 bpg, ranking fourth behind Malone, Barkley and Jones. Erving led the 76ers in playoff dunks (23; Barkley ranked second with 17) and three point plays (seven for seven; no other 76er had more than five). Toney averaged 16.8 ppg and 5.1 apg, while Cheeks averaged 15.2 ppg, 5.2 apg and a team-high 2.4 spg. Barkley averaged 14.9 ppg, a team-high 11.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.8 spg (third on the team) and 1.2 bpg (tied with Jones for second on the team).

Barkley Emerges as a Star, Erving Shifts to Guard

Cunningham, who was just 42 years old, retired after the 1985 season and he was replaced by his long-time assistant Matt Guokas. It was not yet clear if the 76ers should be focused on rebuilding or if their veterans had enough left to make one more championship run; the 76ers looked like world beaters during the first half of the 1984-85 season, they looked very ordinary down the stretch of that campaign, they looked like world beaters again during the first two rounds of the playoffs and then they were dismantled by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia's front office decided to stand pat and hope that the Erving, Malone and Jones veteran trio could win one more title in combination with the Barkley, Cheeks and Toney youthful trio.

The 76ers again posted the fourth best record in the NBA (54-28), trailing the Celtics (67-15), the Lakers (62-20) and the Bucks (57-25). Malone led the 76ers in scoring for the fourth straight season (23.8 ppg, seventh in the league) but he finished second in rebounding (11.8 rpg, fourth in the league). He did not make the All-NBA First or Second Team for the first time in his Philadelphia career. Barkley jumped to second on the team in scoring (20.0 ppg) and first on the team in rebounding (12.8 rpg, second in the league). Barkley did not make the All-Star team but he was selected to the All-NBA Second Team.

Erving ranked third on the team in scoring (18.1 ppg, a new career-low), the first time in his career that he did not rank first or second. He ranked second in blocked shots (1.1 bpg) and he ranked third on the team in rebounding (5.0 ppg, a new career-low), assists (3.4 apg) and steals (1.5 spg). Erving was the fourth oldest player in the league, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George T. Johnson and Artis Gilmore. Among the 20 oldest players in the league (ranging in age from 32 to 39), Erving ranked fourth in scoring behind 32 year old Alex English (who won the scoring title with a 29.8 ppg average), 32 year old World B. Free (23.4 ppg) and the 39 year old--but seemingly ageless--Abdul-Jabbar (23.4 ppg).

The 76ers' championship hopes suffered a major setback when a foot injury forced Toney to miss 76 regular games and the entire playoffs. Even without Toney, the 76ers still proved to be a formidable team but with just eight games left in the regular season Malone suffered an orbital fracture while pursuing a loose ball against the Bucks. Although the 76ers did not know it at the time--or at least they did not immediately announce it publicly--the injury would force Malone to miss the entire postseason. If Toney had stayed healthy and if Malone had not missed the playoffs then the 76ers could have made a serious title run. Even without Malone and Toney, the 76ers came within one shot of forcing an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Celtics.

The 76ers started the 1985-86 season with a 6-8 record, their worst such mark since the 1974-75 season. Their backcourt was decimated by injuries, so on December 14, with the 76ers still hovering around the .500 mark at 12-11, Guokas shifted Erving to guard and moved Bobby Jones into the starting lineup. Barkley was ejected just eight minutes into the game--so Erving had to go back to playing forward--and the 76ers lost 107-103 at Atlanta but the 76ers then won eight games in a row, 13 out of their next 14 and 18 out of their next 20 to vault back into contention for the Atlantic Division title. Houston Coach Bill Fitch noted that Erving had a distinct advantage after shifting to the backcourt: "No other guard in the league can post up like he does." The 76ers' most frequently used starting lineup featured Erving at guard alongside Cheeks, with Malone, Barkley and Jones in the frontcourt; that group posted a 24-10 record. The next most frequently used starting lineup included Malone, Barkley and Erving in the frontcourt alongside guards Cheeks and Sedale Threatt (13-8).

In the first round of the playoffs, the 76ers again faced the Bullets (39-43). Kevin Loughery, Erving's New York coach in the ABA, had replaced Shue with 13 games remaining in the regular season. Philadelphia led game one 94-77 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter but then Washington made one of the most improbable comebacks in playoff history, capped off by Dudley Bradley banking in a turnaround, game-winning three pointer as time expired. Bradley shot 17-68 (.250) from three point range during the 1985-86 regular season and he finished his career with a .227 playoff three point shooting percentage (5-22). The Bullets outscored the 76ers 18-0 down the stretch. Erving opened the door for Bradley's miracle shot by missing a pair of free throws with three seconds remaining (Erving actually missed three free throws, because he was granted a third attempt after a Washington lane violation nullified one of his misses).

"The bottom fell out," Guokas said of the game's bizarre final minutes. "We got tentative and lost our momentum. We started to use up the clock, which got us out of our offense. The momentum shifted and we paid the price for it."

Jeff Malone led the Bullets with 21 points and he also had six assists and four rebounds. Dan Roundfield, who battled against the 76ers in the 1980 and 1982 playoffs as a young Hawk, scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Barkley led both teams in scoring (26 points), rebounding (22 rebounds), assists (nine) and steals (four). Five 76ers scored between 11 and 13 points, including Erving (11 points, 11 rebounds, three assists but just 4-16 field goal shooting). Erving sat out much of the fourth quarter as his backup, Threatt, made five straight field goals to help the 76ers build their big lead. "They just didn't fall," Erving said of the missed free throws. "I just didn't have good rhythm from the third period on. I'm a little down, but I'm not angry or bitter. I wish I could have made the free throws but...Sunday is another day."

Barkley had another monster game (47 minutes, 27 points, 20 rebounds, six assists) and this time the 76ers maintained their composure down the stretch to win 102-97, evening the series at 1-1. Barkley erupted for 14 fourth quarter points as the 76ers outscored the Bullets 27-18 in the final stanza. "I don't make bold statements, I just speak the truth," Barkley said. "We should beat them."

Cheeks had 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Rookie Terry Catledge, playing center for the injured Malone, added 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots. Jones (13 points, five assists, four rebounds) and Erving (12 points, six rebounds) made solid contributions, though Erving again struggled with his shooting (4-12 from the field, 4-8 from the free throw line).

Jeff Malone's statistics (25 points, five rebounds, four assists) nearly mirrored his game one numbers. Gus Williams scored 22 points and passed for a game-high 12 assists. Cliff Robinson contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals.

Erving's subpar performances in the first two games led to some rumblings in the press about whether or not the 76ers would re-sign the free agent for one more year--as Erving wanted--so that he could finish his career in Philadelphia. In game three, Erving showed his critics that he could still play at a high level, scoring a team-high 22 points on 8-17 field goal shooting and 6-6 free throw shooting as the 76ers won 91-86, their first victory at Washington after three straight regular season losses there; he sealed the win by sinking two free throws with 11 seconds remaining. "I seemed to recollect what happened in Philadelphia," Erving said. "It definitely crossed my mind. I looked up and saw 11 seconds left, and it looked like I had a chance to wrap it up." Erving also had six rebounds, a game-high six assists and a team-high/playoff career-high six blocked shots. Cheeks added 21 points, five rebounds and three assists and Threatt contributed 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Barkley had an off shooting night (13 points, 4-15 field goal shooting) but he pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds.

Williams scored a game-high 28 points. He said of Erving, "You can't relax against him, because he always comes through under pressure. In the clutch, Dr. J will always be there."

The 76ers trailed 67-54 midway through the third quarter before taking command thanks to a 26-6 run spearheaded by Threatt (eight points), Erving (six points) and Jones (six points). Guokas said, "Doc came out ready to go. He sure knows he's a better percentage shooter than he was in the first two games."

"That's the beauty of this game," Erving observed. "You make a bad play, then you turn around and you've got the chance to make a good play."

Barkley offered this blunt assessment of the game and the series: "Sedale came through, the Doctor came through, Maurice came through, Bobby came through and now they (the Bullets) are through."

The Bullets were not fazed by Barkley's words and they beat the 76ers 116-111 behind Jeff Malone's game-high/playoff career-high 32 points. Robinson added a playoff career-high 31 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots. Cheeks led the 76ers with 30 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, including 10 fourth quarter points. Erving scored 25 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, passed for six assists and had two steals in a game-high 43 minutes. Barkley scored 22 points, led both teams with 15 rebounds and had a game-high seven assists.

Malone scored 14 fourth quarter points and the Bullets ended the game with a 7-0 run. Game one hero Bradley again made his presence felt, throwing a loose ball off of Barkley's leg so that Washington could retain possession just prior to Malone making what turned out to be the game-winning shot. Bradley also made a free throw to extend Washington's lead to 114-111. With just eight seconds left, Robinson closed out the scoring by grabbing the rebound after he missed his second straight free throw and then making the putback.

This strange, back and forth series came to an anticlimactic conclusion as the 76ers routed the Bullets 134-109. Catledge led the 76ers with 27 points on 13-22 field goal shooting. He put up 21 points in the first half as the 76ers built a 70-52 halftime lead; the Bullets never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way. Cheeks scored 24 points and passed for 11 assists before he sprained his right ankle in the fourth quarter and had to leave the game. Barkley had his first career playoff triple double: 19 points, a team-high 15 rebounds and a game-high 12 assists. Erving contributed 19 points on 7-15 field goal shooting, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots. Threatt added 14 points and six assists.

Robinson scored a game-high 30 points and he also had 11 rebounds and four steals. Malone added 19 points and four assists and Roundfield produced a symmetrical double double (16 points and a game-high 16 rebounds).

Barkley led the 76ers in scoring 21.4 ppg, rebounding (17.2 rpg), assists (7.2 apg) and steals (2.0 spg) versus Washington. Cheeks ranked second in scoring (21.0 ppg) and assists (5.4 apg). Erving led the 76ers in blocked shots (2.0 bpg) and he ranked third in scoring (17.8 ppg), rebounding (7.2 rpg), assists (4.8 apg) and steals (1.0 spg) while shooting .430 from the field and .778 from the free throw line; after a rough start in the first two games, Erving averaged 22.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 6.3 apg in the final three games while shooting .510 from the field and making all 14 of his free throw attempts.

The 76ers once again faced the Bucks for the opportunity to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals but this time the Bucks had several players in or close to their primes while the 76ers had been weakened by age and injuries. Don Nelson offered this prescient prediction: "I think that this will be the best series of the entire playoffs. It should be a hard fought, wonderful series for the fans."

Barkley said, "Milwaukee probably has a better team than us. They have a lot of beef inside. But you've got to have some deer to go with the elephants." The 76ers defeated the Bucks in each of their previous four playoff series (1981, 1982, 1983, 1985) but the Bucks beat the 76ers in four of their five 1985-86 regular season meetings.

The deer outran the elephants in game one, as the 76ers grabbed the homecourt advantage with a 118-112 win at Milwaukee. Barkley led both teams with 31 points and 20 rebounds. He also had six assists, six steals and two blocked shots. Cheeks had 27 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Threatt added 22 points, tied Cheeks for team-high honors with seven assists and he had four steals. Erving scored 18 points on 7-13 field goal shooting with three assists and two rebounds. Cummings led the Bucks with 23 points, while Pressey had 20 points and a game-high 13 assists.

The Bucks built an 83-65 lead before Cheeks spearheaded a 32-13 76ers rally. Cheeks scored 13 third quarter points. "We just never gave up," Cheeks said. "The shots started falling and we were able to increase the defensive pressure and cause some turnovers."

Milwaukee outrebounded Philadelphia 50-29 in game two as the Bucks won 119-107. Cummings led both teams in scoring (30 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter) and rebounding (15 rebounds). Five other Bucks scored in double figures, including Moncrief (16 points, six rebounds, five assists), who missed game one because of a left heel spur. Barkley scored 26 points and tied Cummings with 15 rebounds. He also had four assists and three steals, though those numbers were somewhat offset by six turnovers. Erving finished with 24 points on 8-14 field goal shooting, six assists and three rebounds; playing guard shifted him away from the basket, which is why sometimes he was getting the same number of rebounds in a game that he used to get in one quarter as a young, athletic ABA forward. Cheeks scored 23 points and had a game-high eight assists.

The 76ers not only beat the Bucks in each of their four previous playoff series but the 76ers never trailed in any of those series--and they kept that streak alive with a 107-103 game three win at Philadelphia, preserving the homecourt advantage that they obtained by splitting the first two games in Milwaukee. Barkley led the 76ers in scoring (29 points) and rebounding (13 rebounds) before fouling out with 44 seconds remaining. Threatt scored 20 points in just 23 minutes. Cheeks played all 48 minutes and nearly had a triple double (16 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds). Erving added 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists and he made several key plays down the stretch; he hit a jumper at the 1:49 mark to cut Milwaukee's lead to 97-95, he hit another jumper a minute later to pull the 76ers to within 99-98 and then he fed Jones, who hit a short shot, got fouled and converted the three point play to give the 76ers a 101-99 advantage. Jones also made a fadeaway jumper with :22 left to provide the final margin. Jones finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. Cummings led the Bucks with 27 points and nine rebounds. Ricky Pierce scored 23 points. Moncrief did not play.

Moncrief returned to action in game four and, not coincidentally, the Bucks won 109-104, regaining homecourt advantage. Moncrief had 13 points, five rebounds and four assists but his impact went far beyond what those solid numbers might suggest. Nelson said, "Sidney means so much to our team. Our small lineup has been good to us all season and it worked because we had Sidney in there. He's hurting badly. Every step he takes is painful. You wonder how much pain he can endure. The answer is, I think, a lot."

Cummings (19 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, two steals) and Pierce (19 points) led a balanced Milwaukee attack that featured six players who scored between 10 and 19 points. Pressey had 17 points, four rebounds and four assists. Pierce (eight) and Pressey (nine) combined for 17 fourth quarter points. Pressey's two free throws with 1:46 remaining put the Bucks up 104-102, a lead that they would not relinquish. Barkley led both teams in scoring (37 points) and rebounding (14 rebounds) and he also had nine assists and three blocked shots; prior to the game, Barkley received the NBA's Pivotal Player award, an honor given to the player who was ranked as the NBA's most efficient based on a computerized statistical formula. Bob McAdoo, who signed with the 76ers late in the season and had been battling a right knee injury, scored 17 points in 17 minutes off of the bench. Erving had 15 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots. Cheeks again played all 48 minutes, finishing with 14 points and a game-high 10 assists.

Pressey led the Bucks in scoring (23 points) and assists (16) while also grabbing 10 rebounds in 47 minutes as Milwaukee won 113-108 to take a 3-2 series lead. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter. Cummings added 23 points, a game-high 11 rebounds and six assists as the Bucks won for the first time in the series without Moncrief. Cummings sank three free throws in the final 14 seconds. Barkley led the 76ers in scoring (29 points) and assists (five) and he also had eight rebounds (Johnson led the 76ers with nine rebounds). Cheeks had 27 points and four assists in a team-high 44 minutes. Erving added 16 points, six rebounds and five assists.

Barkley and Milwaukee reserve center Paul Mokeski were involved in two fourth quarter confrontations. The first incident happened with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter after Cheeks' layup cut the Bucks' lead to 91-89. Barkley and Mokeski were grappling with each other under the hoop, words were exchanged as they ran up court and then Barkley hit Mokeski with his left forearm, though Mokeski felt that Barkley had thrown a punch. "Usually, when someone throws a punch at someone else, the guy's thrown out," Mokeski said. "The ref said he didn't see the punch. But you could see it on the film. He threw a punch. The commissioner (David Stern) was at halfcourt, looking at the film. I don't see how a ref could miss that."

Mokeski added, "It's all part of the game. It was a physical game. We got tangled up under the basket. He didn't like it; I didn't like it. It was kind of the heat of the battle. Those things happen. When tempers fly, things happen that shouldn't happen on the basketball court."

Not surprisingly, Barkley had a different version: "A cheap shot started it. He (Mokeski) hit me with a cheap shot. I'm a grown man and I have to respect people, but they have to respect me, too."

The second incident happened about five minutes later when Mokeski was whistled for his sixth foul after grabbing Barkley around the neck. "I think it was a little bit blown out of proportion because of what happened earlier," Mokeski said. "When you get down to that time, you don't want him to get three-point plays. If he gets you in a bad way, you've got to put him on the line and take your chances there. If you just kind of grab his arm, he's going to go up and score the basket."

"Every time we go to the basket, they are fouling very hard," Guokas said after the game. "That's the way you've got to play in the playoffs." Upon further review, though, Guokas changed his tune a bit, making this comment prior to game six: "I looked at the tapes and saw him (Mokeski) throw a high elbow in Charles' face. I'm surprised Charles showed as much composure as he did. Let's face it, it's been Mokeski's job to beat up on him."

The 76ers led 35-28 after the first quarter in game six and never looked back, winning 126-108 to force a seventh game in Milwaukee. Philadelphia enjoyed a 62-54 halftime advantage and then outscored Milwaukee 32-21 in the third quarter, holding the Bucks to 5-20 field goal shooting. The 76ers dominated the boards 56-34 after narrowly losing the rebounding battle (39-38) in game five. Barkley led both teams with 23 points and 21 rebounds. Jones had a season-high (including the regular season and the playoffs) 23 points, four rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. Erving scored 18 points on 7-12 field goal shooting while also contributing six rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. McAdoo finished with 18 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 22 minutes. Cheeks had his first triple double (16 points, a game-high 13 assists, 10 rebounds in 44 minutes). Guokas started Johnson at center in place of the struggling Catledge and Johnson contributed 10 points, six rebounds and four steals. Craig Hodges led the Bucks with 22 points and eight steals.

This dramatic series had a fittingly dramatic conclusion. The lead changed hands seven times in the final 3:02, with Milwaukee clinging to a 113-112 advantage as the 76ers inbounded the ball underneath their own hoop with just seven seconds remaining. Erving, who had made so many clutch shots and big plays throughout his career, missed the potential game-winning jump shot from the foul line extended just before the final buzzer sounded and the Bucks finally defeated the 76ers in a playoff series. "We wanted Charles to inbound it to me in the low post," Erving said, "but they didn't allow it. The ball went out to Sedale, and the clock became our toughest defense. Sedale passed it to me and I had the option of shooting or driving in and dumping it off to Charles. I took the shot, it felt good. More often than not, that shot goes in. Today, poof, end of series."

"When I saw Doc take the last shot, I knew, I was positive, he would make it," Nelson said. "I was the most surprised person in the world when it didn't go. He's made too many big ones against us in the past."

"A classic series with a classic finish," Erving concluded. "It's part of the beauty of the game to have a battle like this."

Erving and several other Philadelphia players made a point of congratulating the Bucks, a team that the 76ers had frustrated so many times before. "It would have shown a tremendous lack of class and professionalism on our part not to go over there because other years they played just as hard and just as well and didn't come away with it," Erving explained. Erving and the 76ers similarly congratulated the Boston Celtics in 1981 after losing in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Cummings led the Bucks with 27 points on 12-19 field goal shooting and eight rebounds. Hodges made his presence felt with 24 points, four rebounds and four assists; he scored what proved to be the game-winning shot when Barkley goaltended his layup with :29 left, just 11 seconds after a Barkley basket had put the 76ers up 112-111. Moncrief scored 23 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. Pressey only scored 11 points on 3-8 field goal shooting but he had a game-high 15 assists. Threatt scored a game-high 28 points on 12-16 field goal shooting. Cheeks compiled 22 points and six assists in 48 minutes. Barkley had 18 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high four steals in 44 minutes. Erving finished with 17 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, six rebounds and two assists. Johnson scored 17 points on 7-11 field goal shooting and he grabbed nine rebounds.

Barkley led the 76ers in scoring (27.6 ppg), rebounding (14.7 rpg), steals (2.4 spg) and blocked shots (1.4 bpg) versus the Bucks. He ranked second in assists (4.4 apg). Cheeks ranked second in scoring (20.7 ppg) and first in assists (8.3 apg). Erving ranked third in scoring (17.6 ppg), third in assists (3.7 apg) and fourth in rebounding (4.9 rpg). He ranked fifth in blocked shots (.9 bpg) and sixth in steals (.9 spg). Erving connected on the 76ers' only two three point field goals (he shot 2-8 from beyond the arc, while the other 76ers shot 0-10).

Barkley led the 76ers in playoff scoring (25.0 ppg), rebounding (15.8 rpg) and steals (2.3 spg). He tied for second in blocked shots (1.25 bpg). Cheeks ranked second in scoring (20.8 ppg) and first in assists (7.1 apg). Erving led the team in blocked shots (1.33 bpg) and he ranked third in scoring (17.7 ppg), rebounding (5.8 rpg) and assists (4.2 apg). He tied for fourth in steals (.9 spg). Erving shot .450 from the field and .738 from the free throw line. Erving ranked second on the team with nine playoff dunks (Barkley had 31) and he converted seven of eight three point play opportunities (Barkley converted 18 of 21).

The Farewell Tour

Philadelphia owner Harold Katz had grown increasingly disenchanted with Malone, so during the summer of 1986 he and the team's front office executives traded Malone, Catledge and two first round picks to the Washington Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson. The 76ers also sent the number one overall selection (which became Brad Daugherty, who made the All-Star team five times in an eight season career) to Cleveland for forward Roy Hinson. These moves proved to be disastrous. Ruland only played five games for the 76ers before his arthritic knee forced him to retire (he made a brief comeback in 1991-92); a provision had been included in the trade to cancel the deal within 14 days if Ruland did not pass a physical examination but various doctors disagreed about Ruland's condition and Katz was reluctant to bring Malone back because so much bad blood had developed between them. Journeyman forward Robinson played in just 131 games in three seasons with the 76ers. Hinson averaged a career-high 19.6 ppg in his final season in Cleveland but he did not even last two seasons with the 76ers and he was out of the league by 1991. Meanwhile, Malone made the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons.

Due to the departure of Malone plus Toney's ongoing injury problems, Erving regained his status as the team's second leading scorer (16.8 ppg, setting a new career-low for the third straight year). He dropped to fifth in rebounding (4.4 rpg), a decline fueled not just by age but also by the position switch from forward to guard. He ranked fourth in assists (3.2 apg) and steals (1.3 spg) but amazingly finished second in blocked shots (1.6 bpg) as a 37 year old shooting guard. Erving was the third oldest player in the NBA, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Artis Gilmore. Among the league's 20 oldest players (ranging in age from 33 to 40), Erving ranked sixth in scoring, behind 33 year old Alex English (28.6 ppg), 32 year old Walter Davis (23.6 ppg), 33 year old Robert Parish (17.5 ppg), 33 year old John Lucas (17.5 ppg) and 40 year old Abdul-Jabbar (17.5 ppg).

During the 76ers' first home game, the team issued a statement announcing that Erving planned to retire at the end of the season. Erving's final season evolved into a "Farewell Tour" the likes of which the NBA had never seen; other great players such as Bob Cousy and John Havlicek had received recognition and appreciation when they announced their retirement plans but no one ever received the formal and informal expressions of respect and love from opposing teams and fans that Erving did during the 1986-87 season. When Erving first joined the NBA in 1976, fans showed up in droves to find out if the legend was true, if Erving really could do things no other player had ever done--and 11 years later, fans showed up in droves to say goodbye and to express their appreciation not just for Erving's skill but also for his class. Teams presented Erving with various gifts and Erving gave speeches tailored to each particular fan base. Here is part of what he said to his home fans in Philadelphia:
The biggest message I want to leave with you tonight is that the most important model in life is that of the family. That's why tonight, I offer a challenge to the fans, the people of this city and the 76er organization.
I leave the challenge for this team and this city to become a family. You can all play a role. When I come back here next year as a spectator, a regular citizen, I want to look in the rafters and see a sign that says that Steve Mix played here, Caldwell Jones played here, Larry Costello played here, Wilt Chamberlain played here...

This team has a proud history. The only thing missing is a family feeling. That's my biggest wish of all. I don't think that's asking too much. I know you can all do it. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I love you all.
Erving later explained those remarks by saying that he was keenly aware how fortunate he was to retire as a 76er, because far too many great 76ers were just cut or traded. He lamented that the organization did not show more respect for those players and for the team's history.

From the start, Erving promised to enjoy his final season no matter what happened; he seemed to equally relish the opportunity to talk about the past and the opportunity to look forward to his post-basketball future. He understood that he was not the player that he had been in his prime but he still had a very justified pride in his current capabilities. Erving said, "There's no ultimate move because they aren't choreographed. They just appear. Not for a whole game, but in the right circumstance, I could probably muster up enough energy to do almost anything I've ever done one more time. If it's there, I will."

Perhaps if the 76ers had been fully healthy they could have been a more viable contender but Barkley and Cheeks each missed 14 games, Erving missed 22 games and Robinson missed 27 games. Toney missed 30 games and he was just a shell of himself when he came back, averaging 10.6 ppg on .451 field goal shooting. Considering the two horrible trades and the numerous injuries to key players, the 76ers did well to finish second in the Atlantic Division and fifth overall in the Eastern Conference with a 45-37 record. They faced the 50-32 Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The teams battled to a 51-51 halftime tie in game one but the 76ers built a 67-58 lead early in the third quarter; Cheeks scored eight of his 12 third quarter points during that spurt. Moncrief then entered the game for John Lucas and Moncrief scored 11 points in the quarter as the Bucks went on a 25-12 run. Moncrief deftly orchestrated Nelson's passing game, exhorting his teammates "Move!" when he felt that they had become too stagnant. Nelson said, "He's our leader. Even though he hasn't been able to play many games this year, he's still our bread and butter guy." Milwaukee won, 107-104.

Cummings led the Bucks with a game-high 21 points. Jack Sikma contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds. Sikma scored 11 fourth quarter points, including what proved to be the game-winning jumper with :54 left. He also had six rebounds in the final stanza. Moncrief finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. Pressey added 14 points, a game-high 10 assists, seven rebounds and a game-high three steals.

Barkley, who was limited by a sprained left ankle that he had just reinjured during practice, led both teams with 21 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots. Cheeks contributed 20 points and nine assists. Hinson also scored 20 points. Robinson had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Erving scored 10 points on 5-18 field goal shooting and he grabbed five rebounds.

For the second year in a row versus the Bucks, the 76ers seized homecourt advantage; this time they did it with a 125-122 overtime win. Hinson scored a game-high 28 points in a game-high 47 minutes, shooting 10-14 from the field and controlling eight rebounds. Barkley added 26 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.  Erving contributed 23 points on 8-17 field goal shooting, five rebounds and two assists. He took a shot to the mouth late in the game and had to receive stitches in his lip. Cheeks had 17 points and a game-high 11 assists.

Pierce led the Bucks with 24 points. Cummings had 21 points and eight rebounds but he also made two costly turnovers in overtime. Moncrief had 20 points and seven rebounds.

The Bucks led 97-87 with 6:43 remaining in regulation but Philadelphia rookie reserve David Wingate scored 11 fourth quarter points during a big 76ers rally. Hodges' two free throws with four seconds remaining knotted the score at 108. Erving hit a three pointer at the 3:28 mark in the extra session to give the 76ers their biggest lead, 115-112. The Bucks answered with four free throws, plus a Pressey field goal. The Bucks led 120-119 with 40 seconds remaining in overtime when Cummings grabbed a defensive rebound and tried to make a pass; Barkley stole the ball and scored. Moncrief answered with a layup to put Milwaukee up 122-121 but Barkley--who scored eight of the 76ers' 17 overtime points--made the game-winning basket with 11 seconds left. Erving hit two free throws with one second left to finish the scoring. 

Milwaukee immediately reclaimed homecourt advantage with a 121-120 game three victory. Cummings led the Bucks with 26 points, while Pressey had 21 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Moncrief scored 20 points. Barkley scored a game-high--and a then playoff career-high--39 points, shooting 13-19 from the field and 13-14 from the free throw line. He had nine rebounds. Cheeks scored 26 points and passed for eight assists, tying Toney for team-high honors (while Toney's passing was excellent, he only scored six points on 3-7 field goal shooting). Hinson scored 17 points off of the bench. Erving had a quiet game, finishing with 12 points, six assists and four rebounds in 31 minutes.

The 76ers led 117-109 with 2:36 remaining in the fourth quarter but they collapsed down the stretch, letting the Bucks score 10 straight points, capped by Pierce stealing the ball from Erving and scoring a layup with :39 left. Barkley tied the score with a short jumper and then he gave the 76ers a 120-119 lead by splitting a pair of free throws. Hinson blocked Sikma's shot but Sikma retained possession of the ball and hit the game-winner with two seconds left.

Milwaukee built a 17 point second quarter lead in game four but Erving and Wingate led a comeback as the 76ers pulled to within 57-52 by halftime. The 76ers took a 77-70 lead in the third quarter but the Bucks battled back to go in front 78-77. Cheeks' jumper with 1:11 remaining in the third quarter put the 76ers up for good. Barkley (12) and Erving (10) combined to score 22 points in the fourth quarter as the 76ers held on for a 124-118 win to force a decisive game five in Milwaukee. Barkley finished with 25 points, a game-high 13 rebounds (tied with Sikma) and four assists. Erving, in what turned out to be the final home game of his career, scored 22 points on 7-14 field goal shooting and 8-8 free throw shooting. He had seven rebounds, six assists, two blocked shots and one steal in 31 minutes. Robinson contributed 21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. Cheeks added 13 points and a game-high 11 assists. Cummings led the Bucks with a game-high 29 points.

Seven Milwaukee players--including all five starters--scored in double figures as the Bucks won 112-89 to eliminate the 76ers and bring the curtain down on Erving's career. Nelson was ejected at the 2:14 mark of the second quarter after protesting an offensive foul that Ed Rush called against Pressey but the Bucks did not miss a beat after assistant coach Del Harris--who coached the Houston Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals--took over. The Bucks led 53-50 at halftime and 74-67 after three quarters. Hodges scored all 14 of his points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of three pointers, as the Bucks went on a 17-2 run to put the game out of reach. Sikma scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed a game-high 21 rebounds.

Erving scored a game-high 24 points in 40 minutes in his final professional contest, draining a three pointer and making a dunk in his last moments on the court. He also had four rebounds, two assists and three steals. "Even though it was a disappointing finish, we're still leaving with a oneness," Erving said. "It's not that men can't cry but this was not a tearjerker situation. I feel relieved. It was a great career, a very productive career. People were wonderful to me. I have nothing to be sad about." Earlier in the season, Erving told sportscaster George Michael that he hoped that fans would cheer his exit as opposed to shedding tears over it, because he was happy with the way his career had turned out. There is not supposed to be any cheering in the press box, but after Erving's final press conference ended he received a round of applause from the assembled media members.

Barkley led the team in playoff scoring (24.6 ppg) and rebounding (12.6 rpg). Erving ranked second in scoring (18.2 ppg) and steals (1.4 spg), third in assists (3.4 apg), fourth in rebounding (5.0 rpg) and fourth in blocked shots (1.2 bpg). He shot .415 from the field and .840 from the free throw line. The three point shot was not yet a major NBA weapon, so even as a shooting guard Erving did not operate frequently from that area: he shot 2-6 from three point range versus Milwaukee and the other 76ers shot 3-14 from beyond the arc. Erving had just four dunks, ranking a distant third on the team behind Barkley (12) and Hinson (11).

Cummings led the Bucks with 21.4 ppg. Hodges led the Bucks in three point shooting (3-7), making more treys than the rest of his teammates combined (2-25).

While that final brief playoff run was anticlimactic, toward the end of the 1986-87 regular season Erving showed that he still had more than a little left in his tank as he pursued two statistical milestones: (1) his 16th straight regular season with at least 1000 points and (2) membership in the exclusive 30,000 point club. Erving achieved both marks by scoring 26, 38 and 24 points in his final three regular season games, shooting 36-69 from the field (.522) in those contests. The season-high 38 point outburst enabled him to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain in the 30,000 point club and his 24 point performance in the season finale--almost exactly matching his career regular season scoring average--pushed his 1986-87 point total to 1005. John Havlicek is the only other pro basketball player to score at least 1000 points in each season of a career that lasted at least 16 seasons (Abdul-Jabbar scored at least 1000 points in the first 19 seasons of his career but failed to break four digits in his final campaign, while Karl Malone started his career with 18 straight 1000 point seasons before falling short in his 19th and final season). Erving later told Harvey Araton of the New York Times, "I always thought I would play 10 or 12 years and then move on to something else, so I had the sense that I was already into bonus time. Statistically I was still very respectable..." Erving proudly noted that even in his final season he was still "a slasher and a dunker, not a jump shooter." Indeed, one of the most unappreciated aspects of Erving's longevity is that just two years earlier--at the age of 35--he went head to head with the league's young guns in the 1985 Slam Dunk Contest and showed that he could still take off from the foul line and dunk. Alexander Wolff's 1987 Sports Illustrated article about Erving's final two seasons was titled "A Graceful Descent" and that is a perfect description of the final stage of Erving's career; unlike some stars who overstay their welcome, Erving did not limp away from the game--he gracefully glided into retirement.

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.

  1. Erving's teams advanced to the pro basketball equivalent of the Final Four--the Division Finals or Conference Finals round--10 times in his 16 seasons: 1972, 1974, 1976, 1977-78, 1980-83, 1985.
  2. Erving's teams advanced to the Finals six times: 1974, 1976-77, 1980, 1982-83.
  3. Erving's teams won three championships: 1974, 1976, 1983.
  4. Erving won two Finals MVPs: 1974, 1976.
  5. Erving's Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual championship team featuring a future Hall of Fame center in 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982. In 1979, his injury-depleted 76ers lost a tough seven game series to a Spurs team that did not have a future Hall of Fame center but did have one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time (George Gervin).
  6. Erving's teams only lost in the first round of the playoffs four times, including twice in his last four seasons.
  7. Erving's teams went 4-4 in game sevens--0-1 with the Squires, 1-0 with the Nets, 3-3 with the 76ers; Erving never played in a game seven in the ABA or NBA Finals.
  8. Erving ranks ninth in career NBA Finals scoring average (25.5 ppg). Erving also averaged 33.4 ppg in the ABA Finals, so his overall career Finals scoring average is 28.1 ppg.
  9. Erving scored at least 20 points in 10 of his 11 ABA Finals games, including his last seven. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 NBA Finals games, the second longest NBA Finals 20 point scoring streak at that time in league history behind Jerry West's 25 game streak. Erving now ranks fourth on that list behind Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Shaquille O'Neal but if those seven ABA games are included then Erving's 26 game streak trails only Jordan's 35 game streak. Erving scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games.
  10. Erving led the league in playoff scoring average four times (1972-74, 1976). Only Michael Jordan (10 times), George Gervin (six times), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (five times) accomplished this more frequently (George Mikan, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West each also led the league in playoff scoring average four times).
  11. Erving led the league in total playoff points three times (1976-77, 1982). Only Michael Jordan (eight times), George Mikan (five times), Jerry West (five times), Elgin Baylor (four times) and Kobe Bryant (four times) accomplished this more frequently (Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon and LeBron James each also led the league in total playoff points three times).
  12. When Erving retired he ranked second behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time ABA/NBA playoff career scoring list with 4580 points; Erving now ranks seventh, trailing Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Tim Duncan.
  13. Erving averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first 22 playoff series.
  14. Erving had at least one 30 point game in each of his first 12 playoff series.
  15. When Erving retired he ranked sixth on the all-time ABA/NBA playoff career rebounding list with 1611 rebounds; he now ranks 13th.
  16. When Erving retired he ranked first on the all-time ABA/NBA playoff career steals list with 287 (steals have only been officially recorded since 1973 by the ABA and since 1974 by the NBA); he now ranks ninth.
  17. When Erving retired he ranked second behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time ABA/NBA playoff career blocked shots list with 293 blocked shots (blocked shots have only been officially recorded since 1973 by the ABA and since 1974 by the NBA); he now ranks eighth.
  18. Erving scored at least 10 points in each of his first 98 NBA playoff games, the second longest streak at that time in NBA history behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 109 game streak; Erving's streak now ranks fifth on the all-time list behind Karl Malone (147), Shaquille O'Neal (137), Hakeem Olajuwon (111) and Abdul-Jabbar. Erving only failed to reach double figures in scoring twice in 141 career NBA playoff games.
  19. Erving ranks 33rd in career NBA playoff scoring average (21.9 ppg), 19th in career ABA/NBA playoff scoring average (24.2 ppg) and second in career ABA playoff scoring average (31.1 ppg).
  20. Erving's Philadelphia 76ers had the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-77 through 1982-83: 396-178, a .690 winning percentage that is equivalent to an average record of 57-25.
  21. Erving never played on a team with a losing record or a team that failed to make the playoffs; he was the first athlete in the history of North American major professional team sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to achieve those distinctions in a career lasting at least 16 seasons (Karl Malone and John Stockton both later made the playoffs in each season of their 19 year careers, while Scottie Pippen made the playoffs in the first 16 seasons of his career before missing the playoffs in his 17th and final season).
  22. Erving's teams posted a 24-13 record in playoff series.
  23. Erving's teams posted a 113-76 record in playoff games. 
  24. Erving averaged 24.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 4.4 apg in 189 career playoff games, shooting .496 from the field and .784 from the free throw line.
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

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part III: Consistency, Frustration and then a Glorious Championship Run

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 PM



At Saturday, July 13, 2013 3:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great series of posts. From all the players who played during the seventies and eighties, I think Julius Erving had the most talent, and I am Lakers fan. I think Julius Erving and Magic could play in any era (meaning putting the same numbers), but I am not so sure about Bird. Kareem during the seventies (my favorite player)was very athletic but would need to gain some muscle to compete nowadays. Anyway keep posting about basketball during the summer, maybe you could critically review some of the so called advanced stats again.


At Sunday, July 14, 2013 1:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you. I agree that Erving and Magic could play in any era but I think that you are underestimating Bird and Abdul-Jabbar. Bird would be no worse than Nowitzki--who is a certain Hall of Famer--and Abdul-Jabbar would dominate in an era during which Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol are All-Star centers.

At Wednesday, July 17, 2013 12:09:00 AM, Blogger D. Mike S said...

Love these recaps from the 70's and 80's. The loss to the Nets in 1984 unfortunately takes some luster off the Sixer's 83 title. Bill Simmons ranked them lower among champs because of the weak title defense and he's right.
Among all the players you mentioned, Bird would be MOST successful in any era. He was just as outclassed athletically when he played as he would be now. He depended less on pure physical attributes like speed and jumping than anyone (except maybe Dan Issel) but he dominated by instinct and seeing how the play would develop about 2 seconds before anyone else did.

Would love to see some posts on the Denver Nuggets' first two years in the NBA (76-77 and 77-78)

At Wednesday, July 17, 2013 1:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

D. Mike:

The 1984 season has nothing to do with the 1983 season; the 1983 76ers are arguably the greatest single season team in NBA history and nothing that happened in 1984 (or 1982) changes that. In terms of dynasties, the Malone-Erving Sixers obviously cannot be compared with teams that won multiple titles, though Erving's 1977-83 Sixers--with one championship, four Finals appearances and the best overall regular season record--are a dynasty of sorts, ranking a notch below the dynasties that won two or more titles.

I don't have any current plans to write at length about the late 70s Nuggets, but I have mentioned those teams in passing in various earlier articles.

At Wednesday, July 17, 2013 3:56:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

This goes to show you that what works one year may not work the next for a team. A lot can change in that time. Improved competition, injuries to key players, declining players.

A championship team doesn't have to win a back to back title to prove that they were worthy of being champs the first time around.
It's like how some people didn't consider the Spurs to be a dynasty because they never won back to back titles.Winning titles two plus years apart. Even without the back to back titles they were still a great team and constantly in contention.


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