The Philadelphia 76ers have acquired the reputation of being a group of individual stars who can't -- or won't -- play a team game. Just throw the ball out and let them play seemed to be the coaching philosophy.
That is no longer true. So far in the NBA playoffs, Coach Billy Cunningham has come up with the right moves at the right times and the Sixers have executed them. They have played one-on-one only when they've needed to, and have played team basketball whenever they could.
With the best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship series with Boston tied at 1-1 going into Friday night's game at the Spectrum, Cunningham made a bold move. He had perhaps the league's best offensive player, Julius Erving, defend against Larry Bird.
Erving held Bird to 22 points after the Celtic star had scored 33 and 34 in the first two games. Erving also scored 22, but his team won, 110-100, to take a 2-1 lead with the fourth game Sunday at the Spectrum (WDVM-TV-9, at 1 p.m.).
The most interesting thing about Friday's outcome is that the 76ers showed they are more adaptable when Erving isn't scoring than the Celtics are when Bird isn't.
The move to Erving on Bird was made for two reasons. First, so Erving could pressure Bird outside and deny him the basketball and, second, so 7-foot Caldwell Jones could stay closer to the basket.
Jones, who had a total of only 12 rebounds and one blocked shot in the first two games, had 14 rebounds and five blocks Friday.
"It's just another part of the chess game," said Philadelphia Assistant Coach Chuck Daly. "Now they'll have to adjust to it and we'll adjust to them."
All through the playoffs, beginning with the conference semifinal series with Milwaukee, the 76ers have been the team to make the first move. And so far, Cunningham has looked like a coaching genius.
Against the Bucks, he took Erving off Marques Johnson and put Jones on him. Then, in the seventh game, he came out with a trapping defense that caught the Bucks off guard and an offense that put Erving alone on one side of the floor. The Bucks never adjusted to it.
The Celtics have had a hard time adjusting the the Spectrum. They've now lost 10 straight games there, last winning in the Spectrum on jan. 20, 1979.
"I know they can be beaten here," said Boston Coach Bill Fitch. "But now we have a day to eat what they gave us. They shoved it down our throats. Now we have to swallow it."
As the series has progressed, it has become more physical and Boston's Cedric Maxwell says it could get worse. "Game 4 means everything to us," he said. " There is going to be a lot of bumping and physical play because that's what happens when you go all out to win."
The two areas where the physical play particularly shows are under the boards and on picks outside. The big men can usually take care of themselves underneath, but now they are going outside and setting jarring picks on the unsuspecting guards. The Celtics have roughed up the Sixers' high-scoring rookie, Andrew Toney, and the Sixers have put their muscle on Tiny Archibald whenever they can. Those two hit the floor almost as often as they score points.
"You have to go out and try to intimidate people," Jones said. "Don't be dirty, but do anything you can to test them. If a guy lets it be known he can be intimidated, he's in trouble."