In much the same manner as last season's opener of their intense seven-game NBA playoff series, Philadelphia and Milwaukee set the throttles at full speed today, leaving strategy, defense and adjustments for later.
With Julius Erving scoring 34 points and Bobby Jones making six straight free throws down the stretch, the 76ers outlasted Milwaukee by the same 125-122 score of last year's first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal.
"We just went out and played today," said Erving, who made 12 of 19 shots and 10 of 12 free throws. "The one predictable thing about this series is that the scores will go down. We'll all study films of this one and make adjustments."
After the opener last spring, only once did the losing team score 100 points in the series, won by the 76ers by one point in the seventh game.
No more than seven points ever separated these rivals today, and the score was tied for the 14th time, at 110, with 5 1/2 minutes to play. Trailing by four points with 14 seconds left, the Bucks had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Robert Smith failed to attempt a three-point shot with four seconds to play.
"I was going to take the three-pointer, but you know the point guard's instinct is to hit the open man," said Smith, who joined the Bucks late last month from the Continental League after Quinn Buckner suffered a thumb injury. "That was the time to shoot. It was a mental mistake that I'll just have to put behind me."
With the Bucks leading, 111-110, Philadelphia scored eight straight points and never trailed again. Erving started it with a fadeaway after an offensive rebound, and Caldwell Jones dunked after a pass from Maurice Cheeks. Cheeks then made the big play, stealing the ball from Bob Lanier and going the length of the court for a dunk.
Bobby Jones' two free throws increased the lead to 118-111 with 3:36 remaining, but Sidney Moncrief (23 points) made a three-point play to cut the 76ers' lead to four points.
Philadelphia still led by four with 14 seconds remaining, but Marques Johnson's dunk closed it to 124-122 with nine seconds left. It took the pressing Bucks five seconds to foul, Bob Lanier bear-hugging Erving at midcourt. When Erving missed the first of two attempts, Milwaukee had a chance to tie with a three-point shot.
"I think Robert knew the score, but for some reason he was reluctant to shoot," Coach Don Nelson said. "We had used our last timeout, but the players had to be aware of the situation."
One who was very much aware was Johnson, who showed his disgust at getting a pass from Smith by not even trying to make a 15-foot shot in the closing seconds.
"I was yelling for Robert to shoot," Johnson said. "He thought I was calling for the ball. By the time I got it, it was too late to back to the three-point line and Philadelphia is smart enough not to foul me going to the basket, so I just threw it up."
Johnson admitted the Bucks, who had a week off to prepare for this return match with the 76ers, didn't have a game plan.
"We like to run and they like to run," he said. "We didn't come out with any special plan in mind. But I think the games will tone down now. There were some low-scoring games last year."
Philadelphia didn't appear to miss Lionel Hollins, their best defensive guard, who fractured the knuckle of the little finger of his left (shooting) hand punching Wayne (Tree) Rollins Friday night in Atlanta. He is wearing a cast and will miss the rest of the playoffs.
Andrew Toney, who had sprained an ankle Friday night, started for only the second time this season in Hollins' spot and scored 26 points, making 11 of 16 shots. Clint Richardson and Erving also played in the back court.
"We're missing a guard, but they're missing two," Cunningham said, alluding to the injured Buckner and Junior Bridgeman. "You'll see both coaches making adjustments, like using Doc (Erving) at guard. I wouldn't do that unless absolutely necessary."
The 76ers got a big lift from reserve Mike Bantom, who scored 12 points when the 76ers overcame a 44-39 deficit in the second quarter to take a 67-63 lead. Philadelphia led, 67-66, at halftime.
Erving's flying underhanded layup gave the 76ers an 80-73 advantage with seven minutes left in the third period, but the Bucks came back to take a 95-91 lead late in the quarter.
The Bucks' chances of rallying in the closing minutes were greatly diminished when Moncrief fouled out with 2:27 to play. When Cunningham was asked how he felt when the all-star guard went to the bench, he smiled and said, "Ecstatic."