The NBA Eastern Conference championship series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks has turned into a game of strategies, with each club trying to isolate its best players and force a two-on-two, or three-on-three, contest.
"Both teams are so good at defensing the other that we're forced to play that kind of basketball," said Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham, whose team has a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that will resume in Milwaukee Saturday afternoon.
The first two games of the series were different. The opener, a 111-109 overtime Philadelphia victory, was a running game, while Wednesday night's 87-81 win was a defensive struggle that showcased the one-on-one skills of both teams.
The Bucks brought three players beyond the top of the key on one side of the floor and let Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief play two on two on the other side. In addition to taking advantage of head-to-head skills, that strategy prevents the defense from double-teaming. Under NBA rules, if an offensive player is beyond the top of the key, a defender must go with him.
In contrast, the 76ers use Moses Malone inside and either Julius Erving or Andrew Toney outside. Because Malone seldom ventures farther than 15 feet from the basket, it is easier to double-team him. He beat the double-team Wednesday, however, with 26 points and 17 rebounds.
There were four illegal defense violations called Wednesday, two against each team, as both tried to adjust their defenses to the isolation offenses.
"We have good one-on-one players, and we don't want to challenge Moses if we don't have to," said Moncrief, who rebounded from Sunday's one-for-nine day with 21 points Wednesday.
"We don't want to play that way an entire game, but in stretches, it works."
Coach Don Nelson said that losing the first two games in Philadelphia doesn't make the Bucks' task more difficult.
"Of course we wanted to win one of the two here, but we didn't," he said. "We're going back to Milwaukee expecting to win both there, though. You're supposed to win at home."
Cunningham, whose team has won all six playoff games, said he didn't want to have to go into Milwaukee having split the two games at the Spectrum. "If we had lost either of the two at home, we would have gone into Milwaukee feeling we had to win both games there, and that's a lot of pressure to put on yourself. Now we can just go out and play our normal game."