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The 76ers: a basketball enigma unto themselves

The Philadelphia 76ers, the team with the best won-lost regular season record in the National Basketball Association the last five years, always seems to get marooned part way up Heartbreak Hill in the playoffs.

It happened again last year when Philadelphia, leading the Boston Celtics three games to one in the Eastern Conference finals, ended up losing 4-3. In fact, in the past four seasons the 76ers have lost twice in the championship finals and twice in the conference finals.

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''I can't give you a reason for us not winning a title at least once during that period,'' said forward Julius Erving, the renowned Dr. J. ''I agree with those people who say that Philadelphia is a great team. I don't think you could defeat as many good teams as we've beaten and not be exceptional. But sometimes, when it all comes down to one game, you just don't do it.

''Basically I don't blame anyone for our problems in past playoffs,'' added last season's league MVP. ''I think we all did our jobs as well as we could. I think our team right now is capable of winning the playoffs, regardless of what has happened in the past. We'll be even better when Darryl Dawkins comes off the injured list, because with him in there, we have a better chance of controlling the boards. And in Andrew Toney, we now have an outside shooter we know will deliver for us in the clutch.''

Philadelphia, like Boston and Milwaukee, has virtually two first teams, a luxury that clubs like Los Angeles and San Antonio, as good as they are, don't have.

Even with Dawkins sidelined, the 76ers have continued to battle Boston for first-place in the Atlantic Division. Caldwell Jones and Earl Cureton, who alternate at center, have proved an effective combination capable of burying opponents.

Forward Mike Bantom, a recent acquisition who's never lacked talent, has actually been the 76ers' first player off the bench. Just why the Indiana Pacers let him go for cash remains a mystery.

Bantom is smart enough to adjust his game so that he plays more defense when he's teamed with Dr. J. and more offense when he's teamed with Steve Mix, who does his best work on the boards.

Toney, of course, is an exceptional guard who provides instant offense off the bench, but could be just as effective as a starter and frequently has 20 -point games.

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Coach Billy Cunningham, however, prefers to use Toney the way the Celtics once used John Havlicek. What makes Andrew so tough to defend is his shooting range, which lets him score without penetrating. The only rap against Toney so far is that he sometimes tries to do too much and allows his game to get out of control.

And then there's the Doctor.

Erving is a super performer who never seems to lose his rhythm. He probably plays too much of his game in the air to satisfy basketball purists, but the results justify his style.

This is a man who can start his final step toward the basket just inside the top of the key, carry the ball like a tray of food on the top of his outstretched hand, then jam it through the hoop on his descent. Others in the league can do this, but none with precisely Dr. J's flair.

''I like making the spectacular play, but only if it results in a basket,'' Erving told me recently. ''The name of this game is being able to produce when your team needs it, and you don't sit down and plot those kinds of situations. At times like that you rely on your instincts and that's why it works, because the man guarding you doesn't know what to expect.''

''The great players are the ones who are consistent, whose production doesn't vary that much from game to game in either direction,'' he continued. ''Most shooters in this league want the ball as much as they can get it. But when it's late in the game and the pressure is on, a lot of those same shooters are going to look the other way. That's why players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone are so great, because both are willing to accept the ball in situations like that.''

Once a marketing major at the University of Massachusetts, Erving as a gate and television attraction now pretty much owns the NBA store.

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