The Philadelphia 76ers left town today looking like men who just stepped off an airplane after a stormy flight but a successful landing. They were shaken, but happy.
"I'll tell you what that game was like," said Sixer hero Maurice Cheeks, whose 23 points, 10 assists and six steals were a key to the 107-104 Philadelphia win Wednesday night. It evened the best-of-seven NBA finals at one game apiece.
"I hate to fly, especially this year when our planes got hit by lightning twice. By the end of the season, I was just trying to make it through.
"When the Lakers were coming back at us -- cutting that 23-point lead down to one point -- I felt like I was on one of those bad plane rides. But I didn't have any control over the storm. I had a little control on the Lakers."
"The Lakers are such a dangerous, explosive team," said Bobby Jones, whose 12-foot jumper with seven seconds left -- just as the 24-second buzzer was about to blare -- gave the Sixers their three-point breathing room. "Boston runs, but not like that. I've never seen a team that looks to run like the Lakers do."
In retrospect, the second game may well go down as the pivotal point in the series. Had the Lakers completed their huge comeback -- built on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38 points -- it might have been fatal for Philly. "We were shaky," Jones admitted. "If we'd blown that lead, it would have been a major blow to us."
But now, with games three Saturday and four Sunday in Philadelphia, it is Los Angeles that has problems. "The pressure reverts back to us after losing our home-court advantage," said Norm Nixon, who missed a desperation Laker three-point shot at the horn.
"It's just another day in the life," said L.A.'s Jamaal Wilkes, trying to be blase. But it was a painful one for the Lakers, who had won 31 of their last 33 home games and nine of their previous 11 in the playoffs.
The Los Angeles players have many dark thoughts to concern them, foremost being the suspicion in the Philly locker room that the Sixers have solved L.A.'s game plan.
"We figured out how to beat them here," said Julius Erving, who had 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
"They were double-teaming me, so we decided to 'bait' them by having me take the ball further out from the basket so that the double-team man would have to run further to get to me and expose the open man more.
"That produced a lot of open shots for the guards."
The Sixers shot 67 percent (26 for 39) as they built a 59-41 halftime lead, then pushed that margin as high as 68-45. Cheeks, known for his steals and assists, not his offense (11.4-point average), did most of the damage, hitting his first nine shots and 11 of 13 overall.
The other Philadelphia guards -- Lionel Hollins (four for 14) and Henry Bibby (two for five) -- stayed cold.
The Sixers also made a major decision to take Darryl Dawkins off Abdul-Jabbar, letting Caldwell Jones have that nightmare, so that Chocolate Thunder from Lovetron could pay attention to his offense and block the shots of smaller Lakers.
Dawkins, who has again taken to wearing the diamond earring that management isn't fond of, jammed and bombed his way to 25 points, a dozen on longish jumpers that might seem like bad percentage shots, except that they also helped pull Abdul-Jabbar out from the basket.
If the Sixer plots were well-hatched, then the Lakers also had problems of their own making. Their two silky outside shooters -- Wilkes and Nixon -- went from hot to cold, making a tepid 13 of 36 shots.
Just as annoying, the Lakers' eighth man -- lumbering big forward Spencer Haywood -- has continued his year-long habit of making himself a pain in the neck.
He was booted off the team for one three-game trip in midseason and has groused and sulked for months.
"Spencer is useless . . . just a hopeless case," one Laker said after Haywood had fallen asleep at an L.A. practice last Friday, then showed up 10 minutes late for the next practice and was fined.
Laker Coach Paul Westhead, after Wednesday's defeat, came to the same conclusion, announcing early today that Haywood had been "suspended indefinitely for activities disruptive to the team."
Getting rid of the $300,000-a-year bench warmer is expected to perk up the Lakers.
However, Magic Johnson's grandmother suffered a heart attack Wednesday (her condition is stable) and that may hurt the play of L.A.'s 6-foot-8 guard, who also has nagging injury problems.
Johnson's three end-to-end solo fastbreak layups early in the fourth period ignited the Laker comeback as the Magic Child ended the night with 13 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. His spark will be badly needed in Philadelphia.
It now seems probable that the difference between these teams is infinitesimal, so small that sixth-man Bobby Jones calls the game-clinching basket "a fluke."
"The play was called for the Doc with the side cleared," Jones said. "You know it wasn't for me. I haven't had a play called for me since high school," said the 6-foot-9 forward, who is the NBA epitome of tough defense, shot blocking, hustle and high-percentage shot selection -- but who thinks a foul-line jumper is the equivalent of a midcourt bomb.
"I last had a game-winning jump shot in college . . . no, no . . . I think I had one four years ago against Denver from the circle," the six-year pro said. "That one came to me by accident, out of desperation, too.
"I knew I had no choice but to shoot because the shot clock was down to one or two (seconds). Mike Cooper was running out at me for a block so I had to shoot the ball real high."