Despite Philadelphia's impressive 14-point victory over the Celtics in the seventh and deciding game of the NBA Eastern Conference final Sunday in Boston, there still are some doubts as to which is the better team.
Make no mistake, the 76ers earned the right to meet Los Angeles in the best-of-seven championship series starting Thursday in Philadelphia. They were the best on the day it counted. Still, the purists probably are not pleased.
Philadelphia is the Eastern Conference champion for the second time in three years because it has two of the best one-on-one offensive players on this planet: Julius Erving and Andrew Toney. When those two play as they did Sunday, when they scored 63 points, the 76ers are extremely difficult to beat.
Winning consistently in the playoffs with an offense geared around a 6-foot-3 guard and a 6-6 forward is rare, however. Most coaches preach that defense and rebounding win games and there is an axiom that high-scoring guards can't carry a team to a championship.
The percentages always are with the team that concentrates on getting the ball inside to the big men. Most championships are won by teams with dominant big men, who score, rebound and anchor the defense.
Boston had those ingredients. In Robert Parish, the Celtics had one of the best all-around centers in the game: a scorer, a rebounder and a shot blocker. In Kevin McHale, they had another great rebounder and shot-blocker. In Larry Bird, they had perhaps the best all-around player in the game.
"Boston's front line, Parish, Bird, McHale and (Cedric) Maxwell, could be the best of all time," Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham said Saturday night. "I can't ever remember a team with four rebounders and scorers like that."
So what happened to this seemingly invincible team that has won 144 games and a world championship the last two seasons?
First, the Celtics lost their floor leader, Nate Archibald, who dislocated his left shoulder in the opening minutes of Game 3 in Philadelphia. Gerald Henderson did a good job replacing him, but the Celtics had little depth or flexibility at the position. When Henderson got into foul trouble in Game 7, Coach Bill Fitch was forced to use Danny Ainge in that important ball-handling role and the rookie made several costly mistakes.
Second, the Celtics didn't have a guard who could match up with Toney. Veterans M.L. Carr and Chris Ford lack the quickness and Ainge doesn't have the experience. Although Boston probably is the better defensive team, at the one critical position where Philadelphia was strongest the Celtics were weakest.
Third, Bird had a poor shooting series, making only 54 of 131 attempts (41 percent). The Celtics needed his outside shooting to open it up for Parish and Maxwell underneath.
The 76ers won three times in the best-of-seven series because Toney scored 30, 39 and 34 points. That was the edge they needed to offset the Celtics' advantage underneath.
Philadelphia's other victory came in Game 3 when Archibald was injured and the Celtics didn't have time to adjust to his absence. Still, that was a two-point decision (99-97) in the Spectrum that could have gone either way because Toney scored only 16 points.
The 76ers have other strengths, of course. Their defense always has been underrated because it gambles, goes for steals and blocked shots rather than using the straight-up system that teams such as the Bullets employ.
Although they are not rated with Parish and McHale as shot-blockers, Erving and Caldwell Jones ranked ninth and 10th in the league this season. Maurice Cheeks, a vastly underrated guard, was second behind Magic Johnson in steals. Bobby Jones and Caldwell Jones were selected to the league's all-defensive team last season by the coaches.
"Cheeks is the best defensive guard in the league because he creates so many turnovers with his steals, double-teaming and pressure," Philadelphia's assistant coach, Jack McMahon, said. "Julius does the same thing. When he makes a steal or block, he usually turns it into a fast-break basket."
The 76ers are a much better defensive team than generally given credit. After that humiliating 40-point loss in the opener, they limited the high-scoring Celtics to an average of 102 points a game, 10 below their season average.
"The autopsy?" Fitch responded. "Well, there's no magic to it. The team that passes, shoots and rebounds better usually wins. It's that simple."
In the only game that rally mattered between these two antagonists this season--the final--the 76ers did all those things better. They made 50 percent of their shots, had more assists, more steals, fewer turnovers and definitely more intensity and aggressiveness.
If they played again tomorrow, the outcome might be different, but on the day that counted, Philadelphia was the better team.