The National Basketball Association's championship playoffs, now reduced to a best-of-three series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, resumes tonight at LA's Fabulous Forum.
So far, each team has won once and lost once on its home court. A sixth game will be played in Philadelphia on Friday and a seventh, if necessary, in Los Angeles on Sunday, May 18. The winning team receives $205,000; the losing club,
Originally this was to have been a series that pitted the Lakers' speed and finesse against the 76ers' physical power and strong inside game.
But LA has been nearly as aggressive as Philadelphia, especially on the boards. In fact, the quality of mercy on both sides has often been fractured.
When the Lakers have had their fast break going, controlled the backboards, gotten big games from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Norman Nixon, and made the smooth transition from offense to defense, they have won.
But whenever the 76ers have been able to pressure LA's guards, gotten strong inside games from Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, and cleared out the court so that Julius Erving could go one-on-one, the reverse has been true.
Some of the strategy on both sides has been predictable. For example, all through this series Phildelphia has been double- and triple-teaming Abdul-Jabbar in the hope of holding down his scoring. However, in three of the four games played so far, Kareem has scored 30 or more points. And he has done this without the benefit of many free throws.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has worked hard to prevent The Doctor (Julius Erving) from making any house calls close to the basket by keeping him as far outside as possible. Sometimes this has been done by denying Erving the ball, but more often it has been the result of a lot of double-teaming.
Los Angeles, which went 60-22 in winning the NBA's Pacific Division, was the league's second best shooting team (behind San Antonio) during the regular season. The Lakers have five players, Abdul-Jabbar, Nixon, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, and Mike Cooper, who are capable of 20-point games at any time.
But on those days when the Lakers are not making the smooth transition from offense to defense, they can be beaten.
Philadelphia, while not as strong offensively as Los Angeles, plays a little better team defense, partly because of the way it physically intimidates opposing teams. Dawkins, the 23-year-old man-child who plays center for the 76 ers, is a bumper, and so is Caldwell Jones, who starts at forward and who grabbed 950 rebounds during the regular season.
The problem for Philadelphia, of course, is Abdul-Jabbar, the league's most valuable player. Whenever Kareem gets the ball inside and then turns into the basket, it is almost impossible to stop him without committing a foul.
Twice Dawkins has fouled out of this series by being too aggressive in trying to contain Abdul-Jabbar. And without Darryl to help Caldwell Jones on defense, and also without his often superb outside shooting, the 76ers are a different team.
Basically, because Kareem is such a one-man power-house, Philadelphia generally needs help from more people to win than LA does. But if the 76ers were to take Game 5 of this series, with Game 6 already scheduled for their home court, perhaps not even Abdul-Jabbar would be enough to stop them.
Although the Lakers went through a turbulent period earlier in the series when Spencer Haywood was dismissed from the team for being a disruptive force, virtually all of his teammates agreed with Coach Paul Westhead's decision.
Haywood, since early in the season, has bitterly complained about his lack of playing time. He was also late for one playoff practice, went to sleep during another, and during game timeouts stayed outside the Lakers' huddle and sulked.
The feeling here is that the series will ultimately be decided by the play of Abdul-Jabbar, who can lead the Lakers to the title if he twice more brings the same intensity to his defense and rebounding that he does to his offense.