In the ninth month of the NBA's official season, the winners and losers often seem to be one and the same. There is Julius Erving with an ice bag strapped to his right knee; down the hall Maurice Lucas screams when someone barely touches one of his toes.
Many postgame interviews in the championship series take place in training rooms, the anthletes often exuding the smell that equates survival with success. After giving his own tender knees their usual half-hour or so of postgame therapy, Bill Walton emerges from a small room, glances at a sheet of statistics and says:
"With those kind of minutes, I could play forever."
With the kind of numbers Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers dropped on the Philadelphia 76ers here Tuesday, they could quit - as NBA champions - by dusk here Sunday, unless CBA manages to dredge up some international series with the Soviets or a spiritual test with Athletes in Action.
Walton played just over half the game Tuesday and scored 12 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, mustered seven assists and blocked four shots as the Blazers ripped the 76ers, 130-98, to even their best-of-seven series at two victories each.
But the Trail Blazers wilt in Philadelphia almost as quickly as the 76ers self-destruct here. Which means that, at last come a critical NBA test, something to reorder a schedule for, or as the cynics might put it, the final two minutes of the season.
Whoever wins game five in Philadelphia Friday night ought to merge - after nearly two months of playoffs - with the title. If Portland can continue to play excellently as a team and win on the road, it will win here Sunday. If the 76ers can revive themselves, they could lose by 300 here Sunday and still wrap up there checkbook championship at home in game seven.
Significantly, the 76ers have played horribly at times this season, but never for more than two games at a stretch. Eight times they have lost twice in a row. And they do, after all, have more talented players than the Trail Blazers, if not the superior team.
So are the 76ers bored? Or overly content with their millions? Or lovers of suspense? Or infatuated with the clouds and frequent raindrops that keep falling on their heads out here?
"Embarrassed," said Erving. "They blocked a couple of shots, we made some bad passes, had some three-second calls and we just dug another hole. You know how hard that is to get out of."
Surprisingly, the 76er strategy early was to feature the player in the biggest hole of all, George McGinnis. They wanted him to work inside, as Doug Collins said, "to expose Bill Walton. We wanted to expose the fact that he's back there not playing anybody."
So of the first three times Philadelphia had the ball Walton blocked a shot by Caldwell and McGinnis threw up a brick that rocketed over Walton and off the backboard without coming close to the basket.
In the first quarter alone, the McGinnis book of records included that dreadful shot, having two shots blocked, traveling once and being caught for three fouls. He should be treated in the spirit of Gil Hodges, though, for he does not avoid postgame questions.
Of the fact that his Portland counterpart, Lucas, has outplayed him at every turn, McGinnis said: "There's no such thing as anyone helping you out with him. If you help out, they'll pick you apart."
"That's helped our team concept of defense," Lucas said of McGinnis' drought. "It means they are going to Julius a lot more. I'm able to leave my man a little more and try to get more rebounds."
Not all of the good defense is being played inside the coliseum here. Plainclothes police are lurking outside to enforce the recently passed law against ticket scalping. And some scalpees have gone out of their way to be accommodating.
"Honest citizen needs one ticket," said a small sign being held up an an exceptionally well-tailored middle-aged fellow. "I'm no pig (cop)."
One of the police took exception to that last sentence, so the man managed to borrow something sharp enough to cut out the word "pig." He later was seen entering the arena, ticket in hand.
At one point, police reported that among the alleged scalpers arrested was a 7-year-old boy. When details later were sought about this tender criminal (did he pat buyers on the knee and chirp, "Want one for $100"), the cops admitted to a typing turnover.
The kid was a veteran of 17.