The '76ers' assistant coach, Chuck Daly, has spent much of three pro seasons searching for the secret of sustained excellence, the chemistry of champions. He believes he found it recently, he knows it put his team in grim position in the NBA finals today.
"I've gone back and looked at all the numbers, wondering what separated Seattle and Washington from the others the two years before this," he said. "There was no difference in any of the stats -- scoring, free throws, assists -- except one.
"Rebounding. There was a Silas or an Unseld who couldn't run or couldn't shoot but who made a living, night after night, under the boards. This game comes down to rebounding."
Daly hardly is the first to reach that conclusion, for even Dr. Naismith realized a fellow needed to control the ball before he could throw it into the peach basket. But Daly was among the first to sense that there was no magic to the way the Lakers beat the Sixers in game three here.
No magic, but a whole lot of Magic -- and in ways Philadelphia had hoped to avoid. Magic Johnson had as many offensive rebounds as Lionel Hollins had field goal. Jamaal Wilkes had eight more rebounds than Julius Erving.Jim Chones wore a hero's cloak for the first time in ever so long.
And another Nixon -- Norm -- reemerged in the natinal spotlight.
Even mildly serious fans must be a bit curious by now, perhaps tagging along just to find out how long any rational analyst can write about a dramatic Laker victory without mentioning the Big Guy.
To anyone who has paid atention to more than Brent Musberger, that would be Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, who, while being spectacularly awesome -- or whatever collection of descriptions you care to use -- was not the major reason the Lakers won today.
For the Sixers, the depressing truth was that the Big Guy went five for 14 the first half, Magic all but disappeared and L.A. still had a 14-point lead, scoring an astonishing 58 points. Simply put, the Sixers got out-willed by Lakers who usually consider it a wonderful night if they stay out of Abdul-Jabbar's way.
The first 24 minutes they covered for him.
"CJ (Caldwell Jones, the big guy assigned to guard the Big Guy) couldn't have played better today," Daly said. "Something like that (five for 14) and we should be golden at the half. But they were getting too many second shots."
Daly was polite enough not to mention the Sixer shooting guards, mainly Hollins, who were missing far too many first shots. Combined, the Philadelphia second guards were six for 22. Hollins would have lost his sharp-shooter badge, if he'd had one before the game.
Hollins was in the highly unusual position of going five for 16 and not having his shooting percentage hurt drastically. He entered game three with a 34.4 percentage. Before game four Sunday, he plans a trip to Atlantic City, to see if he really can drop the ball in an ocean.
But this is no laughing matter for Philadelphians, who realize that if Hollins and Henry Bibby fail to score the Sixers will be saving: "We owe you one (NBA title)," for yet another year.
This is because L.A. knows it cannot beat the Sixers by playing honest defense on Erving -- and the man checking Hollins and Bibby often drops off to help Wilkes doubleteam the only Doctor with helium flowing through his veins.
Erving is as unselfish as any legend, but highly frustrated when men paid handsomely to hit open jump shots trhow up enough bricks to rebuild city hall. Hollins and Bibby are 21 for 68 for the series. The Sixers have more talented players than the Lakers -- when all of them choose to play.
"Rebounding is effort," Daly said. "It's deciding to get the ball (L.A. had nine more offensive rebounds and 10 more defensive rebounds). We need a little more effort expounded."
"We're not checking out (blocking Chones, Johnson and Wilkes) off the offensive boards," said Caldwell Jones. "Our people are too concerned about Kareem. They're giving me too much help instead of going to the boards."
CJ took an outrageous number of beyond-his-range shots. His explanation was sound enough: "You just can't let him (Abdul-Jabbar) sit back and zone up the area." And he was more accurate than the Sixer guards.
In additin to not playing with special zest or brilliance, the Sixers also were unlucky. Once Bibby simply ran past the ball he was dribbling, like a 7-year-old on his first trip to the playground. Another time Erving, double-teamed, passed toward a teammate who also was double-teamed.
With three Sixers free, Erving hit a Laker on the chest.
But Magic once converted an Abdul-Jabbar air ball into a layup. The ball caroomed toward Chones as though tapped by an unseen force. And the Sixers' best defensive effort of the game ended with Mike Cooper slipping inside for a follow-up basket.
The final Philadelphia Pholly illustrated their game-long frustration. With a chance to cut an eight-point lead to six with 131 seconds left, Maurice Cheeks stole a Laker inbound pass and threw up the worst layup in memory.
It was so bad he grabbed the ball again. But because it had hit nothing, neither the rim nor the backboard, it was considered a pass. He clearly was clobbered on the follow-up shot, but long after he sinned by catching his own pass.
If players could pass to themselves, wizards such as Cousy and Robertson and Magic would score every point for their team.
"I didn't know you couldn't do that," Cheeks said.
But he had at least tried on the play. Nearby, Erving was saying: "We've gotta do a lot of little things a lot better tomorrow." He seemed more depressed than usual, perhaps anticipating one desperate measure the Sixers still have.
With Hollin and Bibby so dreadful, the Doctor may be operating at guard much of game four.