All of the odds said the Houston Rockets should have died today. They were one game away from playoff elimination by the Philadelphia 76ers, the Doctor was having a field day and they were down by 17 points in the third quarter.
"I was worried," said Calvain Murphy, the littlest Rocket, "Really worried."
Instead of dying, however, the Rockets fought back to a stirring 118-115 victory over the surprised 76ers to keep their National Basketball Association Eastern Confeence championship hopes alive.
The 76ers lead the best-of-seven series, three games to two. The sixth game will be at the Summit in Houston Tuesday.
The reasons for Houston's victory are simply enough to understand. Philadelphia got the big lead and then stood around goofing off while the Rockets called the best shooting team in basketball by coach Tom Nissalke seta out to prove their coach right.
Houston made 13 of the 20 shots it took in the final quarter and when the game was on the line, it was the talent-laden 76ers who succumbed.
"We're playing student and we should be out there teaching lessons," said Julius (Dr. J) Erving, who led the 76ers with 37 points, 27 of them in the first half.
Malone was psyched up the entire game. There was a report in the Philadelphia papers this morning quoting 76er forward Steve Mix as saying that Malone couldn't play defense.
"How can Mix play defense on the bench?" Malone said of the Philadelphia reserve.
Just how well Malone can play defense was demonstrated when Erving drove on him late in the game and went up for one of his gyration layups. Malone sent the shot back so quick the Rockets were off and running the other way before Erving got back to the floor.
The Rockets had balance. Seven players, led by Rudy Tomjanovich and John Lucas with 21 apiece, scored in double figures. But the man, once again for the Rockets, was Moses Malone.
He finished the game with 17 points, 19 rebounds, three steals and three blocked shots.
Houston went into the final minute of the game with a 112-111 lead. With the 76ers frantically trying to find a man to guard, Malone hit a baseline jumper over George McGinnis to give the Rockets a 114-111 lead with 45 seconds to play.
Erving came down and forced up a shot over Tomjanovich, missed badly, and Malone swooped down with a one-handed rebound. His outlet pass went off Lucas' hand, however, and the 76ers got the ball back with 38 seconds left.
Henry Bibby missed a long forced jumper with Malone jumping over everybody to snare the rebound with 32 seconds left.
The 76ers were forced to foul to try to get the ball back and the Rockets held on for the victory.
The 76ers got their running game in gear in the third quarter and were playing so well that the sellout crowd of 18,276 in the Spectrum started singing about what was going to happen to the Portland Trail Blazers in the final.
Doug Collins hit a 20-foot jumper and the 76ers had an 88-71 lead with 3:51 left in the quarter. But they had seven turnovers and the Rockets made eight of 10 shots the remainder of the period.
The 76ers never got their offense back and the Rockets kept dropping in the jumpers and scrapping on defense in the fourth period. They finally took the lead at 108-107 on a Malone turnaround jumper over Caldwell Jones with 2:45 left to play.
"Our team just doesn't quit, we just keep coming," said Tomjanovich. "We've come back from big deficits all year." We never get on each other and we never quit. We just love to play."
Philadelphia coach Gene Shue tried substituting to pep his team up in the late going, but it didn't work.
"We might have been a little lax on our defense," he said. "But that's not new for us. We have that tendency."
George McGinnis played with a pulled groin muscle and missed 10 of his 14 shots. But the man who may have been able to help the 76ers most, once they turned into strictly a jump shooting team was Lloyd Free. The 6-2 guard is in Temple Hospital with a partially collapsed lung and a fractured rib. He will miss the remainder of this series. If a seventh game is needed, it will be played, it will be Thursday night in Philadelphia. The championship series will begin Sunday afternoon.